Friday, October 31, 2008

India Loves Children's Books


American publishers should be paying close attention to the growing book consuming power in my native land. Most Indian kids who buy books don't need translations and enjoy stories originally written in English. Here's more evidence of how quickly that market's changing:
You're invited to a week-long extravaganza of book-related events around the city, culminating in two days of dramatic readings and interactive workshops with internationally-renowned author and illustrators, where children will be inspired to read, draw, watch, question, imagine… to discover new worlds, and rediscover beloved classics.

Our ambition is that Bookaroo 2008 will be just the first of an India-wide series of festivals over the coming years

Bookaroo will help to raise the profile of Indian children’s books within India and abroad. It will help generate sales, ignite media-interest, actively foster links between professionals in the industry, educate and entertain and inform.
… And all over Delhi too!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Help Me Renovate in '09

In the voting mood? An artist is envisioning my website's new look for 2009. Below are her rough sketches of three choices. Could you vote for one and help me pick?

FIRE ESCAPE ONE:
Rounded Balcony With Plants



FIRE ESCAPE TWO:
Brick Building With Stairs



FIRE ESCAPE THREE:
Swoosh Through Balcony





Note: I have to tinker with the poll -- on some browsers it seems to be working, on others it's freaking out, so please leave your vote in the comments below if you're in the latter category and I'll add your vote to the poll later on this afternoon when I have time to fix it. Thanks so much!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Children's Books in Many Languages

Looking for a children's tale in Farsi, or a picture book for that Mongolian neighbor across the street? Check out the International Children's Digital Library, a growing source of free multilingual children's literature.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Your Baby's Just Fine

After reading Sarah Rettger's review of SECRET KEEPER (Random House, January 2009), I reacted like an anxious mommy-in-waiting when the OB says, "Hey, you're baby's doing great!"

A sigh of relief, settling back in the chair, a quick, loving pat of the metaphorical tummy.

Although pregnancy's not quite like the pre-publication jitters, is it?

After all, nobody's going to tell a mommy exactly how ugly her baby is in a crisp, well-written paragraph or two, but gatekeepers of literature feel that freedom, and rightfully so.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Smackdown! Librarians Versus Publishers!

How's that for a sensationalist headline? When it comes to age banding in the UK, librarians have picked a corner in the fight to keep publishers from printing suggested age ranges on childrens' and YA book covers.

If age banding goes forward, librarians would "ignore the classifications and shelve the books in the manner they felt was appropriate." Can you hear the cheers from the 800 or so authors who've joined ranks with the likes of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman?

A representative of the Publisher's Association said they're looking forward to talking, but: "Age banding is there for those people who really don't know [what book they want], and there are a lot of those people out there – a point which libraries have not really taken on board."

As these three groups of adults continue to debate, I'm wondering if children across the Atlantic are seen but not heard. Has anybody surveyed them about age banding? Scientifically, I mean, across a slice of the population, so you can show us data instead of talking about "a lot of those people out there."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ten Tips On Writing Race in Novels

Should an author include descriptions of a character's race in a story?

Well, yes and no. It depends. How's that for a wishy-washy answer?

Here's my attempt to sum up a lively discussion that's taken place here, and here, and also here over the past couple of days. As I tuned into the communal wisdom, I gleaned ten tips for authors about describing race in novels. Please correct, disagree, and inform as we continue the conversation, because I say mea culpa on most of the errors I describe below.

1. Forget about "race."

Identity is actually more about ethnicity, a word that comes from the Greek "ethnos," literally meaning "gentiles" and related originally more to language than skin color or hair texture. There really isn't a generic "African" race, for example -- there are groups who speak Kikuyu, Zulu, Ashanti, Fulani, etc.

Every one of us has an ethnicity. What language(s) did your four grandparents speak? The sixteen great-grandparents? If you don't know, then you don't know. Whether that matters is up to you, but one rite of adolescence in North American culture is to identify one's own ethnicity.

The consensus is that in a third-person narrative voice it's best to avoid socially-constructed race words like African-American, Asian-American, etc. to describe only the characters who aren't of European descent. And North American authors conventionally don't use "European-American" or white because to label every character's race gets tedious. So don't use any such labels at all. Characters and first-person narrators, however, are free to use them any way they choose.

2. Give your story the power.

If your story is about ethnicity, you're probably going to have to describe your characters accordingly. If the story is not particularly about ethnicity, ask yourself two questions.

First, why are you describing the ethnicity of your characters? Don't do it if your honest answer is "I want to show how open-minded I am" or "I want to move the world towards a better day."

A better answer might be "because the particular community where the action is set is diverse." Or: "because my protagonist knows how to make kimchee from scratch." The story and characters, and not your best political intentions, should determine whether or not you provide ethnic cues in description.

Second
, if you're writing for a generation of readers who regularly mix and explore race and ethnicity, why aren't you doing the same?

