Great Children's Books About Africa

Tired of generic "African" children's books that don't mention particular cultures or countries? Check out Africa Access, a nonprofit founded in 1989 to help schools, public libraries, and parents improve the quality of their children's collection on Africa.

The Africa Access Review Database contains over 1000 annotations and reviews of children's books written by university professors, librarians, and teachers, most of whom have lived in Africa and have graduate degrees in African Studies.

And this November 13-16 in Chicago during the Teachers' Workshop at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association, Africa Access will present the 2008 Children’s Africana Book Awards, established in 1991 by the Outreach Council of the African Studies Association to encourage the publication and use of accurate, balanced children’s materials on Africa in U.S. schools and libraries.

This year, Ifeoma Onyefulu is the winner of the Best Book for Young Children award for Ikenna goes to Nigeria (London, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2007). The book focuses on Onyefulu’s son Ikenna and photographs his visit to his mother’s Nigerian homeland.

Honors for Young Children go to Kathleen Mariarty and Amin Amir for Wiil Waal (St. Paul, Minnesota Humanities Center/Somali Bilingual Book Project, 2007), a bilingual presentation of a folktale about a 19th century Somali sultan.

Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie are the winners of the Best Book for Older Readers award for Aya (Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly, 2007), a graphic novel that offers an insider’s view of teenage life in a lively Abidjan neighborhood.

Honor Book winners for Older Readers are Henry Aubin for Rise of the Golden Cobra (Toronto, Annick Press, 2007), a novel set in ancient Kush and Egypt, and Ishmael Beah for A Long Way Gone (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), a recent war story and autobiographical account of a child soldier in the civil war in Sierra Leone. (Read Slate's overview of the controversy surrounding this memoir if you're curious.)

Kid Lit Conference: Read All About It!

If you, like me, couldn't make it to Portland, Oregon for the second annual children's and YA book bloggers' conference, you can do the next best thing -- tune into a plethora of diverse blogging voices as they dish about the weekend.

News Flash: The conference is coming to the East Coast next September, organized by the one and only Mother Reader.

I'll Bet Condi Never Heard This Line

An odd interaction between President Zardari of Pakistan and Governor Sarah Palin brought a blush to many cheeks between cultures:

“I am honored to meet you,” Ms. Palin said.

“You are even more gorgeous than you are on the ...,” Mr. Zardari said.

“You are so nice,” Ms. Palin replied. “Thank you.”

“Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you,” Mr. Zardari continued.

An aide tells the two to shake hands.

“I’m supposed to pose again,” Ms. Palin said.

“If he’s insisting,” Mr. Zardari said, “I might hug.”

And the title of this post has nothing to do with my opinion of Condi Rice's appearance vs. Sarah Palin's -- it's an attempt to poke fun at the ways South Asian cultures have traditionally viewed "fair" skinned folks as more attractive.

Source: SAJA Forum

Blog Love, Kiva, and Writing Workshops

Blogging is toil, and I've been doing it for 3.5 years. That's why love like this cyber kudo from Mother Reader means so much.

I was also delighted to find out yesterday that my friend Aline Pereira of Paper Tigers somehow managed to convince KIVA (an organization I love) to feature RICKSHAW GIRL as a recommended resource.

One of the best parts of my job description is to inspire other writers, young or old, to create a sense of place in fiction. I kicked off my fall season of author visits with a workshop last Saturday in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

YA librarian Dan (who did an amazing job convincing a bunch of kids to show up on a sunny Saturday) has posted some of the products of that workshop here.

October Night Bites Author Chats at rgz

Mark your calendars now because we're hosting a bundle of fantastic authors at readergirlz to celebrate YALSA'S Teen Read Week.

Here's the official press release.

More than a dozen authors to converge on rgz forum to chat with ravenous teen readers

Sept. 18, 2008 (Seattle, Wash.) – In celebration of Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA’s) Teen Reed Week™, readergirlz (rgz) is excited to present Night Bites, a series of online live chats with an epic lineup of published authors. The chats will take place at the rgz forum, Oct. 13-17, 2008.

