Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Great Thanksgiving OUTLIERS Giveaway

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie's main character shares how strange Thanksgiving is for descendants of America's only non-immigrants:
I always think it's funny when Indians celebrate Thanksgiving. I mean, sure, the Indians and Pilgrims were best friends during that First Thanksgiving, but a few years later, the Pilgrims were shooting Indians.

So I'm never quite sure why we eat turkey like everybody else.

"Hey, Dad," I said. "What do Indians have to be so thankful for?"

"We should give thanks that they didn't kill all of us."

We laughed like crazy. It was a good day. Dad was sober. Mom was getting ready to nap. Grandma was already napping.
(Source: Debbie Reese, American Indians in Children's Literature)
I love good writing that's sad and funny at once, because the combination has a unique power to inspire cultural metanoia.

Alexie's words remind us that one task of survivors is to give thanks for those who came before us. This Thanksgiving weekend, I'm reading OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell. As in BLINK, the author's superb storytelling keeps you reading, and his thesis is simple, diminishing the differences between survivors and high achievers:
Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don't. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky -- but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.
I survived to type these words on my PowerBook G4 for you to read because of my great-grandmother's arranged marriage at age nine in East Bengal to a man three times her age, a blond, blue-eyed champion ice skater who fell in love with the descendant of a Rhode Island itinerant preacher, the medicine my father received for a toxic leg wound when he was seven, a woman in a Maharashtran town who decided to carry her babies to term and bring them to an orphanage, and many other moments in history over which I had no control, but which shaped my life.

Is there a particular person or event in your past who contributed to your survival, let alone your success? Leave your gratitude in the comments, and on Monday, when I return, I'll choose five at random and give away free copies of OUTLIERS to five (offer courtesy of Miriam Parker, online publicist for Little Brown, who knows I'm a Gladwell fan).

Enjoy your thanksgiving, fellow survivors.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I've Got The Royalty Statement Blues

It's an election year.

A couple of brown girls are heading to the White House.

I promoted as hard as I could (even hiring a publicist for the first time).

Reviewers said the books were "fast and funny" and sure to "grab teen readers," described Sameera as "savvy and appealing," and even compared them to the The Princess Diaries series.

My blog buddies did their best to get the buzz going, and readers still send me the nicest fan mail.

So here's my question for my Fire Escape visitors (okay, it's a bit of a whine): WHY AREN'T MY FIRST DAUGHTER BOOKS SELLING MORE COPIES?
  1. They're okay, but honestly? Not your best books.

  2. The covers sent out a "multicultural" vibe, not a "chick lit" vibe, which (I hate to say it) might have hurt sales.

  3. You shouldn't have made Sparrow's Dad a Republican. What were you thinking?

  4. The timing of release was wrong -- June 2007 was way too early for book one.

  5. They should have been released in paperback from the start, the hardcovers were too expensive.

  6. That's the way the baby bounces these days, sweetie. Suck it up and move on.
With the inauguration coming up, I'm wondering if I can gather my energies to give the books one last promotional push, or if it's just not worth it. Unfortunately, if the paperback of EXTREME AMERICAN MAKEOVER doesn't sell well, the paperback of WHITE HOUSE RULES will never see the light of day.

Please be harsh and straight if you answer via comments, because I'd like to understand the mysteries of this industry. My skin is thick from years of being in this profession, and I don't even care if you've never heard of the books. Just vote. If you prefer an anonymous quiz, here you go, please pick the answer you think fits best, and guess if you've never read them.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Poetry Friday: I'll Eat You, Winter Sun

It's that time of year in Boston when the sun sprints across the sky for the gold.

We've been talking about describing skin color with food metaphors, so it was interesting to note that poets also use that technique to describe the winter sun. Consider stanzas from these two poems, written about a century apart:


WINTER-TIME
— by Robert Louis Stevenson

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,
A blood-red orange, sets again.
...


IT WAS SO COLD
by Whitman McGowan

...
Outside Paris waterfalls retreated back into mountains.
God Himself became an irrelevant ice cream vendor
slowly scooping a ball of lemon sherbet
from horizon to painted horizon.



So there. I can't stop you, winter sun, but thanks to the power of a good simile, I can eat you. 

The round-up today for Poetry Friday is hosted by readergirlz diva Holly Cupala.

Photo credit: rsms via creative commons.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

In Which I Try and Terrify Mother Reader

Writing is a lonely, angst-filled vocation, so when anyone cares -- and I mean really cares -- about your books, you feel so ... validated.

