First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover

I just received the galleys of the first novel in my YA series about Sameera Righton, First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, June 2007). Isn't the cover girl GORGEOUS? She's Pakistani-American, like Sameera. I submitted the plot treatment for this book two years ago, before Senator McCain had become a forerunner on the Republican side, and knew nothing about Bridget, his daughter who was adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Kolkata. (I know, I know, nobody's going to believe me ... sigh.)

As soon as I learned about Bridget, I wrote McCain's office to tell them about the book, worried that I might be perceived as trying to capitalize on the hardships they've already faced as a mixed-race family. His "people" (an intern, I think) wrote back with warm encouragement, and even asked for a copy of the galleys. Dutton just sent a couple to Arizona, and I hope 15-year-old Bridget gets to read one; I'd LOVE to hear what she thinks.

Of course, I'm not sure if it will help or hurt the series if McCain stays ahead in the game. What? Yes, of course I care more about the nation and planet than I do about my books, but this is the Fire Escape, people, the one place I get to whine about my writing in peace.

Pleasanton Library's Teen Fusion Night

Hey, Northern Californians! I'm heading your way this Saturday to talk about growing up between cultures at the Pleasanton Public Library. Apart from moi, it's going to be an adult-free event, so teens are welcome at 4 p.m. to join in on the conversation. After an hour or so, the library closes, I get kicked out, and the real fun begins -- movie, food, mendhi, and music. (Don't worry, I'll be relaxing in flannel jammies and drinking tea with my parents ... true bliss.)

First Reviews of Rickshaw Girl!

It's always exciting and a bit unnerving to read the first reviews of your book, and this week I got two for Rickshaw Girl. The first, written by Kelly Herold of big A little A fame, appears in this month's issue of the kid lit e-zine The Edge of the Forest. The second was from the awe-inspiring Dame Hazel Rochman for ALA's Booklist, and I danced a jig when I read words like "lively" and "moving" and "realistic with surprises that continue to the end." And Jamie Hogan's artwork is described as "bold" and "beautiful." Hooray!

Trick or What? Santa Who?

I went trick or treating only once. I was twelve and we had just moved to a California suburb. I borrowed one of my Dad's suits, stuffed a pillow down my front to simulate a beer belly, and headed out with my neighborhood buddies. But first, I had to make sure that Mom and Dad were stocked with candy, prepped to answer the doorbell promptly, and instructed about the proper method of doling out treats.

American holidays are challenging for immigrant kids. They underline how "foreign" your parents are, make you feel guilty for wanting to participate in the fun, and remind you of your status as an outsider, a stranger, a wannabe. Fusing the old and the new is hard work, but two picture books give kids like these -- and their parents -- hope that it's worth the effort.

In Shy Mama's Halloween (Tilbury House, 2000), by Anne Broyles, four Russian children long to go trick-or-treating, but their mother is hesitant. "But I don't know this -- this Halloween," she protests. She prepares their costumes anyway, and the children wait excitedly for Papa to take them out, but he returns home from work with the flu. Bravely, the children face their disappointment as they watch other kids fill the streets with laughter and excitement. But shy Mama rises to the challenge, ties on her scarf, and leads them out into the strange, foreign five-senses experience of Halloween. This beautiful book, illustrated by Leane Morin, reveals the best part of this American holiday -- the chance to connect with neighbors and offer hospitality to one another. An insightful study guide for parents and teachers is included, making the story a great Halloween readaloud for any classroom, especially those with one or two immigrant kids.

Yoon (of My Name is Yoon fame) faces a similar dilemma in Yoon and the Christmas Mitten (FSG, November 2006), when she wants to hang up a stocking but her Korean parents remind her that they "are not a Christmas family." Sensitively and graciously, Helen Recorvits captures the struggle of a young child who longs to participate in American life and honor her parents at the same time. Yoon's parents' efforts to bridge the gap between cultures reveals the imagination and flexibility needed to fuse two traditions. Gabi Swiatkowska begins the illustrations with Yoon looming over her mother and standing apart from the much-smaller figures of schoolfriends playing in the snow. By the end of the book, everyone is the same size, with a smiling, lovely Yoon smack in the center of every spread.