Playing off YALSA’s theme of “Books with Bite,” Night Bites will feature five themed chats designed to appeal to an array of literary tastes. Sure to suck in even the most reluctant teen readers, the complete Night Bites schedule is as follows:
Monday, Oct. 13: Multicultural Bites with authors Coe Booth (TYRELL), An Na (THE FOLD), and rgz diva Mitali Perkins (SECRET KEEPER)

Tuesday, Oct. 14: Verse Bites with rgz diva Lorie Ann Grover (ON POINTE), Stephanie Hemphill (YOUR OWN SYLVIA), and Lisa Ann Sandell (SONG OF THE SPARROW)

Wednesday, Oct. 15: Contemporary Bites with Ally Carter (CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO SPY), rgz diva Justina Chen Headley (NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL), and Maureen Johnson (SUITE SCARLETT)

Thursday, Oct. 16: Fantasy Bites with Holly Black and Ted Naifeh (THE GOOD NEIGHBORS), rgz diva Dia Calhoun (AVIELLE OF RHIA), and Tamora Pierce (MELTING STONES)

Friday, Oct. 17: Gothic Bites with Holly Cupala (A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT), Christopher Golden (SOULLESS), Annette Curtis Klause (BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE), and Mari Mancusi (BOYS THAT BITE).
It all happens at the rgz forum beginning at 6 p.m. Pacific Time (9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time), Oct. 13-17.

About readergirlz

readergirlz is the foremost online book community for teen girls, led by five critically acclaimed YA authors—Dia Calhoun (Avielle of Rhia), Lorie Ann Grover (On Pointe), Justina Chen Headley (Girl Overboard), and Mitali Perkins (First Daughter: White House Rules). readergirlz is the recipient of a 2007 James Patterson PageTurner Award.

To promote teen literacy and leadership in girls, readergirlz features a different YA novel and corresponding community service project every month. For more information about readergirlz, please visit and, or contact


For more than 50 years, YALSA has been the world leader in selecting books, films and audiobooks for teens. For more information about YALSA or for lists of recommended reading, viewing and listening, go here.

Are You Branding Your Blog?

Why do people come to your blog? How does it stand out from the crowd? A periodic check of the keywords revealed in your site statistics can help you define your brand or niche.

To get to Mitali's Fire Escape, for example, people typed the following phrases into a search engine of choice, and then decided to click on one of my posts that turned up in the results:
  • economics books for high school children
  • multicultural books for young children
  • the asian pacific american literary award
  • multicultural children's book festival
  • social justice, picture books
  • ethnic authors children's books
  • should ethnic awards for books be given?
  • mitali perkins
  • global poverty and picture books
  • kahani magazine
  • picture book social justice
  • politics and teens
  • children's books world cultures
  • funny short stories about latinos
  • election politics for teens
  • multicultural books for young readers
  • race color description
  • realistic fiction books global
As I take stock of this list, I gain insight into my unique place in the cyberworld of books. The next question is whether this brand lines up with my vision for my blog. My answer is a definite yes. What's yours? If it's a no or a maybe, you might want to make some changes when it comes to posted content.

Paula Yoo chats with readergirlz

During the month of September at readergirlz, we've been spending time with the one and only Paula Yoo, screenwriter, musician, and talented novelist -- a true renaissance woman. Her acclaimed new novel GOOD ENOUGH is about Patti Yoon, a talented musician who's stressing out about college applications and falling in love at the same time.

Teens, authors, divas, and other fans had a chance to ask Paula questions during her hourlong rgz Live! chat at the forum. I know you'll enjoy her honest, bubbly, and often hilarious answers, remembering that her fingers were flying because she was answering in real time:

Q. Do you prefer novel writing or screenwriting better? What do you like best about each one? What’s the most challenging thing about each one?

I would say novels and screenplays are like apples and oranges. They’re sooo different in terms of storytelling. Right off the bat, I would say I love novels the best, period. I was always planning to be a novelist and accidentally fell into screenwriting because my personality fit into this industry/business (you have to be talkative, brave, and very outgoing and able to think on your feet and have a thick skin in the TV world). So that took care of my loneliness as a novelist because book writing is very solitary.

