It's a Book, Not a Pill

Ever started a book that everybody else claims is fabulous but find yourself gazing at the ceiling and thinking about England? Toss the literary fiction then, argues Nicholas Hornby, author of About a Boy and How to be Good, in a recent Telegraph article:
...Boredom, let's face it, is a problem that many of us have come to associate with books. It's one of the reasons why we choose to do almost anything else rather than read; very few of us pick up a book after the children are in bed and the dinner has been made and the dirty dishes cleared away.

We'd rather turn on the television. Some evenings we'd rather go to all the trouble of getting into a car and driving to a cinema, or waiting for a bus that might take us somewhere near one.

This is partly because reading appears to be more effortful than watching television, and usually it is; although if you choose to watch one of the American HBO series, such as The Sopranos or The Wire, then it's a close-run thing, because the plotting in these programmes, the speed and complexity of the dialogue, are as demanding as a lot of the very best fiction.

One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good.

Most teen readers agree with Hornby, and that's why I'm all for recommending fun books like these, selected by the ALA as 2007 quick picks for reluctant readers. Is it just me, or does the phrase "reluctant reader" sound like an oxymoron?

A Divinely Arranged Marriage

A person's lack of South Asian savvy is revealed when they see my husband and me and ask, "Oh! Was YOUR marriage one of those ARRANGED ones?" Well, maybe that's not such a dumb question after all. As Rob and I head off to commemorate 2 decades of marriage, it certainly seems like someone might have been arranging things behind the scenes. I'll be back on the Fire Escape 8/31. In the meantime, check out Mixed Media Watch, reflections on all things interracial.

Sepia Mutiny Puts Things In Perspective

After yesterday's events, I was getting stressed out about my Pakistani-looking teens traveling on United next week by themselves. And then, thanks to ever-effervescent Abhi's post (Love In A Time Of Terrorism) on the group blog Sepia Mutiny, I discovered that there's more when it comes to a desi-mother-of-sons' list of troublesome future scenarios. (Warning: If you're not ready or inclined to alleviate world-events tension with a good dose of humor, don't click on the links.)

Non-Verbals in Novels?

Here's a shout-out for "Little Miss Sunshine," a wonderful comedy full of characters I didn't want to leave. If you see the film, especially notice how Greg Kinnear uses movements and gestures to make us laugh as well as elicit our sympathy -- even though he's portraying such an annoying man. In one hospital waiting room scene, as his wife leans closer to the kids and calls a family meeting from which he's obviously excluded, watch how he joins their circle. His movement over to them, the distance he keeps between himself and his son, and where he chooses to stand all tell us reams about his character. Masterful acting.

Then, last night we joined friends for a picnic dinner on the Boston Common to watch an under-the-starry-skies presentation of "Taming of the Shrew." (Side note: In Boston, in the Year of our Lord 2006, the Bard is still winning ovations and acclaim for this extremely sexist play. Sometimes I don't get western culture's uncritical adulation of Shakespeare as "high culture." He seems more Bollywood-esque to me, and director Gurinder Chadha should give up on Dallas and make a dancing, singing version of "A Midsummer's Night's Dream.")

Okay, back to the play. At first we were sitting in the back. The way back. The actors were small colorful blobs; we could hear the lines clearly but couldn't see anything. People up front were laughing hilariously, but we scratched our heads, looked at each other, and didn't get it. After the intermission, though, we moved forward, close enough to actually see the actors' faces, hands, and bodies. As we joined in on the chuckles and guffaws, it struck me again how crucial non-verbals are in acting to convey the nuances of character and to pull off good comedy.

SO ... my thoughts this morning turn to novels and non-verbals. I know we writers are supposed to use strong verbs and nouns to show how our characters are moving, standing, and responding, but we're shackled to words and words alone. The gift we're offered is the power of imagination, both our own and our readers. Here are my questions. How many of you writers actually envision a scene mentally before writing it? (I always do this as a reader.) How detailed are the characters' movements and expressions in your mind?

In my one-time on-stage fiasco, I realized how non-verbally challenged I am as an actor. I haven't been staging my scenes consciously as I write, but as I plug on with first draft of book no. 2 in the First Daughter series, I just may try that exercise ...

Between Cultures Marriage Proposal

Only in America. This video was featured on Yahoo's home page this morning, and I share it as an example of how the culture of my citizenship gives me and other newcomers the space and hospitality to celebrate the cultures of our origin.

Multicultural Books For Young Readers

How do you define "multicultural literature?" The folks at the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison point out that "there is no single definition of the term 'multicultural literature' as it is applied to books for children and young adults. At the CCBC, we use the term to mean books by and about people of color." The Center provides these statistics about the 2800 books they received in 2005 (hat tip: the Rutgers-based child_lit listserv): 

By African or African/American authors 75
About Africans or African/Americans 149

By American Indian authors 4
About American Indians 34

By Latin American authors 50
About Latin Americans 76

By Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific authors 60
About Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific Americans 64

I found the low numbers in the Latino community striking, given the changing demographics in the U.S. Also of note is the fact that the large majority of books about American Indians are mostly still written by people outside those communities. For more statistics about multicultural books for young readers from 1985-2005, check out this page.