Bad, but honest answer: "I never really thought about it." If that's the case, take a long, hard look at your story. The descriptions of physical appearances probably indicate the ethnicity of your characters even if you weren't purposeful about it. Alternate your characters' primary ethnic self-identifications. How does that feel? How does that change your story?

Better answer: "My story's set in rural Minnesota, Mitali, and everybody's ancestors came from Norway. Sorry, but their cheeks do turn apple-red when they're embarrassed."

3. Respect your readers right to cast the story.

Heavy-handed authors force readers to receive stories and picture characters the way we want them to, dang it. Authors who understand and celebrate the dialectical dance with a reader often cut descriptions.

If my story doesn't require that my characters affiliate with a specific ethnicity (as with some fantasy or science fiction books, for example), could I err on the side of giving my readers' imaginations enough space to "see" the characters any way they choose?

It's their loss if they always picture an all-white cast, but defining an ethnic secondary character solely to "broaden kids' horizons" makes us guilty of patronizing them and tokenism. Not good.

As the storyteller, you decide if, how, when, and why to reign in your exceptional descriptive skills. Another helpful practice is to re-read your story with different readers in mind -- some living across borders and oceans, some dwelling on the margins of mainstream culture, and some in generations to come where race and ethnicity will be defined in completely different ways.

Will your descriptions of physical appearance confuse or exclude such readers? What's lost by leaving a few words out or replacing them with others? Do some wordplay with physical descriptions, and think about how the descriptions might empower or limit young readers.

4. Know your characters' relationship to ethnicity.

Define in your mind (a) the languages spoken by your characters' great-grandparents, and (b) how they each see and understand ethnicity. If a teen character jokes about race with his friends, let them go wild. Make his mother the ex-hippie squirm as she overhears their conversation.

5. Check your descriptions of non-verbals.

Go ahead, force your character to pale or blush, or to swish her long blond ponytail, but that means she's definitely of European descent. Hey, if that's what your story and character requires, so be it. But be aware of what you've done.

6. Do your homework if you cue ethnicity with jargon, diction, or accent.

Language can be a lazy shortcut to convey ethnicity. It can also be a powerful tool. The storyteller who crafts dialogue with jargon, diction, and accented English must be diligent in study as well as creative -- listening, learning, and communicating linguistic differences in the right way at the right time for the right reasons.

7. Question the cover art.

A trend in YA lit is to feature a realistic photo on the cover which communicates the physical appearance of your main character in one fell swoop. Likewise, in an illustrated picture or chapter book, the artist casts the characters.

The group of people with an interest in packaging the book -- editor, marketing folks, designer, bookseller, author -- should be having this conversation: By trying to sell more books with this particular cover, are we usurping more power than necessary from the imagination of the reader?

Is the rendition true to the author's description or does it add to or even contradict it, as in Cynthia Kadohata's Weedflower, where the sole instance of the protagonist dressed in kimono is on the cover and nowhere to be found in the story?

One of the advantages of a written story over a film is that readers are free to cast the characters in the imaginary YouTube video playing in their minds as they read your story. Or just to let the story roll forward without mental pictures of the characters, something I do often as a reader, especially with secondary characters.

Did you picture Brian McBrian, Tibby's romantic interest in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, as Leonardo Nam to the left?

How about imagining Laurent, the least lethal of the evil vampires in Twilight, as an African (played by Edi Gathegi)?

Hollywood made those decisions for you. Am I glad? Yes, because on screen every character MUST have a specific appearance. But books can leave it up to us.

8. Challenge apartheid.

Don't let anybody inform you that you can't venture outside your own ethnic self-identification as you create characters.

9. Take a purposeful risk.

Push your authorial envelope. For some of us, a risk is to avoid ethnic cues and clues and descriptors altogether as a purposeful technique to give room for the reader's imagination. For others, risky writing means striving to describe the ethnicity of our characters in a way we never have before.

10. Unleash your creativity when it comes to descriptions of appearance.

It's unanimous: stay away from food metaphors when it comes to describing skin color. Scrupulously avoid cliché when talking about a character's appearance.

Let's invent fresh ways of describing the human diversity on our planet, and set our young readers free to enjoy fresh ways of seeing it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Should Authors Describe a Character's Race?

Should an author describe the race of a
character or leave it to the reader's imagination?

During an elementary education class at Boston College, one of the students asked me this question. I shared it this afternoon via my Facebook and Twitter status updates, and here's what people have been saying (emphasis mine):

If a character is of a certain race in writer's mind, why not describe it? Otherwise the reader assumes it's dominant group, right? — Sarah Rettger

I'm not an author, but I'd think that if it's important, then it will come out in other ways, such as in the reaction of others to that character. — Kathy Christie Hernandez

How important is it that the reader understand the author's original intent, and how much can the text speak to his/her experience apart from it? I think details on race, especially in your genre, will help some readers identify with the characters, while other readers may gloss over those details to find something more universal to identify with. I would vote to describe race. — R. C.

