It's Too Cold on the Fire Escape

Peace be with you all as (if) you celebrate this season, my chickadees. I'll be back on the Fire Escape in 2009, which will be our fifth year of chatting about life and books between cultures. I'll bring the steaming cups of chai, you bring the warm blankets. See you then!

I'm Highly Shelf Aware This Week

Jennifer Brown of Shelf Awareness reported today on my presentation at the YALSA symposium, and also interviewed me for her piece on Tweet Me That You Love Me: An Author-Indie Valentine yesterday.

Lovely to be a included in a roundup of "daily enlightenment for the book trade," as my dream is to shine this little light of mine in the world of children's literature.

What Am I Doing?

This thing is getting big.

It's fun, don't get me wrong. When a reporter called to ask about it, I told her that in a time when bad news seems to be getting our industry down, we wanted to celebrate our bigger vision statement: connecting young people to great stories.

But I've got questions. For example, do we assign teen/YA authors to one store, and the PB authors/illustrators to another, etc., or do we mix up audience ages at every bookstore? Which will work better to bring families to the event?

Will bookstores feel slighted if we don't give them a "big draw" author?

Who is a "big draw" author, anyway?

Who is "we" (apart from our initial trio of twitterers and Deborah Sloan)?

Yikes. All input appreciated.

The amazing part is that because it's happened so quickly and virtually, I'm in the same pair of sweatpants I was wearing when the whole thing started (don't worry, they've been washed.)

Now if only I could exploit recent events to lure Jack Gantos and Lois Lowry into participating ...

Kids Heart Authors logo lovingly designed by bookseller Aimee McLear.

Back Off, Adult Gatekeepers?

"Which assigned novels did you appreciate when you were in high school?" an aspiring teacher asked recently.

"None," I answered, after a long pause.

I can't remember any novel assigned or recommended by an adult that deeply affected or captivated me during my teen years. What I do remember is browsing the stacks of the public library and finding books for myself, some that bored, some that entertained, and a few that absolutely addicted me to the subversive power of story.

Now that our boys are in high school, I see them doing the same thing, seeking their story fixes outside adult circles and finding them mostly in film (probably because their parents are bookaholics.)

Do adult gatekeepers actually get in the way when it comes to the mysterious, life-giving connection between kids and stories? Take the Newbery Medal, for example.

"Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism, and most of the rest deal with tough social issues," observes Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post in Plot Twist: The Newbery May Dampen Kids' Reading. Is our goal to depress North American children en masse?

"If you force someone to read a book, the less likely you are to like it," Elias Feldman, 13, an eighth-grader at private Landon School in Bethesda, told Strauss.

The kid's onto something. You can't compare the girl who wrote to say she'd already read my novel Monsoon Summer four times this year with the bored student who informed me he barely slogged through it for a homework assignment.

So why do we force-feed our kids stories? I think we're scared that Hollywood and Madison Avenue might "dumb them down" to consume only popular, shallow stories via television and movies. So we organize committees and award medals to give them richer literary fare. "Richer" defined by us, of course.

History and anthropology reveal that young people have always appreciated meaningful, entertaining, delightful storytelling, but we hover-adults don't trust this generation's ability to resist influence and find their own stories as they come of age. 

I'm not suggesting that parents and teachers stop sharing our favorite books with kids, especially younger ones; in fact, it's one generation's duty to nourish the next with stories. That fourth-read fan of Monsoon Summer might never have discovered it without an adult handing her the book. But what would happen if we stepped back a bit, especially as they age, and let them find their own life-changing tales -- without judging the media or the message? Scary, yes. But revelatory. And maybe even revolutionary.

Six New Books Between Cultures

Thanks to SLJ's generous virtual presence, I glean their reviews to spot new books that might be appropriate to mention out on the Fire Escape. This month, I discovered six titles that feature comtemporary and imaginary protagonists dealing with life between cultures (with brief quotes from School Library Journal reviewers):

My Two Grannies by Floella Benjamin, illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain, Frances Lincoln.

PreS-Gr 1 — "Alvina, whose mother is black and father is white, has two grannies who love her dearly: Granny Vero, born on Trinidad, and Granny Rose, born in Yorkshire."
Milagros: Girl from Away by Meg Medina, Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books.

Gr 4–8 — "The very first page hints at the loss of Milagros de la Torre's wonderful childhood home, Las Brisas, an island in the Caribbean ... the 12-year-old ends up on another island—this one off the coast of Maine ... this is an engaging and compelling tale of a fish out of water."
Slant by Laura E. Williams, Milkweed.

