"Oh, He's Korean."

My son and I both went to see the doctor this afternoon (swollen knee and sinus infection, respectively.) We live in a community that prides itself on being "progressive," so I was taken aback by the conversation that took place in my son's exam room.

"He should see an orthopedist," the doctor told me.

"Could you give us a referral?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. Try Dr. Rockport. He shares a practice with Dr. Smith. And Dr. Oh. He's Korean."

We drove home wondering what in the world could have motivated that extra unnecessary bit of information. Here are the choices:
  1. He was anticipating our confusion over the doctor's "foreign" name.
  2. He figured that since I was Asian, I might prefer an Asian doctor.
  3. He thought I might buy into the smart Asian doctor stereotype.
  4. It was racist. He would never have said, "And Dr. Oh. He's black."
  5. All of the above.
Please weigh in, as I'm confused. And yes, the doctor was a white, middle-aged guy.

Coming after a strange incident on vacation last week when a stranger instructed me in strident tones to "go back to your f---ing country," I'm feeling a bit discouraged about life between cultures in these United States.

Lunch in Terabithia!

I'm not usually the gushing fan type, but frequent visitors to the Fire Escape would not be surprised that Katherine Paterson would be #1 on my list of living writers with whom to nosh and chat. Imagine my complete stupefaction and delight, then, when I returned from vacation yesterday to find this in my in-box:
An invite to have lunch with Katherine Paterson in Vermont!
Yes, I've become one of those celebrity-name-dropping types: "When Katherine had me over to lunch the other day, we laughed about ... blah blah blah." This dream-come-true event was graciously arranged by a Presbyterian ministerial colleague of my husband's (it helps to have spouses in high places), and author Anne Broyles is coming, too. Now I have the perfect excuse to spend the afternoon at the movies before I have to pick up the kids from school. Popcorn, anybody?

Sending My First Daughter Away

Beloved, it is right and meet that my revision of First Daughter: White House Rules (sequel to First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, June 2007) should be landing in Dutton editor Margaret Woollatt's in-box on President's Day. As I depart the Fire Escape during school vacation week (will return 2/28), let me borrow a sign-off from Sameera Righton, protagonist of both novels and moderator of Sparrowblog: Comments? Remember, keep them short, clean, and to the point. Peace be with you. Mitali.

Fuse Number 8 and Rickshaw Girl

Yes, I know it's 1:26 a.m. Yes, I am still awake and writing like a mad woman. But how did Fuse #8 know I'd need a boost right now? And how does she manage to publish a new deluge of posts just after midnight every day? These and other mysteries of the blogging galaxy continue to astound my already befuddled brain. Anyway, here's Fuse's lovely review of Rickshaw Girl for your reading pleasure. It inspired me like a cheering fan at the 24-mile marker of the Boston Marathon. Hobble on, my love. The finish line's near.

Poetry Friday: Otherwise

Note the time of this post (12:49 a.m.) as I struggle to complete my revision of First Daughter: White House Rules (sequel to book one in a YA series from Dutton, First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, which, thank heavens, is done and off to the presses.) When I'm under the dark cloud of pressure like this, I turn to Jane Kenyon's wise, graceful words for solace, and my favorite perspective-inducing poem is Otherwise. Enjoy, and join me in giving thanks for two strong legs, sweet milk, the work we love, silver candlesticks, and a bed in a room with paintings on the walls. For Ms. Kenyon, it is otherwise now, but I'm convinced she's still writing poems there.

Padre Nuestro: Show Me The YA Novelization

While we're chatting about books made into films, you publisher-slash-editor types out there should take note of Christopher Zallas' Sundance-winning movie Padre Nuestro:
Fleeing a pack of henchman on the Mexican side of the border, Juan hops a truck transporting illegals from Mexico to New York City. En route he befriends Pedro, an innocent from central Mexico who is headed to New York to seek his rich restaurateur father, Diego. Pedro shows Juan a sealed letter that his mother, now dead, has given him--an introduction to the father he never knew. When the truck pulls into New York City, Pedro wakes to find both his belongings and his new friend gone without a trace. He is cast onto the street and stumbles around, lost in an unknown city. Juan, meanwhile, shows up at Diego's door with the letter, claiming to be his long-lost son, Pedro.
Sounds like a gripping YA read or graphic novel to me, but perhaps the contracts have been signed months ago and I'm behind the times. Here's a clip, if you're interested.