My own struggles during the holidays have helped me to see that they can be some of the loneliest times of the year, even for "land-where-my-fathers-died" kinds of Americans. On Halloween, a friendless child is reminded of his outcast status as other kids head off in joyous clusters. At Christmas, an elderly widow feels bereaved again as she gazes out of her nursing home window to the Christmas tree lights in windows where families are feasting. I'm thankful now for the alienation I felt and how it informs my fiction, because as Kathleen Norris points out in The Cloister Walk:
When artists discover as children that they have inappropriate responses to events around them, they also find, as they learn to trust those responses, that these oddities are what constitute their value to others.

REALLY Good Web Surfing

If you got to the Fire Escape today via a google search, Welcome, Ni Hao, Namaste, Eid Mubarak, Shalom, Konichua, and Bonjour. I'm glad you're here and mi casa on the web es tu casa. But if you do a lot of web searching, like I do, why not redeem the time by simultaneously raising money for your favorite charity? Head over to and bookmark it. The site, which has been reviewed by the likes of CNN, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, is powered by Yahoo!, and fifty percent of the revenue generated from advertisers is shared with the charity, school or nonprofit organization of your choosing.

Nominate a Book for the Cybil Awards

If you haven't yet heard of the Cybil Awards, you're probably new to the crannies of cyberspace created by aficionados of literature for children and young adults. But don't worry. You can head over to the site right now to nominate your favorite book in the young adult novel, nonfiction, middle grade fiction, poetry, picture book, fantasy and science fiction, and graphic novel categories. Here are the rules in a nutshell (lifted verbatim from the site):

(1) The book must be published in 2006 in English. Translations and bilingual books are okay too.

(2) You can be anybody. You don't have to be a blogger to nominate a book. You can even be the author, the editor, the publicist, the next-door neighbor or best friend or just a random Googler.

(3) If a book you love has already been nominated by someone else, you don't need to second it. We're pretty smart. We'll see it. Promise.

(4) Please, pretty please, only nominate ONE book per category.

R U Published? "Yes!" Says The Class of 2k7

The Fire Escape is delighted to introduce the Class of 2k7, a group of 37 first-time children's and YA authors from 21 states and D.C. with debut books from different publishers coming out in 2007. Welcome, 2k7-ers, to the hard-earned but delightful place of nodding when the inevitable question comes after you introduce yourself as a writer. Let me know if there are any books between cultures on your list, and I'm looking forward to checking out your blog, too.

Gene Yang's Parents Get Interviewed!

It's not unusual for Asian parents to receive credit and admiration for an honor bestowed on their offspring. That's why I had to smile when I read Gene Yang's post about his National Book Award nomination. (Thanks, Fuse No. 8, for the link.) And here's something else to anticipate (from Publisher's Lunch Weekly):
2006 National Book Award nominee Gene Yang and collaborator Thien Pham's THREE ANGELS, a graphic novel in which a video game addict is visited by angels and discovers his true destiny: to become a doctor, to Mark Siegel at FirstSecond Books, by Judith Hansen at Hansen Literary Agency (world).

Writer Gone Wild

Remember the exhilaration of turning in that final term paper, taking that last exam, and knowing that you were done, done, done, and now you could play, play, play ... for a little while, at least? Well, today, that's exactly how I feel, having just sent my completed draft of First Daughter: White House Rant (book two in a YA series) to Margaret Woollatt at Dutton Books. It's strange, but my first instinct is to head straight to my parents' house, get in my jammies, channel-surf, and consume massive amounts of potato and cauliflower curry. But that's happening next weekend, when I'm flying out to Pleasanton, California for this fab event. Anyway, here's my virtual primal scream of delight at being done: WAHAHAHAHAHAHAH-OOOOOOOOOOH!

