America's Poor White Children

The four words in this blog post title might read like an ironic oxymoron, but they aren't:
A fact sheet released today by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) shows that, contrary to some common stereotypes about America's poor, at least one-third of the 13 million children living in poverty are white.
How I wish those four words ("children living in poverty") were beyond oxymoronic so that nobody could ever again link them in a sentence.

We talk a lot about race on the Fire Escape, but rarely mention class. Now I'm wondering how poor or working-class North American children are represented in the world of books. Not very well, because most published authors haven't experienced poverty firsthand, and when it comes to class, we dwell in the wide, comfortable place called "middle." That's why I recently wrote a note of thanks on Laurie Halse Anderson's Facebook page:
Just listened to Prom on a long drive to Saratoga Springs and back to Boston ... the actor did such a great job staying true to each of the characters. Thanks for writing a story featuring a hero with a "normal" voice; I grow tired of hyper-intelligent suburban protagonists with upper middle class tenured parents.
If one of my novels ever makes it to audio, please, oh please let Katherine Kellgren read it. The nuances of accent and class are the main benefit I gain from a well-made audio book, and Ms. Kellgren's voices were mesmerizing. Wonder if she can go desi and sound like my Mom ...

Illustrious Company

Announcing the judges for the PEN 2008 Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship: Christopher Paul Curtis, Sid Fleischman, and ... yep, you guessed it, me. Nice gig, eh? Apart from feeling a tad like an understudy, it's all good. Here's the info:
The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship of $5,000 is offered annually to an author of children's or young-adult fiction. The Fellowship has been developed to help writers whose work is of high literary caliber but who have not yet attracted a broad readership. As a result, an author's books may not have achieved the sales that would allow the writer to support him or herself solely from writing.

The Fellowship is designed to assist a writer at a crucial moment in his or her career, when monetary support is particularly needed to complete a book-length work-in-progress.

The Fellowship is made possible by a substantial contribution from PEN Member Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, the prolific author of more than 125 works of fiction, including the novels Alice in the Know, the 21st and most recent in the acclaimed "Alice" series, as well as Sang Spell and Shiloh, the first novel in a trilogy, which won the 1992 Newbery Medal.

On establishing the Fellowship Mrs. Naylor said: "We truly work 'blind,' with no assurance whatsoever that anyone will be interested in our final product. It takes enormous stamina and resolve and optimism to live with our characters for a year or more—and it's my hope that the Working Writer's Fellowship, modest as it is, will let the author know that an expert panel of PEN judges has faith in the writer, admires his work, and trusts that he will be able to bring to paper what he sees in his head."

A candidate is a writer of children or young-adult fiction in financial need; candidates have published at least two books (and no more than five) during the past 10 years, which have been warmly received by literary critics but have not generated sufficient income to support the author. The writer's books must be published by a U.S. publisher.

Writers must be nominated by an editor or a fellow writer. The nominator should write a letter of support, describing in some detail how the candidate meets the criteria for the Fellowship. The nominator should also provide:

1. A list of the candidate's published work, accompanied by copies of reviews, where possible.

2. Three copies of the following: the outline and a maximum of 75 pages of the text of the current work, intended as part of a new book.

3. On a separate piece of paper, a brief description of the candidate's recent earnings and a statement about why monetary support is particularly needed at this time (e.g., child care, research expenses, etc.)