For me, I'm torn because my character's race has nothing to do with the current story. I know she's black, though, and in her background, I know how that plays into the choices she's made to get to where she is when this story happens. I see her clearly in my mind, I have to give her a bit of a physical description, as I would for any other character. Where I feel stupid is, natch, that I don't describe any one as Caucasian or mention that my hero is probably half-Jewish, so why would I describe this character as black? But I also feel, when I describe her, that if I don't make it clear what she looks like, I look like I'm avoiding this detail of who she is. It all comes back to the fact that, in my head, her being black is an important part of why she lives where she does. And the book will (hopefully) be part of a series and maybe in one of the later books, this bit of background that's tied to her being black, may come out into play. — Becky Levine

How does one "describe" race since race is a social construct? Color-related terms? (Then we end up with awful similes and metaphors - many to do with food!) — Pooja Makhijani

In my current WIP (middle grade) the protagonist is Indian (or South Asian-American, or Indo-American, or of Bengali heritage - what do we call it?), but the story really has NOTHING to do with BEING Indian. However, her background, and her family's background, add texture to the story. But if her heritage is not integral to advancing the story, then how much attention should I call to her "ethnicity"? I'm happy with the book the way it is, but readers and reviewers may think otherwise. — Anjali Banerjee

I think in some books it's important for the plot (Come a Stranger by Cynthia Voigt, or The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks, Jaqueline Woodson's Maizon trilogy are a few that come to mind right away), but it can also build plot -- you don't realize that the character is of xyz ethnicity until something happens in the plot. I like that picture book artists are being more inclusive, using many different types of children in their illustrations ... Overall, "show don't tell" comes to mind. — Suzi Wackerbath

When a "white" character comes on scene, I don't think I've ever read "a white girl with blonde hair." But if a person of any color is described for the first time, I see a lot of "African-American boy with light skin" or "Asian-American girl with long hair." It's a little off-putting as a reader, plus isn't it kind of clunky? — Justina Chen Headley

I think Sarah may have hit on one of the key things here--that idea of assumption that a character is from the dominant race. Yuck--not to Sarah at all, but to that feeling that we (I!) DO do this. So then, what are we doing when we identify a character by race/ethnicity--are we playing into some idea I wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole? — Becky Levine

I also reacted to Sarah's comment -- because no, I don't assume the character is of the dominant race. As a child, I was always looking for cues that a character was of MY race (Asian), and would take physical cues, such as black hair, as evidence to support my wish. I think if it fits in naturally, if it matters what their race is, why not? But I'm also all for being vague, and using a broad variety of physical traits for your characters. It makes a difference. — Alvina Ling

I, like Sarah, would tend to assume.Jackie Parker

Alvina, I probably should have phrased that differently -- when I assume a character is white, it's just as likely that I'm assuming s/he looks like me. I went to college in an environment where identity politics were huge, so I'm very conscious of the fact that I continue to make these assumptions. With my latest WIP, I've run into this from the writer's side. I submitted the first few chapters to my critique group, and one critique partner said that based on my main character's voice, she knew just what the character looked like -- Drew Barrymore in Ever After. I didn't describe the MC physically in those chapters. In fact, she's a mixture of English, Spanish, and Afro-Caribbean, something that comes out in a later scene (which I've now moved up in the story) where she meets characters with skin darker than hers - and notices it. A cross between Drew Barrymore and Eva Mendes is a little closer to what I was aiming for, but without being explicit about the main character's background/appearance, that wasn't coming across. And to Pooja's point, I'm definitely not using food metaphors to do it! — Sarah Rettger

I remember reading The Princess Academy in early 2007 while preparing for a trip to China and Tibet. While reading the book, I imagined the characters to be from this part of the world. I don't recall physical descriptions of race or ethnicity, but reading about traders, the mountain pass, village elders and the harsh living conditions made me think this. The girls pictured on the cover were faceless and I didn't take any cues from them. I don't know if this is what Hale intended, but I enjoyed my reading of the book this way. I was terribly disappointed when the paperback copy of the book came out with the image of very white girl on the cover. This image made me rethink my reading of the book and wonder what I missed. When I read, I picture my characters based on the setting and cultural cues the author provides. And must say, I like it this way. — Tricia Stohr-Hunt

Just a week ago someone in our (writer's) group asked me what my character looked like -- she has leg braces and crutches and dark hair, but there was a complaint because no one exactly knew her race. I think it's an identity thing and important to certain human beings for some reason. Maybe adult human beings more than young adults? I'm with Pooja; I find it hard to describe sometimes, and God help me if I default to mocha or chocolate or caramel... (because the paler alternatives are almonds and bananas and peaches. Which is just as ridiculous.) — Tanita Davis

I think it's important not to use "race" and "ethnicity" interchangeably. (i.e. My ethnicity is South Asian [or whatever we're calling it these days]; I don't know what my race is.) As a reader, I'd like to see even more books with non-white characters. (We've come a long way, but there's more work to do!) And I think it's important for readers of color to recognize themselves in the books that they read. If we, as writers, have to be more explicit about it (sans food metaphors), why not? Alvina, as a child, I didn't see myself in any of the books I read. But, I imagined my favorite characters looked like me. In my head, even Anne of Green Gables was a dark-haired, olive-skinned gal! — Pooja Makhijani