Paterson On An "Unsafe" Bridge To Terabithia

Check out an interview with Katherine Paterson at Christianity Today where she reveals her thoughts about the upcoming film from Disney and Walden Media based on her book, A Bridge To Terabithia, her son's writing of the screenplay, the infamous preview, and faith and writing in general. An excerpt from the interview:
Christianity Today: There's a trend lately to provide books and films for Christian audiences that are "safe for the whole family." Perhaps your books have been challenged because they're not necessarily "safe" for children. What do you make of the idea that children's books should be "safe"?

Paterson: Well, don't give them the Bible, then, because it's certainly not a safe book. Safety and faith are different things. If you want everything to be safe, then you can probably just totally do without the imagination. If you're so afraid of your imagination that you stifle it, how are you going to know God? How can you imagine heaven?

Ta Dum! The Cybils Are Awarded!

Since I served on the nominating panel for the middle grade fiction category, I'm dancing a cyber jig out on the Fire Escape because A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz won! Hooray! For the rest of the winners, visit the Cybils site, and if you can afford it, buy, buy, buy the books (donate them to your library) to display the power of viral blog buzz ...

Have You Seen My Mother?

While we're waiting for the Cybils Awards announcement, I want to share some photos of my beautiful, talented mother in action painting alpana on my California Dreamin' mini book tour, along with one of me signing a copy of Rickshaw Girl as a Valentine for my Fire Escape friends ... that's you!

At Towne Center Books in Pleasanton ...

Where Baba welcomes visitors
and displays Ma's alpana:

At Cody's Books in Berkeley ...

Lots of old friends and new friends, like
blogger buddy Jen Robinson, showed up:

While I Was Away...

the new issue of the edge of the forest went live (with a review of my Rickshaw Girl to boot) ...

the Children's Book Council and USBBY announced their list of 39 outstanding international books published in 2006, narrowing the choices from a field of 250 books ...

dozens of kid lit peeps had a blast in the bar nine (bar me and Jen Robinson, who were partying on the other coast in a more sedate venue; pix of my whirlwind California Dreamin' book tour to come with my mother in gorgeous array painting alpanas) ...

hordes of other book folk (and some of the ones hobnobbing at bar nine, of course) attended the SCBWI conference in New York ...

cynsations went down right when Cynthia Leitich Smith's new novel Tantalize (Candlewick) was scheduled for release, and she's blogging at hubby's site (they come in handy, don't they? hubbies and their sites) ...

the literate world continued to wait in breathless anticipation for the announcement of the Cybils awards (TBA TOMORROW!) ...

"A Girl Like Me" by Kiri Davis

Just before I left on my trip, I discovered a short film that I purchased and incorporated into my Books Between Cultures seminar for the CATE conference in Fresno. It's a 7-minute exploration of girls and skin color written and directed by a sixteen-year-old filmmaker, Kiri Davis, and produced by Media Matters. Be prepared. It's unforgettable.

On Such A Winter's Day

I'm heading off tonight to California for a wild long weekend. Here's the schedule:
Whew! I'll be back on the Fire Escape on Tuesday, February 13 (via a Jet Blue Oakland-Boston red-eye, so don't expect coherence.) Hope to see some of you on the other coast ...

