I'd Be Missing For Sure ...

.. if they could have known a third daughter was on the way. In The Missing Girls: A Society Out of Balance, Neil Katz, a PBS Frontline/World Fellow and his wife, Marisa Sherry, explore the issue of female sex selection:
In 2006, when my wife and I traveled to India to live and work, the one issue that kept grabbing our attention was northern India's deep cultural preference for sons over daughters. The desire for sons can be so great, that some families, after having a girl or two, will abort female fetuses until they bear a son. The practice is called female feticide or sex selection.
In Punjab's small farming villages, for example, they found five girls for every ten boys between the ages of zero and six. Watch the 14-minute video here and find links and resources about female sex selection here.

Source: SAJA blog

Shocking Blogospheric News

Haiku-reviewer Emily confesses all, Fuse moves to SLJ (read the 57 comments for a who's who -- or who thinks they're who -- of kid lit bloggers), Miss Snark retires, and Editorial Anonymous comes blazing into the blogosphere. I'll be in Portland, Maine today recovering from all the excitement (and doing an author visit at King Middle School with artist Jamie Hogan).

Connubial Bliss

Today is Ma and Baba's fifty-second wedding anniversary. As I tell kids at schools I visit, my still-in-love parents who met on the day of their wedding are evidence that it might not be about how you get married but about how you are married. Happy anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Bose!

The Charlesbridge Open House

Parties don't get much better than this. I got to meet a legend (Anita Silvey), and a community organizer (Eisha of 7-imp fame). I got to deck editor Judy O'Malley (don't stop reading the sentence there, please) in a saree — to see us in action, visit Unabridged, Charlesbridge's blog — and draw dragons eating their tails (as instructed by Ralph Masiello). And I got to talk about Rickshaw Girl and sign books with my collaborator, illustrator Jamie Hogan (see below). Thanks, Charlesbridge!

You Guyz R Being Meme 2 Me

Tagged by the likes of Jen, MotherReader, and Camille, I must break my no-meme practice and confess 8 bad habits. First, the rules to this particular cyber-game.
Each player lists eight facts/habits about themselves. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed. At the end of the post, the player then tags eight people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog.
Now, the habits.
  1. bite nails
  2. read LOTR and Harry Potter and Narnia every year
  3. spread mango pickle on bread, top with onions, eat alone
  4. nurse one diet coke a day
  5. chew/suck atomic fire balls
  6. obsessively comb retriever fur
  7. google own books and blog
  8. break meme rules by not tagging anybody
It does feel nice getting a bit of tag attention, just like it used to on the playground. Sorry I can't pass on the love -- habits are hard to break -- but if you want to meme, meme away, and keep the game going.

First Daughter #2 Cover: Weigh in!

You voted for the title, and we went with your choice: First Daughter: White House Rules (January 2008, Dutton). Now we're in the process of finalizing a cover, and would love to hear your opinion on two works-in-progress. Please use the poll below to pick the one you like and if you have time, leave a comment about your choice.

Eerie discoveries: my editor recently informed me that the cover girl's name is Mitali. Okay, it's a somewhat common Bengali name, but it's not a Jennifer or Emily or Emma, and it means she's not just South Asian, but from the same part of India as me. Second, the cover Mitali's adopted, just like Sparrow -- now what are the odds of that?

Which Cover?

Sparrow in Green
Sparrow in Red

Create a Poll

FYI, here's Sherry Early's Semicolon review of Sparrow's first book, and Jen Robinson's thoughts.

Make "Child Soldier" An Oxymoron

My forthcoming novel from Charlesbridge, The Bamboo People, features a fifteen-year old Burmese boy who's forced to join the army against his will. That country is one of the nine in the world reportedly using children to fight in their armies, and it's the only one not receiving military aid from the United States. The eight governments who do get money from us include:
  • Burundi
  • Chad
  • Colombia
  • Cote d'Ivoire
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sudan
  • Uganda
This Memorial Day, as we gratefully remember heroes who have defended and protected us, consider asking your elected officials to vote for the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2007, sponsored by Senators Durbin (D) and Brownback (R).

More from World Vision: The Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2007 (S.1175) would curtail U.S. military assistance to governments that fail to take steps to demobilize and stop forcing/recruiting children into the armed forces or government-supported militias. Countries that do take steps to disarm, demobilize and rehabilitate child soldiers would be eligible for certain forms of assistance to help professionalize their forces and ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are not used to finance the exploitation of children in armed conflict. You may use this form to send a message of support for the Act to your elected official.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

Scholastic seems to be remembering Woodrow Wilson's excellent advice. The world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books sent more than 7 million translated volumes into schools in the Middle East and North Africa through a new project called My Arabic Library.