I definitely struggle with this, because I have characters with various ethnicities in the YA novels I write -- many of whom are of mixed ethnicity and somewhat ambiguous in actual appearance (in my head, anyway!), not just in their descriptions on paper. In fact, that's an important theme in one of my novels, which sort of spoofs the whole food-metaphor idea. Sometimes I end up slipping in a person's last name somewhere and using that as a clue to ethnicity, but it can't be used as the sole cue for appearance, or the writing may fall into the trap of assuming that everyone of a particular ethnicity will look the same. I feel like it's a tough line to walk, because I really want to include a variety of characters in my novels but as part of a normal environment, NOT necessarily as a plot point. As someone of mixed ethnicity who grew up in a fairly diverse environment, a lot of my YA settings reflect my own experiences...but unless it's part of the plot, I try to rely as much as possible on implication through small telling details rather than directly stating somebody's ethnicity, if possible. So far, anyway... :) — A. Fortis

I second Pooja's comment about race versus ethnicity. We should not use the terms interchangeably. "Race" generally refers to biological (phenotypic) characteristics. "Race" is not particularly useful when we talk about humans, as all humans are about 99.9% identical in genetic terms. There's more genetic variation *within* groups than *between* groups. This kind of homogeneity is unusual in other species, apparently. "Ethnicity" is a social construct, a cultural classification. We have many ways of interpreting and defining ethnicity. We also have to consider the tension/relationship between our role as artists -- telling a story and being true to the story -- and the culture in which we move. In a way, we're asking, what is our responsibility, as writers, to the society at large? An interesting aside -- the Indian cover of my novel, MAYA RUNNING (Penguin-India) shows a black silhouette of a teenage girl on a pink and white background. The North American cover (Random House) shows a brown-skinned girl, clearly Indian, with a huge image of Ganesh above her head. Hmmm. — Anjali Banerjee


Please keep posting your thoughts and responses in the comments section. I spent Tuesday in Newington, Connecticut doing an author visit at the high school and the library, and on Wednesday will be in Brookline offering writing workshops, so I'll distill and post my thoughts on Thursday.

Stay tuned for Mitali's top ten tips on writing race, and thanks for all the stimulating conversation!

Monday, October 20, 2008

How Are They Getting Their Story Fix?

Once they're in high school, most teens stop reading for fun, says a Chicago Tribune article about the challenges faced by English teachers:
The percent of 17-year-olds who do not read for pleasure has doubled in the past 20 years, according to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Just 43 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they read literature in 2002, continuing a decline that began two decades earlier.

"We're talking [about reading] a play, short story, novel or poem in the last 12 months. . . . It's a low bar. We're not even saying you had to complete the book," said Sunil Iyengar, the group's director of research and analysis.
Another article from across the Atlantic presents a theory about why teens aren't reading. They're getting dumber, according to The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future by Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein:
(Bauerlein) draws a depressingly consistent causal relationship between the rise of digital literacy and the decline of cultural literacy. The more skilled kids become in using the tools of the digital revolution, he demonstrates, the more ignorant they become about the objective world around them. The informational abundance of the Web 2.0 age, according to Bauerlein, is creating a famine of intelligence. And so the most tangible fruit of the digital revolution is the "dumbest generation," a term Bauerlein borrows from Philip Roth's The Human Stain, a dark novel about the collapse of educational standards in a digitally infatuated America.
I disagree, believing that our shared intelligence is shifting instead of diminishing, but are there other reasons older teens don't read novels?

Here's one: they're filling the universal human hunger for story through films and video games instead of books. Here's another, inspired by Andrew Sullivan's piece "Why I Blog" in the November issue of Atlantic Monthly (thanks to Chicken Spaghetti for the link): young adults prefer the authenticity, relevancy, and participatory nature of intellectual content on the web.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

I Didn't Weep During My Speech

The Jane Addams Book Awards ceremony took place yesterday in Manhattan with the flags of the United Nations as our backdrop (that's me, just before entering 777 UN Plaza for the event).

I was terrified I was going to lose it during my talk. Who wouldn't get verklempt when given an award for "children's books that promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races?"

To avoid the danger of extemporaneous verbiage, I wrote out the whole three minutes:
Thank you to the Peace Association for your hospitality at this wonderful event and this great honor for our book Rickshaw Girl.

My great-grandmother, who lived in Bangladesh all of her life, was nine years old when she was married. My only memory of her is an old woman sitting quietly in a widow’s white sari.

Did she have power? Some might say not much.

But she taught her daughter how to draw alpanas, the traditional folk art of Bengal. And she told stories. Wonderful stories. Which meant that her daughter taught my mother to draw alpanas, and told her stories.

Thanks to our family’s move here to New York when I was seven, the alpana art skill didn’t pass to the next generation. The love of stories, however, did.

