Maid In America

I was power-walking through the streets of the exclusive suburb of L.A., stopping every now and then to admire the mission architecture of the enormous gated mansions, when I noticed a security car slowly driving behind me. I knew the guard was suspicious, because the only brown-skinned women who come into that neighborhood don't walk the streets unless they're pushing someone else's baby in a designer stroller.

Nearly 100,000 domestic workers live in L.A., leaving their families behind in Central America and Mexico. Did anyone catch the broadcast premiere of Maid in America by Panamanian-born Anayansi Prado on the Emmy-award winning PBS series, Independent Lens last night (Tuesday, November 29th)? According to Prado, the lives of las domésticas are no J Lo fairy tale:
Most have no health insurance, no driver license, no pension and no recourse when it comes to employment injustices. They cook meals they could never afford, clean houses they could only dream of owning and care for strangers’ children when their own children are thousands of miles away. Deportation is a constant fear. And still they come to the United States by the thousands in hopes of a better life for themselves and their families.

The Bamboo People

I'm SO excited! I'm meeting with an editor on Wednesday who GETS my vision for a novel that's been soundly rejected by many a publishing house. The book is called The Bamboo People, and it's about two boys on different sides of a war who meet for a moment and change each other's lives forever. We lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for almost three years and visited the Karenni refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border. The Karenni are a much-overlooked, valiant people fighting a battle against genocide not unlike the ones lost by aboriginal nations all across the globe. Have you heard of the Karenni? Did you know that many of the Burmese soldiers enlisted to fight them are teenagers, even children? Hopefully, readers will learn about this quiet, desperate war if The Bamboo People ever gets published. I'll keep you posted.

Mix it Up: New Kids On The Block

Here's a stimulating Teaching Tolerance middle-school activity designed to explore what creates boundaries between newcomers and American-born kids based on New Kids On the Block: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens by Janet Bode.

Sunita Speaks French

I got two pieces of good news on Thanksgiving. First, Margaret Woollatt liked my first draft of Sparrow's story! She sent an elaborate, thoughtful editorial response that has me itching to get to the revision. And second, Little Brown informed me that the rights to a French translation of The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen have been purchased. I'm so happy that young girls who are caught between cultures in France will get the chance to meet Sunita. Now I'm sitting by a crackling fire and writing notes to myself about a possible sequel to her story ...

The Ultimate Immigrant Holiday

Thanksgiving commemorates the welcome offered to foreign newcomers. That first cross-cultural feast set the standard for American hospitality sky-high. Unfortunately, it led to the marginalization and destruction of nations who called this land their home, and many of their descendants grieve the open-hearted generosity of their ancestors. My Thanksgiving prayer is that those of us who are newcomers today will repay any hospitality we receive with a blessing instead of a curse — restoring grace to the holiday in memory of the first peoples who welcomed strangers into their communities.

Color-Coded Library Books

The Motion Picture Association of America rates films, iTunes marks music downloads as "explicit" or " clean," and the Entertainment Standards Review Board decides if a video game should be rated "M" for mature, "T" for teen, or "E" for everybody. Some people wonder why the book industry doesn't create an easily-recognized ratings system for people concerned about the age-appropriateness of books. The answer is easy — books don't need a regulating board like the MPAA or the ESRB because information about a book's content is already abundant and accessible (unlike the content of other genres of entertainment.) The age-level suggested by a publisher is usually on the copyright page, as well as keywords that provide even more insight into the subject matter. No other source of story or entertainment is as widely reviewed by so many reliable sources. An industry-wide board overseeing a multi-tiered ratings sytem would be a step backwards from the wealth of information that the publishing industry already provides for any literate parent — or teen — who wants to know what's in a book.

A problem, however, exists when the digital, linguistic, or literacy divide prevents a parent — often an immigrant parent — from accessing that information. That might be why savvy librarians use a simple colored sticker system to classify the age-appropriateness and/or content of books. It might also be for the young reader's sake — many an immigrant teen, desperate for a reprieve from the constant push of "edgy" pop culture, takes refuge in an old-fashioned, wholesome story. A library-based sticker system provides quick info for any reader seeking safety on the fire escape.

Goblet of Fire Sizzles

I don't think it's conceited to say that I have a good imagination. I didn't see a film or watch television until I was twelve years old, so my mind's eye became a powerful tool, painting pictures and landscapes and portraits brilliantly as I read stories. That's why a film based on a book rarely surpasses what my imagination creates during the reading of the tale. Last night, though, my own imagination paled beside the artistry of several scenes in Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire film. I wonder if JK herself was blown away when she saw the International Quidditch Cup on the big screen. Magnificent. (The graphic is an illustration for the book painted by another wonderful artist, Mary GrandPré.)