Bringing Asha Home and Kimchi & Calamari

Two excellent new books about adoption

Uma Krishnaswami's picture book, Bringing Asha Home (Lee & Low, September 2006), illustrated by Jamel Akib, provides an alternative answer to the "where do babies come from?" question. Eight-year-old Arun longs to celebrate the wonderful brother-sister holiday of Rakhi, but must wait months before Asha arrives from India. A perfect choice for a parent who wants to introduce the process of adoption to an older sibling, this book will also spark a re-telling of a family's own impatient waiting for a child. Teachers can use it to explore the concept of waiting for good things in general -- like spring, festival days, and babies, adopted or biological. I especially appreciated that neither text nor pictures make a fuss about the fact that the family is interracial. This makes Bringing Asha Home a prototype of a new generation of picture books where multiculturalism is celebrated but not allowed to commandeer the plot. For more reviews, visit Big A little a, the Asian Reporter, PaperTigers, or Cynsations. (Note: this book was sent to me by the publisher.)

A forthcoming middle reader by a member of the Class of 2k7, Rose Kent, Kimchi & Calamari (HarperCollins, April 2007) also features a multiracial family as a secondary theme. This funny, touching story is a coming-of-age tale told in first person by a main character that boys -- and girls -- are going to love. I can already hear them clamoring for a sequel. A delightful supporting cast of characters, a strong voice, and an honest exploration of adoption and ethnic identity from a fourteen-year-old's perspective make this a five-star book for kids between cultures. My only fear is that the cover might serve as a roadblock instead of a lure, especially for young guy readers -- could somebody at HarperCollins please explain the reasoning behind it? For more, read Chicken Spaghetti's take or a review from A Year of Reading. (Note: this book was sent to me by the author's daughter, who is serving as her publicist.)

Books About Adoption

Visitors to the Fire Escape sometimes ask about good books for internationally adopted kids. Here are some places on the web to find excellent lists and reviews:And for a top-notch resource for adoptive parents, I highly recommend Adoption Parenting, edited by Jean Macleod and Sheena Macrae (EMK Press, 2006). In this "toolbox," over a hundred contributors, including adoptees, share practical advice about parenting an adopted child. Definitely a gift worth giving at a baby shower for waiting parents. Tune in tomorrow for reviews of a beautiful picture book about what that wait is like and a hilarious forthcoming novel about international adoption ...

Hey, I Won An Award, Too!

Speaking of book awards like the Cybils (winners TBA on 2/14), I want to let everybody know that Rickshaw Girl has won a prize, too. Yes, I'm thrilled to announce that my newest book has just secured the...
Delay A Kid's Vomit Award!

It's true. Read about it here.

Super Bowl Ad: Americanization Class

My favorite ad during the Super Bowl was a good-natured spoof on classes for new immigrants. There was the Eastern European guy attempting a New York accent. The Indian guy trying to sound East L.A. with an overdone South Asian head waggle. The Burmese or Cambodian dude trying to pronounce "Bood Light."

It was touch and go for a while as I watched with my between-cultures radar tuned to high alert. But then the commercial won me over, as all of these guys rehearsed a unanimous "Don' speak English" to use when asked about the location of their beer.

Why did this ad work? At the end of the day, it makes fun of those people who think new Americans are stupid for not speaking English well. They're the ones who'll get duped in the long run -- not the immigrants striving hard to master the language.

Good Company at SLJ

Librarian Liz Burns of Tea Cozy fame has written an article for the School Library Journal about blogging called Curl Up With A Cup of Tea and a Good Blog. I was never part of the in-crowd in school, but apparently I've made the cut at midlife, because Mitali's Fire Escape was included on her list of best book blogs -- a list that features many of my own blog crushes. Thanks, Liz! I'll have to flip, find, and watch a segment of Buffy for the first time, just for your sake.

Awwww, shucks ... thanks, guys!

Thanks to one and all who packed the cellar of Wellesley Booksmith on Saturday for my book launch party. What a show of support and love! Alison Morris, the children's book buyer at the store, told me they sold 43 copies of Rickshaw Girl (have no idea if that's a goodly quantity but I thought fellow writers might be interested in some real numbers), the wonderful folks at Charlesbridge provided samosas, drinks, and bangles, and several cyber folk appeared in bodily form like avatars. If you missed it, a brief clip's coming soon on the Fire Escape ... or else I'll see you in California next weekend!