I wrote Rickshaw Girl for my great-grandmother, and for girls today in Bangladesh who still don’t have many choices.

The good news is that when I lived there for three years, I traveled to the villages and was thrilled to see that life is changing slowly but surely for young women. Like Jane Addams, Muhummad Yunus of the Grameen Bank is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a genius with a big heart. Thanks to women’s banks that offer loans at lower interest rates, these girls have opportunities that my great-grandmother never had. They can start and manage small successful businesses, like the rickshaw painter in my novel.

I want to thank my father, whose love for his three daughters rivals the fictional paternal love in my book. My mother, for beautifying our American home with alpana art, Tagore songs, and the great smells of her savory cooking. My sisters, husband, and sons for constant support and cheerleading. Jamie Hogan, who bridged cultures so beautifully with her illustrations, and Judy O’Malley of Charlesbridge, who edited the book with unmatched care and compassion. Naima’s story wouldn’t be here at all if Judy hadn’t taken it under her wing. Last but not least, I want to thank God, the Author of my story.

Don’t you think Jane Addams, one of my personal heroes and champion of immigrants, would be pleased that a writer born in Calcutta would be receiving this honor today? I think she would. Thank you all so much.
Illustrator Jamie Hogan came next, and she got choked up talking about how she resonated with the father's love for his daughter in the story. It probably didn't help that Jamie's own hubby and daughter were sitting side by side in the audience.

That did it. We were unanimously verklempt, but sweetly so.

Part of the award included our
very own Jane Addams dolls! Yippee!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Manhattan Is Calling My Name

I'm heading to NY to have lunch with Random House editor Françoise Bui (who worked with me on MONSOON SUMMER and SECRET KEEPER), and to accept the Jane Addams Honor Award for RICKSHAW GIRL with illustrator Jamie Hogan.

I've got my three-minute speech ready, and most of you know that I'm so happy because Jane Addams is one of my heroes. Stop by the ceremony at United Nations Plaza if you're in town, because everybody's invited. Details are here. I'll be back on the Fire Escape on Monday!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Here's To The Obama Family's Librarian

Remember when I sent copies of my books to the McCain and Obama girls as payback for tracking them on sparrowblog?

Well, I haven't heard back yet from Meghan or Bridget, and the padded envelope containing Rickshaw Girl was returned to sender by Obama's campaign headquarters, unopened.

I'd already inscribed the book to Sasha and Malia, so I decided to send it again, this time directly to their school library. Here's the handwritten note I just got from their librarian:
Thank you so much for the gift of your wonderful book in honor of Malia and Sasha. We do already own a copy, but kids love it, and an additional copy, especially as a gift from you, will be treasured. It is a beautiful story, and a glimpse into a world so different from ours. I will also write a note to the Obamas to let them know the book is here. Thanks again for your thoughtful gift.
Now that's classy. The hand that chooses the books and checks them out to kids rules the world.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Coe Booth and An Na at rgz Live! Chat Highlights

For those who missed our conversation with Coe Booth (KENDRA) and An Na (THE FOLD) last night at readergirlz, here are a few choice excerpts, reprinted with the authors' permission:

How did you tap into your teen years when writing your novels, KENDRA and THE FOLD? Was there anything in those books that you actually experienced growing up?

Anna: I did indeed have a crazy aunt offer my sister plastic surgery. We all thought she was crazy, but there were girls going through with it.

Coe: My teen years are always right on the surface for me. I feel like it was all yesterday sometimes. All I have to do is close my eyes and remember all that angst.I didn’t have to tap into my own experiences for KENDRA. It’s not based on my life in any way, but the feelings Kendra goes through are definitely the kind I would have had. Like Kendra, I was (and am) very sensitive!

Anna, did you grow up in a mostly-white suburb? Or were you around a lot of other Koreans? Coe, what was it like growing up in the Bronx?

Anna: I grew up in a pretty white neighborhood in San Diego, but there was a Korean church nearby and I spent almost every Sunday hanging out with my Korean friends at church and then Roberto’s afterwards. Can I just say how much I miss good Mexican food living out here in Vermont. Sigh.

Coe: I love the Bronx. It’s like another character in the book, especially in TYRELL.

How does eyelid surgery work?

Anna: If you google asian eyelid surgery, you’ll get a ton of photos. I couldn’t look at the pictures. It made me queasy and I would hold my hand up to hide the photos while I read the info. But the before and after photos are interesting.

What is your writing process? How do you think/come up with your characters?

Coe: I don’t really have a real process right now. I’m still trying to figure out this whole full-time writer "thing." I’m a terrible procrastinator, and the only time I seem to get any writing done is when I meet friends for writing "dates" in places where there’s nothing else to do except write. I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s just another way of saying, "I don’t feel like writing today!"

I’m always "getting" characters in my head. I don’t really know where they come from. They’ve always just been there. (I realize this sounds very schizo, but it’s just how I’ve always been!) I find that whenever I try to force my characters to act a certain way in order to move the plot along, it never works. It always feels forced and ultimately doesn’t work.