Letters of nomination must be received between September 1, 2007 and January 14, 2008. Send letters of nomination (or requests for more information) to:

PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship
PEN American Center
588 Broadway, Suite 303
New York, NY 10012

For more information on the PEN Literary Awards, call: (212) 334-1660 ext. 108 or e-mail

India's Invisible Women

Ruhani Khan's disturbing slide show, India's Invisible Women, gives me no excuse for griping that our entire clan wept when I was born. Yes, I was a third daughter in a sonless family, and my mother carried shame for decades, but neither of us faced anything like this:
When Kalpa got pregnant for the seventh time, her husband threw her out of the house on the grounds of her being a girl-bearing wretch. She gave birth to her seventh daughter on the streets, who died soon after. Kalpa now shares quarters with mentally unstable women at a short-stay shelter. Her husband has remarried since then.
The novel I'm writing is set in India in the seventies. It's impossible for my protagonist to be the feisty, empowered heroine-archetype who is conventional in today's YA lit. Like the women in the slide show, Asha's goals are worth championing and her stakes are high -- two basic plotting prerequisites. The problem is that they're taken for granted by most book-loving North American young women, who usually don't worry about survival, dependency, or the struggle for education. And so I write on, trying to help my readers appreciate a totally different kind of feminine fight, and am grateful for other writers taking on this particular challenge.

Disney's Enchanted: Hey, I'm BA-A-A-A-D!

It's not that I didn't enjoy this sweet film. It's not that the characters, music, and script didn't captivate me.  It's just that I can't leave my bleeping between cultures bifocals at home. 

So when the Bad Guy Brit (standard Disney choice played by Timothy Spall) offered Princess Giselle poison apples, it didn't surprise me that he disguised himself as three different kinds of first generation American: creepy hawker with generic Eastern European accent, Italian waiter, and (I knew it was coming) Sikh taxi cab driver. Thankfully he was reforming by the time he was costumed as an Indian immigrant, so we didn't have to endure a fake South Asian lilt. 

Throughout the movie, two Manhattans were evident: rich, white people with doormen and dry cleaning and working class immigrants, of whom all children should beware. On a good note, the film didn't vilify the High-Powered Jewish Princess (Idina Menzel), although she was dumped (after FIVE years of patient dating) in favor of the WASP Domestic Princess (Amy Adams) who cooked, sewed, and cleaned.

But the worst part for me was when the Real Bad Babe, played by a gorgeously middle-aged Susan Sarandon (in black with black hair ... yet again), became a downright crone before she convinced Princess to eat said apple. You know what that means, don't you? In a few years I get to be perceived as a double villain: a zero-generation immigrant AND an old woman. Let's terrify some kids during my author visits, shall we? 

Sigh. I feel kind of witchy already, smearing a good flick with my hyper-critical take. Too bad I can't just go to the movies and be swept away by the magic of a well-made tale. Can you?

MTV Arabia: Oxymoron?

I'm all for crossing cultural boundaries, but I'm feeling a bit of virtual jet lag after hearing that MTV is launching in the Arab world. I've also been trying to make sense of tips on how a girl can glam up a winter hajib (i.e., top it off with a stylish beret) published in the latest issue of Muslim Girl magazine, which makes for a fascinating read.

Multicultural Children's Book Festival

Okay, I confess: I haven’t been doing well with the label “multicultural.” Those five syllables can make a writer feel tokenized and sidelined in the blink of a well-meaning eye. But all that changed on November 3, 2007 in our nation’s capital, when I fell back in love with the word.

The taxi whisked me from Reagan Airport to the Kennedy Center. Inside the spacious, flag-lined lobby, I was greeted, taken on a tour of the Festival venue, and guided into the theater for a sound check. All the authors scheduled to sign and read were fed (stuffed, in fact) and assigned a Kennedy Fellow as an escort. My personal TLC giver accompanied me to a signing area, toting a large bottle of icy water, a good pen or two, and more snacks to sustain me. A poster featuring my face (albeit a somewhat younger version — must update my bio photo) adorned the table, along with stacks of my books waiting expectantly to be connected to readers.

It was time. A ribbon was cut with oversized shears, music began to play, and a bevy of children and parents streamed into the large room. What a relief to be here, I thought, surrounded for once by piles of books featuring non-white protagonists. But even more intriguing were the eager eyes of children taking stock of a banquet of stories about kids like them. For once, they weren’t on the margins. For once, an entire event was about their stories. As I watched and talked and signed and listened, I realized anew the importance of providing a “multicultural” feast of literature, and gave thanks that I’m able to contribute to the spread.