A Bose By Any Other Name

The Boston Globe ran an article on Sunday about immigrants changing their names. This, of course, is not a new practice for new Americans; Europeans did it too, depending on how despised they were by the wider society. These days, we Asians and Middle Easterners are abandoning our family monikers at a faster pace than others:
A Globe review of 1,000 recent name changes filed at the US District Court in Boston found the desire to adopt American names was especially common among Asians, whose given names have pronunciations that can confound Americans. Arab and Muslim immigrants, whose names have brought them closer scrutiny in recent years, were also disproportionately represented.
My family of origin surname was easy for Americans because one famous member of my clan (no relation) made excellent stereo systems. But what if he had changed his name to "Brown" before inventing his machine? If everybody wasp-ifies their names to make it easier for themselves and for others, how will Americans ever learn to pronounce "Nguyen" as handily as most can now pronounce "Spielberg?" What is an "American name," anyway?

Here's another part of the article I found strange:
Vanitha Kumar's former name, Vanitha Vijaykumar, was "a mouthful," she said, creating all manner of e-mail mix-ups at the high-tech company where she worked. She wasn't particularly attached to her old name, she said, since last names are not commonly used in India. So she lopped off the beginning of her surname when she became a citizen.
In Bengal, where I come from, last names have been commonly used for generations. They reveal caste and are never lopped off. C'mon, Globe. You can do better than that.

This Is Not Your Mother's Multicultural Lit

Ozandends gives us a sweet rundown on the controversy over Yoko Kawashima Watkins' So Far From The Bamboo Grove. J.L. sums up my reaction nicely, allowing me to be lazy and link to him without any verbose ruminations:
...It's a reminder of the complexity of multicultural literature: when this book was first included in the curriculum, I suspect administrators saw it as “Asian,” without a whole lot of regard for how different Asians might view the same events.
I'll add one thing, though: my son, who was mesmerized by Watkins' book in fourth grade, definitely read it as memoir, not as historical fiction. For him, it was a story of an orphan on the run in wartime, and he read it at least three times. I doubt if he even remembers that the Koreans were the bad guys, but I'll be sure to ask.

Poetry Friday: In Search Of Our Mother's Gardens

In honor of black history month (and the release of my new book), I give you Alice Walker's poem that was a part of her 1974 essay, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South:

They were women then
My mama's generation
Husky of voice - Stout of Step
With fists as well as
How they battered down
And ironed
Starched white
How they led
Headragged Generals
Across mined
To discover books
A place for us
How they knew what we
Must know
Without knowing a page
Of it

Notes from Sotheby's on the quilt to the left:

Although the maker of the second quilt is unknown, the story it tells reveals a family's grief at the loss of two young daughters. The rare appliqued and pieced cotton, flannel and velvet memorial quilt was done in the Baltimore Album tradition around 1900-1910, in which individual panels are arranged in a narrative sequence to tell a story. This quilt illustrates the events in the life of one African-American family with symbolism and colors from their African heritage. The story the quilt tells is the loss of two young sisters who perished in an epidemic that hit Baltimore at the turn of the century.

At the center of the quilt's detailed composition are the small forms of two young girls, wearing matching white gowns and pearl necklaces, lying next to each other on either side of a bold red cross. Flower garlands and winged angels surround the two girls, suggesting their final resting place ...

The woman who made the Baltimore quilt was a skilled seamstress who expressed her sorrow over the girls' death through the fine stitches in this exemplary quilt. She did this with her adept handling of needle and thread, and by including distinct African design motifs in her composition. The vibrancy and range of bright colors in the floral applique belies the sadness felt over the girls' deaths. Throughout the quilt are bright whites, suggesting the African world of the ancestors, and vivid reds, representing the Shango cult of the Yoruba people.

