Kaavya: A Reprise

Visi Tilak of The Indian American interviewed me and several others for an article in their July/August issue, and I wanted to share the Q & A with you out here on the fire escape.

What are your thoughts on the Kaavya Viswanathan incident? What do you think happened?

I have no idea what happened, but I believe her when she says that the plagiarism wasn't volitional. It's impossible to prove, I know, and the evidence against her has been clearly articulated by many people, but I'm going to stay in her corner. Besides, "innocent until proven guilty" is one of the strongest cornerstones of civil societies. One of my goals is to champion teens caught between cultures, and Kaavya is definitely one of those. I admire the way Megan McCafferty (and now Tanuja Desai Hidier) responded without condemnation towards a younger writer.

How do you think this is going to affect other upcoming young adult writers -- teen writers specifically?

Publishers will be reluctant to launch a young writer into the adult book world with as spectacular of a splash, but that's probably good. A headline-generating teen debut is not the best way to begin your career when you're thinking about sustaining it over the long haul. Christopher Paolini (Eragon, The Inheritance) seems to be sailing through success without much ado, but that's probably because he published for children and teens, not for adults. The children's book world is a safer, smaller circle to join when you're a teen writer — and not necessarily less lucrative these days.

Do you think packaging a writers work by a company is acceptable? Why or why not?

I'm not a story snob. Packagers help create a series of entertaining reads for people who want fixes featuring their favorite characters, like Nancy Drew, etc. The lasting impact and depth of fiction, however, has to be affected when generated quickly in committee instead of slaved over by one person. (As I am slaving over a book right now, I certainly hope I'm right.)

Did the media overexpose the case or is it relevant?

For writers, editors, and publishers, this case has been a wakeup call and a chance to reflect on copyright and the creative process. Teens have reflected on the dangers and ethics of plagiarism. Within the South Asian community, it's been healthy to scrutinize the pressure on young people to succeed. For Kaavya, though, I'm sure the international criticism has been devastating. While good may yet come to her out of this mess, I'm sure she wouldn't have applied to be a catalyst of change.

Should Kaavya Vishwanathan be allowed to write again? Why or Why not?

If we're prevented from writing because of mistakes we've made that have inflicted pain on ourselves and others, which one of us would be "allowed to write?" Once Kaavya has had a chance to heal and reflect, I would wholeheartedly encourage her to write again. The suffering endured and the lessons learned can refine her writing and inspire her to create powerful stories.

Can she ever be published again? Why or Why not?

Of course. Other writers have worn a scarlet "P" and survived to tell another tale. When you're nineteen years old, the future is full of second chances and fresh starts.

Nothing But The Truth (and a few white lies)

Lots of books about immigrant or refugee kids are serious and heavy, and understandably so. But when you're squashed into the small space between cultures, you'd go nuts without poking fun at your situation. Self-deprecatory humor is a survivor's must. That's why I'm recommending Justina Chen Headley's new novel for younger YAs featuring half-Taiwanese half-white Patty Ho, Nothing But The Truth (and a few white lies) (Little Brown, April 2006). I read it on the plane coming home from New Orleans and chuckled out loud at Headley's wry voice and hilarious descriptions. The author offers an unstinting look at the challenges of growing up as a biracial teen in suburban America, and yet includes enough hope and humor to make this a highly satisfying, enjoyable read. (Kelly Herold of The Edge of The Forest sums it up better than I could, so I'll send you to her review.)

Why I Write For Kids (Reason #4)

Okay, I'll confess my least noble motive: writing books for kids can provide a bit of glam and glitz. Yes, my fellow desperate housewives, the writing life is studded with moments that brighten the midlife doldrums. Join me for 24 hours of fun at the American Library Association Convention in New Orleans (where you proudly join 18,000 other attendees in the city's first major post-Katrina Convention) ...
You arrive at the Loews Hotel and discover that Random House has reserved a king deluxe suite for you on the fifteenth floor with a stunning view of the river. You shower and change into the birthday-splurge outfit presented by your stylish mother-in-law with writing appearances in mind.