I got that warm and toasty Hallmark-cardish sensation as Pam Coughlan, a.k.a. Mother Reader, delved into the First Daughter books and my current writing projects.

But then I had to wreck it by threatening her life.

Told you writers were odd.

The stupendously massive Winter Blog Blast Tour continues today with Martin Miller at Chasing Ray, John Green at Writing and Ruminating, Beth Kephart at Hip Writer Mama, Emily Ecton at Bildungsroman, John David Anderson at Finding Wonderland, Brandon Mull at The YA YA YAs, and Lisa Papademetriou at Mother Reader.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Drawing Asian Eyes

Which illustrated children's books portray Asian eyes in an accurate way?

A friend lauds Gene Yang’s AMERICAN BORN CHINESE as an example, saying that “the eyes of the Asian characters, even though drawn with so few lines, show a realistic variation from rather round-eyed to slightly-slanted.” 

Other suggestions? 

Note: SCBWI columnist Anne Sibley O'Brien's new blog, COLORING BETWEEN THE LINES, offers an author/illustrator's perspective on race and culture in children's books. Check it out!


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Crossing the Boulevard: Immigrant Stories

The book by Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan was published in 2003, but Crossing the Boulevard is still collecting stories of new immigrants who came to the U.S. after 1965. I added my story. Why not add yours, or encourage the newcomers in your community to tell the story of their big move?

Teen Fiction With Muslim Heroes

Here are four recent YA novels (not memoir) featuring Muslim protagonists, the first two set in the western world, the second two taking place overseas:

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah  (read a review in Muslimah Media Watch)

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos (read a review in Muslimah Media Watch)

In The Name of God by Paula Jolin (read the Fire Escape's interview with the author)

Beneath My Mother's Feet by Amjed Qamar (read the Fire Escape's interview with the author)

When it comes to Muslim boys, I found two relatively recent novels I've not read, both featuring tweens and exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird and Dr. Sonia Nimr, and Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi. 

I can't come up with even one contemporary fiction YA novel featuring an American, British, or North American teen guy hero of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, Muslim or otherwise. (BTW, I'm glad to see another blogger ranting about the dearth of such titles.)

Suggestions and additions, please?

Monday, November 17, 2008

PW's Sweet Review of SECRET KEEPER

The book's not out till January, but here are are few excerpts from Publisher Weekly's review of SECRET KEEPER (Delacorte, January 2009):
In an intimate and absorbing drama about a displaced Indian family in the 1970s, Perkins (Monsoon Summer) vividly highlights the conflict between traditional Indian values and feminist ideals ... Readers may not always agree with Asha’s bold decisions, but they will admire her courage and selflessness as she puts her family’s needs before her own. Besides offering insight into Indian culture, Perkins offers a moving portrait of a rebellious teen who relies on ingenuity rather than charm to prove her worth. Ages 12–up
"Intimate and absorbing," I've been murmuring under my breath as I go about my business. "A moving portrait." That helps to silence the bad voices in my head. Every author hears them, and they must be vanquished.

Winter Blog Blast Tour Starts Today

The power of blog buzz continues to change the industry, and thanks to Mother Reader I find myself in excellent company as the 2008 Winter Blog Blast Tour gets underway.

Monday
Lewis Buzbee at Chasing Ray
Louis Sachar at Fuse Number 8
Laurel Snyder at Miss Erin
Courtney Summers at Bildungsroman
Elizabeth Wein at Finding Wonderland
Susan Kuklin at The YA YA YAs
Tuesday
Ellen Dalow at Chasing Ray
Tony DiTerlizzi at Miss Erin
Melissa Walker at Hip Writer Mama
Luisa Plaja at Bildungsroman
DM Cornish at Finding Wonderland
LJ Smith at The YA YA YAs
Kathleen Duey at Bookshelves of Doom
Wednesday
Ellen Klages at Fuse Number 8
Emily Jenkins at Wrting and Ruminating
Ally Carter at Miss Erin
Mark Peter Hughes at Hip Writer Mama
Sarah Darer Littman at Bildungsroman
MT Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Mitali Perkins at Mother Reader

Thursday

Martin Millar at Chasing Ray
John Green at Writing and Ruminating
Beth Kephart at Hip Writer Mama
Emily Ecton at Bildungsroman
John David Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Brandon Mull at The YA YA YAs
Lisa Papademetriou at Mother Reader
Friday
Mayra Lazara Dole at Chasing Ray
Francis Rourke Dowell at Fuse Number 8
J Patrick Lewis at Writing and Ruminating
Wendy Mass at Hip Writer Mama
Lisa Ann Sandell at Bildungsroman
Caroline Hickey/Sara Lewis Holmes at Mother Reader
A.S. King at Bookshelves of Doom
Emily Wing Smith at Interactive Reader

Friday, November 14, 2008

AMADI'S SNOWMAN by Katia Novet Saint-Lot

Welcome to today's destination on the global tour for AMADI'S SNOWMAN, a picture book from Tilbury House by Katia Novet Saint-Lot, beautifully illustrated by Dimitrea Tokunbo.