But if I had to choose, hands down I would say I would prefer to write books only. But I do like screenwriting for the fun collaborative effort -- it’s amazing to see how set designers, prop artists, actors, clothing designers, lighting etc. -- how they all read your script and interpret it with their props/costumes/locations etc. And I think screenwriting is fun because it’s great training to make you think more about how to plot storylines and make sure the story beats are logical and compelling.

All that sort of feeds into my novel writing because novels are more loosely structured, so my TV training has helped me outline my novel plots better. And my novel writing is always more about language and voice, so that helps me when I try to create memorable TV characters and to make sure the dialogue is not cliched, etc.

Q. Which came first -- screenwriting or novel writing?

I did novels first. I accidentally fell into screenwriting in 2001 -- a friend of mine who was a writer for the show PROVIDENCE on NBC suggested I try out for the Warner Brothers drama TV writing workshop because I used to be a journalist and was writing novels/short stories. She thought my fiction talents and my ability to write on deadline would make me the perfect TV writer which combines both skills.

So my husband and I were on a camping trip up north (redwoods of california area) and I handwrote an episode of the show ANGEL. It was about a demonic possessed violin! hahahaha. I then typed it up and sent it to the workshop. To my surprise, six months later, they called me and said I was accepted into their 5 week workshop. After the five weeks were up, I got signed to an agent and landed my first job immediately on THE WEST WING and I’ve been a TV writer ever since. This is not the usual way into this industry, so I was very lucky!

Q. How is the creative process when you’re working on a piece of music different from the process of writing?

Musically, I’m mostly either playing music that was already written (classical stuff) or creating new music based on an existing song (i.e. I don’t write my own music, but I will improv solos with rock bands who have written their own music). So when I write music, it’s usually riffing off an existing melody.

Approach wise, I would say the similarities are this: In music, you have to phrase a line properly - it has to make sense music theory wise and also you have to interpret what the composer meant by their dynamic markings etc. and how the line of music organically works in the rest of the context of the whole piece. Aieeee, this is getting academic, sorry. Anyway, there are a billion ways to play the opening line of the Mendelssohn. So you have to decide what way you want to play it and WHY you’re expressing the music that way - it’s showing YOUR interpretation etc.

In writing, there are a billion ways to write, "Patti went to the store to buy some bread." You have to think of style, voice, character, motivation. All that is how I approach music, too. So the sentence "Patti went to the store to buy some bread" could change to, "Patti trudged along the cracked concrete, clutching a crumpled dollar bill she had found on the street, desperately hoping the store would have at least one loaf of bread left so she could feed her family of four for the week." HAHAHAHA. Or you could write, "I can’t stand grocery shopping with my mom. It’s so boring. Why does she buy so much bread? We never finish the stuff. It goes stale and moldy in like two days. Why can’t we just get a box of mac and cheese and call it a day?"

So anyway, I hope this sort of explains how I approach writing music and writing writing (LOL) - it’s all about the interpretation!

Q. Did the characters for GOOD ENOUGH just pop into your head and create themselves? And do they talk to you in your head, or do you just know what they'd say?

The characters popped up immediately. Here’s how GOOD ENOUGH got written. I was on a TV show that had really low ratings, so the network decided to lay off the lower level writers (myself, another staff writer and a story editor) in order to hire three more executive producers. I was without a job, unemployed for the rest of the year, and depressed as heck.

My husband said, "Why not take advantage of the free time to write that novel?" So I sat down and wrote the first chapter of GOOD ENOUGH. I ended up writing until 4 a.m. So for the next five weeks (May to early June) I wrote from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. every single day for five straight weeks in a row. I think I took two showers. LOL.

I cried when I wrote the last sentence of page 300. The first and last chapters are exactly the same from that first draft. I sent it to my agent and he sold it in three weeks. It was the first novel to sell - my other novel attempts had gotten "good" rejections (i.e. the "this is really good but not for us" type rejections). This was the first time I wrote from my heart and wrote about my own life, and the whole adage of "write what you know" rings emotionally true. So that’s how it happened. I normally don’t write this way but I think this book was special.

