Mitali's Fall Writing Projects

I'll be gone until Tuesday after Labor Day, visiting my parents in California. When I return, I'm looking forward to putting my hand to the plow for an autumn of work. Besides an invigorating lineup of school, library, and conference appearances in Massachusetts, Tennessee, Connecticut, and Illinois, I'll be:
  • writing a commissioned 6000-word story about magic, dolls, and India.
  • revising my novel BAMBOO PEOPLE with Yolanda Leroy of Charlesbridge.
  • expanding this short story (published in the current issue of Kahani magazine) into a chapter book for early elementary readers.
Speaking of which, if you're an educator and/or a parent, have you subscribed to that wonderful periodical yet? Like many "multicultural" resources, it's not just for the brown kids on the block.

2009 Batchelder Award Seeks Nominations

ALSC members (a.k.a. our local librarians) are invited to suggest titles and names for the 2009 Mildred L. Batchelder Award given to (deep breath) "an American publisher for a children's book considered to be the most outstanding of those books originally published in a foreign language in a foreign country and subsequently published in English in the United States during the preceding year." Only books from the 2008 publishing year are eligible for the award.

Summer 2008: Verklempt in Beijing

As the 2008 Summer Olympics border-crossing extravaganza draws to a close, those of us who sofa-sit and get choked up over tales like these must move on to other pursuits. It's been a storyteller's dream, a feast of hero's journeys that will nourish us for months to come.

My proudest U.S.A. moments? The between-culture ones, of course, like watching athletes Lopez Lomong, originally of Sudan, and Khatuna Lorig, originally of Georgia, carry the Stars and Stripes into the Bird's Nest. And Henry Cejudo, the son of undocumented Mexican immigrants who had to work two jobs to keep food on the table, giving the U.S. its first Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling:
"I'm living the American dream right now, man," Cejudo, wrapped in an American flag, said moments after his win. "The United States is the land of opportunity. It's the best country in the world and I'm just glad to represent it."
Photo Courtesy of Matt_O via Creative Commons

Picture Books on Global Poverty

I want to compile a list of ten excellent fiction picture books set in ten different countries that inspire compassion and a desire for justice. So far I have the wonderful Four Feet Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammad, a lovely story about two friends in a Pakistani refugee camp, and One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Difference, a tale about microcredit set in Ghana, written by Katie Smith Milway. Any other suggestions?

Vampire Romances: Today's Girly Rebellion?

Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters and Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, opines in the Washington Post about the fascination with Stephenie Meyers' bestselling novels. Sax argues that this widespread teen girl fixation on Bella's fate underscores the failure of our generation to change what is basic:
For more than three decades, political correctness has required that educators and parents pretend that gender doesn't really matter. The results of that policy are upon us: a growing cohort of young men who spend many hours each week playing video games and looking at pornography online, while their sisters and friends dream of gentle werewolves who are content to cuddle with them and dazzling vampires who will protect them from danger. In other words, ignoring gender differences is contributing to a growing gender divide.
His description of the symptoms in youth culture may be accurate, but is their cause an expression of gender differences (as he argues) or simply this generation's rebellion against an adult agenda? I'm also wondering about the reaction to the books among teens with roots in other cultures, especially those relatively untouched by Western-style feminism. How do Muslim girls, for example, respond to Meyer's trilogy?

Photo courtesy of aldinegirl12 via Creative Commons

What Book Publishers Can Learn From Disney

In his article Generation Mix: Youth TV Takes the Lead in Diversity Casting, Edward Wyatt of the New York Times points out the difference between television for adults and television for kids when it comes to race and ethnicity:
“One-third of the U.S. population is now nonwhite,” said Ms. Chase, one of a handful of prominent African-American producers in Hollywood. “That is reflected in the Disney Channel projects because they are committed to diversity. It has been a priority for them all along.”

None of which should be particularly surprising in the 21st century, except that television in general seems to be caught in one of a series of repeating cycles in which diversity all but disappears from the small screen.

Consider, as a contrast, what the red carpet will look like at next month’s Primetime Emmy awards ceremony. Of the 26 men nominated for Emmys for lead or supporting actor in a drama, comedy or mini-series, all are white, most of Anglo-Saxon descent.
Casting aside, I'm wondering who is penning the stories for Disney. Did they seek any desi input when writing the newest Cheetah girls made-for-television flick, ONE WORLD, for example? (They didn't come knocking at the Fire Escape, and believe me, I was ready.) But I'm not going to get crotchety about this. I'm THRILLED that a movie set in India is on the Disney agenda -- it premiers tomorrow -- and that the company really seems to understand the changing realities of race and ethnicity in their market of kids and teens.

