Showing posts from September, 2006

The Return of Racist Jokes

The Toronto Star, in Race is the New 'Sex' in Today's Pop Culture, comments on an upswing in ethnic jokes among teenagers that I've noticed even in our very politically correct town: Ryan (Hearst), 19, says he and his friends will often make racist jokes towards one another. "A black friend of mine will take my keys or something and poke fun at himself for stealing," Ryan says. His Asian roommate is also fair game ... Laughing at each other just shows how close and comfortable they all are... "We couldn't go to people we don't know and make those kind of jokes, because who knows how people will react? There always has to be lines. Without lines and rules, there's chaos."For this intimacy-hungry generation, then, it seems that lines aren't drawn between WHAT you can and can't say when it comes to race-related comments, but between specific groups of people to WHOM you say them. Does that mean anything goes as long as a person is …

Who Gets To Write For Whom?

Interesting discussion on the YALSA-BK listserv this past week about the right to tell stories featuring American Indian characters. Here was my contribution:It gets complicated when the person telling the story is a descendant of the oppressor. Can a powerful person articulate the experience of the powerless? I suppose she must if the powerless cannot speak for herself. Bottom line: an insider who has suffered earns the right to tell the story in a way that's unattainable for even the most compassionate, intuitive, talented outsider.

But even two insiders would describe the same events differently. And how do you define an "insider," anyway? I am a Bengali and my parents were Hindus born in Bangladesh, but that doesn't make me an insider when I tell the story of another Bengali girl, Naima, the Muslim daughter of a rickshaw puller. My three years in Bangladesh and familiarity with the language and culture might make my story more "authentic" than yours, but…

Weekly Reader's Writing Magazine

I'm happy to announce that my article about creating a sense of place, "A Whole New World," is in this month's issue of Weekly Reader's Writing magazine, an excellent tool for young writers edited by the brilliant Sandhya Nankani. Check out the magazine's writing contest for teens called Take Me Away (.pdf download), scheduled to be judged by Ursula K. Le Guin. Also featured and interviewed in the October issue of Writing are two of my favorite authors, Isabel Allende and Gail Carson Levine, author of the new book Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly.

The Canine-Americanization of Mitali

"Get away from that animal!" my mother called out. "He'll bite!"

Dogs wandered the streets in the city of my birth, Kolkata, India. They were wild, skinny, cowering, and sometimes rabid, and my thoroughly non-westernized parents taught us to fear them. When we moved to a country where some people seemed to revere dogs more than they did their aged relatives, I just didn't get the great American pet fixation.

But then I became a Mom. Reluctantly, in response to the begging and wheedling of two four-year-olds, I agreed to acquire Strider. Over the years, I moved from keeping a distance to letting him follow me around the house with adoring eyes. And then I actually found myself becoming thankful for his presence. Immensely so, because when our boys got older and became more taciturn, still the conversations, stories, and jokes about Strider continued. They jettisoned stuffed animals and squirmed away from kisses, but affection for and nurture of their dog inten…

Kahani's 2nd Annual Young Writers Contest

Kahani, a South Asian literary magazine for children, invites all storytellers between the ages of 6 and 11 to write a 500-word short story:
The theme? It's up to you. But your story must use the words turmeric, river, and cousin.

Entries will be divided into two age groups: 6-8 and 9-11. Sangeeta Mehta, associate editor at Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, will judge the stories. Manuscripts must be postmarked no later than Sunday, December 17, 2006. Visit Kahani for complete rules and an entry form.

The two 1st place stories will be announced in January 2007 and we will post them on our site for you to read. But young artists take note: we want you to illustrate the winning stories. That’s right! In Part II of the Kahani contest, we will post a call to artists to illustrate the 1st place stories. We will have more details on the illustration contest early next year. For now, start writing!

As the top prize, the 1st place stories and illustrations…

Real YAs Speak Out: Sixteen by Sixteen

Sparrow, the protagonist of my novels for Dutton, is sixteen. That's why I found Time's series of essays authored by sixteen-year-olds so fascinating. What are sixteen-year-olds thinking about? Pressure, decisions, relationships, academics, careers, racism, how they differ from their parents ... Check it out, especially if you write or read YA novels. How do the fictional sixteen-year-olds we're reading and writing about match up to these real teens, many of whom dwell between cultures?