Gr 4–7 — "Petite Lauren, an eighth grader and Korean-American adoptee, is best friends with tall, blond Julie."
Voss: How I Come to America and Am Hero, Mostly by David Ives, Putnam.

Gr 7 Up — "...Ives blends laugh-out-loud inanity with real social commentary on U.S. culture—from clothing and celebrity to advertisements and eating habits—and the plight of immigrants."
The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Hyperion/Jump at the Sun.

Gr 8–10 — "California-born Sonia Rodriguez, 15, the daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants, is determined to be the first high school graduate in her family."
Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before by David Yoo, Hyperion.

Gr 9 Up — "Asian-American Albert Kim, 16, is extraordinarily successful at cultivating his status as 'intentional loser.' Having chosen against academic summer camp, he takes a cleaning job at a nearby inn."
I was glad to see that two of the teen titles (Stop Me by David Yoo and Voss by David Ives) feature guys, and that both were described as laugh-out-loud funny. All six books were favorably reviewed, and Milagros: Girl From Away won an SLJ star.

In Which I Presented the PEN Phyllis Naylor Award

I was so nervous presenting the PEN Phyllis Naylor Working Writer's Fellowship last May at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City, I had no idea what I said when I stepped away from the microphone. Did I babble? Make huge grammatical errors? Go on and on?

The night wasn't about me, thankfully, as evidenced by this photo of Theresa Nelson receiving the award for her captivating work-in-progress, Julia Delaney: The American Version. (Yes, that's me in the background.) PEN put the brief speech on-line recently, and I was relieved to discover that I'd been coherent.

The deadline for letters of nomination for the fellowship is January 16, 2009, so if you know an author who meets the criteria, send it in.

American Identity in Children's Literature Symposium

If you're in the Chicago area, please head over to the American Identity in Children's Literature Symposium on Saturday, December 13, from 9:30 am - 2:30 pm, and take good notes so you can tell the rest of us all about it.
Four scholars will discuss the development of ethnic or multicultural children's literature, which seeks to diversify the all-white world of children's literature. Following thirty-minute presentations drawn from their respective specialties of Jewish, Latino, American Indian, and African American children's books, they will form a panel to discuss with each other and with audience members such issues as authenticity, audience, self-esteem, and presentations of social conflict and cultural differences that make this field so important and so contested.

The following schedule is a guide only; speaker times may vary slightly; there will be short Q & A periods during the morning, but most disucussion with the audience and panelists will take place during the afternoon panel discussion.

9:30 am Welcome

9:40 am June Cummins-Lewis, San Diego State University, "All-of-A-Kind Americans? Becoming a Jew in Sydney Taylor's America"

10:10 am Debbie Reese, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "Indians as Artifacts: How Images of Indians Are Used to Nationalize America's Youth"

10:40 - 11:00 am Break

11:00 - 11:30 am Michelle Martin, Clemson University, "Little Black Sambo and the Complicated History of African American Children's Books"

11:30 - 12:00 pm Phillip Serrato, San Diego State University, "Trying to Forget Pedro and Juanita: The Emergence of Chicano/a Children's Literature"

12:00 - 1:30 pm Lunch break

1:30 - 2:30 pm Panel discussion with the speakers and the audience

Admission is free. No reservations are required.

The Newberry Library
60 W. Walton Street
Chicago, IL 60610

The Symposium will be in Ruggles Hall on the first floor.

The Great V-Day 2009 Indie-Author Love Fest

I've been discovering some hard truths about our industry lately, and realizing afresh how much we need the passion, handselling, creativity, and championship provided by our country's independent booksellers. They've been taking a hit, but New England alone still has over 350 indies!

About a week ago, I started thinking: why not show them some author/illustrator love by planning a massive multi-author signing event? Great idea, right?

So what did I do next? I twittered about it, of course, in 140 words or less. 

Fellow New England kid lit bloggers Sarah Rettger and AC Gaughen jumped into the conversation, adding fresh ideas.

We decided on Valentine's Day 2009, envisioning that grandparents and parents could bundle up their kids, bring them to a bookstore between 10-noon, meet several authors and illustrators, and leave with a signed literary Valentine or two -- and a great memory.

What came next? A website, of course. An invite to the honchos at NECBA and NEIBA, who responded with characteristic enthusiasm, and bookstores started signing up.