Unfortunately, in the book publishing industry, it seems like adults are leading the way when it comes to including an easy mix of characters in story. Monsoon Summer (Random House), my novel that has sold the best of all my books, was repeatedly rejected by publishers for years, some of whom said that American teens wouldn't want to read a book set in India. My agent finally placed the book after the adult reading population began gobbling up Jhumpa Lahiri's stories. "The market's ready for it now," we heard from booksellers.

Disney, which hasn't been known as a "multicultural" brand by any stretch of the imagination, has made a smart, profit-driven move to reflect the changing reality of race in the next generation. Here's my question -- is there a particular publisher of books for children and teens who seems to be leading the way in our industry? And if not, why not?

readergirlz on the Runway with Melissa Walker

Melissa Walker
This month on readergirlz, we're hosting the lovely Melissa Walker, author of Violet on the Runway, Violet by Design, and Violet in Private. "It's a hard sell, asking readers to muster sympathy for the congenitally gorgeous whose job it is to wear designer clothes and walk," said a reviewer in the New York Times. "In Violet on the Runway, Melissa Walker pulls it off."

Violet in Private by Melissa Walker

A wallflower in the spotlight can do one of two things: wilt or blossom. Shy and insecure, Violet Greenfield's life changes forever when a lady in giant Chanel shades tells her she could be IT, the next Kate Moss. Tall, skinny Violet, who's been P-L-A-I-N practically forever, ends up walking runways in New York City, Brazil, and Paris. Juggling her best friends, her agent's shrill demands, and the pressure of the fashion world to stay thin at any cost takes its toll on Violet. When she finally does choose college over modeling, will she be able to stick to her decision? After all, if she's not Violet on the Runway anymore, who is she?
So how does a trendy fashionista-slash-author who was once an ELLEgirl Features Editor and Seventeen Prom Editor choose to adorn her own body? Melissa's favorite glam outfit is a black strapless dress from the Luella Bartley for Target designer collection, plus vintage Oscar de la Renta high heels, but she writes in T-shirts and yoga pants with flip-flops or soft slippers (the writer's uniform, one of the perks of the job).

Discuss the runway, body image, and the novel with the author herself. Melissa will be chatting live at the readergirlz forum on Thursday, August 28th at 6 PM PST/9 PM EST. The chat will last for about an hour.

The Truth About Dating Between Cultures

Author Terry Farish gets me to tell the truth about dating as the American child of an arranged marriage in an interview for Connections, a book discussion series for adult new readers sponsored by New Hampshire's Humanities Council.

Click here to listen.

Six Questions To Ask About A Story: #5

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

Question Five: Does a storyteller use accent to cue character traits?

How the popular storytellers of our day handle accent is an interesting way to measure a society's xenophobia (fear of stranger) versus our philoxenos (love of stranger). The Sophisticated Evil Genius with an upper class British accent is still rampant in American film, for example. Niko, the villain/protagonist in Rockstar's bestselling video game Grand Theft Auto, was cast carefully as an Eastern European. And as I watched the previews of forthcoming movies before Dark Knight, and then scrutinized the role of the blockbuster's Hong Kong money launderer played by Chin Han, I wondered about an emergent undercurrent of China-fear in our culture -- a trend that might have been fueled by American coverage of the opening ceremonies in Beijing.

Listen to writer/actor Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapoor of The Office) describe her experience of Hollywood's dilemma on Letterman:

When it comes to children's and teen books, it's interesting to note how and why the author conveys accent in conversation and description. Is an "ethnic" character's accent ignored altogether? Is the difference communicated solely through a more stilted vocabulary or sentence structure? Does the author use accent as a mechanism to get us to root for or against a character?

YA chick lit, for example, may sometimes employ the characterization shortcut of how we as a society perceive American regional accents. Flipping through the pile of ARCs on my desk, I find one protagonist who is bothered by a "metallic Southern drawl that grates on (her) consciousness."

Books about immigrants often use accent to emphasize that a character is newer to America or more traditional, but sometimes it can be a lazy way to underline that a minor antagonist is strict and unyielding. Japanese writers of Manga rely on regional differences in language to send messages to their readers, using the Osaka dialect and accent as a way to signify that a character is funny and earthy.

Accents get more interesting, however, as books move from the page to audio and movie adaptations. In the teaser trailer of TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyers, for example, Kenyan-born Edi Gathegi seems to have been directed to "bring the accent" for his role as Laurent, the least lethal of the villain vampires. Listen to how foreign he sounds in the trailer versus how he sounds in real life. Out here on the Fire Escape, I find myself wondering why they wanted the change.