Sculpting a Novel

When it comes to art, you might think that writing a young adult novel and sculpting a masterpiece are two quite different processes. But as I'm slaving over the second story about Sparrow Righton, First Daughter, this description by a sculptor written in 1540 provided some encouragement:
For this work, a violent and continuous straining of all a man's strength is required, which brings great harm to his body and holds many definite dangers to his life. In addition, this art holds the mind of the artificer in suspense and fear regarding its outcome and keeps his spirit disturbed and almost continually anxious ... But, with all this, it is a profitable and skillful art and in large part delightful.Source: V. Biringuccio, "The Bronze Founder," in La Pirotechnia (Venice, 1540).

Love, Muslim American Style

The New York Timesreports on an event organized by the Islamic Society of North America that is trying to bring about "hybrid" marriages among conservative Muslim Americans, a practice that falls slightly to the left of traditionally arranged marriages:
Scores of parents showed up at the marriage banquet to chaperone their children. Many had gone through arranged marriages — meeting the bride or groom chosen by their parents sometimes as late as their wedding day and hoping for the best. They recognize that the tradition is untenable in the United States, but still want to influence the process. The banquet is considered one preferable alternative to going online, although that too is becoming more common. The event was unquestionably one of the big draws at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention, which attracted thousands of Muslims to Chicago over Labor Day weekend, with many participants bemoaning the relatively small pool of eligible candidates even in l…

Tiger Tales: Hispanic Heritage Month

Con permiso, the Fire Escape is delighted to excerpt the newest issue of Tiger Tales, a wonderful bimonthly newsletter from, a project of Pacific Rim Voices:
The very foundation of today's Hispanic culture rests on the original immigrants and the twenty nations that have contributed to the rich tapestry we call Hispanic America today – each one of them a microcosm of cultures and traditions in itself. With the increased numbers of Hispanic Americans comes increased cultural influence, but also more widespread stereotypes. We hope the books we highlight here can help children and young adults understand more about their rich heritage and that of their peers.Authors and Illustrators
Author/illustrator Amelia Lau Carling talks about growing up in Guatemala, in a Chinese household, and the books her childhood experiences inspired.

Author René Colato Laínez talks about coming to the United States as a teenager, from El Salvador, his challenges and accomplishments ever sinc…

Wanna Glomp?

I was hypertasking when my main squeezie came over to glomp me. I said, "That was the awesome," and gave him a shaka ...
No, this isn't a scene from a steamy romance novel in progress -- it's me showing off some newly-acquired urban vocabulary. (Translation: While I was talking on the phone and writing my blog entry at the same time, my husband came over to give me a much appreciated hug.) Don't worry, I'm not midlifing. (Definition: an older person using urban slang in everyday conversation -- not yet in the urban dictionary; see midlife crisis.) But if you love words and the evolution of language as much as I do, why not sign up to get the dictionary's word of the day in your mailbox? I can't guarantee that the content won't be edgy or even outrightly rank, but playing around with language is always all grapes, right?

Typepad's Menu Special: Chicken Spaghetti

The children's literature blog Chicken Spaghetti was featured yesterday as Typebad's blog of the day. Here's their description of the blogger's delectable concoction:
Susan Thomsen, author of Elvis: A Tribute to the King, whose bylines also include The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Global City Review, has turned her blogging attention to the world of kid lit. Chicken Spaghetti has been going strong for nearly two years and has fast become a source for all things where book-related and children-related meet. Great for parents, teachers, and even those interested in writing a children's book of their own -- Chicken Spaghetti is a one-room schoolhouse for learning about this quickly growing genre. Thomsen points to more than 25 different children author's websites, and has her posts archived in a variety of useful categories. While much of kids lit is broken up by ages, Thomsen makes it easy by pointing browsers directly to picture books, beginning readers

Montreal Killer Kimveer Gill's Cultural Affiliation

Okay, so I checked out the cache of Kimveer Gill's page at Here's how he filled out one survey on that site:

TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF - The SurveyName:KimveerBirthday:July 9, 1981Birthplace:MontrealCurrent Location:CanadaEye Color:BrownHair Color:BlackHeight:6 foot 1Right Handed or Left Handed:RightYour Heritage:IndianThe Shoes You Wore Today:Combat bootsYour Weakness:LazynessYour Fears:Have noneYour Perfect Pizza:All DressedGoal You Would Like To Achieve This Year:Stay AliveYour Most Overused Phrase On an instant messenger:Heavy Metal RulzThoughts First Waking Up:TiredYour Best Physical Feature:My hairYour Bedtime:Whenever I'm tiredYour Most Missed Memory:Being youngPepsi or Coke:cokeMacDonalds or Burger King:Burger KingSingle or Group Dates:GroupLipton Ice Tea or Nestea:WTFChocolate or Vanilla:ChocolateCappuccino or Coffee:Don't care for coffeeDo you Smoke:NoDo you Swear:YesDo you Sing:Hell noDo you Shower Daily:YesHave you Been in Love:YesDo you want…

Teen Virtual Poetry Workshop in October

Teachers & Writers is offering a free online poetry writing workshop for writers aged 14 to 18. Led by poet Hoa Nguyen, this Virtual Poetry Workshop will last for 10 weeks, beginning on October 12, 2006. Hoa provides fabulous writing exercises, and participants must commit to the entire workshop, follow through on assignments and contribute to online discussions. Interested teens should send an email to no later than October 11, 2006, including first name, last name, and a brief introduction. Space is limited, so tell your favorite young poets to act fast. (Source: Pooja Makhijani, of course.)

ALA's Becoming American: New Immigration Stories

Check out the American Library Association's wonderful new site:Becoming American – New Immigration Stories is a project designed to provide libraries throughout the United States with a selection of excellent books on immigrant literature for adults and families. The reading lists and resources on this Web site have been developed to help librarians engage their communities in reading and discussing important texts containing rich and deep insights into our vibrant tradition of immigrant literature..

Why I Write For Kids (Reason #7)

Visitors to the Fire Escape may be keeping track of my list of reasons to write for kids. (FYI or to refresh your memory, here are reasons #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6.) During a recent three-day tour with Charlesbridge publicity director Donna Spurlock and editor Judy O'Malley (lunch included, as evidenced in the photo), I discovered yet another reward of writing for children: the opportunity to connect with independent booksellers, commonly known as "indies."

These are usually cozy, welcoming sanctuaries where one may imbibe the culture and ethos of a community. They provide young browswers a venue to mingle face-to-face with fellow book-lovers instead of via the impersonal glare of a screen. They support local schools by providing curriculum-based literature to students (often at big discounts), host parent-child book discussions that spark lively conversations between the generations, and partner with libraries to unite towns around particular novels. Here's a rundo…

Children's and YA Books on War and Terrorism

I invite you to peruse two lists on this somber anniversary. First, from the American Library Association, a list of books for teens on terrorism. And second, an international list from the University of Washington, Reading 9/11 Through Children's Books (.doc file; note the number of titles from Japan):

Andryszewski, Tricia. Terrorism in America. Brookfield, Conn.: The Millbrook Press, 2002.

Campbell, Geoffrey A. A Vulnerable America: An Overview of National Security. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2004.

Corona, Laurel. Hunting down the Terrorists: Declaring War and Policing Global Violations. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2004.

Currie, Stephen. Terrorists and Terrorist Groups. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2002.

Durrell, Ann and Marilyn Sachs, ed. The Big Book for Peace.

Frank, Mitch. A Nation Challenged: a Visual History of 9/11 and Its Aftermath. New York: Scholastic, 2002.

Frank, Mitch. Understanding September 11th: Answering Questions About the Attacks on America. New York: Viking, 2002.

Gerstein, M…

Bookstore Tour: Episode Two

Day two of my great Massachusetts bookstore tour, a brilliant publicity idea innovated by Donna Spurlock of Charlesbridge. I get to chat and break bread with Donna and editor Judy O'Malley, children's lit expert, for three days -- yesterday, today, and Monday. I'll report in on this adventure next week, and in the meantime, check out the winners of the 2006 Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature, and this Publishers Weeklyinterview with Patricia McCormick about her research process for Sold, a novel on sex trafficking in Nepal. (Thanks, John Bell, for the link).