Coe, this is your second book, how was writing that different than TYRELL?

Coe: KENDRA is a lot different than TYRELL. They live in the same projects (and Tyrell makes a brief cameo), but otherwise they have totally different teen experiences. Tyrell was under-supervised and Kendra is way over-supervised. Kendra was raised by her grandmother who is the complete opposite from Tyrell’s mother.

The original inspiration for KENDRA was watching some of my friends who had babies when they were teens, now have teenage children themselves. I didn’t want to write about teen pregnancy. I wanted to write about the "result" of teen pregnancy. And so Kendra is the 14 year old child of a woman who had her at 14.

Anna, was it hard to write a second book after winning so many prizes for your first book?

Anna: It was hard. But I also had a lot happen in my life soon after the awards. My daughter was born and my younger brother, Sung, passed away all in a year. So with some amazing highs, I also had some huge life stuff happen so the writing just had to be put on hold for a bit.

As you can tell, our rgz Live! hourlong chats go by fast. They can be funny, poignant, and often painfully honest. Last night, Anna, Coe, I, and others who stopped by also talked about skin lightening creams, our favorite Halloween candes, the possibility of KENDRA facing banning challenges, books we're reading and loving, and the pros and cons of Mario Kart 4 -- among other things.

Tune in all week at readergirlz to chat with authors galore. Tonight it's VERSE BITES at 9 p.m. EST, 6 p.m. PST with authors Lorie Ann Grover, Stephanie Hemphill, and Lisa Ann Sandell. See you there!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Coe Booth and An Na: rgz Live Chat!

readergirlz night bites banner - small

As part of readergirlz' celebration of Teen Read Week, you're invited to an hour of great conversation with LA Times Book Award winner Coe Booth (KENDRA) and Printz Award winner An Na (THE FOLD), moderated by me at readergirlz tonight, 9 EST, 6 PST.

Coe Booth: Kendra
Kendra's mom, Renee, had her when she was only 14 years old. Renee and her mom made a deal -- Renee could get an education, and Kendra would live with her grandmother. But now Renee's out of grad school and Kendra's in high school ... and getting into some trouble herself. Kendra's grandmother lays down the law: It's time for Renee to take care of her daughter. Kendra wants this badly -- even though Renee keeps disappointing her. Being a mother isn't easy, but being a daughter can be just as hard. Now it's up to Kendra and Renee to make it work.

COE BOOTH has worked in social services, and is currently a teacher in the Bronx. She has always lived in and continues to live in the Bronx. She is also the author of Tyrell.

An Na: The Fold
Joyce never used to care that much about how she looked, but that was before she met JFK—John Ford Kang, the most gorgeous guy in school. And it doesn’t help that she’s constantly being compared to her beautiful older sister, Helen. Then her rich plastic-surgery-addict aunt offers Joyce a gift to “fix” a part of herself she’d never realized needed fixing—her eyes. Joyce has heard of the fold surgery—a common procedure meant to make Asian women’s eyes seem “prettier” and more “American”—but she’s not sure she wants to go through with it. Her friend Gina can’t believe she isn’t thrilled. After all, the plastic surgeon has shown Joyce that her new eyes will make her look just like Helen—but is that necessarily a good thing?

AN NA is the author of Wait for Me and A Step from Heaven (National Book Award Finalist and Printz Award winner). She lives in Montpelier, Vermont.

Mitali Perkins: Secret Keeper
When her father loses his job and leaves India to look for work in America, Asha Gupta, her older sister, Reet, and their mother must wait with Baba’s brother and his family, as well as their grandmother, in Calcutta. Uncle is welcoming, but in a country steeped in tradition, the three women must abide by his decisions. Asha knows this is temporary—just until Baba sends for them. But with scant savings and time passing, the tension builds: Ma, prone to spells of sadness, finds it hard to submit to her mother- and sister-in-law; Reet’s beauty attracts unwanted marriage proposals; and Asha's promise to take care of Ma and Reet leads to impulsive behavior. What follows is a firestorm of rebuke—and secrets revealed! Asha’s only solace is her rooftop hideaway, where she pours her heart out in her diary, and where she begins a clandestine friendship with Jay Sen, the boy next door. Asha can hardly believe that she, and not Reet, is the object of Jay’s attention. Then news arrives about Baba ... and Asha must make a choice that will change their lives forever.

MITALI PERKINS was born in Kolkata, India. Her previous novel with Delacorte Press is Monsoon Summer, a Book Sense 76 Pick, a New York Public Library Book for the Teenage, and a Bank Street College Best Book. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts. Mitali is a readergirlz diva.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Poetry Friday: The Storytelling Power of Hair

Hair tells our secrets.

Our thoughts on age, politics, beauty, race, and self can all be communicated by the way we keep our hair.

Check me out with three different dos, for example. If I were to (lie and) say that one of these was my high school yearbook photo, what would you learn about the me I used to be?