I loved meeting the talented Kennedy fellows who guided us through the day, gave my best effort as I read from Rickshaw Girl in the Center’s acoustically and aesthetically perfect theater, and in short was thoroughly spoiled by the organizers’ gracious attention. The entire event was marked by professionalism and courtesy, but best of all it helped me make peace again with an overused but still desperately needed label: confound it, people, I am a multicultural author. And proud of it, too.

Brown Bookshelf's 28 Days Later

28 Days Later

Until December 1, 2007, you may still nominate a book to be featured during Black History Month over at The Brown Bookshelf. Here's the info:
The Brown Bookshelf, in conjunction with the African-American Read-In Chain, the Black Caucus of NCTE, and AACBWI, is proud to present 28 DAYS LATER.

During the first twenty-eight days of Black History Month, we’ll be profiling a different children’s or young adult author here ... But to pull this off, we need your help. We’re looking for the best new and unnoticed works by African-American authors. From picture books to novels, books fresh off the presses to treasured classics–whatever books you like, we want to know. We’re specifically looking for new books and books that have “flown under the radar,” but you can nominate any book, as long as it’s a children’s or YA book written by an African-American author published by a traditional publisher for the trade market.

We’ll be taking nominations from November 1st to December 1st. Just post a comment here at the website, or email us at You can nominate as many books as you like. And be sure to leave your email address, as each nominator automatically has the chance to win one of our great giveaways.

Cyclone In Naima's Land

As many of you know, Bangladesh, the land where my fathers died, is dear to me, and I set my novel Rickshaw Girl there. Now my heart aches for those devastated by the recent cyclone. Here's one way to help, if you're interested.

Texas Bluebonnet List

The massive Texas Library Association has once again compiled a great group of middle grade titles vying for the annual Bluebonnet Award. Here's the full 2008-2009 Master List of nominees:
  • Auch, Mary Jane. One Handed Catch. Henry Holt, 2006.
  • Carman, Patrick. Atherton: the House of Power. Little, Brown, 2007.
  • Cheaney, J. B. The Middle of Somewhere. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
  • Day, Karen. Tall Tales. Wendy Lamb Books, 2007.
  • DeFelice, Cynthia. One Potato, Two Potato. Illustrated by Andrea U’Ren. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
  • Florian, Douglas. Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars. Harcourt, Inc., 2007.
  • Graff, Lisa. The Thing About Georgie. Laura Geringer Books, 2006.
  • Harper, Charise Mericle. Just Grace. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.
  • Hart, Alison. Gabriel’s Horses. Peachtree, 2007.
  • Jenkins, Emily. Toys Go Out. Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2006.
  • Lauber, Patricia. What You Never Knew About Beds, Bedrooms, and Pajamas. Illustrated by John Meanders. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2006.
  • McCully, Emily Arnold. Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
  • O’Connor, Barbara. How to Steal a Dog. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
  • Patterson, Nancy Ruth. The Winner’s Walk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
  • Paulsen, Gary. Lawn Boy. Wendy Lamb Books, 2007.
  • Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Scholastic Press, 2007.
  • Sidman, Joyce. This is Just to Say. Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
  • Thimmesh, Catherine. Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
  • Tingle, Tim. Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom. Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. Cinco Puntos Press, 2006.
  • White, Ruth. Way Down Deep. Farrar, Strass and Giroux, 2007.