I can "hear" what my characters will say. It’s sort of a subconscious thing, I think. Also, sometimes it’s more practical -- I will ask myself, "Would Patti/whatever character really react that way? Does that fit consistently with her character?" For example, if I had a shy character, why would she suddenly be sarcastic? And so on. So sometimes it’s a gut level instinctual writing moment, and other times it’s literally thinking about the logic of it all.

Q. What are your writing rituals?

When I’m just brainstorming fun ideas, like, "I wanna write a middle grade novel with a boy character. What should it be about?" etc., I grab my trusty old fashioned composition notebook (and lately it’s been those trendy moleskin notebooks you get from Barnes and Noble), my favorite pens, my new iPhone, my iPod, and I head to a cafe or Starbucks or a coffeehouse and I curl up and doodle for a couple hours and read books and drink a hot chai tea latte with a snickerdoodle, my writing snacks.

Then I come home and type everything up in a coherent "treatment" where I take my scrawls, like for example (I’m making this up on the spot), like let’s say I scrawl in my notebook, "12 year old boy vampire with bratty sister" LOL then in my computer, I’ll write a one page synopsis of what that boy would do based on my notebook scrawls, but I would write in complete sentences and try to make it almost look like a pitch or query letter I would show my agent.

It’s just a great way to practice how to pitch your stories.

When I’m really writing, like writing GOOD ENOUGH or whatever, I stay at home. I usually have my tea (I’m really into yerba matte and drink it with a bombilla like the proper Argentinians do) and a scone or little pastry, I surf the web and answer emails and try to get all my To Do list stuff done first (like paying bills, errands etc.) and then I reward myself by 11 a.m. or noon with some lunch and watching Giada De Laurentiis on Food TV and then I really try to write by 1 p.m. Eventually, by 5 p.m. when I realize I’ve gotten nothing done, I make dinner, watch my favorite TV shows, and then around 10 p.m. start writing and usually that’s when out of nowhere, I write 3000 words. And I go to bed between midnight and 2 a.m.

This is if I am not working on a TV show at the time. If I’m working on a TV show, then I skip all the 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. stuff because I’m at work, and then I just write at 10 p.m. onwards. or whenever I get home from work. :)

I also have a jar of grey poupon mustard (cleaned out) with a giant red ribbon inside. This was a gift from my friend Greg who created my website because one day I called him, upset because someone had given me a mean critique of my work, and I felt frustrated that I had lost my "mojo" so he made that for me and said it was my "mojo."

So when I’m frustrated or blocked, I will open up that little jar and take out the red ribbon and wave it around over my computer. Seriously! It totally works!

Q. Can you read when you’re writing (well, not simultaneously, of course!)?

Sometimes I will take a break from writing and read. Sometimes I read books I’m researching that are similar to a topic I’m writing, or I’ll re-read a classic book for inspiration or because I want to study the tone/language etc. I tend to read a bit before I write, it’s like a warm up for my brain. I think you can’t be a writer unless you read all the time. Right now, I’m trying to turn this cute picture book poem about a mouse into a middle grade novel, like Edward Tulane or Velveteen rabbit style, so I’ve been re-reading CHARLOTTE'S WEB for inspiration because his language is so spare and evocative.

Q. What are some YA books you wish you had written?

I wish I had written CHARLOTTE'S WEB even though it’s not YA. Same with BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and TUCK EVERLASTING. More contemporary YA stuff - I read ELSEWHERE and was furious I hadn’t written that book! hahahahahaha! I looooooooved that book!

I really loved WHEN SHE WAS GOOD by Norma Fox Mazer, I thought INEXCUSABLE was really riveting, I loved WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND but that’s now considered middle grade, right? Believe it or not, I think FREAKY FRIDAY the original novel is hilarious and original, and I looooved SPEAK.