Arab educators picked the titles they wanted and suggested changes in cover art, like putting long sleeves on Joanna Spyri's Heidi, one of my favorite children's book characters.

Schools and libraries in the United States are ordering the books too, which doesn't surprise me as Arabic is the fourth most widely spoken language on the planet.

Poetry Friday: Fire Escape Contest Closes June 1st!

Since 2003, the Fire Escape has published poetry and short stories written by teens between cultures. I'm receiving entries for this year's contests until June 1st, and prizes will be announced June 30th. Feel free to pass on the details and rules, enjoy the short story winners here, and browse through the best poems from the past:

2006 Poetry Winners

First Prize:

Mel? by Amelia, Russia/Illinois, Age 15

Second Prize:

"Soy De" Means "I'm From" by Pedro, El Salvador/Kansas, Age 15

Third Prize:

Revolution by Amy, China/New Jersey, Age 16

2005 Poetry Winners

First Prize:

Two Worlds, Two Dreams by Andrea, Colombia/Florida, Age 17

Second Prize:

Dynasty or Wang Jo by Katherine, Korea/Georgia, Age 17

Third Prize:

Lumpia and Cornbread by Billimarie, Philippines/California, Age 17

2004 Poetry Winners

First Prize:

The Little Line by Cathy, China/Texas, Age 15

Second Prize:

Choosing Names by Grace, Singapore/California, Age 15

Third Prize:

Standing Strong by Beatrice, Philippines/California, Age 13

2003 Poetry Winners

First Prize:

Two Worlds by Natasha G., India/Alabama, Age 14

Second Prize:

The Perfect One by Zhan Tao Y., China/Nevada, Age 14

Third Prize:

From Russia With Love by Laura S., Russia/New York, Age 13

Yet Another Literary Party!

In this photo taken by Elaine Magliaro-slash-Wild Rose Reader at a Foundation of Children's Books event two nights ago, slim and elegant Charlesbridge editor Judy O'Malley is the redhead in the middle, multi-talented author-illustrator-Blue-Rose-Girl Anna Alter is on the left, and that's non-petite me hogging half the photo space on the right. (Note to self #1: in future photo ops, stand between or behind two size fours).

Judy and I are doing another duet at Charlesbridge's annual open house for teachers and librarians this afternoon. We'll be sharing the process that led to the publication of Rickshaw Girl, and rumor has it that I'll be draping her in a saree. Illustrator Jamie Hogan will be there, too, and she's bringing along the original art she created for the book. (Note to self #2: try and make an offer on one of those gorgeous pastels, but knowing Jamie, she might just hand it over as a gift ... this is going to take some finesse and diplomacy.)

But there's more. Much more. Author-illustrator Ralph Masiello (aka Icky Bug Man) is going to show us all how to draw the dragons in his new Drawing Book, and two other artists will be there: Kate Endle, who created the collages in Trout Are Made of Trees (Spring 2008), and Ilene Winn-Lederer, illustrator of The Golden Dreydl (Fall 2007). After this soirée, though, I'm putting my heels away until ALA.

Grants For Teaching Immigrants

The Ray Solem Foundation is offering one-time grants of up to $10,000 to non-profit organizations using innovative ways to help immigrants in the United States learn English. Applications are due by July 31, 2007; find out more here.

In The Name of God: Interview With Paula Jolin

I tore through In The Name of God (Roaring Brook, April 2007) as a reader first (during yet another crazy time in the history of violence), led effortlessly by Paula Jolin's suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fascinating details about teen life in Syria. Afterwards, though, the buried high school teacher in me came roaring to life, keeping me up late with ideas about how to use this book like mad in the classroom.

We'd read the book, for example, and then my students would pick three historical events in the last fifty years and describe them first in the voice of Nadia, and then through the eyes of an American teen who joins the Marines to fight terrorism. Or I'd get the kids discussing what they might be willing to die for and why. And so on ... how Jolin manages to create a sympathetic suicide bomber in the making is a literary study in itself.

I invited the author out on the Fire Escape to talk about writing the book (which is yet another class of 2k7 debut), and share our chat with you here. (I also highlighted a few compelling phrases in bold as they seemed to jump out at me ... so, emphasis mine.)

Tell us about the journey to getting the book published. What was a high point? A low point?

I wrote In the Name of God in ten weeks in the summer of 2004. After that, I revised for nearly seven months - well, no, after that, I jumped the gun with the agent search, got a few form rejections, submitted to my critique group and then realized I needed to revise! In the spring of 2005, I sent off ten queries to agents on a Friday, and that Monday my daughter was born (a month early.) Let me tell you, there's nothing like having a baby to take your mind off the agent search. When I came home from the hospital, there was a letter in my inbox from my agent-to-be and I just looked at it, a little woozy, and thought: who is this person?