Racy Reads For Middle Schoolers: Two Questions

Here's one high school teacher's perspective on teen reads and middle-schoolers. Interestingly, Christopher Paslay doesn't advocate censorship on the receiving end of stories but responsibility on the publishing end:
..From my experience, most 16-year-old students wouldn't be caught dead reading anything within the "teen" genre. High school kids are too cool, too grown-up for teen books. Upperclassmen are getting ready to head to college or go off to work, and they have little tolerance for the fairy-tale crushes and catty gossip found in most contemporary young-adult books.

It is the middle school students, ages 11 to 13, who are reading the teen genre. They're the ones picking up books like Beautiful Disaster or Gossip Girl in order to see what it's really like to be a teenager in high school. Of course, what they read isn't real at all. It's a lot of superficial nonsense, a make-believe world filled with steamy sex, vodka bongs, and pool parties. It's a fantasy land where 15-year-old girls get breast implants and drink martinis on South Beach...

Publishers of contemporary teen books should stop peddling soft porn to minors, and go back to promoting storylines with substance and moral character.
Here are the questions this article raised for me:
  1. Somehow I don't think middle school girls are primarily reading these books "to see what it's really like to be a teenager in high school." So why are they reading them, then? Is it the "everybody's doing it" buzz effect? Do these reads offer the same vicarious thrill adults feel when we consider the lifestyles of the rich, spoiled, and famous in People? Is teen chick-lit a way for girls to escape the stress and/or doldrums of middle school life?

  2. Steamy books are lucrative. Do any publishers of books for young adults have mission statements that would prevent them from producing a line of books like Gossip Girls? Like Dutton's, for example, although there's isn't official. Are any houses or imprints clear about their desire to avoid publishing the type of book this teacher describes?

Pub Date: In Search Of My Mothers' Gardens

It's 1996. I'm returning to our ancestral property in Bangladesh fifty-some years after my Hindu parents fled during the war. The Muslim man who lives there now looks suspicious as I approach, and I don't blame him. After all, my ancestors hated his with a passion, and I suspect the feeling was mutual. As we begin speaking, though, two white doves fly down and perch over the entrance to the house where my father was born. They stay during my entire visit, even while I go inside to chat, laugh, and share tea with the women and girls. (If you think I'm drifting from the genre of blogging into fiction, check out the photo I took that day.)

Today, as we send Rickshaw Girl out like one of those doves, I think of my tiny paternal grandmother who raised nine children on that jute farm. Barely educated herself, she made sure my father had a hot meal of rice and fish and lentils after his long walk from school, and enough kerosene in the lamp to do his homework. I think of my maternal great-grandmother, forced to marry my great-grandfather when she was nine and he was eighteen. (If you're curious about their post-nuptial details, you'll have to wait for The Secret Keeper/Asha Means Hope. But do some math in the meantime: her youngest child was a dozen years younger than my mother.)

The novelist and poet Alice Walker remembered the women who came before her in a famous 1974 essay called In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South:
In the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., there hangs a quilt unlike any other in the world. In fanciful, inspired, and yet simple and identifiable figures, it portrays the story of the Crucifixion. It is considered rare, beyond price. Though it follows no known pattern of quiltmaking, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling. Below this quilt I saw a note that says it was made by "an anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago." If we could locate this "anonymous" Black woman, she would turn out to be one of our grandmothers - an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use.
Were there any storytellers among the "anonymous" grandmothers who lived centuries before me in Bangladesh? Any painters? Musicians? Rickshaw Girl is for them. And for girls throughout rural Bangladesh today, unknown to us but full of heart and dreams, like Naima in my story.

Harry Potter Book 7 Arriving July 21st

It's official.

Three Cheers For Blog Buzz!

Here's an updated list of bloggers who've read Rickshaw Girl: I'm thrilled, addicted, and craving more, because I completely agree with Gail Gauthier's shout out to cyber-reviews.