Via Facebook, Deborah Sloan and Company agreed to show their support of the New England children's book community by providing PR pro bono. 

Authors like Ellen Wittlinger and Rachel Cohn jumped on board.

A bookseller with a graphic arts background offered to design a poster and a logo.

It's happening, people. Help! I have no idea what we're doing, but it's fun.

Won't you join us on 2.14.09 by marking it on your calendar if you're a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent in New England, and signing up if you're an author or illustrator with a CBC-published book still in print? Fiction or non-fiction, anything goes.

Here's the site if you want to spread the word:

Chilling with Lois and Jack at Harvard

a nervous-making sign
welcomed us to the event

Up first: Lois Lowry

Lowry Fun Facts:

Took the photos for many of her book covers • Attended school in the same Japanese town as Allen Say • Absolutely loves movies and has seen Fargo six times • Once drew herself wearing her pair of Newbery Medals as earrings • Recently gave books by Suzanne Collins and Kim Ablon Whitney as birthday presents • When asked about glam gown for the red carpet premiere of THE GIVER, joked about needing a walker by the time the movie version finally comes out • Is fit, young, fun, and gracious, and has many more stories to tell.

Up Next: Jack Gantos

Gantos Fun Facts:

Had tea with Margaret Rey of CURIOUS GEORGE fame in Cambridge • Tormented sleeping older sister by lowering a roach on string into her open mouth • Loved THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton • Relies on charming middle-school daughter for tech help during presentation • Switched JOEY PIGZA from third-person to first-person narrative voice and the story came to life • Mesmerizes a crowd with hilarious stories and gossip about children's book writers, illustrators, and editors.

I was up last. After that. Deep breath. Technical glitches. Somehow I managed to blaze through my fifteen minutes. After that we took some questions from the students, signed books, and raced to an Indian restaurant nearby where the fun continued.

the plate of extra spicy
lamb vindaloo would be mine

Jack Gantos isn't a big man,
but this can't be right

Mitali likes her job

Give a Goat For A Change

One of my all-time favorite Christmas presents from my husband and sons was a goat. Actually, I got a card with a photo of girl cuddling a baby goat, and the real creature was sent to a Guatemalan village. 

I keep the picture of the girl and goat in my bedside drawer along with a few other treasures. Glimpsing it makes me smile as I imagine a family enjoying fresh milk, cheese, and yogurt from our goat. But what if I'd had to strive and plan and scrimp and invest in order to afford the goat? Wouldn't my connection to that faraway family be even stronger, and my delight even greater?

In GIVE A GOAT (Tilbury House, 2008), author Jan West Schrock taps into her family's heritage with Heifer, International to demonstrate the joy of working hard to give. With captivating, humorous illustrations by Aileen Darragh, GIVE A GOAT tells the story of a fifth-grade class deciding to join the war against poverty, and serves as the perfect how-to guide for any classroom, scout troop, youth group, or homeschooling family. 

Schrock's book shows how embarking on a project like this in the tween years can teach valuable math, teamwork, brainstorming, and business skills. But best of all, raising money to send a goat or cow or pig to a family in need might inspire our children to become lifelong givers.

To celebrate the book's release, Tilbury house is giving away two copies. To qualify for this giveaway, leave a comment telling us about a children's book that inspired you or your kids to compassion. I'll pick two winners at random, and also compile a list of titles.

My Freaky Harvard Gig

Remember that Sesame Street jingle: Some of these things belong together, one of these things just isn't the same?

Thanks to Lolly Robinson, designer and production manager of The Horn Book and professor at the Harvard School of Education, that song has been running through my mind for days.

She's invited me to address her class tomorrow evening, December 9th, along with (yikes) Jack Gantos and Lois Lowry.

Sing along with me, everybody, and stop by if you're in the area for moral support.

Here's To The Writing Life!

This career requires nerves of steel. Countless disappointments and the agonies of waiting have driven many a writer to drink. Or to Cadbury chocolate. Basically, choose your favorite numbing agent to survive the ride. There are celebrations along the way, though.

First you endure a long string of rejections. Mini Fiesta #1: Here's to landing a contract! Clink! For Secret Keeper, an offer came from Delacorte almost three years ago.

Next you wait to see if critics like your work. Mini Fiesta #2: Here's to getting a good review! Clink! My book's coming out in a month, and I'm exhaling bit by bit as the reviews start trickling in. I already heard that PW liked it, but the good news is that Kirkus agreed, saying that "this achingly realistic story ... will enlighten and inspire young women, and encourage them to value their own freedom." Whew.