Tips From A Senior Editor

Cheryl Klein, recently promoted to Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (of Harry Potter fame), offers a range of advice on her state-of-the-art editor's website and provides tailored submission guidelines for their imprint. Here's a brief excerpt from a section called Rules of Engagement:
How do you make a reader fall in love with your book? Well, as always with love, there are all kinds of theories here. And in lots of ways it isn’t explainable: The magic just happens ... The first and most important technique for getting a reader hooked on your novel (is) voice. The voice is the soul of the book. You know how you have that friend who will always find the silver lining in everything, or the friend who will always drag the conversation back to his problems? A narrative voice has that same type of personality in the type of jokes it might tell, the kind of details it will offer, what it talks about, what it doesn’t say.
Source: J.L. Bell, NESCBWI listserv post

Horn Book Newsletter

News from The Horn Book:
In mid-March, The Horn Book will launch a fresh and informative monthly newsletter for parents, teachers, librarians and anyone else who is interested in the world of children's literature. This free newsletter will include booklists, interviews with authors and artists, pertinent reviews and much more. To sign up, please send your email address to Sarah at with the subject "HB Newsletter."

Hooray For Alexie's Great Escape!

By now you've heard that Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (edited by Jennifer Hunt at Little Brown) won the National Book Award for young people's literature. Sherman Alexie described his hope for the book in his hometown rag, the Seattle Times: "I hope it encourages all sorts of trapped people to feel like they can escape."

Children of War: What Can We Do?

If you're in the Boston area, I'm delighted (as the author of Bamboo People, a forthcoming novel featuring a child soldier) to invite you and anybody else you want to bring along to an awareness-raising event at my church this Sunday evening in Newton, Massachusetts:

Related Links:

Boston Globe: "No Forgetting"
Washington Post: "A Child's Hell in the Lord's Resistance Army"
Oprah Article: Child Soldiers
Oprah Article: Grace Today

Map provided by

Kahani Writing Contest For Kids

Spread the word about a great contest for kids organized by Kahani Magazine, a 2007 Parent's Choice Award Winner:
A gentle reminder that all short story submissions for Kahani's 3rd Annual Young Writers and Illustrators Contest is due Friday, November 23, 2007. That's the day after Thanksgiving, so make sure you leave yourself plenty of time before - or after - the partying to get your stories in. Entry forms have to be snail mailed and postmarked by that date. Go to the Kahani site for more details about prizes and rules. Winners also get their stories published in our Spring 2008 issue called Rock the Vote!


Kahani Staff

The Blizzard Continues

Courtesy of Jen Robinson's Book Page:

As you know if you've been visiting any children's book blogs for the past few weeks, Robert's Snow is an online auction that benefits Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Over 200 children's book illustrators have created art on individual snowflake-shaped wooden templates. The snowflakes will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to cancer research. You can view all of the 2007 snowflakes here. Jules and Eisha from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast have found a way for bloggers to help with this effort, by blogging about individual illustrators and their snowflakes. The idea is to drive traffic to the Robert's Snow site so that many snowflakes will be sold, and much money raised to fight cancer. The illustrator profiles have been wonderful so far - diverse and creative and colorful. And there are lots more to go.

Here's the schedule for Week 5, which started Monday. As previously, this early schedule links to the participating blogs, instead of to the individual posts. You can find links to the posts themselves, and any last-minute updates, each morning at 7-Imp. Jules and Eisha have also set up a special page at 7-Imp containing a comprehensive list of links to the profiles posted so far. Also not to be missed is Kris Bordessa's post summarizing snowflake-related contests to date over at Paradise Found.

Monday, November 12

Tuesday, November 13

Wednesday, November 14

Thursday, November 15

Friday, November 16

Saturday, November 17

Sunday, November 18

Please take time out to visit all of these blogs, and read about these fabulous illustrators. And, if you're so inclined, think about bidding for a snowflake in the Robert's Snow auction. Each snowflake makes a unique gift (for yourself or for someone else), and supports an important cause.