American Born Chinese by Gene Yang

Gene Yang's graphic novel from First Second Books just got a starred review in this issue of School Library Journal. Here's the book's description:All Jin Wang wants is to fit in... When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he suddenly finds that he’s the only Chinese-American student at his school. Jocks and bullies pick on him constantly, and he has hardly any friends. Then, to make matters worse, he falls in love with an all-American girl.Born to rule over all the monkeys in the world, the story of the Monkey King is one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables. Adored by his subjects, master of the arts of kung-fu, he is the most powerful monkey on earth. But the Monkey King doesn’t want to be a monkey. He wants to be hailed as a god.Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, and he’s ruining his cousin Danny’s life. Danny’s a basketball player, a popular kid at school, but every year Chin-Kee comes to visit, and every year Danny has to transfer to a new…

The Great Paterson in Cambridge; The Wee Perkins in Wellesley

Fellow Presbyterian Minister's wife Katherine Paterson will be reading from her new ALA Bookliststarred-review novel, Bread and Roses, Too, tonight at 7 o'clock at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. I can't make it because my writers' group is having our annual fall kickoff/goal-setting dinner, which I love, but I'm conflicted because (a) Paterson's new book is a between-cultures novel about an immigrant family from Italy, and (b) she's my hero.

Sigh. Anyway, there's more to anticipate when it comes to bookstores, because tomorrow I'm driving around New England with Judy O'Malley and Donna Spurlock of Charlesbridge to introduce myself and Rickshaw Girlto a few indie owners. And finally, if any of you are in the vicinity of Wellesley, Massachusetts on Sunday, September 17th, I'll be speaking at the town's fabulous library at two o'clock. Here's the description of the program provided by the library, and if you do come, please introd…

Double Their Salaries!

It's back to school again, so why not send your favorite teacher over to the Annenberg Foundation's Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades or The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School? The resource for middle schools features the likes of Julia Alvarez, James McBride, Lensey Namioka, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Nikki Grimes, Shirley Sterling, Laura Tohe, Edwidge Danticat, An Na, Laurence Yep, Christopher Paul Curtis, Alma Flor Ada, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Paul Yee, Joseph Bruchac, Francisco Jiménez, and the rest (no, not the Professor and Mary Ann). Educators have to buy the videos, but the website is full of freebies that encourage and inspire those who teach between cultures (free registration may be required). Since I can't unilaterally pass the one piece of legislation that would revolutionize our nation (see subject line of this post), I can only hope this academic year will overflow with the intangibles that can make teaching …

Pass The TP And Will You Publish My Book?

I'll always be embarrassed about the time I approached a children's book editor in a ladies' room to ask if she'd heard anything in-house about a manuscript I'd sent to one of her colleagues. I knew I was crossing a line but desperation made the words come hurtling out of my mouth. Publisher's Weekly recently interviewed editors about the strangest place they've been pitched a book -- it's a cautionary tale for writer wannabes that's definitely worth a read. (Thankfully, they didn't include Cheryl Klein of Scholastic in their list of editors ...) Source: Ken Sheldon, a member of the NESCBWI listserv.

MTV, the VMAs, and the Racial Divide

Watched most of MTV's Video Music Awards into the wee hours last night, and was struck by the tension between rock and roll (white people) and R&B/Hip-Hop (black people). The attempt to provide equal airtime and honor both kinds of music felt jarring. I watched with my brown boys who are neither white nor black, and it seemed to me that the show underlined the gap between the genres -- and the two races.

So how do teens like mine who aren't black or white deal with MTV? On the one hand, they have the freedom to pick and choose without feeling like they're betraying their own heritage. On the other hand, music has always been a way for young artists to fuse the old world with the new, and to be welcomed and celebrated by the wider culture. Probably because the MTV execs were carefully walking the line between black and white, there was little room for anything else last night -- apart from half-Lebanese, half-Colombian Shakira with her Bollywood-esque backup dancers, a f…

Child Trafficking: Telling The Story

My editor at Dutton, Margaret Woollatt, told me today of a starred review in PW for Sold by Patricia McCormick, a novel in free verse about a Nepali girl sold into sexual slavery. Sparrow, my protagonist in First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, blogs about meeting a girl about to be trafficked, and I based her description on a disturbing encounter I had years ago in the Dubai airport. I dread and yet long to read Sold, as nothing enrages me more than the sexual exploitation of children. Thank you, Patty McCormick, for telling this story. I know the pen is mightier than the sword, but when it comes to sexual trafficking, even my give-peace-a-chance-flower-child fingers are sorely tempted to wield the latter.