Q. What are you writing next?

I had to write a one-act play for my TV agents to use as a writing sample to hopefully get me staffed on another TV show soon. Bookwise, I am working on a new YA novel and have started outlining an idea for a middle grade series as well as my hopeful cute mouse novel. :)

If you were part of the chat, you know the fast and furious writing that comes from Ms. Yoo's keyboard, so we're expecting many more great reads inspired by the Mojo Jar. In October we're hosting author Rachel Cohn featuring (the movie's coming out, people, so what else?) the novel NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST. Stay tuned for more ...

Poetry Friday: Evening Walk

I wrote this one in my journal years ago when the boys were small and solitude was at a premium.


by Mitali Perkins

Last light spills across the sea,
I watch it, standing silently.
Savoring the singing space,
Lilac hour, liquid grace.

When it’s done, I take the quiet,
Carefully, I fold it, tie it,
Bring it to my house of sound,
Store it so it’s quickly found.

Discover more of today's Poetry Friday offerings.

Paper Tigers Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month

News from the award-winning PaperTigers website ...

After our July/Aug literacy focus, we now make way for Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration of the cultures and traditions of US residents who trace their roots back to Spain, Mexico and the Spanish-speaking nations of Central America, South America and the Caribbean. There are all sorts of events happening throughout the country, and right here at PaperTigers you will find lots of great features and children's books to help you make the most of it - in your classroom, library or at home.


Highly-acclaimed author Pam Muñoz Ryan talks about her heritage, her new book, Paint The Wind, and her commitment to writing good stories, no matter the theme.

Bilingual coordinator of youth services at the Houston Public Library, Rose Zertuche-Treviño talks about the joys and challenges of her work, and offers some advice for those considering a career in children's librarianship...

David Diaz's fiesta-inspired colors lend themselves to a variety of media, styles and themes.

Book of the Month

My Name is Gabito: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez by Monica Brown, illustrated by Raul Colón (Luna Rising, 2007), celebrates the childhood of a little boy with a big imagination who grew up to become one of the world’s best loved storytellers. The book describes some of the experiences that shaped the writer’s early life, and the people that influenced him, such as his beloved grandfather, Nicolas, who had a giant dictionary filled with many words.

My Name is Gabito, bookcover

Personal Views:

My Childhood Readings: A Short List to Grow On
by Yuyi Morales

Heritage Apartment
by Juan Felipe Herrera

We, Latinos
by F. Isabel Campoy

Book Reviews:

Check out the new reviews from PaperTigers, Resource Links, CCBC and Books for Keeps. In addition to them, we have compiled a celebratory list of previously featured titles that relate to Hispanic Heritage by way of theme, author or illustrator.

Lists & Links:

Here you will find a wide range of reading lists, annotated resources and links to online material. And for even more inspiration, take a peek at how we celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month in 2006 and 2007. There's plenty of pride, information and fun to be gained from going deeper into this celebration. So dive in, and have fun!... and hop on over to our blog, too, as we continue the fiesta of "Hispanic Heritage Month" through October 15.

Create a Sense of Place in Shrewsbury

This Saturday, September 20th, the Shrewsbury Public Library in Massachusetts is hosting my Stories on the Fire Escape presentation from 11-12, serving up a savory Indian lunch (free!) from 12-1, and inviting people to my writing workshop, "Weaving the Magic Carpet of Place," from 1-2. If you're in the vicinity, please stop by.

rgz live with Paula Yoo

You're invited to chat with Paula Yoo, brilliant musician, television screenwriter for shows like West Wing, reporter for mags like People, and author of the acclaimed debut YA novel GOOD ENOUGH.

Mark your calendars: this Thursday, September 18th, 6 p.m. PST / 9 p.m. EST. See you there!

Want To Fight About Politics and Children's Books?

I was getting irritated by the political squabbling that's commandeered most of my online groups, listservs, and forums. I've always relished the freedom to disagree as a sign of a healthy system. After all, as was recently noted by the moderator of child_lit:
...People need to accept and be prepared for forceful argument because children's texts are at the center of significant cultural debate about weighty matters, such as how we relate to our culture and how we define ourselves as human beings.
So why are these particular arguments bothering me so much? Maybe because they're defined by contempt. I feel like a child forced to dine with parents who despise each other and are doing their best to triangle me into their destructive relationship. It takes a lot of energy to sit still and say nothing, and leaping into the fray feels like a no-win solution.