My agent search was relatively painless and at first it looked like publication was right around the corner. We got a lot of initial interest and a flurry of encouraging e-mails. But then came the rejections. Many felt In the Name of God was too controversial, although others claimed that "American teens won't read books set in foreign countries." I almost gave up in despair. My agent talked about - maybe - selling other projects and coming back to this one later. When the editor at Roaring Brook wrote how much he liked it, I didn't even get excited. I'd been there too often before. But a week later he made an offer! And, well, I guess that was the high point. After that, of course, came the hard work of getting the book into publishable shape.

What was the biggest (hardest) change you made in response to an editorial suggestion?

In the original version of In the Name of God, there were a number of scenes involving Nadia and her fantasy life, where she pretended to be an American girl. When I lived in Syria, I knew many girls who had conflicting feelings about the US. One close friend of mine covered her hair and was very angry about US policies supporting Israel, for example, but she loved the movie Titanic and had seen it 19 times! I didn't see this as a contradiction, just that she was a multifaceted person, and I wanted to give Nadia that same kind of mutlifaceted personality. However, as we all know, sometimes reality doesn't transfer to the page all that well. My editor thought that we should take this subplot out, both because the scenes were outside the developing plot, and therefore cut the escalating tension, and because he thought it was confusing.

I loved this subplot; this was one aspect of myself I put in Nadia - I had imaginary friends until I was 35 (okay, I confess, I still have them!) and I really didn't want to cut it, so I asked a bunch of people who had already read the book, and I noticed something very interesting. The readers who were also writers loved those scenes, but the readers who weren't writers agreed that they were confusing. Since the book was targeted to readers, I cut. It wasn't a huge amount of work, but it nearly broke my heart. Now, almost a year later, I have to say I think the book is smoother this way, and it's point comes across clearer and more effectively. I still regret the loss a little, but I know it made In the Name of God a better book.

We talk a lot about authenticity in fiction. What are two tips you'd give a writer who wants to tell a story featuring characters from a different culture? (Note: Paula's on the right in the photo.)

My first suggestion is to let the story come out of your interest, and not the other way around. If you're fascinated by a culture and a language and a people, and you spend a lot of time indulging that interest, then I think when you come up with a story, it'll seem natural and authentic. I lived in the Middle East for years, not because I wanted to write novels about it, but because I loved the friendliness of the people and the complexity of the language and the intricacies of the culture. I used to say it was wonderful living in a place where you'd go out to buy bread and come home with an adventure. Later, when I started In the Name of God, I was able to write so much of it out of my own experience.

And one of the most striking things you learn, when you live in another country, is that people of different cultures are just as diverse as Americans - with political opinions, and values, and lifestyles - and I think it's important to incorporate that into any book set in a culture other than your own. You have such rich, complex experiences in your own culture - you should try to remember that, I think, when you're creating characters and setting them in another part of the world. If you find that all your foreign characters have the same opinions, or that they follow set patterns or that you're using them to make a point, well, then that's a problem.

In the climax of some YA novels set in non-western places, a white outsider rides in and saves the day. This doesn't happen in your novel, but we do see and/or hear about foreigners in the story. Would you comment on the role they play in the book and why?

Nadia and her family talk a lot about foreigners, although they frequently get things wrong. I wanted to show how pervasive American culture is in other parts of the world — and, at least in the Middle East, how American policies sometimes make a concrete impact on how people live. American sanctions in different parts of the region affect how many people can find jobs and what kind they are, for example, and these kinds of things limit Nadia's brothers and ultimately affect her too. The policies that we vote on here often have far reaching effects, effects we don't see directly. And yes, that includes the war. Nadia is more radical than most of her family and friends, but it's not only Nadia who feels that the war in Iraq is terribly invasive and wrong. It's made people more fearful, more worried, more distrustful of the US.

Nadia and her friends know a lot more about the US than the average teenager here knows about Syria — how many Americans can name the president of Syria, for example? Or five popular Syrian entertainers? — but at the same time, since their information comes almost exclusively third hand, from the TV, from magazines, from books, from the internet, a lot of time they get it wrong. And I hoped that maybe if readers could see how wrong other people can be about us, then maybe they would start thinking about the assumptions we too make about people from other parts of the world.

Describe a fear you have about this book that can keep you up at night.

Originally I was worried that people would be so turned off by the premise that no one would buy the book! Later, I worried that people would misinterpret it, would think somehow that I supported suicide bombings or was sympathetic to them. More recently, I've been wondering if I did Nadia's story justice, if I was really able to convey the conflict she felt, able to walk that fine line between creating a sympathetic character and depicting a real girl who makes bad choices.

Okay, I admit it, I worry a lot!

Finish the sentence twice, first from an idealistic "literature changes lives" point of view and then give the savvy marketer's take.