Biblical Themes in Children's Literature

Presbyterians Today, the periodical of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is offering a new Bible study series by MaryAnn McKibben Dana focusing on children’s literature:
This 10-part series explores biblical themes in familiar titles as well as some recent books "destined to be classics." Books marked with an asterisk (*) have been made into films and may be showing in theaters or available on DVD.

September 2008: Prince Caspian,* by C.S. Lewis
In this second installment in the classic Chronicles of Narnia, the Pevensie children return to Narnia and take up the struggle to assist Caspian as he reclaims Narnia in the name of Aslan, a lion who serves as the Christ figure throughout the series.

October 2008: Because of Winn-Dixie,* by Kate DiCamillo
A lonely preacher’s kid finds a sense of belonging through the companionship of a scruffy stray dog and various other colorful characters in her small Florida town.

November 2008: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,* by J.K. Rowling
The sixth volume in the Harry Potter series, this book explores the evil Lord Voldemort’s tragic past. Harry comes to terms with his destiny — to fight Voldemort in a battle in which only one will survive. The film adaptation of this book is due to be released in November 2008.

December 2008: A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle
The followup to L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, this book has Meg and her friend Calvin O’Keefe racing against time to defeat the Echthroi — sinister, mysterious beings who threaten to tear the universe apart.

January/February 2009: Holes,* by Louis Sachar
Unlucky Stanley Yelnats finds himself sentenced to hard labor at a Texas juvenile detention center. The boys are forced to dig holes in the desert, day after day. But what are they looking for?

March 2009: Bridge to Terabithia,* by Katherine Paterson
A classic tale of friendship and imagination by Presbyterian author Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia chronicles the unlikely relationship between Jesse Aarons and his new neighbor Leslie Burke, the mystical land of Terabithia that unites them and the real-life tragedy that rocks Jesse’s world.

April 2009: The Book of Jude, by Kimberley Heuston
Sixteen-year-old Jude finds her world turned upside down when her mother receives a fellowship to study for a year in Czechoslovakia. This book sensitively explores themes of adolescence, identity and mental illness, all against the backdrop of Prague at the end of the Cold War.

May 2009: The Giver, by Lois Lowry
This book is set in a pseudo-utopian society in which Sameness is the ideal and strong emotions are all but eradicated. Jonas, a 12-year-old boy, receives an unusual assignment — to become the sole Receiver of Memory, the only one who knows the people’s history and all that came before.

June 2009: The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron
Ten-year-old Lucky lives with her father’s ex-wife after the untimely death of her mother. Her favorite pastime, eavesdropping on 12-Step meetings, inspires her own plucky search for a Higher Power — though she’s not sure what that is. The story explores family and faith with wit and grace.

July/August 2009: The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt
Poor Holling Hoodhood is the sole Presbyterian in his seventh-grade class. His Jewish and Catholic classmates all leave school early on Wednesdays for religious instruction, while Holling is stuck with his teacher, who he’s sure is out to get him because she makes him read Shakespeare. The horror! This poignant and humorous book is set in 1968.

Discussion guides (grades 5–8 level) will be available online. Download a free sample study guide for Prince Caspian, one of the books in the beloved Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, now a major motion picture.

PW Clears Up The Mystery

If you're befuddled about getting a book published, join the crowd and consider attending PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY BOOK PUBLISHING 101, a one-day course for writers on "how publishing really works." One small catch: you have to be in Manhattan on September 23rd, underlining the geopraphical advantage of New Yorkers yet again. Stream it live for the rest of us, PW!

The Healing Power of Humor

"You're racist!"

Kids in North America learn fast how dangerous it is to do or say something to earn that judgment. Adults take racism seriously.

Consider the world's careful discussion about the Spanish basketball team's hand-to-eye maneuver. It's painful to watch journalists struggle to report the story with the "correct" expressions and words.

Thank goodness for those with the gift of enabling us to laugh at ourselves. Listen, for example, to Russell Peters' riff about the Indian accent (Warning: some potentially offensive content):

That's why we'll miss the likes of Bernie Mac, one of a host of honest storytellers unafraid to use humor to prod us along in the journey.

Our Candiates Are Dolls

Only in America, land that esteems the celebrity and the entrepreneur, would someone invent and market books of Obama and McCain paper dolls. Included are cutouts of Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama, with wedding dresses and evening gowns, and the Obama girls in coats, knit shirts, and shorts. The McCain kids got shafted.