You walk to the Morial Convention Center and (finally) find the room assigned to your "Books Between Cultures" program. Fighting nerves, you deliver your presentation to a kind-faced audience, bolstered by the undeniable fact that you are wearing fantastic footwear (from same mother-in-law who understands your immigrant-ish inability to spend huge sums of money on shoes).

Relieved that your program is done, you trot off to a cocktail party hosted by Random House at the Louisiana Children's Museum. Upon arrival, you and other authors and illustrators are pinned with red roses and told to mingle with bunches of lovely librarians. Gladly, you do, pausing only to sample crab cakes, coconut shrimp, and stuffed mushrooms. You meet literary luminaries and feel like a star yourself, even though most guests peer at your rose and nametag with a blank look (exceptions include fellow blogger Fuse No. 8, who shyly returns your impulsive hug).

Next, Charlesbridge is hosting dinner for their authors and illustrators at the Palace Cafe on Canal Street, where you feast on Mahi Mahi with stone-ground grits and raspberry crumble, also stealing a bite of editor Judy O'Malley's dark chocolate extravaganza. You chat and laugh and talk books until almost midnight, when you finally head back to your hotel.

Sunday begins with more food -- munching on eggs and toast in your room while clad in the spotlessly white bathrobe provided by the hotel. Back at the Convention Center (now wearing a travel-friendly Indian-ish dress you bought in Tanzania at 1/100th of the price your mother-in-law paid for the other outfit), you sign books and banter at the Little Brown and Random House booths. Finally, you sprint around the enormous exhibit floor, pick out a few graphic novel freebies for your teenagers, and race to catch your flight.
Now you're back in the Massachusetts suburbs confronting an empty fridge and mounds of laundry. But -- ah! You've had your glittery 24 hours, your next story is waiting to be written, and there's really no place like ... the fire escape. It's good to be home.

ALA: Books Between Cultures

If you're going to ALA's annual convention in New Orleans, you're cordially invited to attend Books Between Cultures: How Stories Help New Americans Find Their Balance at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 24th in the Morial Convention Center (MCC) Room 393:
What are the tensions facing kids growing up between two worlds? How does pop culture push against them? What are the best books for kids caught between two or more cultures? This presentation will inspire you to serve kids who are struggling to feel at home in our communities. Using a personal, engaging slideshow that requires audience participation, author Mitali Perkins shows how a story -- and a caring librarian -- can make a difference.
I'll also be signing on Sunday morning June 25th from 9:00 - 10:00 at the Little Brown Booth (#1150) and at the Random House Booth (#1324) from 10 - 10:30 AM. If you come by, please mention that you visited the Fire Escape.

If you're not going to be there, travel by blog via YALSA or Fuse #8. I'll be posting some reflections on Monday about my own 24-hour ALA immersion.

Why I Write For Kids (Reason #3)

To refresh your memory, here are reasons one and two. (Remember: not ranked in order of importance.) Okay, ready for #3? Writing YA can score you major maternal points when it comes to your teenaged sons.

How might your books earn the admiration of this tough crowd, you wonder? After all, you are the Queen of Dorkdom in the Castle; these are the guys who started calling you "Momdeeza" after you cheered too strenuously for the voluptuous woman-of-color American Idol contestant. Not to mention that your books are way too "girly" for their robust masculine tastes.

Here's how it works. Every now and then, a hot girl will saunter across the cafeteria to where your son is sitting. "Isn't your Mom an author?" she'll ask. "Didn't she write blankety-blank? I loved that book!"

"Yeah," your son will answer casually, as his buddies look on with envy. "That's my Mom."

Stay tuned for Reason #4.