One of my standard rants is about books set in Africa that don't name a particular culture or language. AMADI'S SNOWMAN is not one of those irritating stories. From the first sentence, we are taken to a particular village where we meet the one-and-only Amadi, a self-described "Igbo man of Nigeria."

In the first scene, our hero is “crouched in the shrubs, stalking a red-headed lizard." Talk about evoking a sense of place and conveying character with a single economical phrase!

Understandably, Amadi is wondering why in the world he would need to read if he plans on being a businessman like his father. But when he glimpses a snowman in an older boy's book, he's snared by curiosity about this foreign carrot-nosed creation and decides to learn to read.

Novet Saint-Lot has written a universal story about the power of literacy without losing sight of the delightful particulars of one boy's life. Dimitrea Tokumbo, whose father was raised in Nigeria, widens our world with bright and beautiful illustrations.

I was reminded of Plato's cave allegory as I read Amadi's Snowman, because by the end I found myself completely smitten with Mitali's Amadi.

And so will you.

AND NOW .... THE FIRE ESCAPE IS PROUD TO PRESENT ....
THE DEBUT OF AMADI'S SNOWMAN BOOK TRAILER,
COURTESY OF TILBURY HOUSE!


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

NOUGHTS AND CROSSES: A Look at Class and Race for UK Teens

Malorie Blackman

In today's Guardian, prolific UK author Malorie Blackman discusses the challenges faced by authors of color writing for young readers:
"Through my whole writing career it seems people have always been criticising me for not tackling racism. But things like even having black characters on covers when I first started was a bit of a political statement, because I've had more than one bookseller say to me 'that book would sell better if you didn't put black people on the cover'."
For years she wrote children's books that had "nothing to do with race," where the characters "just happened to be black," but her YA trilogy NOUGHTS AND CROSSES explores power dynamics by creating an alternate Britain where black Crosses dominate the white noughts:
"I wanted to play with people's preconceptions," she says, pointing to a scene where a nought child cuts herself and is forced to use a glaringly obvious brown plaster, because there are no pink ones available (an event which happened to Blackman, in reverse, as a child). "If you're the majority you don't necessarily see it because you don't need to see it and that's what I wanted to explore by turning the tables."
The book's been adapted as a script for the theater by the Royal Shakespeare Company (poster from the play below) -- an intense Romeo and Juliet story that might be a good choice for high school productions this side of the ocean.



Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Books Between Cultures at YALSA's YA Lit Symposium

I've been presenting at conferences here and there over the past few years, but I've never seen anything like the eager crowd in my Books Between Cultures session at YALSA's YA Lit Symposium in Nashville last weekend.

I shouldn't have been surprised by the attendance because teen librarians get the importance of race and culture in the generation they serve. 

The comments and questions from the audience were inspiring and enriching, and afterwards many librarians like Lalitha Nataraj of Chula Vista (pictured to the left) came up to share their own between cultures experiences.

One of my favorite responses came from a young African-American librarian. "I arrived at the conference fighting back that same old feeling of invisibility," she told me. "But I left this session feeling heard and welcomed by everyone in the room." 

Her words alone made the trip worthwhile, but other connections and conversations, as well as the rich content in the sessions I attended, lead me to mull a visit to New Mexico in 2010 for the next symposium. Go if you can.

If you're interested in the topics we covered in BOOKS BETWEEN CULTURES, you may access the links and handouts for the session here, and read this excellent synopsis by Maryland librarian Melissa Rabey.

Thank you, YALSA!

