Monsoon Summer in the UK

I won't be back out on the Fire Escape until Tuesday, April 4th, but I encourage you to browse the archives and leave some traces of your visit via a comment or two. In the meantime, break out the clotted cream and scones: The UK edition of Monsoon Summer will be out Monday, April 3rd from Simon and Schuster! Cheers, everybody! Oh, and by the way, I just read this great review about How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan in USA Today. Congratulations, Kaavya! You go, girl.

Authenticity in Storytelling

When I present "Books Between Cultures" at conferences, I address the question of whether white authors have the right to create non-white protagonists. The simple answer? Yes. I want the right to use a white voice in my fiction, or a black one, or a Karenni, or a Bangladeshi. I don't want to write only about Bengali American girls growing up in California -- been there, done that. So why should I protest if a topnotch Korean writer features a Bengali American girl growing up in California and does it astoundingly well? Let the telling of and listening to one another's stories begin in the realm of kid lit and spread throughout the planet!

As with most resounding affirmations, though, there are caveats. Tread carefully, writers. If a particular community is processing a shared experience of suffering through the healing power of story, don't venture to speak on their behalf. If a community is voiceless, though, we can and should lean heavily on the gift of imaginative empathy to tell their stories. Always, love someone deeply from that community and listen well. Live among them, bear their burdens, help carry their crosses. Let them carry yours. And by all means, do your research.

For your reflection, here's an article in the African American Review by Nina Mikkelson about "outsider-writing." Consider, too, this review in the Houston Chronicle of 74-year-old white New Englander John Updike's new novel Terrorist about a young Arab-American:
The main character ... is an 18-year-old Muslim convert, son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father who abandoned his wife and son early on. The young man, Ahmad, falls under the sway of a radical cleric in his gritty New Jersey hometown and gets caught up in a 9/11-type plot.

"A book that doesn't stir up any conversation or dispute probably isn't doing its job," Updike said. "Books are meant to wake us up, or present us with a different aspect of reality or different set of opinions ... If you're going to extend your range at all, you have to step out into the wonderful world of other people."
Although it's not coming out until June 2006, Kirkus and Booklist have already given the novel starred reviews. I'm looking forward to what one of the best storytellers of our time can achieve when it comes to taking the risk of crossing cultures and generations in fiction.

Maryland Black-Eyed Susan 2006-07 Book Awards

More good news for Monsoon Summer, which is one of ten YA reads nominated for the state of Maryland's 2006-2007 Black-Eyed Susan Book Awards. Hooray! Texas, Rhode Island, and now Maryland have leap-frogged up my list of "States That Rock."

Hollybay Movies

In my younger days, I traveled through remote parts of rural China with a group of buddies. Villagers everwhere asked my Mandarin-speaking traveling companions a favor: "Kindly ask the Indian girl to sing and dance for us immediately." The motivation behind their invitation was common to scores of people outside America -- an addiction to movies exported from India. Bombay makes 1,200 movies a year; Hollywood only produces 450. A great article by Joanna Connors, film critic for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, sums up why even Americans are choosing to watch films that are Bollywood-esque in character:
These days, the (Hollywood) film industry wants us to go out on a Saturday night date, have a nice dinner and then settle back to ponder the grave and depressing issues of modern life. If we all go home with suicidal impulses, they figure their job is done. While Hollywood was taking care of that task, however, it appears that one more all-American enterprise was quietly outsourced to India: over-the-top, pure escapist entertainment. Or, if you prefer, Bollywood movies.
After mentioning Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Vanity Fair, Connor ends the article by describing one of my all-time favorite flicks, Monsoon Wedding, produced in 2001 by filmmaker Mira Nair:
The romantic comedy bubbles and overflows with characters and plotlines like a towering champagne fountain at a wedding reception. The movie takes place during the four days leading up to a huge Punjabi wedding, and Nair plunges the audience into the thick of things, where we can observe the swirl of secrets and complications that inevitably ensue when families reunite. Nair uses nearly all of the Bollywood conventions in the movie, not least the monsoon rains of the title. But rain is not the only element drenching the proceedings. Joy saturates the movie, too, in abundance. So does color. And music. And dancing. And romance. Sounds more inviting than racism, corruption, terrorism and censorship, no?
I think so. And apparently, so do most people on the planet. Wake up, Hollywood!