In the children's literature world, we need clear guidelines for appropriate online practices when it comes to forums, listservs, blogs, social networks, and comments. Some venues are suitable for fiery freedom of expression (child_lit, for example); others aren't (yalsa-bk clarified a "no-politics rule," creating a new forum for librarians eager to discuss this election with each other):
Over the last several weeks, there has been considerable discussion and many questions raised about the constraints imposed by federal law on ALA as a nonprofit charitable organization. On the other hand, there has also been considerable interest in having a forum available where ALA members could freely discuss political topics and the current election in relation to library issues.

ALA, because of its 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, is expressly and absolutely prohibited by the U.S. Internal Revenue Code from engaging in "political speech." This means that ALA resources, including electronic discussion lists, blogs and wikis, cannot be used for "the support of, or opposition to, a candidate for public office". Political speech is different from "lobbying," which seeks to influence legislation or regulation (ALA continues to lobby aggressively for libraries within federal guidelines).

For more information about the IRS prohibition on political speech by 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations, as well as links to additional information, please see the Marginalia blog posting.

To this end, the ALA-APA Board has authorized the creation of an ALA-APA Forum discussion list to discuss mutual issues of interest to librarians and other library workers, including political issues and candidates. This list is open to ALA members and others. Subscribe to the APA Forum here.
Now that's clarity. So out here on the Fire Escape, let me make the rules clear: anything goes, but with respect. By all means express yourself, but leave your contempt inside.

Poetry Friday: Poets Behind Bars

Campaigning here in the States is intensifying and writers are wielding words to convince, confound, confuse, and confront -- and, in a culture where humor is perhaps our mightiest weapon, to entertain.

When I get heated up by something I read or hear, I look across the sea to places where freedom of expression -- even a joke -- is a crime. Consider poet/comedian Zargana, imprisoned again last June (he's pictured above):
(Last) time he got five years, several months of which were spent in solitary confinement. Reading and writing were banned, so he scratched poems on the floor of his cell with a piece of broken pottery, and committed them to memory. Poems - words - have power in Burma, and the military authorities realize it.
Listen to Zargana's poem OBLIVION, published in This Prison Where I Live: The Pen Anthology of Imprisoned Writers (edited by Siobhan Dowd, Caslon Press, 1996):

At night the moonbeams snap.
The stars are suffocated.
That maligned, unhappy barn owl
screeches out its grief.
The old train on the tracks
hurtles to its destruction
wheezing out its last breath.

And I? I send my thoughts beyond these walls
day in, day out, from dawn to night
(from dawn to night, day in day out)...

Read the rest here and visit PEN's Action Program to find out what you can do on behalf of Zargana and other writers in peril.

Facial Expressions, Culture, and Stories

During an event at the Newton Free Library last night, I asked the presenter Gareth Hinds (BEOWULF/Candlewick) a question that's been on my mind when it comes to comics:

Me (paraphrased; I sounded more incoherent): "One thing I don't like in manga is when artists use darker skin for evil characters. And there's a certain genre of movie where fat people always get killed first. Big noses, pudgy bodies, slanty eyes -- how do you avoid using the lazy shortcut of stereotypes in portraying character traits to your readers?"

Gareth Hinds (paraphrased; he sounded more eloquent): "I don't have a hard-and-fast rule, but am very aware of that issue. I pick extras for my graphic novels who can communicate the emotions I need for the story with great facial expressions. So in MERCHANT OF VENICE, for example, I didn't draw Shylock with a big nose -- I looked for a model who could sneer really well."
I liked his answer, but now I have another question. People of different races and ethnicities communicate rage, humor, fear, shame adoration, lust, wonder, malice, and other emotions by using slightly different non-verbals. In South Asian markets, North Americans can get confused when a vendor closes his eyes and tilts his head to one side -- which means "okay," not "time for a nap." And trepidation is signified by raising your eyebrows and holding your tongue between your teeth, not opening your mouth wide.