For this week's Poetry Friday (roundup here), I give you the last stanza of Karen Craigo's insightful ESCAPED HOUSEWIFE PREFERS THE TERM COSMETOLOGIST:
She came here to verify
what she always suspected:
that straight hair must be curled,
curly hair straightened,
long hair cut, short hair extended.
That what comes to us by fate
is wrong.
Source: Poetry (March 2002)
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Fusion Authors Action Figures

Order yours today!
Representing Fusion Stories, from left to right: David Yoo (STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE), Paula Yoo (GOOD ENOUGH), Me, and Janet Wong (MINN AND JAKE)

We didn't have a huge turnout at our NECME workshop, but had fun anyway, chatting with each other and the educators who came.

Here I am shocked, absolutely shocked, by the contents of David Yoo's new novel (photos courtesy of his sister):


Enjoy the fabulous trailer for STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE, just released from Hyperion:

Fusion Stories Panel in Hartford

Today at NECME in Hartford, Connecticut I'm moderating a panel of three other Fusion Stories authors, Janet Wong (MINN AND JAKE'S ALMOST TERRIBLE SUMMER), Paula Yoo (GOOD ENOUGH), and David Yoo (STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE). We'll be signing books, too.

Here are some of the questions I plan to ask Paula, David, and Janet:
  • What was your experience growing up as an Asian-American? How did you connect to the "Asian" part of your heritage (if at all)?

  • What are some advantages of the "multicultural" label when it comes to books and authors?

  • What are some disadvantages?

  • How do you feel about authors who aren't Asians writing about Asia or creating Asian characters?

  • How do American standards of beauty affect an Asian-American child?

  • Do you see pop culture changing when it comes to being Asian-American? If so, why?

  • What are you working on now?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

BENEATH MY MOTHER'S FEET: Interview with Amjed Qamar

Know a young reader with a blossoming dream to battle poverty? Get her a copy of Beneath My Mother's Feet (Atheneum, June 2008) by Amjed Qamar. Throughout this moving debut novel, we grow to care deeply about Nazia, a young heroine with few choices but immense courage and compassion.

The author honors the culture of her origin and yet unflinchingly etches out in stark detail the chasm in Pakistan between rich and poor and men and women. American readers won't be able to read news headlines about Pakistanis without picturing Nazia and her friends and family living there.

I invited the author out on the Fire Escape to talk about writing the book and share our chat with you here. I also highlighted a few compelling phrases in bold as they seemed to jump out at me ... so, emphasis mine.

So, tell us, Amjed, where is “home” for you?

I was born in Hyderabad, India and came to the U.S. when I was around a year old. My whole life I lived in the midwest, mostly Ohio. I lived in Pakistan for five years and have traveled there regularly over the past 18 years. Although I have a very soft spot for Pakistan, home for me is definitely here in the U.S.

Why do you think that it's important for young people to read stories set in other places?

It's important to learn about the child sitting next to you in school. Understand the accent of the man bagging your groceries or the teller at the bank who has a dot on her forehead. We live in a small world that is constantly meshing. To live in isolation, to think that we have nothing to gain from children who live in other parts of the world is not an option. We need to share these stories with young people in order to catch up, keep up, thrive, and grow.

Could you sum up for us the dream response of a reader who knows little or nothing about Pakistan's history and culture?

I've gotten so many of them already! To be invited to share their joy in reading the book, to see them wearing the clothes, looking for recipes and sharing the food, to hear readers talking about their own mother and daughter relationships, it's truly amazing.

Now let's move to the journey of getting the novel published. What was a high point? A low point?

The high point of course is the great response I'm getting from critics and readers alike, now that the book is out there for the whole world to read. The low point is just the worry and stress of getting it right. It's so hard to let it go.

What was the biggest change you made in response to an editorial suggestion?

In the first few drafts, the father was a heavy smoker. After discussing with the editor, we decided that in terms of age group, it would be best to cut the smoking out all together (despite it being a heavy part of the culture). I think it still works wonderfully without it.

Could you describe a fear you have about this novel that can keep you up at night?

The main fear I had was what would Nazia do? How was she ever going to get out of this mess? How could she possibly help her family? She was just a girl! In Pakistan!

This is one of those stories where the character ruled the book and I couldn't write anything she didn't want me to. It was very surreal at times. You know the stories you hear about the book writing itself or the character takes over, I completely get that now. But to be clear, Nazia has been in my head for nearly a decade now, whispering, cajoling, begging for me to write her story. Finally there just came a time in my life when I said enough already, put aside what I was writing, and started writing for her.

Okay, here's my last question: What's next for Amjed Qamar in the realm of children's books?

I am working on my next book, but I'm keeping it to myself for now!

Thank you so much, Amjed, for listening to your character and giving us this wonderful novel. I loved getting to know and cheer for Nazia, and I'm sure other readers will feel the same. Can't wait to see what comes next! Thanks for visiting us on the Fire Escape.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Pura Belpré Medal Award Nominations

It's time to nominate books for the 2009 Pura Belpré Medal Award. This is one of those awards restricted by the ethnicity of the author (you may read my thoughts about that and chime in here). It's given to a "Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."