See also the following note from Elaine Magliaro of Wild Rose Reader:
Note to Blog Readers about Blogging for a Cure: When Jules of 7-Imp put out her call in September for bloggers to interview/feature artists who had created snowflakes for Robert’s Snow 2007 at their blogs, a number of artists had not yet sent in their snowflakes to Dana-Farber. As time was of the essence to get Blogging for a Cure underway, we worked with the list of artists whose snowflakes were already in possession of Dana-Farber. Therefore, not all the participating artists will be featured. This in no way diminishes our appreciation for their contributions to this worthy cause. We hope everyone will understand that once the list of artists was emailed to bloggers and it was determined which bloggers would feature which artists at their blogs, a schedule was organized and sent out so we could get to work on Blogging for a Cure ASAP. Our aim is to raise people’s awareness about Robert’s Snow and to promote the three auctions. We hope our efforts will help to make Robert’s Snow 2007 a resounding success.

Rickshaw Girl in Micronesia and NY

Lovely to think of kids in Saipan, Guam, and Palau reading Rickshaw Girl after I read this nice review in Marianas Variety:
RICKSHAW GIRL, by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan (Charlesbridge, 2007). Although this novel is also set in the tropics, it takes place in Bangladesh, with a different sensibility than here in the islands. For the child who likes adventure or different places, this is a good choice.

Naima is the older daughter, with one little sister, and no brothers. Her father says that he is glad he has girls, but Naima is bound by cultural rules that seem to limit her options. She cannot help her poor father, who drives a rickshaw — a bicycle attached to a passenger cab, used as a taxi. The family’s financial circumstances are revealed in a series of small details that show them on the brink of disaster, with no margin for financial losses of any kind.

Naima is a talented alpanas painter and energetic girl, but she envies her friend, Saleem because he helps his father by alternating the driving of their rickshaw, which gives his father a chance to rest. Naima’s father has faced poor health and seems very tired to Naima, who frets about his long hours and hard work.

Naima comes up with a scheme to fix things, but only causes bigger problems. And the story grows from there, into a fully realized novel in just 78 pages of large, double-spaced type!

Besides the beautiful, full color cover, the text is illustrated inside with line drawings in black on white. These help show the exotic setting and details of the alpanas (decorative-design drawings), as well as bring characters to life.

This is a wonderful book for children gaining confidence with their reading and wanting to branch out from their easy readers. The story is sufficiently deep to be interesting to older children as well. Highly recommended. (Ages 8-14).
Donna Spurlock of Charlesbridge also informs me that the novel is on the New York Public Library's forthcoming 2007 list of hundred best children's books for reading and sharing. Hooray for good news about a work that's done when you're under deadline for another novel!

I'm A Conference Geek

After returning from the Kennedy Center's Multicultural Children's Literature Festival in D.C. last weekend, I scampered off to Saratoga Springs for the New York State Reading Association Conference today and yesterday, and now am going to preview Walden Media's Prince Caspian after attending the Massachusetts School Library Association's Author Fest on Sunday. My car (read: home office) is chock full of book bags and pens with logos, and I've met bunches of wonderful authors, but for the rest of this month I retreat and write like a wild woman.

Five Tips For Writers About Publicists

... from Kathy Carlton Willis, reprinted here with permission:
A good publicist should customize a plan for your campaign that fits with your project, your goals, and your personality. It should not be a one-size-fits-all publicity plan. Ask for a written plan, and also ask for activity reports as they go along. This can come in the form of written reports, verbal reports, or forwarding you notices of "hits" (PR results).

Some publicists can also help with image consulting and/or author branding. If youiare interested in this aspect, ask about it when you interview publicists. They can also help with your speaker kit, event kits, and sometimes even speaker booking.

Ask if they coordinate blog tours.

Your publicist will love you if you brainstorm with her on your campaign, and are open to both small and large PR opportunities. The goal is to create a buzz via grassroots viral spread of your name and your book's name. The more your name shows up online, the higher-up in the search engine your project will show up. That's just one of many reasons why to accept as many PR opps as possible, and (your publicist can help) make sure they're a good match for your goals.