Help Wanted: Teen, Female, Journalist

From Sandhya Nankani, editor of Weekly Reader's Writing magazine, comes this announcement:

The Asian American Writers' Workshop presents a new youth workshop:

51%: A Female Journalists Initiative
6 Saturdays, October 28th to December 16th

The Asian American Writers' Workshop is offering a new writing project for high school-age female journalists. We will learn about reporting and interviewing technique and touch on specialized areas of journalism — for example, ethnic media, opinion writing, feature writing, blogging, and radio — depending on students' interests. We'll also study how to pitch stories to publications and editors. The workshop meets for six classes in October, November, and December, and we'll hone our writing through exercises, peer critique, presentations, field trips, and guest speakers. Each student will complete a major project, a profile, by the final session. 51% is open to aspiring female journalists, grades 9 - 12, from all ethnicities and backgrounds. All youth who participate in 51% will receive an artist stipend of $100, based on commitment, attendance and participation. Please mail, fax or e-mail application as soon as possible.

Muhammad Yunus and the Nobel Peace Prize

I'm thrilled to share the news that Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank have won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in eradicating poverty. Since you're reading this on my fire escape, here's the me connection: I got to meet (and introduce) Dr. Yunus in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when I emceed a book launch party for my friend Alex Counts and his book, Give Us Credit. Alex (now the President of the Grameen Foundation), is acknowledged with thanks in my forthcoming novel for middle readers, Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge), which is based on Grameen's work in rural Bangladesh. (In the book, I show how access to credit makes an immense difference for poor women, especially in the life of an eleven-year-old girl named Naima.) Okay, enough about me -- back to the real news. For more information on Grameen and how to get involved in serving the poor by providing credit, visit the Grameen Foundation's website.

White Madonna and African Child

Thanks to celebrities known to us on a first name basis, the controversy over white Americans adopting babies from African countries is in the news. An article in the Washington Post, African Adoptions Raise Big Questions, talks about being involuntarily displaced from your cultural roots:
While some may see a great need being left unfilled, international adoptions are not "an easy option," said Jackie Schoeman, executive director of Cotlands, a South African organization that cares for children affected by HIV.

"For us, first prize is to place the kids locally or even regionally. If the only other option is for them to be in a long-term institutional then we would consider international adoption."

Schoeman said there were advantages to international adoptions. Recently one of the children for whom her organization cares was adopted by parents in the U.S. and now can receive medical care unavailable in South Africa.

However, Schoeman and others are concerned about the long-term effects of such a big move on a child, particularly in the development of cultural and individual identities.

"We don't really know enough about what a black child growing up in Finland is going to feel. I don't think it would be an alien culture because they would have grown up exposed to it. But will they have felt better staying at home?" she asked.
I'd like to compare the lives of "African-child-growing-up-in-Finland-has-white-Finnish-parents" and "African-child-growing-up-in-Finland-has-African-biological-parents." Does the presence of two people, this biological mother and father, with facility in what would have been his primary language, their physical resemblance to him, connections to the history and culture of his origin, stories from their childhood, and contact with his extended family, make all the difference for a displaced child? Is the company of these two people, or even one of them, enough to alleviate concern "about the long-term effects of such a big move?" Or is it really better for every child to stay in a community of people who share the same cultural identity, language, history, heritage, and skin color? Hey, wait a minute -- that sounds a bit like ... apartheid. How did I end up here? Hmmm....

Great Books Published Outside North America

This list of Outstanding International Books for Children published in 2006 is a joint venture of the US Branch of the International Board on Books for Young People and the Children's Book Council.

Source: Selection Committee Member Micki S. Nevett of Westmere Elementary School in Albany, NY, via the adbooks listserv.

Writing Workshop: A Whole New World

I'm off to Edward Devotion School in Brookline, Massachusetts (alma mater of JFK) to present a workshop for the eighth graders called "A Whole New World: Creating A Sense of Place in Fiction." Can't wait to read their writing!

BTW, if any of you review books for young readers in print or in cyberspace and want an advance copy of Rickshaw Girl, please let me know.