The award is sponsored jointly by ALSC, a division of the American Library Association, and REFORMA: Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking. The suggested book must be published in the United States or Puerto Rico during 2008. The award will be announced at the Youth Media Awards Press Conference during the ALA Midwinter meeting on January 26, 2009.

Bubble Stampede's Best Book Promotion Links

Authors Laurie Purdie Salas and Fiona Bayrock are brainstorming about promotion during the nine months before their first books are birthed in Spring 2009. Their livejournal blog, Bubble Stampede, is full of tips and conversation about their trials, errors, and triumphs.

That's how I found them -- they've just shared their favorite links about promotion, included my own Pajama Promotion: Ten Tips For Writers, and Google alerts tossed their post into my inbox. I headed there for a brief visit and discovered a roundup that was so helpful I decided to share it on the Fire Escape.

So here's another on-line tip for authors in flannel clutching a coffee cup: link to posts that catch your attention. Many of us track our online presence, so we'll probably end up checking you out, and maybe even buzzing about you if your content proves to be valuable to our readers.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Poetry Friday: When Autumn Came

Lots of people living in New England gloat over the fall. I beg to differ. That's why I'm joining this week's Poetry Friday with a poem by poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who understands my tropical blood:

WHEN AUTUMN CAME
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
translated by Naomi Lazard


This is the way that autumn came to the trees:
it stripped them down to the skin,
left their ebony bodies naked.
It shook out their hearts, the yellow leaves,
scattered them over the ground ...

read the rest here


From The True Subject by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated by Naomi Lazard. © 1987 Princeton University Press.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Holly Cupala Makes Her Diva Debut

readergirlz night bites banner - small

We at readergirlz are thrilled to announce that YA author Holly Cupala has been appointed as our newest DIVA (the other four are Justina Chen Headley, Dia Calhoun, Lorie Ann Grover, and me).

Holly's debut novel, tentatively titled A Light That Never Goes Out, was sold to HarperCollins in a two-book deal. She won a 2006 SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant, which helped her to finish the book. (BTW, I just renewed my membership in SCBWI, the planet's most helpful and non-negotiable association for children's book writers and illustrators.)

Holly lives in Seattle, where she's already been serving steadily with readergirlz (she designed the brilliant logo above, for example), and she blogs at Brimstone Soup.

Holly Cupala and Lorie Ann Grover at the Kidlitosphere Conference in Portland

But I must share my favorite between-cultures photo of Holly, because we had a virtual consultation from East Coast to West about the pleating and folding of her party outfit, a gift from her in-laws. Apparently an on-the-spot South Asian stranger in an elevator totally trumped my e-mailed lesson, but who cares? The end result was fabulous.

Authors Holly Cupala and Edith Cohn at SCBWI's Paint the Town Red Gala

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Cybils Nominations Are Open!

CybilslogosmallNominations for the third annual Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards (the Cybils) will be open Wednesday, October 1st through Wednesday, October 15th. The goal of the Cybils team (some 100 bloggers) is to highlight books that are high in both literary quality and kid appeal. The Cybils were founded by Anne Boles Levy and Kelly Herold.

The Cybils lists, from long lists to short lists to the lists of winners, offer a wonderful resource to anyone looking for high-quality, kid-friendly books. The Cybils team has worked hard to balance democracy (anyone can nominate titles) with quality control (two rounds of panel judging by people who focus on children's books every day). We do this work because we consider it vital to get great books into the hands of children and young adults.

How Can You Participate?

We think that the Cybils nominations will be of interest to parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and teens. If you have a blog or an email list or belong to a newsgroup that serves one of these populations, and you feel that your readers would be interested, please consider distributing this announcement (you are welcome to copy it). The Cybils team would very much appreciate your help in spreading the word. And if you, or the children that you know, have any titles to suggest, we would love to see your nominations at the Cybils blog, starting on Wednesday.

This year, awards will be given in nine categories (Easy Readers, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fiction Picture Books, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade Novels, Non-Fiction Middle Grade/Young Adult Books, Non-Fiction Picture Books, Poetry, Young Adult Novels). Anyone can nominate books in these categories (one nomination per person per category). Nominated titles must be published between January 1st and October 15th of this year, and the books must be in English (or bilingual, where one of the languages is English).

To nominate titles, visit the Cybils blog between October 1st and 15th. A separate post will be available for each category - simply nominate by commenting on those individual posts. If you are not sure which category to choose for a particular book, a questions thread will also be available.

Between October 16th and January 1st, Cybils panelists (children's and young adult bloggers) will winnow the nominations down to a 5-7 book short list for each category. A second set of panelists will then select the winning titles for the different categories. The winners will be announced on February 14th, 2009.

Thanks for your help, and stay tuned for further news!

Source: Jen Robinson