PLA Confidential

My day at the Public Library Association Convention in Boston started when I met my friend, Alvina Ling, editor at Little Brown, for bagels at Au Bon Pain in the Prudential Mall. Next I signed books for L/B (they gave away 80 free copies of The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen), and for Random House (Monsoon Summer) and raced across Boylston street to the Colonnade for the YA Author Luncheon featuring Jerry Spinelli. To my amazement, L/B, who sponsored the event, had me seated at the head table, so I got to chat with Alvina again as well as with Mr. Spinelli. He was hilarious and inspiring as he reminded the packed ballroom that responding well to failure is the key to eventual achievement.

As he was talking, though, I kept glancing at my watch, noticing with a slightly panicky feeling that time was flying by. I was ten feet from the podium and didn't want to stand up in front of a spellbound audience to leave while Mr. Spinelli was still talking. By 1:45, though, I had to stand up and race back to the Convention Center, because my session was scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m.! Sweaty, disheveled, but delighted to be there, I started the powerpoint and launched in. About 150 librarians came, and once again, I got choked up looking out at so many people eager to serve immigrant kids. (And yet again, I ran out of handouts, even though I'd made 200 copies, so here's the link to view the annotated bibliography of best kids' and YA books between cultures that I distributed.)

Spring Cleaning for the PLA Conference!

To prepare for my concurrent session tomorrow (Books Between Cultures) at the Public Library Association's Annual Convention in Boston, I've been updating and organizing my bookshelf on the Fire Escape, which also features a new review of an excellent anthology for teens. If you're a public librarian, come and say hello on the exhibit floor at the Little Brown Booth #883 Friday morning, March 24th, where I'll be signing from 10-11. I'll also be signing at the Random House booth #914 from 11-12, or stop by my concurrent session in room 311 from 2:15 to 3:30. Can't wait! Here's the description of my presentation:
A growing number of kids straddle two cultures. How might a librarian evaluate a book to see whether it empowers or alienates immigrant kids? Author Mitali Perkins will provide a case study of growing up between cultures, discuss the "pop culture push," and show how stories help kids stay balanced. At the end of this program, participants will leave with increased insight into the challenges and rewards of growing up between cultures, and thus better able to serve the needs of these constituents. They will be equipped with lists of best books for children and teens about immigrant life, and be able to understand, evaluate, and select literature that empowers rather than alienates immigrant kids.

Voices Of The Immigrant Experience

Has anyone read Kids Like Me by Judith Blohm and Terry Lapinsky (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, March 15, 2006)? It sounds fascinating, but I'd love to find out what teen readers think about it:
Twenty-six personal narratives celebrate the experience of young people making a new home in a strange community—finding common ground as they make new friends, learn a different language, and share their unique cultural identities ... While written to help youth understand their classmates and friends, Kids Like Me also includes discussion questions, self-directed activities and research ideas for teachers and families that can be used in classrooms, clubs and community settings. Richly illustrated with photos and maps of each home country, the text presents countless opportunities to explore and understand new cultures and new friends. Young people who have come from places all over the world share their stories and invite their new neighbors to see that in so many ways these kids are just like me.

Between Generations in Best Buy

After squinting at the ancient television in my parents' bedroom and realizing I couldn't determine either the race or gender of anybody on the screen, I took Baba to shop for a new one at Best Buy. He was following me to a display when I heard a crash and a shout. Turning, I caught sight of something I'd hoped never to see in my life: my almost-eighty-year-old Baba face down on the floor.

Thankfully, it wasn't a heart attack or stroke; he'd tripped over an empty stand jutting out into the passageway, and broken his own fall with his arm. But he was scared, and he was bleeding.

I sat on the floor beside him, helped him turn over, and cradled his head in my lap. People were gathering, and Baba wanted to stand up. He's a big man and I couldn't get him to his feet alone, but I heard a South Asian man call to his son: "Joe! Come and help!"