Skokie and I Get Along

The Skokie, Illinois schools and libraries have invited me to visit this November; they're partnering with neighboring Schaumberg to bring me in from Boston. Skokie libraries also selected FIRST DAUGHTER: EXTREME AMERICAN MAKEOVER on their Voices of Youth Award list. Can't wait to get to know that community better.

The Olympics Between Cultures Dilemma

Did you catch the amazing 400M swimming relay when the Americans barely beat the French? I'm one of those fanatics who shout at the screen as though athletes can hear through the barriers of space and time. The events are usually recorded on our DVR so I'm screaming my support while Cullen Jones and company are snoring in the Olympic Village.

But would I have been rooting as wildly for the country of my citizenship if France were the country of my origin? What if four Indians were swimming their hearts out against the Americans?

During the opening ceremonies, new Americans cheer when the stars and stripes enter the stadium. But most of us also watch eagerly for another flag. Is it possible to feel patriotic towards two nations at the same time, or is that oxymoronic?

WALL*E: Message in Story

My status update informed my Facebook Friends that I was wowed by WALL*E, and Sara Zarr sent me to Jeffrey Overstreet's interview with Andrew Stanton, writer and director of Pixar's newest wonder.

We're not a culture that tolerates much preaching. In WALL*E, a combination of strong characterization, pacing, and plot permitted the storyteller to proclaim a strong message without making us resent either him or the film. Overstreet asked Stanton how he pulled off that miracle:
Overstreet: How do you approach the challenge of being meaningful in entertainment without preaching?

Stanton: I knew I was playing with fire by having elements that could [make people] accuse me of preaching, but frankly I figured that if I was always doing it from an honest place, that I was only using things in order to make the story clear and make the love story and the theme of the movie as rock-solid as I could, then the smart people would get it. So… that’s my only defense. I hate going to a movie and being preached to. If it emotionally gets to somebody, then I’ll take credit for it, because I was trying to go for as much emotional punch as possible.
Caring for the planet is the culture's current cause célèbre, but I'm convinced that even pave-it-all-drill-everywhere advocates have enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and been affected by it. Know of any stellar novels written from an "honest place," with a story and theme strong enough for the writer to advocate his or her passion? Maybe the book even proclaimed a message that you reject, but because of the storyteller's mastery, you were unable to resent it and perhaps able to hear it for the first time.

Canadian Children's Literature Awards

The Canadian Children's Book Centre and TD Bank Financial Group have announced the finalists of the 2008 TD Canadian Children's Literature Awards for the most distinguished books of the year. This annual award recognizes excellence in Canadian children's literature with $20,000 for the most distinguished book written in English and $20,000 for the most distinguished book written in French.

All books, in any genre, written by a Canadian for children ages one through 12 were eligible for the awards. Entries were judged on the quality of the text and illustrations and the book's overall contribution to literature. The winner of the English-language award will be announced in Toronto on November 6, 2008. The winner of the French-language award will be announced in Montreal on October 29, 2008.

The English-language finalists for the 2008 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, with jury comments, are:

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting
By Hugh Brewster with paintings by John Singer Sargent
Kids Can Press

"An outstanding information book... Beautifully written and produced, with a fine balance of illustration, biographical and historical detail and insight into the creative process, all through the viewpoint of a child whose humanity makes it true."

By Kenneth Oppel
HarperCollins Publishers

"Darkwing continues Oppel's reputation for creating textured, engrossing animal societies that win generations of fans. The exceptional writing is filled with descriptive details, emotive connotations and visual sightings that give a richly plotted, fact-filled glimpse into this prehistoric world."

Elijah of Buxton
By Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic Canada

"Tears of laughter and sadness commingle as Curtis immerses readers in the daily happenings of the nineteenth century Ontario community of Buxton whose inhabitants are slaves who have escaped from the United States. This novel engagingly and dramatically brings to life a little known segment of Canadian history."

Eye of the Crow: The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His First Case
By Shane Peacock
Tundra Books

"Historical fiction at its finest! The plot, speculating on the childhood adventures of Sherlock Holmes, is well-constructed, fast paced and embedded with details. Superb characterization is accompanied by witty dialogue and the
author's love of vivid descriptive words."

Please, Louise!
By Frieda Wishinsky
Illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay
Groundwood Books

"A gem of a picture book delighting in the warm relationship between brother and younger sister. Lively watercolours explode across the pages adding detail and humour to the powerful simplicity of the text. The words sing as they are read!"