The Between Cultures Bandwagon

Two of my favorite WASP authors have just released novels exploring a between-cultures motif: John Updike (Terrorist, current Amazon sales rank: #17) and Anne Tyler (Digging To America, current Amazon sales rank: #39). Frequent vistors to the fire escape know that I advocate a liberal position on who can write what for and about whom. Others, however, have been critical of the so-called cultural "risk" these writers might be taking. Has anyone read either of these books? I'd love to hear your take as I'm too busy trying to meet a deadline to read much (which means I'm miserable, uptight, and going through other painful symptoms of addiction withdrawal.)

The Kid-Writing Life: One Week

Monday: Meet with six marketing people at Charlesbridge to brainstorm promotion strategies for novel #3. Munch on chicken kabob wrap and be astounded by their interest in the details of your life. Come home, stare at screen and try to write first chapter (of as-yet-unwritten novel #5) which needs to be published as a teaser in novel #4.

Tuesday: Visit four middle-school English classes to present two sessions. Go early to make sure their projector connects to your laptop without that annoying display-private-presenter-tools-on-screen thing happening again. Drive home in stupor to stare at computer. Procrastinate by perusing favorite blogs (like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one) and drinking icy Diet Coke.

Wednesday: Meet for chai with Kahani Magazine folks to figure out how to generate more buzz about their/our award-winning literary magazine. Brainstorm ideas and words for the magazine's next kid-writing contest. Drive home in panic, realizing you must award prizes for your own contest by June 30th. Read and narrow down to five poems and five short stories, marveling at quality of teen writing. Ignore kids, dinner, husband, dog, and your desperate need for exercise to revise novel #4 according to editorial comments etched on manuscript in blue pencil by editor #1.

Thursday: Return to same school to visit five more seventh-grade English classes. Present twice with full gusto, but session one is a tough crowd while session two kids are vibrant, laughing, and responsive. Realize that second group grabbed snack at their lockers before coming into library to listen to you. Drive home deciding that anybody who makes it through middle school without suffering some kind of trauma should have survivor's guilt forever.

Open carton on doorstep to find author copies of UK version of novel #2. Gaze in awe at beautiful new cover, wondering vaguely why it includes the head of an elephant god never mentioned in the book. Open envelope on doorstep to find suggestions from editor #2 for novel #6 which will apparently need drastic surgery. Send frantic email to editor #1 (on vacation in mountains) about how your first chapters always suck and asking if she really wants to include a teaser chapter of novel #5 at the end of novel #4. Fight guilt because editor #1 immediately sends cyber-reassurance from computer located in small coffeeshop at foot of mountains.

Friday: Write blog entry, and as you do, realize that after years of rejections, you're living your dream life. Give thanks. Postpone laundry. Wonder if family will mind eating takeout for dinner ... again. Hit "publish post," and get back to work on revision.

Insiders, Outsiders, and Ethnic Jokes

My father is funny. He'll entertain at a party with jokes about Bengalis sitting around philosophizing and drinking tea in undervests while the rest of India slaves away at outsourcing. He pokes fun at his own inadequacies as a Bengali husband. The shared laughter at Dad's perfect timing and delivery bonds his all-Bengali audience together as they call out for more. Okay, they're ethnic jokes, but nobody (as far as I know) has ever taken offense. Yesterday, however, my sister received an ethnic joke that did cause offense. It had been forwarded many times to dozens of Anglo-Saxon-ish names:

For centuries, Hindu women have worn a spot on their foreheads. We have always naively thought that it had something to do with their religion. The true story has recently been revealed by the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C. When these beautiful women get married, she brings with her a dowry. On her wedding night, the husband scratches off the spot to see if he has won either a convenience store, a gas station, a donut shop or a motel in the United States. Just thought you would like to know.
We're puzzled about (a) why it was sent to my sister (the first Indian name to be cc'ed); (b) why our minority community is now becoming the brunt of majority humor; and (c) if there could be any context where this joke might be received as faintly funny. Anybody up to hazarding some answers?