The teenager raced to obey. Together, the three of us hoisted my father to his feet. As I pulled over a chair and the boy's father ran for a cup of water, I noticed the boy murmuring in a British accent that marked him as a double foreigner, "It's okay, lean on me, I've got you, I'm right here."

Later, once Baba was safely home, I found myself wondering if the boy's respectful behavior towards an elderly stranger had anything to do with his Indian roots. An American fifteen-year-old would probably have rushed to help, but would he have had the presence of mind and inclination to reassure a shaky older man with comforting words? Maybe. But it seemed unusual to me.

As I always tell kids during school visits, every culture has aspects that are beautiful and life-giving as well as systems that promote suffering. The respect given to the elderly is something I'll always be proud of when it comes to my South Asian heritage. As more American firms set up shop in India, let's hope they don't outsource the false idolatry of youthfulness and denigration of the aged that cause so much suffering here in the States.

Rhode Island 2007 Teen Book Nominees

The wonderful librarians of Rhode Island have just published their list of nominees for the 2007 Teen Book Award, and Monsoon Summer made the list. I'm thrilled, of course! As a between-cultures postscript: just as in Scholastic's list of best Asian-American reads and Read Across America suggestions, where I am cited as "Mitala Perkins," my unfamiliar first name is mispelled on Rhode Island's list as "Matali." Would you let it go if this happened to you (a lot)?

Arab-Americans: Shakira, Salma, and Sitti's Secrets

Do Arab-Americans love their country? Did you have to stop and think about which country I'm talking about? If so, head right over to the education section of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, where resources abound. Their mission statement is the "objective and fair portrayal of Arab history and culture." Or learn about these famous Arab-Americans who love the U.S.A. (like pop singer Shakira and movie star Salma Hayek) and, in some cases, have died for their beloved country. Or read about author Naomi Shihab Nye (author of Sitti's Secrets), reflect on her letter to a would-be terrorist, and check out this high school English lesson based on her poetry.

The Lamb Vindaloo Is Worthy

I'll be back on the Fire Escape on Tuesday; I'm off early in the morning on one of my quarterly weekend cross-country jaunts to visit Ma and Baba. Have just emerged semi-victorious from a week's battle with the flu, so am eager to be spoiled rotten, coddled, praised, and stuffed with delicious food ...

Ideas For Stories

After a school visit yesterday, I got an email from a sixth-grader who asked, "I want to write a story, but I don't know what to write about. Do you have any ideas for me?" I answered her off the top of my head, but I thought you might be interested in my response out here on the fire escape:
As for ideas, here's something I do. I invent a character. Then I make something interesting happen to that character. The story flows from there.

So, say your main character is a little old lady. And the interesting thing that happens is that a stray dog finds his way into her house and refuses to leave. Okay, so how does that change the old lady? Does she like him? Does she feed him?

That's a feeble example; I'm sure you can come up with something much better. So, invent a character that you either love or hate or feel sorry for or are irritated by. Get that person straight in your imagination. Then make something happen in that person's life, and write the story from there.
It's true. My stories usually start with a character coming to life in my mind. How about yours?

Raab Associates' Marketing Know-How

When it comes to marketing children's books, Susan Salzman Raab's site provides a host of fantastic resources. In a recent column, Raab Associates reported the results of a survey of popular blogs in the industry. To my delight, the Fire Escape made the list:
We polled several hundred reviewers, teachers and librarians asking the following questions: Are there blogs you read regularly, and how often? Do you host your own blog? Do you feel blogs are useful?

...For those of us in the book industry, of the people who responded to our online survey, twenty percent did not follow blogs at all. Of those who did follow blogs, most were periodic readers of one or two blogs. The two blogs most frequently noted were the Horn Book Editor's Rants and Raves by Roger Sutton, and Cynsations by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Both include views on industry news, award announcements and information on new books. Cynsations also features author interviews and reviews. Other sites that received several mentions were:
  • The children's book site, by Elizabeth Kennedy, which includes regular reviews and award announcements.

  • Book Moot, hosted by Kelly Herold, which features reviews and news about book events.

  • Chicken Spaghetti, which has news and reviews hosted by Susan Thomsen.

  • The Fire Escape, which is a resource for cross-cultural books, movies and television written by Mitali Bose Perkins. (That's me!)