The French-language finalists for the 2008 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, with jury comments, are:

Texte et illustrations de Mélanie Watt
Editions Scholastic

"Cet album humoristique est d'un concept innovateur. Chester le chat, personnage prétentieux et taquin, se joue de son auteure-illustratrice afin de ravir à la souris le rôle principal de l'histoire. Ce livre comporte une magnifique mise en abîme où... les souris gagnent!"

Farouj le coq
Texte de Badiâa Sekfali
Illustrations de Jean-Marie Benoit
Editions Les 400 coups

"Ce conte, issu de la tradition arabo-berbère, nous transporte dans l'intemporalité. Le récit avec une grande délicatesse et limpidité transmet de nombreuses valeurs; le respect d'autrui, la persévérance, la détermination, la bonté, la sincérité et la foi en un monde meilleur. Les illustrations de couleurs chaudes sont de véritables oeuvres d'art."

Le Mur
Texte d'Angèle Delaunois
Illustrations de Pierre Houde
Editions de l'Isatis

"Ce conte moderne a une portée universelle. Il permet de voir la naissance et l'absurdité d'un conflit ainsi que les conséquences qui en découlent, pour soi et pour les autres. Les illustrations arrivent à transmettre, avec une luminosité touchante, l'hostilité que l'on retrouve dans le récit. L'ensemble permet de saisir comment une peccadille peut devenir un
mur d'incompréhensions."

La Petite rapporteuse de mots
Texte de Danielle Simard
Illustrations de Geneviève Côté
Editions Les 400 coups

"Cet album tout en finesse raconte une histoire de tous les jours. Le thème difficile de la maladie d'Alzheimer est rarement présent dans la littérature jeunesse, mais l'est par contre de plus en plus dans la vie actuelle. Le texte, sensible et touchant, est porté par des illustrations évanescentes comme les mots dans la bouche de la grand-mère, elles savent à merveille transmettre les émotions. La complicité intergénérationnelle règne au coeur de ce magnifique album."

Un cadeau pour Sophie
Texte de Gilles Vigneault
Illustrations de Stéphane Jorisch
Editions La montagne secrete

"Une histoire réaliste tout en poésie, aux couleurs de bord de mer. Le texte et les illustrations s'harmonisent en une véritable ode à l'enfance et à la vie. Un cadeau pour tous. Ce livre transmet le sens de la continuité, l'importance de se souvenir, la valeur que peut avoir un cadeau..."

When Book Promotion Equals Groveling

After our interesting conversation about the value of author blurbs last week, Tadmack sent me to this Salon article. First-time novelist Rebecca Johnson describes perfectly the embarrassment of asking another author for a quote about your precious:
My target was a midlevel, moderately successful novelist who wrote the kind of smart, sophisticated books I imagined my reader might enjoy. The daughter of a famous novelist herself, she had no idea what total obscurity looked like, but I'd known her vaguely for years and we shared at least one mutual friend. Fortified by a glass of white wine, I made my way toward her.

"Hi," I said a little too brightly. Was it my imagination, or was she already moving away from me? After a few forced pleasantries, I brought up the book and asked if she might be willing to read it. The expression on her face -- part horror, part sneer -- was exactly what I would have expected had I released a large fart and asked what she thought of it.

"I'm really busy right now," she answered, turning her back. After that, I stuck to e-mail. Electronic humiliation is so much more tolerable.
I feel Johnson's pain when it comes to slogging on with marketing.  Of course there are countless more important things then selling books. Case in point -- I'm heading off for our annual kid-free anniversary celebration, so I'll be back on the Fire Escape in a few days. 

Children's Authors Gone Wild!

Author Siân Pattenden went after a recent clause added to Random House contracts in the UK:
If you act or behave in a way which damages your reputation as a person suitable to work with or be associated with children, and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished, and we may (at our option) take any of the following actions: Delay publication / Renegotiate advance / Terminate the agreement.
"Writers are not, and should never be, seen as role models," Ms. Pattenden states in her Guardian blog post.

Yet another example of how different we are in the States. I doubt if any of our publishers would consider a clause like this one, and yet I think there might be an unwritten expectation in the industry that we are supposed to be role models.

Most American children's book authors aren't known for DUI arrests, suicide attempts, or accusations of abusive behavior towards our mothers. Are creators of children's stories a happier, more stable (some might read: boring) bunch than other artists? Are we better at keeping our mistakes quiet? Or is there an unwritten code moderating our behavior this side of the Atlantic (authors who are party animals need not submit manuscripts; celebrities exempted)?