Lousy First Draft

I wrote Sparrow's story so fast that it's more of a skeleton than a full-bodied novel. I had to send it to my editor before my usual next step -- letting it sit for a month and then revisiting it -- because we're on a tight timeline. (The book has to be released during the upcoming presidential campaign.) Margaret Woollatt of Dutton is applying her keen editorial eye to suggest revisions. Once I get her comments, I'll need courage and energy to make the book sparkle before it goes to press. In the meantime, I plan to attack my overflowing, much-neglected in-box. I also heard today that I'm going to be on the faculty of the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators annual conference in New Hampshire April 29th, 2006. I'm presenting a workshop for writers called "Name Branding: Creating A Lucrative Niche In A Competitive Market." Sounds good, doesn't it? Too bad I have no idea (yet) what I'm going to say. But it will come. I know quite a few writers who have done this successfully, and I plan to pick their brains.

Let The Holidays Begin!

I put Asha Means Hope in the mail today, and finished my last school presentation of 2005. Now I have an unreasonable urge to go shopping for a new pair of shoes.

The Finish Line

I am printing out the final draft of Asha Means Hope even as I blog. On Monday, I will mail it to Francoise Bui, my editor at Random House. I'm waiting now for word from my agent about Sparrow's first book, and if she gives me the green light, I'll print that out on Monday, too, and send that manuscript to Margaret Woollatt, my editor at Dutton. It feels like the end of final exam week, except I don't have the stamina I had when I was nineteen. I'll finish my last school visit of the year on Monday, at Washington Irving Middle School in Boston, sponsored by the Foundation of Children's Books, mail off the manuscripts, and then curl up under the afghan my mother crocheted and drool for a while.

Ageless Writers

Here's a list of authors who published books when they were teens. And then there are authors like Harriet Doerr, who published her first novel when she was 73. Looks like a good story doesn't care how old you are before inviting you to tell it to the world.

Lowell Visits Day No. 2

Last Friday I was in Lowell again with the Concord Festival of Authors, this time at the Robinson Middle School. After presenting to several classes of wonderfully diverse and hospitable students (Kenyans, Puerto Ricans, Cambodians, and more), I had lunch with six aspiring writers, the Principal, and the school's Instructional Specialist, Stefanie Lowe. Pizza again! What a splurge! Next, I walked through cobblestone streets and discovered an Italian bakery/coffeeshop, wrote for several hours, and then made my way to the newly renovated Pollard Memorial Library for presentation no. 4. If you're a library addict, like me, this beautiful public edifice is definitely worth a visit. Lowell itself, with a 200-year-plus track record of welcoming immigrants, is an "off-the-beaten-track" gem in Massachusetts. Thank you, Rob Mitchell of the Concord Festival, for hosting me, and thank you, Lowell, Massachusetts!

France Needs A Fire Escape

Angry young men are looting and torching in French neighborhoods, and I fear the outcome won't be good for immigrants around the globe. More fuel for people who want to scour the countryside, oust the aliens, and bolt the doors. The old colonial powers continue to reap what they sowed for so many years, and Paris, beautiful Paris, is on fire tonight.

Kahani Writing Contest

Kahani, the South Asian Literary magazine for kids, announces their first annual young writer's contest:
We invite all storytellers between the ages of 6 and 11 to write a 500-word short story for Kahani. The theme? It is up to you. But your story must use the words rickshaw, mango and elephant. Entries will be divided into 6-8 and 9-11 age groups. Sangeeta Mehta, editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, a division of the Time Warner Book Group, will judge the stories. The deadline for manuscripts is Saturday, December 31, 2005. We will announce the two winning entries in January 2006 and you will get to read them on our Web site. But here’s the best part: we want you to illustrate the stories! That’s right. In Part II of this contest, we will solicit the best artwork that brings the winning stories to life. More details on that at a later date. As the first prize, the two short story packages will be published in the April 2006 issue of Kahani and we will award a check for $50 each to the two winning writers and illustrators. Runners-up will get published on the Kahani Web site and we are lining up even more exciting prizes.
I'm SO excited about this contest because Sangeeta is my editor at Little Brown, and she's wonderful. SPREAD THE WORD, as you DON'T need to be of South Asian origin to enter.