In the Name of God will be a successful novel if:

a) readers feel closer to and more invested in the conflict in the Middle East.

b) readers who like suspense books with an underlying serious theme are looking out for my next book.

What's next for Paula Jolin in the realm of children's books?

My second book, Three Witches, comes out next March. On the surface, it's a very different book from In the Name of God. It's the story of three American girls from different backgrounds - one is originally from Syria, one is an immigrant from Trinidad, and one is Japanese-American - who try to use the magic of their different cultures to raise a boy from the dead. While it's not a political book, obviously, Three Witches is a book about belief, and how the things that you believe can change who you are; it's also about wanting things very badly, and how far you're willing to go to get them. In this sense, it does still pick up on some of the themes that I explored in In the Name of God.

Thank you so much, Paula, for sharing your hopes and dreams about this wonderful novel. I'm encouraged and intrigued by your thoughtful answers and I'm sure other visitors to the Fire Escape will feel the same. Bismillah! (which means "In The Name of God" in Arabic and should have been the first word in this interview ...)

More Literary Events ...

If you were in New England this past weekend, you could have:

(a) celebrated Grace Lin's birthday and book launch for Lissy's Friends on Saturday (nicely recapped here by Elaine Magliaro, aka Wild Rose Reader).

(b) read an actual print copy of Liz Rosenberg's review of Barb O'Connor's How To Steal A Dog and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid in the Globe.

(c) participated in NESCBWI's annual conference (check out Charlesbridge editor Yolanda LeRoy and author-illustrator Annie Sibley O'Brien belting out a Broadway-ish song about getting published here).

(d) attended Karen Day's packed-out book launch party for Tall Tales at Newtonville Books on Sunday (which is what I did, as evidenced by Carol Peacock's photo below).

Karen Day and me celebrating the launch of
her novel Tall Tales (Wendy Lamb Books, May 2007)

Spring children's book events in this area continue to abound. Tonight, for example, if you're free and in the vicinity, come hear Jackie Davies, Jamie Harper, and me read and talk about school visits during a Foundation of Children's Books event at Boston College, 7:30 p.m. in Vanderslice Hall (detailed directions and parking information at the bottom of this page.) Hope to see you there!

They R Coming; R U?

... to Sparrow's book launch party at the D.C. Public Library on Saturday, June 23rd, that is, during the ALA's Annual Convention. Why settle for imagining a crowd of librarians like Zee and Liz flinging their glossy braids around (okay, skip that part, maybe not) as they learn to dance bhangra? Come witness it firsthand; RSVP and get the details here.

Paper Tigers May/June Issue

From our friends at the award-winning Paper Tigers site (edited by Aline Pereira) comes an amazing issue for Asian/Pacific Heritage Month:
The celebration of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in May reminds us about the contributions of Asian Pacific Americans to every arena of life in the United States and throughout the world. The experiences that double the richness of their lives are reflected in many children's books... but do we have enough narratives?... Check the interviews, illustrators' galleries, 'personal views' articles, as well as the book reviews, resources and reading lists sections: there's much to add depth and breath to the question.


Newbery award winner Cynthia Kadohata talks about her latest book, Cracker!, drawing inspiration from her heritage, and more...

Rose Kent spices up the world of young adult books with Kimchi & Calamari, a coming-of-age tale about a Korean boy adopted to an American family of Italian descent. Read the interview and find out for yourself why her voice is here to stay...

Personal Views

More Stories About Our American Experience, Please by Ken Mochizuki

The Extra Adjective: How I Came To Terms With Being a Multicultural Author
by Grace Lin

In The Illustrators' Gallery

Yoshiko Jaeggi's illustrations (including samples from her first picture book, My Dadima Wears a Sari) display plenty of talent and sensitivity...

Meilo So's illustrations have for many years been drawing out praise from one and all ...

New Resources

Educational non-profit organizations and websites of note: Smithsonian Education (includes links to a special "Heritage Teaching" section), AskAsia, 'We The People' Bookshelf, As Simple As That, Our Voices Together and more...

Book of the Month

American Dragons: Twenty-Five Asian American Voices
by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Kam Mak (Harper Teen, 1995)

Book Reviews

Many new reviews by PaperTigers and other trusted sources:

Shaun Tan's graphic powerhouse, The Arrival, Cynthia Kadohata's Cracker! The Best Dog In Vietnam, Janet Wong's Twist: Yoga Poems; plus Kimchi & Calamari, My Dadima Wears a Sari, The Bee Tree, Three Names of Me, A True Person, Celebrate! It's Cinco de Mayo, Sky Sweeper; Nana's Big Surprise (bilingual), We and more...