Chick Lit Con Carne

This spring, the New American Library/Penguin list included a between-cultures YA novel called Sister Chicas, a collaboration between authors Ann Hagman Cardinal, Lisa Alvarado, and Jane Alberdeston Coralin. The Boston Globe reports today on the vision behind the book:
"There is so much out there that talks about either the pregnant teenager or the local gang member or the consumerist-backbiting-after-the-man Latina," says Cardinal, who lives in Morrisville, Vt. She is Puerto Rican and Swedish, similar to Leni O'Malley-Diaz, the punk rocker rebel in the book who tries to come to terms with her Puerto Rican-Irish heritage. "We didn't feel they represented our stories."

"We wanted to hold up a mirror for other Latinas to see themselves outside the stereotypes," says Alvarado, who is a first-generation Chicana in Chicago, like the character Graciela. "This was a bridge, a way for others to understand our culture. It's not just the hype you see in the news about who is crossing the border. The actual relationship between the three young women is the crux of the novel."
To read more about the book, the authors, and the great reviews they've been receiving, visit sisterchicas.com.

Crash, Rooftop, and Other Convergences

Finally saw Crash last night. The entire time my stomach was clenched like a fist. My take? The movie had enough deus ex machina to remind me of a Grimm's Fairy Tale, except that the hero was the villain was the victim was my prince. You couldn't really blame anyone, and you sorrowed over the plight of everyone. I found it interesting which characters were left with hope, and which were left devastated. With hope (after suffering): new Americans ... Persians, Mexicans, Chinese, and Cambodians. Without hope (still in the midst of suffering): African-American men and working class white people.

I'm also reading Rooftop by Paul Volponi aloud to my sons (a gripping, wonderful story), and recommend the combination of Crash with this novel to spur discussion about how racism is changing in America. (Warning: the movie's rated R for some graphic scenes, and Volponi uses street vernacular with skill.)

Speaking of changing times, who could have predicted a decade ago that a South Asian literary magazine for kids would win a prestigious award for publishing? Well, dreams do come true. Kahani magazine was honored this weekend with a Distinguished Achievement Award by the Association of Educational Publishers, and we're all going a little wild.

Why I Write For Kids (Reason #2)

In my experience, people who choose to edit kid lit are trapped in grownup bodies -- they KNOW that all work and no play makes book a dull read. Dedicating themselves mind, heart, and soul to an author's story, they receive little or no recognition for the telling of it (although the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators is trying to change that). Who else will agonize with you over the progress of your story, word by word, or bird by bird, as Anne Lamott put it so well? As a personal trainer is to your physique, so an editor is to your novel. Here's a list of the editors who have kicked my writing butt into better shape, along with a brief foot-oriented factoid:

Megan Tingley. I wrote the novel for fun because I was bored at work and sent it into a Little Brown contest on a whim. Three weeks later, the phone rang. To my utter amazement, a lowly assistant editor told me that they loved my book and wanted to publish it. "You have a wonderful voice for middle-grade fiction," she said, instantaneously combusting a career. She then proceeded to edit The Sunita Experiment with a meticulous eye for detail and a wide-hearted vision for the story I was trying to tell. These talents and loyalty paid off: Megan is now THE Publisher of Little Brown Children's Book Group. To me, though, she'll always be that young twenty-something voice on the phone who first informed me that I -- yes, me -- actually had a voice. Footwear factoid: wears sandals to show off baby blue toe polish while lunching al fresco at Quincy Market.