Bamboo People! Come Forth!

I just had lunch with Judy O'Malley of Charlesbridge and handed her a revision of Bamboo People into which I tried to weave her insightful suggestions. She'd read a draft back in October but discussed the characters today as though she'd visited them in the refugee camp last week. And she's going to share the book with other Charlesbridge folks and get back to me soon, telling me once again that she loves it! Hooray!

She also gave me the galleys for Rickshaw Girl laced throughout with Jamie Hogan's amazing illustrations. Wait till you see the cover; I can't wait to show it off out here on the Fire Escape. I read the book again just now, and Jamie's illustrations make me love Naima, my main character, even more than I already do. I hope you come to love her too — the book comes out Spring 2007, but Charlesbridge should have ARCs ready by the holidays this year. Enjoy the weekend; I plan to, it's in the high-sixties here in Boston and I can see the tips of the daffies in my garden.

Black, White, and In-Between

The Oscar-winning movie Crash has the nation talking more about race, but did anyone catch the premiere of FX's new reality show about switching races last night at ten o'clock, Black and White? Two things stood out for me:
  1. First, the difference between the generations when it came to race. The 16-year-old's thoughts (or lack thereof) about being black were nothing like the reflections of his 40-something parents, and the 17-year-old seemed downright savvy about race compared with her clueless "I'm-politically-correct" white mom and her mother's opinionated white boyfriend. Bakari Kitwana, in his book Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop (Perseus 2005), thinks this generation might be on the brink of something new when it comes to race: "The mainstreaming of hip-hop culture has in part provided a space where American youth, Black and white included, can explore these new ideas together, even if the old racial politics are always lurking in the shadows."

  2. Second, it seemed that the makeup artist managed to make the white people look black, but the black people still looked black to me. The show ignores the fact that many Americans are of mixed heritage, and that in this culture, if one of your grandparents is black, you're considered black. In fact, you're considered black down through the generations until no so-called "African" genetic trait is evident in the way you speak, move, or look. Actors Terence Howard and Halle Berry, for example, each have one white parent and yet align themselves as African Americans. If they procreate with white people, would their kids be considered white? Does this strange, unspoken rule of race in America work for or against black people? It does provide a way to counter the genocide that can take place through intermarriage -- a battle that the original nations on the continent have sometimes lost.

R U Latino?

By 2020, Latinos will be the ethnic majority in the country, and second generation young Latino Americans (YLAs) born in the U.S. with at least one foreign-born parent will represent 36% of all Latinos. Understanding the Young Latino in America, a new study commissioned by mun2tv, reveals some information about this group of young people between cultures (italics are mine to highlight what I found especially intriguing):
  • When it comes to nationality, YLA are specific and identify themselves by their country of origin. The younger age group of 14-24 year-olds are more likely than those aged 25-34 to identify with specific nationality based on preferences of their parents and grandparents. The younger segments refer to nationality as a way to be more unique.

  • YLA feel that the current definition of being Latino is based on language and looks: 59% say that other people think Latinos must speak Spanish; 58% say other people think Latinos must look "Spanish" (dark hair, eyes and skin). Because not all YLA look Latino or speak Spanish, many feel the need to explain themselves: 36% say people don't believe them when they tell them they are Latino; 29% feel like they have to prove their Latino identity to people.

  • YLA exist in a hybrid world and are masters at navigating their spaces and identities; 77% report that they are in control of which identity all or most of the time. YLA identify with being Latino when they are with their family (48%), around Latino friends (43%), in their home (41%) and in their country of origin (41%). YLA identify with being American when they are with non-Latino friends (31%), in public spaces (26%), at school (24%) and at work (24%). Their Latino and American identities intersect often, such as when in public spaces (59%), at school (50%), in bars and clubs (48%) and with non-Latino friends (47%).

  • Being Latino means more than just speaking and looking Spanish; to YLA it means being family oriented (84%), proud (83%), hard working (81%), passionate (80%), tied to tradition (77%), religious (71%), and believing in higher education (60%) and giving back to their community (53%). YLA are unconventional in terms of religion; 60% believe you do not have to go to church in order to prove your faith to God and 49% believe religion is an extremely important part of their lives.