Plus new reading lists, including: Asian American Booklist, by NEA (National Education Association); China and the Chinese-American Life: Books for Children and Young Adults, by the Cary Memorial Library; South Asian Books for Children, by the Wisconsin International Outreach Consortium; Bibliography of Asian Pacific Americans on K-12 and Higher Education, by EDEN (Equity Through Distributed Education Network)...

Happy reading, and 'til next time!

The Tiger

The Edge of the Forest in May

The May issue of The Edge of the Forest is live. Waste no time; read it from cyber-cover to cyber-cover. (I did, and I'm on the road, so if your stats show a visit from a hotel in Jersey, it's probably me.)

BTW, if anyone wants to join Pooja Makhijani, Sandhya Nankani, and me for a last-minute spontaneous lower-Manhattan meet-up after work on Thursday ("drinks" with the three of us probably means cold glasses of sweet lassi), send an email to mitaliperk-at-yahoo-dot-com and I'll reply with details.

My Queens Homecoming Day

The Bose sisters' first snow in Flushing, Queens (Mitali in the middle), circa 1970.

I'm doing several days of visits this week in Morris County, New Jersey, beginning with a dinner presentation Tuesday evening for the media specialists in the district. On Friday, I'll be heading to M.S. 217 (Robert Van Wyck School) in Queens, New York. I'm the first author to visit their school in years, so they're really excited. It's going to be a special visit for me, too; I'll be remembering an immigrant girl reading and writing out on a fire escape with no clue that she'd be back in Queens decades later as a visiting author.

Sparrow Ghost-Blogs On The Weirdness of Race

Note: This was originally posted by Sameera Righton on Sparrowblog Thursday, May 10, 2007.

Here's something else to love or hate about the hunky golfer who refuses to identify himself by race.* Ten years ago, on Oprah, he got everybody riled up by saying, "I'm a Cablinasian." As in Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian. "I'm just who I am," Woods said, "whoever you see in front of you."

It's getting harder to label Americans by race. Take Halle Berry, for example. Or Derek Jeter. And on American Idol, when Jordin Sparks said, "I've got an average family," and a photo of her black Dad and white Mom came up, I found myself wondering if she'd say she was African-American or white, or both, or neither. (Weird note to self: they all have black Dads and white Moms ...)

People are talking race about candidates Obama and Richardson, describing them as black and Latino, but Obama's white American mother fell in love with his Kenyan father at a Hawaiian university, and Richardson has a half-white, half-Mexican father and a Mexican mother. So does that make him Latino? Even though I know it's important for the black and Hispanic communities to feel represented (hey, the day we have an Asian-ish candidate, believe me, I'm going to notice), maybe the real question to ask is whether these guys would make good Presidents.

*Technically, Tiger's 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Thai, 1/4 Black, 1/8 Native American, 1/8 Dutch, his wife Elin is Swedish, so do the math for their babies if you care about the numbers.

Photo Source: Fifi LePew

3 Phases of Sparsely Attended Book Signings

Visiting authors at schools can feel like rock stars. Kids ask you to autograph books, papers, casts, t-shirts, skin. You speak to a captive, attentive audience because their teachers won't let them leave or fall asleep.

But bookstore appearances come with no such guarantees. Here I am, for example, at a recent book signing for a fundraiser, feeling some of Gail Gauthier's pain, watching customers sneak past with I-should-talk-to-that-lonely-Indian-lady expressions. At least Mo was nowhere in sight this time.

At an under-attended bookstore signing, I usually pass through three phases:

Phase one: Smile through clenched teeth, think of England, and count the minutes.

Phase two: Browse the bookstore, gather a bunch of interesting reads, and start to enjoy the unexpected solitude.

Phase three: Realize that the few people who buy a book or stop to chat are worth a thousand swords (LOTR-lingo for immensely valuable, if you're Tolkien averse), and that I'm actually having a wonderful time.

Take Janet Arden, for example, one of our stellar regional advisors in the New England Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators. Janet kindly arranged my appearance, but then went above and beyond the call of duty by showing up and bringing along her book-loving family. You should hear the chairman of the Janet Arden fan club (husband) rave about her writing.

Or Tatiana Burgos-Espinal, a hero who works for the North Shore Community Action Programs (the excellent organization hosting the fundraiser), whose daughter snapped this photo:
Or Paula Morin, book events person for the Peabody Barnes and Noble, who actually is a rock star -- she used to be the opening act for the Moody Blues and is a fine bluegrass singer-songwriter.
When it comes to bookstore events, a few book sales are sprinkles; people like these are the cupcakes and the icing.

This Is Not Your Mother's Heritage Month

Tall Tales: Interview With Karen Day

Here's the skinny, people: I'm not going to feel like I have to feature an interview with you, even if (a) you're in my writer's group, and (b) you mention me on the acknowledgments page (full disclosure.)