Françoise Bui. My second novel had been soundly rejected for years. I was sick and tired of the revision-rejection-revision process and burned out on the story and characters. Finally, my agent called and said a Delacorte editor wanted to buy the book (much dancing, weeping, and prayers of thanksgiving ensued). The manuscript arrived, laced with gentle-handed editing and kind-voiced suggestions, and I girded up my loins to begin revision #43 of Monsoon Summer (I think; I lost count.) Françoise's notes often included something like, "Why not end here?" Always, she was right about cutting the last paragraph or six in a chapter or section. Why drone on explaining how my characters feel and respond instead of giving my readers the space to feel and respond? Thanks, Françoise, for showing me the power of understatement. Footwear factoid: watch for a pair of petite, elegant feet in stilettos traipsing through the streets of midtown.

Sangeeta Mehta. When Little Brown decided to reissue The Sunita Experiment, the book was handed first to Alvina Ling (another editorial powerhouse on the rise), and then to my utter delight, given into the care of an INDIAN editor named SANGEETA (the name I had given Sunita's sister in the book years before!) Thanks to her youthful, bi-cultural savvy, The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen was released with a gorgeous new cover and a revised ending that eliminated the unnecessary "exoticization" of my main character. Footwear factoid: pumps and silk stockings by day and chappals with ankle bracelets for those dance-until-three-in-the-morning bhangra parties.

Judy O'Malley. I was signing at a regional booksellers' convention. It was one of those demoralizing events where the authors seated next to me all had long lines snaking from their tables, and I was tapping my pen. Thankfully, a compassionate type took pity on me every now and then and merged over to get a book signed. Judy O'Malley of Charlesbridge was one such visitor. "Do you have anything in the works?" she asked. "I have a picture book called Rickshaw Girl," I said hesitantly. It, too, had been rejected quite a few times. "Send it to me," she said. I did, and she came back with something I've heard over and over again: "Your storytelling is intended for a wider venue. Don't squish it into the PB format." Patiently, she worked with me to extend and revise Naima's story into a novel, scheduled now for a January 2007 release as one of Charlesbridge's new Bridge books (yes, that's the cover). Footwear factoid: high-heeled leather zip-up boots keep long legs warm -- and looking sharp -- through a never-ending Boston winter.

Margaret Woollatt. Dutton asked Laura Rennert, my agent, if one of her writers could submit a proposal for a book about a president's daughter. Laura and I worked together on a plot treatment and sent it off just as the ALA midwinter convention was meeting in Boston. I paid for a day pass into the exhibit halls, which proved to be a good move. Stephanie Lurie, the head honcho of Dutton, was there, and she invited me to pitch my proposal. "I love it," she told me on the spot. "I'll buy it." And she did, handing the editing of the book to Margaret Woollatt. Now, as I'm revising book one (First Daughter: My Extreme American Makeover, Spring 2007) of what morphed into a two-book series and interacting with the brilliance of yet another twenty-something editor, it feels like I've come full circle. Margaret reminds me eerily of Megan Tingley fifteen years ago, and Penguin just might have a publisher in the making. Footwear factoid: keds are definitely the new dolce gabbana.

I just watched Malibu's Most Wanted (yet again -- I love that between-cultures flick), so here's the fire escape's final shout-out to the hardworking editors of kid lit: "fo' shizzle my sizzles (and the occassional bizzle), you gangstas r da BOMB." (Hmmmm .... so that's why middle-aged mothers of teens should never attempt to use hip-hop slang in any shape or form ... )

A Paean To Immigrant Parents

Immigrant parents have been getting a bad rap lately. They've been accused of having over-the-top expectations, pressuring their kids to succeed (as in go to Harvard and get rich and famous before you're twenty), and being rigid about retaining traditions. Okay, some of that might be true. But I want to encourage young adults who are enduring intense parental heat right now. When you get to my stage of life (after the therapy-slash-forgiveness), your relationship with your parents can emerge through the flames like gold.

My own parents, for example, recently learned how to use email, partly so that I could send news to them about my writing and speaking. Yesterday, I forwarded a note of affirmation across the country to California and my Dad typed back the following with his index finger:
congratulations we love you DAD & MOM
(NOTE: As they say in India, "kindly remember" that my father's date of birth was years before Gandhi marched to the sea to protest the British salt tax. The bottom choice on the pull-down menu of "year of birth" on most websites is usually about five years after Dad was born.)