  • YLA are extremely interested in maintaining a connection with their culture; 67% agree that this is something that is important to them and nearly half of YLA have the desire to form a stronger connection to their Latino culture. While YLA don't seem panicked, there is some concern over the possibility of becoming disconnected: 31% agree that they are afraid of losing the connection; 30% feel that they are unequipped to pass down their culture, and 25% are unsure of how to maintain the connection.

Showcase of Nerves

Yesterday, along with Harvard astronomer Priya Desai, Opera To Go!, and the Looking Glass Theater, I was invited to present "An Immigrant Kid's Story" to Creative Arts and Sciences school committees from all around the Metrowest suburbs of Boston. I had to encapsulate my 45-minute upper elementary program into a 20-minute condensed version, and was shocked by how nervous I was. To me, being around kids is an automatic stress reliever. Addressing grownups, even congenial, supportive ones, is another story altogether. Nonetheless, it was an honor to be included on such an impressive roster.

Books As Passports

The ALA's Association for Library Service to Children now offers lists of books about growing up around the world:

Growing Up in Africa - PDF
Growing Up in the Americas - PDF
Growing Up in Asia and the Middle East - PDF
Growing Up in Australia and New Zealand - PDF
Growing Up in Europe - PDF

Growing Up Around the World: Books as Passports to Global Understanding for Children in the United States is a project of the International Relations Committee of the Association for Library Service to Children ... Because the primary goal of the project is to identify fiction and nonfiction that will help young people in the United States understand the lives of children living in other countries today, the bibliographies virtually exclude genres such as fantasy and historical fiction. Rather than including the best books about other countries written by outsiders to those countries, the list seeks to identify children’s books written or illustrated by people have lived for at least two years within those cultures. With very few exceptions, we limit the lists to books written in the last ten years and currently available in the United States.

Hyphenated Origins Museum Exhibit

Some of my faithful blog readers might remember that I consulted a few months back as the Newton History Museum in Massachusetts embarked on an exhibit about immigration. I'm pleased to announce that "Hyphenated Origins: Going Beyond The Labels" is now up and running, and it's a poignant, story-based exhibit that's well worth seeing. This from curator Sheila Sibley:

Hyphenated-Origins: Going Beyond The Labels
February 2006 - February 2008
Newton History Museum
527 Washington Street
Newton, MA

This vibrant new exhibit presents the life experiences of seven Newton high school students whose families emigrated from China, Mexico, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Russia. Chen Chen, Andrea Jacqueline Navarro Lujan, Rachel Park, Beata Shuster, Yin Yue Wong, Stephanie Yong, and Ken Zhao share their stories, and explore the advantages and challenges of forming an identity balanced between cultures.

Another Deadline Already?

The first chapter of the second book about Sparrow is due March 24th! Margaret Woollatt of Dutton told me they want to print it as a "teaser" at the end of book one. They're also brainstorming ideas about a title for each book -- I'm terrible at titles and they thought "Sparrowblog" didn't communicate much about the content of the books (they're right). I'll keep you posted. Also, Judy O'Malley of Charlesbridge called yesterday, and we're having lunch next week. She wants to show me the final art created by Jamie Hogan for Rickshaw Girl (Winter 2007). Can't wait to see it! Judy also gave me an editorial letter for The Bamboo People, which I'd love to get to SOON, as the predicament of child soldiers and internally displaced people in Burma continues to break my heart. Anyone have an extra month or two you can share with me? Isn't it strange that time alone is the one thing we can't give to each other?

Put Your Finger on YPulse

If you serve young adults as a teacher, librarian, editor, or author, check out YPulse, a blog authored by Anastasia Goodstein, who "provides daily news & commentary about Generation Y for media and marketing professionals." USA Today recently featured Goodstein's blog as a hot site:
Teens, meet Anastasia Goodstein. She's 33 and it's likely she knows more about your generation than you do. Marketing and media professionals, meet Generation Y, the first to not know life without the Internet. Anastasia makes such introductions daily on Ypulse, where she blogs news and gossip on Gen-Yers. Pros targeting teens are very interested. So are counselors and youth leaders. Come to think of it, so are we.