You've still got to write a novel that (a) fills me with hope, as it will for the tweens who'll read your book again and again, (b) gets me choked up with that mix of sadness and joy only a skillful storyteller can induce, OR (c) earns you a two-book contract from a Legendary Master Editor.

Karen Day, author of Tall Tales (Wendy Lamb Books, May 2007), fulfills all five of these requirements. I invited her out to the Fire Escape for a chat about the terrifying, amazing process of writing and publishing her first novel, due out this week.

Tell us about the journey to getting the book published. What was a high point? A low point?

I finished the first draft of Tall Tales in 2000. Almost instantly I had interest from an editor who saw the first 10 pages at an SCBWI conference. Over the next two years I worked on three revisions for her, without a contract, until she finally declined. I was heart broken but by then I had a different editor interested. More heartbreak followed when she declined after two revisions! Not long after this I got a particularly brutal rejection from an agent to whom I’d asked for representation. He literally brought me to my knees (and to tears!) with his harsh assessment of my novel. Definitely the low point in my struggling career! But after a couple of days of licking my wounds, I realized that his critique, while harsh, was right on. I did a major revision, eventually found a different agent and she got me into a bidding war. The most exhilarating part of this whole process was the two weeks when we went back and forth between these two houses. So exciting! In the end I signed a two-book deal with Wendy Lamb at Random House.

YA books are renowned for being edgy, but you're writing about an alcoholic and abusive family for a younger audience. What advice would you give writer wannabes who want to explore more difficult issues for upper elementary readers?

It’s tricky business, portraying a dysfunctional family in a middle grade novel. Sixteen-year-olds are typically more mature, more reflective and certainly more willing to be okay with being different. A typical twelve-year-old doesn’t want to be different nor does he/she have the necessary tools to analyze the situation. Yet feelings of pain, suffering, guilt, longing, desires, anger – they’re all there. So, you have to be extra vigilant in finding ways of showing these often unconscious fears and desires. In Tall Tales Meg and Grace write a book about two girls who start a business solving mysteries. Grace desperately wants the two characters to have “really cool moms who are also best friends.” Meg focuses on finding a “home” office for the two girls to stay in between jobs. Both of these desires speak to dominant issues the two girls wrestle with. Also, to an outsider looking in, the horrors of an alcoholic, abusive father might seem all consuming. But in reality, people living in this situation “get used to it.” Life goes on. You aren’t in crisis every moment. So there has to be a balance in writing a book like this, between the every-day matters that affect most 12-year-olds and the crisis moments.

What was the biggest (hardest) change you made in response to an editorial suggestion from Wendy?

After I signed my contract, Wendy came back to me with a 14-page, single space e-mail outlining changes/suggestions she had for the book. This WASN’T the most daunting part of the revision process because she was so astute and so careful that I was truly grateful. The hardest change came early on, when she initially rejected the book. She thought I left the family too vulnerable and wanted to see a happier outcome. She said she’d look at the novel again if I made these changes, but I wasn’t sure. I wanted to be realistic. I couldn’t see how to change it and stay true to my realistic conception of the novel. I fretted over this for months until finally I found a solution that satisfied me but also, I hoped, would satisfy Wendy. It required drastically rewriting the mom’s character and the last 100 pages. But I did it and Wendy loved it.

Describe a fear you have about this book that can keep you up at night.

Tall Tales is deceptively simple, with its short chapters and sentence structures, and even in what Meg wants, which I come right out and say in the first line. “I want to make a friend.” So, will readers see and appreciate what’s under the surface? Did I pull it off? Will they see and feel how Meg’s desperate and often unconscious desires for a “safe home” infiltrate the dialogue, descriptions, even the story that she and Grace write together? Will readers understand that Teddy, Abby and Dad’s static personalities were done intentionally, to illustrate how normal development is often stymied in families like this? Will they believe Meg’s conflicted feelings about her father? So, as you can see, I stay awake quite often at night, worrying!

Finish the sentence twice, first from an idealistic "literature changes lives" point of view and then give the savvy marketer's take.

Tall Tales will be a successful book if:

1. Just one kid reads it and feels empowered to make changes in his or her life.

2. If, if, if … I don’t know! I wish I had something savvy to say! All I can think about is that I want to make a difference in a kid or kids’ lives. And then I will forever feel blessed and gratefully and know that this journey was well worth it.

What's next for Karen Day?