Why I Write For Kids (Reason #6)

You make great friends. Whether it be through SCBWI, Kahani, my critique group (Karen L. Day and J. L. Bell both have a web presence), or at Kindling Words, the encouragement and support I get from other writers is unique, I'm convinced, to the realm of children's literature. We rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

As an example, check out the Blue Rose Girls, a group of writers, illustrators, and one editor. Here's how they describe their mission:

In the early 20th century, three women illustrators: Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley lived and flourished together in a shared space above the Red Rose Inn. As their careers blossomed, they were called "The Red Rose Girls." At a time where society and the illustration profession was male dominated, the Red Rose Girls painted their own path and succeeded -- an example which we dare to follow.

In 1996, three women illustrators: Grace Lin, Anna Alter and Linda Wingerter forged a bond via the internet. Relying on each other, the seeds of their children's book careers began to take root; and they named themselves "The Blue Rose Girls," as an homage to the friendship of Red Rose Girls before them. As their work bloomed, they sent out runners and authors Libby Koponen, Meghan McCarthy and editor Alvina Ling, soon found themselves planted.

You go, girls. I'm going to love eavesdropping on your chat.

In Which I Google Myself ... Again

Here's some new stuff that turned up in my most recent bout of self-seeking cyber-indulgence: a sweet review of Sunita from New Moon magazine, an article that was printed in The Indian Express, and a nice post about South Asian Literature for Children from Pop Goes The Library. Also, my darling Sunita made Jen Robinson's top 200 cool girls of literature list, Publishers' Weekly included Rickshaw Girl on their list of Spring 2007 sneak peeks, and the Prism Fellows of the University of Rhode Island blogged about ALA and mentioned my presentation. I exist! My books exist! Okay, time to crawl back into my lonely little writer's nook, even though I'd much rather stay out here on the Fire Escape ...

Kira-Kira: A Young Reader's Review

I'm always delighted when young readers submit reviews about books between cultures to feature on the Fire Escape's lists of best books. Here's a wonderful one about Cynthia Kadohata's Newbery-Award winning Kira-Kira, written by Quinn W. from Texas, age 11:
Kira-kira, kira-kira. This is the sound of Katie's first word. This word means glistening.

Katie lives with her mother, father, and sister in Iowa. When Mr. Kadohata gets a job offer in Georgia, he accepts on behalf of the entire family. Katie and her sister, Lynn, have a hard time surviving in the southern state with the other 32 Japanese immigrants. The two are so close to the other and such best friends. It's as if the words "quarrel" and "fight" do not exist in their vocabulary!

Finally, Lynn gets lucky and makes a good friend, but Katie does not exist in the world of Lynn anymore. Suddenly, a miracle happens in the Kadohata family. They are blessed with a new baby boy, Sam. Lynn looks after Katie and Katie looks after Sam. The relation of the three is a good one for the mother and father now are only at home for food and sleep.

One day, Lynn comes from her friend's home with an ill feeling and has the color "green" on her face instead of the usual rosy red. Another day falls like this, and another. And so many more days...

Kira-Kira is not a book. It is a lesson. When you read this novel, a chill travels up your spine, a warm feeling fills your heart, and tears spring to your eyes. Kira-Kira feeds a strange feeling into your body. There is no word for this feeling. In fact, it cannot even be put into words! But when you read the mesmirizing words contained in the pages of Kira-Kira, you'll get this feeling and you will understand just like all the others enchanted by this heart warming novel known as Kira-Kira .

Why I Write For Kids (Reason #5)

Yesterday, I sent out this post to the listserv associated with the New England Chapter of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators:
I got my author copies of "Rickshaw Girl" from Charlesbridge today. There's absolutely nothing like the feeling of holding YOUR BOOK in your sweaty palms, fondling it, inhaling it, barely keeping yourself from biting out a chunk and savoring it like a piece of dark, sweet chocolate ... Yes, I'm going a bit nuts.
In re-reading it as I received congratulatory off-list responses, my cheeks flamed. If you change the words "your book" to some other possibilities, the entire post could read like a bad-but-steamy romance novel. Subliminal midlife crisis? Perhaps. It doesn't matter, though, because children's literature does share one thing in common with the romance genre: the possibility of happy endings.

As I re-read Rickshaw Girl, which is the story of a poor Bangladeshi family, I was grateful that I could leave my readers with hope. Unlike those who write for grownups (or even young adults), I don't feel the need to kill off a major character or underline the bleak condition of human nature. Arundhati Roy's lyrical prose in her mesmerizing God of Small Things, for example, wrecked one of my beach vacations by depressing me thoroughly. And WHY did Rohinton Mistry use the last three pages to tip his glorious Fine Balance -- and me -- into the pit of despair?

Ah, well. That's their problem. I write for kids.

Paper Tigers July Issue

Paper Tigers is a wonderful website for "teachers, librarians, publishers, and all those interested in books for young readers from and about the Pacific Rim and South Asia." As usual, they provided some great reads and resources in their monthly on-line issue, including an illuminating interview with Allen Say, a thoughful article by Laura Atkins about diversity in children's publishing, and Pooja Makhijani's fascinating take on our recent South Asian Writer's Children's Literature Panel in New York. Also featured are some new book reviews. Feel free to go wild with your advanced bookmarking, linking, and forwarding cyberspace skills.