Don't have unrealistic expectations about your publicist or PR campaign. Many (writers) assume they will get on Oprah if they hire a publicist. They assume their sales will soar. There is no rhyme or reason in this industry. Sometimes we will get a national interview, but the sales numbers don't increase like we hope they will. Other times, there are several small PR opps, and sales surge. It just takes the right timing, gentle follow-up with media and reviewers, and perseverance.

Oprah Cuts Down Little Tree

The Great and Mighty O eliminated The Education of Little Tree from her website, a book she once described as "a loving story about a boy growing up with his grandfather and learning about nature and speaking to the trees." When Winfrey discovered that the author was a racist and member of the KKK, she made her decision:
There's a part of me that said, `Well, OK, if a person has two sides of them and can write this wonderful story and also write the segregation forever speech, maybe that's OK.' But I couldn't — I couldn't live with that."
But let's apply her rationale to the marriage between all novels and authors -- can we ever enjoy a book written by a jerk? And admit that we liked it? How badly must a storyteller sin before we can no longer receive a story?

Fronting For Patricia Maclachlan

I'll be reading Rickshaw Girl during the Alcott School (named after one of my favorite dead authors) Book Fair at the Concord Bookshop at 2 o'clock this afternoon, followed at 3 by Patricia Maclachlan, one of my favorite living authors (think Sarah, Plain and Tall).

Winter Blog Blast Tour Begins

As a proud participant in last summer's blog blast tour, I'm delighted to announce the launch of a winter BBT. Colleen Mondor has the master plan.

Snowflakes Keep Falling On My Head

Monday, November 5

Tuesday, November 6
Wednesday, November 7

Thursday, November 8

Friday, November 9

Saturday, November 10

Sunday, November 11

Who Shall Draw Our Children?

After our past chats about authenticity and the right to tell a story, I thought my Fire Escape visitors would enjoy this synopsis by Fran Manushkin of last month's PEN young adult and children's book committee meeting, and she kindly gave me permission to excerpt it for you:
At our October meeting, we had a lively exchange about writing books about groups or cultures that are not our own:

Bob Lipsyte spoke about his groundbreaking novel, THE CONTENDER. Ellen Levine talked about her picture book, I HATE ENGLISH, which deals with a Chinese child. Helen Benedict spoke about her novel, THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE, about a biracial teenager; and Catherine Stine mentioned her novel, REFUGEE, about an Afghan boy seeking asylum from war. Each of these writers described the extensive research they did as well as the depth of their commitment to doing justice to the themes and characters they depicted.

We also talked about the complex issue of who should illustrate picture books about minority groups: Ezra Jack Keats's groundbreaking picture book, THE SNOWY DAY, appeared before African-American artists were given extensive opportunities; and today many editors prefer that books about African-Americans be illustrated by African-American artists. Cheryl Hudson, who is both a writer and the publisher of Just Us Books, gave a quick overview of changes in the field since THE SNOWY DAY. We also looked at picture books written and illustrated by people across cultural boundaries, including, THE FUNNY LITTLE WOMAN by Arlene Mosel and Blair Lent, and THE THREE SAMURAI CATS by Eric A. Kimmell, illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein.
My view is that storytellers should not be limited by race or culture, neither our own nor our characters, but does the same hold true for illustrators? I believe so, and was thrilled with artist Jamie Hogan's illustrations for my own Rickshaw Girl, despite my initial suggestion of several South Asian artists' names to Charlesbridge (which they requested, considered, and decided against after realizing Jamie's art worked so well). Why, then, does my gut feel slightly more reluctant about this wide-open "yes" to illustrators crossing borders than the one I resoundingly shout when it comes to writers attempting the same?

What I Meant

Marie Lamba's What I Meant, yet another novel in my pile labeled "must read in December after my revision" got a nice review in School Library Journal:

Gr 8 Up—Sangeet, 15, is the daughter of an Indian father and American mother ... teens will enjoy the interesting cast of characters and the book will have broad appeal, leaving readers wanting more.—Cara von Wrangel Kinsey, New York Public Library