NESCBWI Conference Highlights

Chatting with Annie Sibley O'Brien (author/illustrator of The Legend of Hong Kil Dong, a gorgeous graphic novel coming this fall from Charlesbridge) who introduced me to her buddy Jamie Hogan (illustrator of my forthcoming Charlesbridge book Rickshaw Girl) ... listening to Newbery-award winning author Linda Sue Park's motivational keynote about the "3 best gifts for a writer" (an internal editor developed by reading widely and voraciously, the habit of writing every day, and the ability to play when it comes to revision and just "try it") ... attending my friend Karen Day's workshop on revision where she recounted the arduous process she endured before landing a 2-book contract with Wendy Lamb of Random House ... eating lunch with my wonderful writer's group (3 of us presented workshops, Karen, John Bell, and myself) ... receiving the gift-wrapped journal sent as a thank-you from the conference organizers to my hotel room ... listening to editorial director Yolanda LeRoy of Charlesbridge and the multi-talented Grace Lin describe how they worked together on Our Seasons ... surviving and even enjoying my own workshop as people interacted with each other and connected with the content (Jamie Hogan spontaneously sketched me while I talked and told me she'd send me the sketch, so you might see it here) ... and finally, as ever, wishing there was more diversity of skin color, accent, and gender at the conference, but thankful for the progress SCBWI has made in the 15 years I've been a member. Overall, I felt the weekend was a superb showcase of the excellence and professionalism in our region. Thank you, NESCBWI!

NESCBWI Conference: Honing Your Craft

After twelve years of attending Society of Childrens' Book Writer and Illustrator conferences, this is a big moment for me: I am serving on the faculty of the NESCBWI's conference this weekend in Nashua, New Hampshire. My workshop is about jump-starting a writing career by creating a niche, and I'm more nervous about speaking to a dozen or so of my colleagues than I ever feel facing a crowd of 300 middle-schoolers.

I did take a closer look at my own strong desire to defend Kaavya Viswanathan this week. I don't usually leap into controversy out here on the Fire Escape, so why did I risk such a strong opinion? (BTW, I'm glad I did, and probably will do so more often.) My gut response, I think, was spurred by a conviction that I need to invest in and encourage other writers -- especially young ones. I'm glad I'll be getting that opportunity this weekend, and highly recommend SCBWI to those of you who care about putting good books in the hands of young readers.

Is Packaging Plagiarism?

Sorry to drone on like this, but if you still think that the Opal Mehta/Sloppy Firsts overlap is the result of a young author's plagiarism, read this interview with Lizzie Skurnick, who used to work with 17th Street Productions (you might also want to check out her own ruminations on that interview.) Also, reflect on John Barlow's description ("My Failed Fling With A Book Packager") of what happens to the creative process -- and product -- when a book is written by committee instead of by an individual. I'm not vilifying packagers; I'm actually grateful for the wakeup call as the YA publishing industry gets the chance to take stock of itself.

Not Guilty: Kaavya, I Believe You

Bear with me as I indulge in some racial profiling. (Can you profile your own demographic niche without sounding obnoxious and racist? No, but I can't stand watching this teen get raked over the coals one minute longer.)

Here's what my non-Indian-American friends need to realize: the intentional stealing of another's work does not FIT THE PICTURE when it comes to an Indian teen who so obviously has played by the rules. The pressure on daughters raised by South Asian immigrant doctors and other successful professionals to be "good," to avoid bringing shame to our families, and to stay out of trouble is HUGE. Even when certain ethics or morals aren't internalized by an Indian daughter, the motivation to avoid shame and guilt will go far in restraining her behavior.

That's why, in my wildest flights of imagination, I can't conjure a picture of this successful young woman, the apple of her parents' eye, closeting herself in a room and intentionally copying 40 different passages out of another person's book and inserting them into her own work. It doesn't make sense, she'd never take the risk, and it ... DOESN'T FIT THE PROFILE.

As I've ruminated on the charges made in the Harvard Crimson, I've reached my own verdict out here on the Fire Escape: I believe you, Kaavya. I hope that you'll be exonerated publicly soon, but at least you know the truth. So forget about Harvard, ignore the press, and tune out the catty discussions out here in the blogosphere, because it's what you think about yourself that really matters.