The pressure's disappeared with the years, and all that's left is their praise and pride (even though I'm not a doctor, famous, and have gazillions of dollars in my bank account.) I finally get that NOBODY will care as deeply, cheer as loudly, or celebrate as wildly with me as they do. So hang in there if you're in your teens or twenties and feel like you're living the between-cultures nightmare. Having parental units who dream the American dream for you just might morph into your dream come true down the road. It certainly has for me.

2006 Boston Globe / Horn Book Awards

Author Kate DiCamillo scores again! Check out the full list of winners in the fiction, picture book, and nonfiction categories.

Linda Sue Park's Hyphenated Life

I spoke at Waltham Public School's Library Volunteer Luncheon today, emphasizing how vital the hospitality of librarians can be to kids growing up with a hyphen. What's it like to grow up with a racially-identifiable hyphen? Newbery-award winning author Linda Sue Park describes it well in an excerpt on the fabulous Paper Tigers site:

. . . If you are racially hyphenated in a way that is immediately visible, then you confront the fact of your hyphen every day. Not always in a negative sense, but in an unavoidable one ... Being visibly hyphenated in a racial sense, those experiences are a constant in your life. As an Asian-American, I am well aware that my family and I experienced racism for the most part in far more benign ways than most African-Americans. There was hostility only rarely. But the countless, daily, often seemingly harmless encounters—the assumptions people made about me based on my race alone—have worked to shape what would eventually become my writing sensibility.

When I chatted briefly with Linda at a recent NESCBWI conference, we compared notes on how the world of children's book editors is also slowly but surely becoming dashed with visible hyphens. What's happening in the demographic of librarians, I wonder? I'll be checking that out when I head to New Orleans to present at the ALA Convention in couple of weeks.

Grace Lee? I Know Her!

When I tried to register the domain name "mitali.com," I found it was already hosted by a witty, India-based, tech-savvy young woman named ... Mitali. Our first name is actually quite common; I've been told by many a traveler about Mitali Restaurant in New York City, which apparently does justice to the name (it means "friendly").

When it comes to "Mitali Perkins," however, I'm fairly sure I'm the only one on the planet. That's not true of "Grace Lee." By some estimates, there are 2000 in North America alone. One of them set out to explore the ramifications of sharing a common Asian name:
When Korean American filmmaker Grace Lee was growing up in Missouri, she was the only Grace Lee she knew. Once she left the Midwest however, everyone she met seemed to know "another Grace Lee." But why did they assume that all Grace Lees were reserved, dutiful, piano-playing overachievers? The filmmaker plunges into a funny, highly unscientific investigation into all those Grace Lees who break the mold -- from a fiery social activist to a rebel who tried to burn down her high school. With wit and charm, THE GRACE LEE PROJECT puts a hilarious spin on the eternal question, "What's in a name?"
Check the film out at a town near you this summer.

Fire Escape 2006 Writing Contest Closed

The deadline for submitting poem and short stories to the Fire Escape's annual teen writing contests was yesterday (I got several breathless last-minute midnight entries). I'm looking forward to reading and judging all the wonderful entries and awarding the prizes. Thanks to all who submitted; the 2007 contest will be accepting entries starting 9/1/06.

South Asian Buzz at the Bee

While treadmilling at the gym, I caught a snippet of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN2 and saw four, count 'em, FOUR spellers of South Asian origin in a row make it to the next round. I know it's become joke fodder, but could someone please offer a theory about WHY we're so overrepresented in this competition? I found myself betraying my own heritage and rooting for the only kid of Latino heritage still in the competition -- a happy-go-lucky boy with a cherubic smile from Miami. (Of course you want them ALL to win and your heart breaks every time the judge hits the "you're out" bell.) The finals are tonight on ABC.