Kiran Desai: Like Mother, Like Daughter

Kiran Desai has won the prestigious Booker Prize for her novel, The Inheritance of Loss. She's the daughter of Anita Desai, who was shortlisted thrice but never won. This novel is all about life between cultures, as Desai herself described in The Rediff Interview:
(My) second book isn't a book that is set entirely in India, but one that tries to capture what it means to live between East and West and what it means to be an immigrant. On a deeper level, it explores what happens when a Western element is introduced into a country that is not of the West, which is what happened, of course, during colonial times and is happening again with India's new relationship with the States. I also wanted to write about what happens when you take people from a poor country and place them in a wealthy one. How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person's thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere, a political sphere, over time?

A Heroic Indian Accent?

During author visits to middle schools, I share how movies and television influenced the shame I used to feel over my parents' accents. For example, in Disney films where South Asian or Middle Eastern characters are heroes (i.e., Jungle Book, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin), the good guys have "American" accents. Meanwhile people who sound like my parents are either fodder for jokes (i.e., Apu in the Simpsons and his filthy mini-mart, taxi drivers in countless movies, etc.) or bad guys (i.e., Kal Penn in this season's 24 will make an appearance as ... surprise ... a terrorist).

Now that I'm a parent of Indian boys myself, I worry about the kinds of messages they're receiving from pop culture about their ethnicity. I blogged recently about the disconcerting presence of South Asians in movies based on of two my favorite children's books: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (creepy oompah-loompah) and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (evil dwarf). That's why, after I learned from Sepia Mutiny blogger Taz that a young hunk named Sendhil Ramamurthy (see photo above) was starring in the hit show, we taped NBC's new Sci-Fi drama Heroes.

I endured (and fast-forwarded through) scenes of gore, mutilation, and the sexual exploitation of a young mother so that the boys could see a handsome South Asian hero light up the screen. Ramamurthy's accent sounded hideously fake to my ears, and to my amazement I discovered that the actor was born in Illinois. I found myself wondering why they didn't write his character as an Indian-American sans accent OR hire an actor from India for the role. Did they go after an actor with American head and hand movements and other western non-verbals so that viewers would find him more heroic? The show's writers also gave his character two vocations that are both stereotypically Indian: the smart, mystical college professor and of course, the inevitable taxi cab driver. But now I'm being nitpicky. Lighten up, Mitali, I tell myself. At least he's not a scary sidekick. Beggars can't be choosers, especially when it comes to a mother's post-9/11 hunt for pop culture heroes who look like her sons.

Stop The Genocide Day

Today's Boston Globe editorializes about Columbus Day:
Along with gunpowder and the other inventions that crossed the Eurasian plain, deadly microbes also made the trip from China to Europe -- plague, influenza, hepatitis, measles, and the other maladies of everyday life in Europe. The Americas were virgin territory for these microbes, and the Indians lacked immunity to any of them.
The Globe points out that since disease was the primary cause of genocide, the argument continues about whether the decimation of entire peoples was the result of systematic biological warfare or simply the "unwitting" result of European expansion. In either case, history's cautionary tale should make us act to stop the genocides taking place right now -- like the one in Burma against the Karenni (the forgotten war that provides the setting for my forthcoming novel from Charlesbridge, The Bamboo People).

One City; 194 Countries

Photographer Danny Goldfield set out to photograph one child from every country on the planet. The only catch was that they all had to live in New York City. Goldfield's finished product proves that the Statue of Liberty is still in the right place:

Between Cultures in the U.K.

Check out the debate taking place on the other side of the Atlantic over Muslim women wearing naqib. It was sparked by Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, who asked his constituents to remove it for the purpose of face-to-face dialog. Also interesting are the comments submitted in response to Hannah Pool's editorial in the Guardian about Madonna's plans to adopt a baby from Africa. "It's arrogance for white westerners to assume that anything is better than growing up in Africa," she writes, but many of her British readers disagree.

These Days, Young Readers Want To Escape

Anita Silvey, in a School Library Journal article called "The Unreal Deal," makes the following case about the changing tastes of young readers:
Move over, Holden Caulfield. There’s a new breed of teen heroes in town. In fact, there’s been such a shift in young adults’ reading tastes that all of us are scrambling to figure out what truly appeals to teens. Of one thing I’m certain: instead of craving realistic stories about people like themselves, today’s teens are crazy about characters (and scenarios) that have little in common with their own everyday lives. As one young reader put it, his peers are hunting for novels that will “take them away to another world, not like this one.”
What with all the stress in their own lives, it's no wonder teens are reluctant to read "problem novels." Can this desire to be taken away be fulfilled by traveling via story to real destinations, or is it satisfied only by escaping to fantasy realms?