Science Daily reports on the differences between Japanese culture, where the focus tends to be on the eyes, and North American culture, where we concentrate on the mouth:
These cultural differences are even noticeable in computer emoticons, which are used to convey a writer's emotions over email and text messaging. Consistent with the research findings, the Japanese emoticons for happiness and sadness vary in terms of how the eyes are depicted, while American emoticons vary with the direction of the mouth. In the United States the emoticons : ) and : - ) denote a happy face, whereas the emoticons :( or : - ( denote a sad face. However, Japanese tend to use the symbol (^_^) to indicate a happy face, and (;_;) to indicate a sad face.
In RICKSHAW GIRL, when my character Naima is frustrated with a friend, I wrote that she stuck out her tongue. Illustrator Jamie Hogan created a gorgeous full-page spread depicting that action -- one that readers have told me is their favorite in the book. While reviewing the galley before publication, it struck me that sticking out a tongue in Bengali culture might imply regret, not anger. After much internal debate, I decided to keep my doubts to myself and leave the non-verbal as I wrote it. But to this day when I'm reading aloud to a class and get to that part of the story, my authorial conscience flinches.

Here's my question: should writers depict facial expressions or non-verbals in a way that's easily understood by the culture consuming the story, even if it might not be "authentic?"

Hey, Thanks, Anonymous!

Some unknown wonderful reader nominated FIRST DAUGHTER for YALSA's Popular Paperbacks For Young Adults list, and another generous soul is going to hand deliver copies of both books as a gift to Meghan McCain, a daughter you have to admire no matter what your political affiliation.

NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL by Justina Chen Headley

Here's a confession: I'm not always dazzled by books my friends write.

That's why I loved the moment in NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL when I forgot completely that it was penned by fellow readergirlz diva Justina Chen Headley.

I was swept into Terra's story, a compelling tale about the freedom to celebrate flaws instead of desperately trying to camouflage them.

A couple of themes lingered in my mind long after I finished the last page of the book. (Don't you love when that happens?) I found myself contemplating the power of flaws I've long despised and taking stock of some relational Great Walls that need repairing.

Best of all, I can guarantee that teen girls will love the book -- it's got unforgettable characters, a heart-thumping romance, exciting border crossings, and an intriguing mother-daughter relationship.

NEWS FLASH: I'm organizing an exclusive one week NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL blog tour during February 2009 and have a few slots open, so if you blog about teen books and want the chance to read the novel and chat with the fascinating Ms. Chen Headley, contact me at

Hyphen Magazine Short Fiction Contest

Hyphen magazine and The Asian American Writers' Workshop (AAWW) are hosting a Short Story Competition. The winner gets $1000, publication in and a subscription to Hyphen, and membership in AAWW. Last year's winner, Preeta Samarasan, published her debut novel, Evening is the Whole Day, through Houghton Mifflin this past May. Finalists will have their work judged by Samarasan and Monica Ferrell, whose novel, The Answer Is Always Yes, was published by Random House this past April. Review the rules and enter by Monday, September 29, 2008!

First Brown Daughter Buzz

Thanks to the fact that there's bound to be a brown girl in the White House no matter who wins, the First Daughter books are getting a bit of buzz. Which is good, because the fate of a paperback WHITE HOUSE RULES depends on how well the PB of EXTREME AMERICAN MAKEOVER sells.

Slate writer Nina Shen Rastogi discovered the books, and over at Sepia Mutiny, blogger Taz took the time to read my Cynsations interview and report that I didn't know about Bridget McCain before I wrote the books. Really, I didn't. I'm just a run-of-the-mill powerful prophet.

And last but not least, my main character's sparrowblog got 8500 unique visitors last Friday (you fellow site-stat-checking geeks might know what that means).


The first review of your forthcoming novel feels almost as dear as a first kiss -- if it's sweet, that is.