Then you hope the darn thing sells. Mini Fiesta #3: Here's to earning out your advance and getting royalties! Clink! Ka-ching! Checks come for Sunita, Monsoon Summer, and Rickshaw Girl, but will they for Secret Keeper? I hope so. Because for some books I'm still waiting.

Each letter or note from a reader generates celebration, too (clink, clink), but finally, inevitably, no matter how many starry reviews and awards and fan mail and checks come your way, you'll get a letter from your publisher. It will inform you politely and formally that the book is going out of print and getting remaindered. Do you want to buy some copies, and if so how many? CLINK! *glass SHATTERS*

That's why the real party is writing the next story. Pass the Cadbury please.

War and Peace in Children's Books

Here's a terrifying phrase to turn into an oxymoron: children of war. Even Hollywood's jumping on the bandwagon, with hit shows like HEROES and 24 capitalizing on a growing moral outrage over human trafficking and child soldiers. The children's book community is ahead of the curve this time, thanks to PaperTigers.

Check out their interview with Deborah Ellis, author of Off to War: Voices of Soldiers' Children, and the rest of their resource-rich issue on War, Peace, and Social Justice in Children's Books, which includes these goodies:

Author and collage-artist, Susan L. Roth talks about co-writing and illustrating Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea; her approach to collage; and the power of art to break barriers and promote peace.

A special feature by six children's book illustrators who have tackled the difficult topic of war and conflict with sensitivity.

Books for Thought and Action: A Taste of Jane Addams' Legacy by Jo Montie.

Learning That War Is Not a Game by Kathy Beckwith.

Finding One Thousand Tracings
by Lita Judge (reprinted with permission).

Strengthening the Good, Stamping Out the Bad: Children’s Books & Good Causes.

New book reviews from PaperTigers, CCBC and Books for Keeps, as well as a compilation of previously featured titles on the themes of war, peace and social justice.

A selection of thematic reading lists and links to online resources.

rgz news: Meg Cabot and readertotz!

My fun year of serving as a readergirlz diva is coming to a close, and I'm delighted to step into my trendy new role as rgz talent scout. I'll be on the hunt for hot new titles, so send the viral buzz my way.

Our author for December is Meg Cabot, and we're featuring HOW TO BE POPULAR, as well as celebrating the release of the last book in her PRINCESS DIARIES series, FOREVER PRINCESS, releasing January 6, 2009. Check out and jump into the rgz roundtable on popularity hosted by Little Willow. Or consider our recommended reads on the theme:
  • A La Carte by Tanita Davis
  • Fringe Girl in Love by Valerie Frankel
  • Perfect You by Elizabeth Scott
  • How Not to be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler
  • Respect, a Girl’s Guide to Getting Respect & Dealing When your Line is Crossed

Also, rgz diva Lorie Ann Grover is spearheading our new little sister site -- readertotz!

Taking the lead from readergirlz, which boasts more than 8,000 members, readertotz will showcase high-quality literature. Lorie Ann Grover and Joan Holub will feature weekly blog posts that highlight the best contributions in the infant-toddler book arena and recommend monthly community service projects appropriate for families with young children to enjoy. Also included each month: an age-appropriate playlist and a recommended book for the older sibling.

"readertotz is our effort to raise the bar in board and novelty book literature," says Lorie Ann Grover. "We're challenging our colleagues to write great books for the youngest readers and encouraging the industry to publish those works. Eventually, we hope to work with the American Library Association to establish an award for infant-toddler books that's equivalent to the Caldecott and Theodor Geisel Award."

Now all we need is readerkidz or readertweenz!

Thanksgiving OUTLIERS Book Giveaway Winners

The entrants in my Great Thanksgiving OUTLIERS Book Giveaway Contest posted an array of heartwarming, funny, and moving answers to the question, "Is there a particular person or event in your past who contributed to your survival, let alone your success?"

I encourage you to read them — they'll inspire you to look back with gratitude to those who guaranteed your presence among us, as well as consider the difference you might be making for generations to come.

The five winners (chosen randomly) were ProfDO, Amie Stuart, beckylevine, advanced.reader, and Kathy H. Please send your email addresses to mitaliperk - at - yahoo - dot - com and I'll forward them to Little Brown so you can get your free copies of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, OUTLIERS: The Story of Success. Congratulations, and thanks to everyone who commented and generated gratitude for those who came before us.