My next book, No Cream Puffs, is another middle grade novel with Wendy Lamb and it will be published in the summer of 2008. I’m really excited about this book. Set in the 1970s, it’s the story of 12-year-old Madison who is the first girl in Michigan to play little league baseball with the boys. I use lots of themes that are important to me. My love for Lake Michigan. Mother-daughter relationships. How kids respond to intense pressure and expectations. I also toy with some of the adolescent development theories I explored in graduate school, specifically post-Freudian relational and gender issues that women like Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow wrote about. One of Madison’s biggest conflicts in the book is how she reconciles her desires to win and play baseball (she’s the best player in town!) with her intense need to be liked and accepted. I don’t mean to make this novel sound too stuffy and academic. Most of these themes fly under the radar. It’s actually a very funny and poignant book and Madison is a great, quirky character.

Karen, thanks for coming out to the Fire Escape. I know firsthand what a disciplined writer you are; you inspire me daily with your dedication, craftsmanship, and energy. Many blessings to Tall Tales, to the readers who will love and root for Meg, and to you.

It's Asian/Pacific Heritage Month

I'm heading to Esperanza Academy in Lawrence, Massachusetts for school visits today. I leave you with our government's announcement about the month of May:
In 1978, a joint congressional resolution established Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. The first 10 days of May were chosen to coincide with two important milestones in Asian/Pacific American history: the arrival in the United States of the first Japanese immigrants (May 7, 1843) and contributions of Chinese workers to the building of the transcontinental railroad, completed on May 10, 1869.

In 1992, Congress expanded the 10-day observance to a month-long celebration. Per a 1997 Office of Management and Budget directive, the Asian or Pacific Islander racial category was separated into two categories: "Asian" and "Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander."

According to the 2005 American Community Survey, there are 2.3 million people aged 5 and older who speak Chinese in the U.S. today. After Spanish, Chinese is the most widely spoken non-English language in the country. What is more, Tagalog and Vietnamese have more than one million speakers each.
Find more information about Asian/Pacific books for kids at these sites:

Paper Tigers

Blue Rose Girls (Grace Lin)

Smithsonian Education

New York Public Library

SLJ Author Visit Sweepstakes Winner

You can see a photo of my visit to Leal Middle School in San Antonio on the SLJ site (scroll down; it's on the bottom right -- it might be gone in a few days).

Poetry Friday: Limerick Contest Winners!

I'm delighted to announce the results of The Fire Escape's First Annual Bilbo Baggins Birthday Limerick Contest, where entrants had to provide the last rhyming line to one of two poems (it's my fault if you think they're terrible, as I provided the first four lines.) First, the limerick from readers to writers, which started like this:

From Reader To Writer

To imagine the best children's book,
You must closet yourself in a nook,
Forget fame and glory,
And just tell the story,

There were several strong contenders in this category, but the winning last line comes from Jennifer, who grasps the fundamental challenge of the writing life.

From Reader To Writer

To imagine the best children's book,
You must closet yourself in a nook,
Forget fame and glory,And just tell the story,
You should hire a maid and a cook.

Next came the blogger to writer category, which started like this:

From Blogger To Writer

I'm not wantin' to put you to shame,
But I see you've been googlin' your name,
My stat counter's showin',
Your visits are growin',

With her usual self-deprecatory humor, Mother Reader provided the winning entry:

From Blogger To Writer

I'm not wantin' to put you to shame,
But I see you've been googlin' your name,
My stat counter's showin',
Your visits are growin',
Too bad that my blog is so lame.

Jennifer and Pam, I'll be sending you packets of spicy hot mix and personalized copies of Rickshaw Girl, so please tell me if you want the books signed for particular person, library, or school. Congratulations, and thanks to the brave souls who submitted last lines and for all the birthday wishes.

Reviews, News, Events, Links

Rickshaw Girl's going paperback! Charlesbridge plans to release that version Spring 2008.

Editor Margaret Woollatt sent me the very first review for First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, June 2007). Kirkus says the book has "an interesting premise that provides a detailed and fun glimpse into campaigning's hectic reality and shines a positive light on America's multicultural reality." Nice.

I'll be reading and signing (along with others, including Lizzy the Clown) at the Peabody Barnes & Noble in Massachusetts this Saturday, May 5th from 1:30 - 3:30 to raise money for the North Shore Community Action Programs. Download vouchers from their site and come buy books (they don't have to be mine :>).

My writer's group was featured in the Newton Tab yesterday. Read about how we operate and check out a photo of Oz and Ends, Karen Day (Tall Tales, Wendy Lamb Books, May 2007), and my shoulder.

The San Jose Public Library (Northern California) wants to host a west coast book launch and bhangra party for First Daughter this summer. Stay tuned for details if you're in the Silicon Valley area.

Mama's Saris: Interview with Pooja Makhijani

Well, you can stop shopping right now because here's the perfect gift for Mother's Day: Mama's Saris, a new picture book by Pooja Makhijani from Little Brown, gloriously illustrated by Elena Gomez. Don't worry if the mother in your life doesn't know what a sari is — this is a story about every young girl's desire to be as glamorous as Mom, and the tender mother-daughter bond that transcends cultures.