And the takeaway for me? Books should never be "packaged." Let's save that mechanism for assembly-line types of products. Books should be authored the old-fashioned way, word by word, or bird by bird, as Anne Lamott put it so well.

Kaavya: I loved Megan's Books! I'm Sorry!

This just in from author Kaavya Viswanathan on being accused of plagiarism, as quoted in the Harvard Crimson:
When I was in high school, I read and loved two wonderful novels by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, which spoke to me in a way few other books did. Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, and passages in these books.

While the central stories of my book and hers are completely different, I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words. I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious. My publisher and I plan to revise my novel for future printings to eliminate any inappropriate similarities.

I sincerely apologize to Megan McCafferty and to any who feel they have been misled by these unintentional errors on my part.
What's been troubling me is the flak this 19-year-old has been enduring on the Harvard campus dating from the time she got that hefty check. Sarah Weinman of Media Bistro's Galleycat quotes a nasty anonymous comment from one of her instructors no less, albeit a TA. (I won't repeat it here, so follow the link if you're curious.) Can you imagine being taught and graded by someone who is jealous of you? Come on, Harvard, where's the support you should be offering to a teen with great potential under your tutelage? Here's a chance for a whole bunch of talented young people on your campus to learn something crucial outside the classroom -- how to handle the vagaries of fame and fortune. And what's wrong with devoting your life to something "lowbrow" and fun like writing popular fiction for young adults? Okay, I digress.

My heart is also going out to the Viswanathan parents. If I know South Asian parents (I am one and have two), they'll be instructed to feel shame and guilt by both inner and outer voices. Nonetheless, I predict they'll accompany their daughter with head held high as she walks through this particular valley. At least, for her sake, I hope they do.

My advice for Kaavya? We all blow it. How to respond is the key. Stick to the truth. Seize this amazing opportunity to find friends for life. Grant your parents grace to suffer with you. And above all, keep writing -- nothing refines the craft like a good dose of pain. If you need to climb on out the Fire Escape for a chat and a cup of hot tea, you're always welcome.

Plagiarism Or Subconscious Imitation?

From Sunday's Harvard Crimson:
A recently-published novel by Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan ’08, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, contains several passages that are strikingly similar to two books by Megan F. McCafferty—the 2001 novel Sloppy Firsts and the 2003 novel Second Helpings.
The article provides a comparison of passages that appear to have been plagiarized by Viswanathan from McCafferty's books. Although the Crimson's case is compelling, I found myself wondering how to avoid unplanned repetition of another author's work, especially if you read favorite books many, many times. In The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, for example, I named a character Elizabeth Grayson, and it wasn't until I reached for L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Windy Poplars recently that I realized I'd accidentally pilfered the name from one of my favorite authors. Also, some of the imitation in Viswanathan's book may be due to the generic "YASpeak" used by popular authors of teen chick lit. Well, we'll see how this particular publishing drama plays out ...

Monsoon Summer Paperback Release

I must submit my final revision of book one of the Sparrowblog Series to Dutton by April 24th, so I'm taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, celebrate with me the 4/11 paperback release of Monsoon Summer. I'll be back out on the Fire Escape on 4/24. Peace be with you.

Kahani, New Moon, and Mixed Messages

I'm excited to announce three invitations I've received recently to partner with some great organizations:
  • First, frequent visitors to the Fire Escape know that I'm a fan of Kahani, the South Asian quarterly literary magazine for kids, and I've been asked to become one of their editorial advisors. I'll be joining author Uma Krishnaswami, book designer Lisa Diercks, and publisher Nancy Gruver of New Moon magazine for girls and their dreams.

  • Second, in a completely unrelated convergence of paths, New Moon girls picked Monsoon Summer as their May book club pick, so I'll be chatting live with them on May 22nd at 8:00 p.m.

  • And third, I'll be on a kid lit panel at the South Asian Women's Creative Collective's Mixed Messages festival on Saturday, May 20th at Marymount Manhattan College from 11 am to 1 pm. If you're in New York, the event is free, so come and join us!

Update on Arab-American Kid Lit

Tipped off by Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog, I updated the Fire Escape and my post on Arab-American books for kids with "Arab Children's Literature: Elementary School Through High School" by Tami C. Al-Hazza from the ALA's January 2006 Book Links. (Unfortunately, apart from books by Naomi Shihab Nye, the updated list still doesn't include any fiction featuring Arab-AMERICAN protagonists.)