The Secret of a Brown Girl

I wrote (and puppied) all day yesterday, taking breaks to tune into the discussion at Fuse #8 about the benefits (and costs) of membership in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and the conversation over at Sepia Mutiny about a postcard sent to postsecret (interestingly, Amu, the sender/creator herself, started commenting):

200 Free Copies of Rickshaw Girl!

Want to make sure your
school library has a copy of
Rickshaw Girl, my forthcoming
novel for young readers ages 7-10?
Toodle on over to School
Library Journal
's Autumn
Adventure Sweepstakes
, where
the first two hundred entrants
get a free advance hardcover
for their school.

Why I Write For Kids (Reason #8)

You get to meet heroes who slog away for years doing one of the most important jobs on the planet. Take this note I got yesterday from a teacher describing the place of her assignment:
... Our school is in a high-poverty neighborhood (80% of our students receive free school breakfast and lunch). We are also a corrective action school which needs to raise the standardized test scores for our ELL and special education students in order to meet our state annual yearly progress (AYP). I have been a teacher with the NYC Department of Education for 33 years ... We have not had a visiting author come to our school (tight budget) since 1999 ...
Her invitation was so full of enthusiasm and passion that even if I weren't already planning a trip to New York and New Jersey in May, I'd leap into my car and drive to Queens just because she asked. After all, this school isn't far from the school I attended in Flushing when we first came to America; I might just meet another newly-arrived word-lover sitting under this veteran teacher's tutelage. Can't wait.

For new visitors to the Fire Escape, here's a reprise
of an on-going series of reasons to write for young people:

#1: Fascinating Fan Mail
#2: Editors With Good Shoes
#3: My Mom Is A Chick Magnet
#4: The Glam and the Glitz
#5: Happy Endings
#6: A Mutual Admiration Society
#7: Those Stylish Independents

Sneak Peek of Rickshaw Girl

You're cordially invited to download sample pages of my forthcoming novel Rickshaw Girl (ages 7-11) from the Charlesbridge website. The book will be released February 2007.

The Skinny on Children's Book Publishing

As a true bibliophile, you never judge a book by the cover. You pick it up and scan the detailed information on the book's jacket flap, right? The good news is that now we can do that for the entire children's book industry at a new(ish) site called
... What separates this resource from others is that in addition to contact information, the site continuously compiles valuable statistics about the publishers. As a result, contains up-to-date information on practically every children's book publisher in the business. At last count, there are more than 10,000 publishers in the database. Over 5,000 of these actively published books in 2005. There are publishers large and small in our database, and you can see where a publisher ranks on their publisher detail page. In addition to children's publisher statistics, the site contains contact information and submission guidelines for many of the publishers in the system. Best of all, the contact information is kept current by the book publishers and the site's users, whom we compensate with Amazon gift certificates for keeping the site up-to-date.

(For writers, the site) has been designed from the ground-up to make the process of submitting manuscripts better. On the Publisher Detail Page, writers are able to see at-a-glance the subject categories, the number of annual titles, and the number of new authors that the publisher has published over the past 5 years ... If you want more information about a book, you are only a single click away from being able to review everything about a book on The publisher search on the home page helps you find publishers that match your target profile and provides the background research, contact information and guidelines you need to look professional when you send in your book ... Be sure to register with the site (it's FREE) ...
So if you want to know what's selling like hotcakes from Dutton or find out when Karen Day's wonderful new novel Tall Tales is coming out, head right on over to Another fantastic service provided by Tracy Grand, the site's editor and CEO, is her brilliant megablog. If you, like me, check out bunches of kid lit blogs on a regular basis, Grand's megablog gathers all the new posts from a personalized list of favorites and displays them in one easy-to-read place. Hooray! (In fact, if you're already a JacketFlapper and want to add the Fire Escape to your list of favorites, use the link in the sidebar.)