Pooja herself sometimes comes out to chat on the Fire Escape, so I seized the moment to ask her some questions. Here's the scoop on the launch of this fabulous book, her first for kids (she's also the author of the anthology Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America -- read the introduction here.)

Tell us about the journey to getting the book published.

Such a long journey!

I finished a final draft of my manuscript in February 2004 and began the arduous process of writing query and cover letters. Because I used to work in publishing, I also pulled out my Rolodex. The latter approach worked well. My manuscript made it into the hands of Sangeeta Mehta (then at Little, Brown; now at Simon Pulse) who worked with me over several revisions.

Once Little, Brown bought the manuscript, I did several more revisions. All in all, I think I revised the manuscript over nine [9] times before the manuscript was passed onto Elena Gomez. (How Sangeeta and Little, Brown secured Elena I don't know, but I am over the moon with the results! See more below.)

Elena worked on the illustrations for well over a year and I had the opportunity to see her vision of the book from the sketch stage. Through Sangeeta, she was definitely open to suggestions regarding cultural appropriateness and cultural accuracy. She even asked for photographs of my wedding festivities for reference!

As you know, Mitali, producing and printing a book can take a while, and Little, Brown, wanted to time the release of Mama's Saris with Mother's Day, so it's taken some time for the book to hit bookshelves. And now, it's here. It feels great to share it with the world!

What was the biggest change you made in response to an editorial suggestion?

Mama's Saris
is a "quiet" book. ("Quiet" isn't necessarily a compliment in today's competitive picture book market). While the story didn't change much from draft to draft, Sangeeta had a number of wonderful suggestions for tightening the text and making it more active. A few weeks ago, I looked at the draft to I sent to Little, Brown for consideration for publication. It had definitely come a long way.

What is your favorite aspect of the art created by Elena Gomez?

Oh, where do I begin? When I was shown Elena's final art, I was struck that her visual interpretation of Nanima (the narrator's maternal grandmother) was identical to the vision of Nanima that I had in my head while I was writing. We were really on the same proverbial wavelength.

Describe a fear you have about this book that can keep you up at night.

That it will go out of print tomorrow!

Finish the sentence twice, first from an idealistic "literature changes lives" point of view and then give the savvy marketer's take.

1. Mama's Saris will be a successful picture book if ... little girls everywhere (regardless of age and ethnicity) connect with the universal experience of dressing up in their mother's (or mother figure's) clothes.

2. Mama's Saris will be a successful picture book if ... it earns out.

What did your mother say when she first saw the book in print?

My mother saw this book in so many incarnations--the manuscript (5 pages, 12pt Courier, double spaced); the jpgs of Elena's spreads, the F&G; the final book--and she's been supportive, curious, and encouraging through the whole process. She is thrilled that the book is dedicated to her; she gleefully pointed this out to my father when I gave them their copy :).

Thanks, Pooja. The Fire Escape gives Mama's Saris a five-star recommendation, and wishes you many blessings on the launch of this lovely story.

Other links and reviews: A teacher's guide for the book, Fuse No. 8's rave, Chicken Spaghetti's review.

California Young Reader Medal

After over 50,000 student votes, here are the California Young Reader Medal 2006-2007 winning titles in each category:

Primary: My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza (born in Japan, now living in Indiana).

Intermediate: Christopher Mouse: The Tale of a Small Traveler, the anti-Despereaux, by William Wise, illustrated by Patrick Benson.

Middle School: Al Capone Does My Shirts, set on Alcatraz Island in 1935, by Gennifer Choldenko.

Young Adult: Shattering Glass, a thriller about popularity by Gail Giles.

Picture Books for Older Readers: Cats in Krasinski Square, a story about the Warsaw resistance in 1942, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson.

Here are next year's nominees.

2-4-6-8, Go To Prom And Integrate

Anyone else surprised that it's 2007 and some American parents still organize separate proms for black teens and white teens? The black kids choose a prom queen and the white kids choose a prom queen. I suppose I shouldn't be shocked, because Ruby Bridges is only ten years older than me. One high school in Georgia, though, took a risk this year, with 213 seniors voting to have just one official prom, and it sounds like it was a success.

Charlesbridge: The Blogging Publisher

In a culture where "intimacy" and "authenticity" are the buzz words of the day, publishing houses don't have to feel remote, impenetrable, and mysterious. Especially if they follow in Charlesbridge's footsteps and launch a blog. Keep your eye on Unabridged; the first entry might be familiar but I hear there's more to come.

The Horn Book Gets Hip

The Horn Book is staying current by putting even more content on-line than ever before, letting us delve into the history of children's literature, learn about blogging (I'm honored to be on Betsy Bird's list of noteworthy blogs), or discover great graphic novels.