Book Embargo, a blogger who works at an indie, had this to say about SECRET KEEPER (Delacorte, January 2009):
...It was a beautiful book. (Haven’t I said that already?) But it really was. The family dynamics, with the father gone to America, the mother and two sisters left to live with relatives. The money problems, the Indian culture, it was all so beautifully written and described. However, it was not a romance novel where everyone lives happily every after in their perfect world. It was a novel of family honor and respect, doing what is right even though it may kill you inside. It was beautiful and worth it, but have tissues ready at the end!
I have no idea how she got a copy of the book as I haven't even seen the galleys yet, but there's much about this industry that befuddles me. Chalk it up to wonder and mystery -- just like that first smooch.

rgz TV!

be part of readergirlz TV!
readergirlz tv logo

After reading a fabulous book, sometimes we just want to sit the author down for a "why did you do that to your character" chat. We at readergirlz have come up with the next best thing to meeting your favorite authors face-to-face: rgz TV on YouTube.

Listen to authors (including Rachel Cohn, Sonya Sones, Jay Asher, and Paula Yoo, author of this month's featured book, Good Enough) as they share the scoop on writing, writers block, and much, much more.

Or even better -- become a readergirlz correspondent! If your dream author is visiting your library, school, or bookstore, shoot a short, 2-3 minute segment asking about his or her books and inspiration. Then forward it to us, we'll upload your interview on YouTube, credited of course, and send you one of our limited edition rgz buttons!

Waxing Interest in Candidates' Offspring

Blog visitor statistics for Sparrowblog, where the protagonist of my FIRST DAUGHTER novels is keeping track of the real First Kid and First Veep Kid wannabes in Campaign '08, reveal the rising interest in the candidates' families thanks to the Conventions:

But here's the bottom line on the Fire Escape: DO THEY BUY THE BOOKS?

In New York This Autumn? Then You're Invited!

To My Fire Escape Friends

You are cordially invited to join me as RICKSHAW GIRL
is one of the books honored at the fifty-fifth
Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Ceremony

Date: Friday, October 17, 2008 so mark your calendars
Time: Ceremony begins at 2:30 o'clock in the afternoon
Location: 777 United Nations Plaza, 6th Floor, New York, New York

Admission is free and open to all.

For more information, contact Linda Belle, Executive Director,
Jane Addams Peace Association, 212-682-8830, e-mail:

Six Questions To Ask About A Story: #6

Here's the next installment in the Fire Escape's summer series of six questions to ask about a story. This time, let's get physical.

Question Six: How is race described?

We've talked before about the dilemma of writing race on the Fire Escape. Remember the description of perfect physical beauty in Pretties, Uglies, and Extras, the futuristic sci-fi trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, with straight hair (not kinky) and wide eyes (not squinty) as that evil society's ideal? Remember the wide range of phrases J.K. Rowling wielded when white people emoted in Harry Potter, while characters like Parvati, Padma, and Lee Jordan were never able to blush or pale?

And then there are the tired clichés that have long cued race in our culture. I'm talking about coffee-colored skin, high cheekbones, flat noses, big lips, almond eyes. Ask yourself if the storyteller has stretched the language to come up with fresh terms or is relying on overused, boring descriptors.

Last but not least, try this exercise. If you've recently read a story where race isn't particularly defined, how did you picture the characters? Try imagining them as members of various races and be truthful with yourself about how you're affected.

One of the reasons I don't like movie adaptations of my favorite books is because when I read the book, I am usually still in charge of the race of the characters. In the film version of the Lord of the Rings, for example, I was surprised to find myself jarred by a white Bilbo and Frodo, taken aback by a white Gandalf, and worst of all, turned off by an Aragorn who didn't match the brown hero of my adolescent dreams. If a teen watches the film version before reading the book, isn't his ability to imagine someone like himself in the story overpowered by the race of the actors?

The virtual version of  Six Questions to Ask About a Story. To discuss the list, why not attend YALSA's inaugural Young Adult Literature Symposium this November 7-9 in Nashville? Early bird registration ends today, September 1st -- you can save up to 25% over advanced and onsite registration fees. Registration for the symposium is available at Questions? Contact YALSA at or 1-800-545-2433, ext. 4390.