In 'Each of Us a Universe,' two 11-year-olds find the courage to face daunting circumstances
Ellington, Connecticut, author Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo leaned to rock climb in order to write her third book. She also met Ndengo Gladys Mwilelo, a New Haven resident and refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Together they wrote "Each of Us a Universe," the story of two 11-year-old girls: American-born Cal and Rosine, a Congolese refugee. The girls hope to solve seemingly impossible situations by reaching a reputedly unreachable local mountain summit legendary for its magical qualities.
Zulick Ferruolo began by describing Cal's approach to other people in her life before meeting Rosine.
Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo: Cal handles the adversity by building a wall around herself. She's already kind of at odds with the kids at school. She feels like nobody gets her. She's not somebody who makes friends easily. And so, she's learned over the years to already assume that nobody wants to be her friend, that anybody who's reaching out to be her friend is doing it in a way that will ultimately result in being mocked or being teased or just the opposite of what friendship is, being treated poorly. And so, she's learned to keep to herself. And where she goes, where she does find true friendship is with the mountain itself, the local mountain, Mount Meteorite.
Tema Silk, NEPM: Right. And so, Gladys, enter Rosine. She comes into the story. She's a new kid in the school. She doesn't know anyone. What happens between them?
Ndengo Gladys Mwilelo: So when it comes to Rosin, she's a little bit opposite from Cal. Because rather than building a wall, Rosin is actually opening and removing a wall around herself. And soon as she was able to meet with Cal, she instantly felt like she could be around her despite Cal pushing her away.
So Rosin could sort of see through Cal’s wall and Rosin had the wisdom —because of the way she had faced her own struggles as a refugee — she had the wisdom to see that there was really somebody behind that wall worth knowing.
Ndengo Gladys Mwilelo: That's correct. That's correct.
How much, Gladys, how much of your own refugee experience is reflected in Rosine?
Ndengo Gladys Mwilelo: Every time I read about Rosine, it's a little bit of a mirror of who I am. Because struggles — it's something that at some point in our lives, we all have to find ways to really combat and to be able to face it. And so, Rosine is one of those girls that cannot sit down and just feel pity for herself. Rather, she has to be the bold guide of her own journey.
The girls have a very drama-filled trip up to the mountains. Do you want to say a little bit about that?
Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo: Sure. I love to spend time on the mountains. I think mountains are a spiritual, magical place. They are for me, and I wanted to introduce that idea to kids and to actually everybody — to readers of all ages, the magic of nature and especially mountains.
And so, I did learn to mountain climb to write this story so I could even go higher and take on bigger challenges. I learned to climb inside and outside on Smugglers' Notch in Vermont with my family. And I kind of saw, it's just the perfect metaphor for facing a struggle. I've had numerous cancer struggles in my life and I find that there was something about climbing that mountain and getting to a place where you didn't think you could get beyond it, that you were stuck. And just taking a moment, studying the mountain and continuing onward and upward.
Solving an immediate problem right in front of you: where's the next handhold?
Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo: Exactly. But also, there's something about climbing on the mountain, when you're on the skinniest of handholds and you're holding on by your fingernails and your limbs are shaking and you think there's no way forward. And you just take a moment to be with a mountain and to study it. And you realize there's not only a path forward, there is a clear path forward.
Ndengo Gladys Mwilelo: The goal is to remind every young person out there that if you are resilient every day in whatever struggles you are facing, the next morning or the next day, you will see light.