Top Children's Lit Blog Posts of the Day

If you're way too busy to surf the blogs, why not tune into Jon Bard's short, entertaining daily roundup of top children's lit posts at Write4Kids' Children's Book Insider? Full disclosure: my post yesterday made the first edition:

Monday, November 10, 2008

My Epitaph: Suh-weet TY Note

Came home from Nashville (at 1:30 in the morning!) to find a pile of notes from 8th graders. I treasure each thank you, but the ones from boys who'd been dreading my visit are the best:
I'd have to admit, at first I wasn't so excited when I heard we had a guest author, because the previous guest authors blab on about this and that and it's not much fun to listen to. But you were not that kind of guest speaker, because you allowed us to interact with writing, personal stories, all sorts of stuff. Also, seriously, what other guest author has a slideshow about her life and writing with the "Thriller" in it? That was pretty awesome. 
Then the writing workshop was a lot of fun, too. I wrote the last one that you read aloud, about the confused character in the disco club. It was fun to learn the steps you use in writing and apply them all at the same time. I found your "five step" strategy very helpful, and am looking forward to using it in my writing. I was happy that you read mine, because it provided a laugh for everyone, especially me and my afro-toting friend, who everyone thinks is a hippie and a disco addict. 
I also really enjoyed the imitations of your father, too, because he seems like a really nice and funny guy. Well, all in all, it was without a doubt the best presentation by a guest author, or any guest speaker for that matter! It was the highlight of my eighth grade year so far, and will most definitely stay there! 
Will someone please read that note at my funeral? You'll find it under my pillow.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Parents: Evil Book-Banners or Teen Advocates?

I'm at the last day of the YA Lit Symposium listening to "Hit List or Hot List: How Teens Read Now," and Barry Lyga (BOY TOY), Julie Anne Peters (LUNA), and Coe Booth (KENDRA) are discussing the censorship of their books. 

When it comes to "edgy" novels, I'm struck by a growing tension between authors, librarians, publishers, and parents -- all in the name of getting good stories into the hands of teens. The fear of extremism on both sides is limiting even the start of what could be reconciling conversations. 

Instead of tearing down community, couldn't "controversial" novels be a vehicle to strengthen relationships between everyone who cares about teens, including the young people we're trying to protect and empower? 

To do this, though, we can't deal with parents as adversaries. Apart from the age-banding suggestion that's coming from across the Atlantic, how might YA librarians, publishers, and authors earn the trust of the silent majority of parents who aren't censors but are concerned about age appropriateness when it comes to content in novels?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Author Party at YALSA's YA Lit Symposium

Woo-hoo, I'm done with my last author presentation of 2008! Before I head to downtown Nashville to see Josh Turner, Randy Travis, and Kevin Costner (Country music? Really?) at the Grand Ole Opry, here are a few pictures I took at the author party at the Symposium.  Fun!


Authors Coe Booth (KENDRA) and 



 (TOTAL CONSTANT ORDER)

Author Gene Yang
(AMERICAN BORN CHINESE)


Friday, November 07, 2008

Buh-Bye, Illinois. Helloooooo, Nashville!

I spent two days in the communities of Skokie and Schaumburg, Illinois, visiting a variety of schools and libraries, and was amazed by the diversity in these two suburbs of Chicago. 


Between presentations, Linda Zeilstra-Sawyer of 
Skokie Library welcomed me  to a lavish lunch

The librarians of Schaumburg personalize a
cake for every visiting author

I also squeezed in an afternoon tour of the two-year-old Center of Teaching Through Children's Books at National-Louis University. Directed by Professors Gail Bush and Junko Yokota, the Center is dedicated to excellence in teaching with quality literature for children and adolescents. Translations abound in their growing, colorful collections, as do displays of award-winning books celebrating a world of cultures and social justice. It's well worth a visit if you're in the Chicago area.


Professors Gail Bush and Junko Yokota of the
Center for Teaching through Children's Books love to share their vision

Today I'm off to Nashville for YALSA's YA Lit Symposium -- and the Grand Ole Opry!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

rgz LIVE! with Joseph Bruchac and Cynthia Leitich Smith

November is National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, and we're celebrating it over at readergirlz by welcoming two of our favorite authors: Cynthia Leititch Smith (RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, TANTALIZE) and Joseph Bruchac (SACAJAWEA). Chat with Cynthia and Joseph at our MySpace group forum TONIGHT, November 6th, 6 p.m. PDT, 9 p.m. EDT.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Art and the Informed Outsider: Interview with Susanna Reich

Joining us today is Susanna Reich, award-winning author of the magnificent PAINTING THE WILD FRONTIER: THE ART AND ADVENTURES OF GEORGE CATLIN (Clarion), a book that reminded me why I loved well-told biographies as a child and still do.

Susanna's story has the power to make a chunk of American history absolutely unforgettable. "A great introduction to Catlin's work and an excellent title to use in social studies, history, and art classes," said ALA's Booklist in a starred review. School Library Journal agreed, giving the book another big star: "This is an excellent choice for libraries looking for good biographies, either for reports or pleasure reading."

I asked the author some tough questions about writing and painting as an "outsider," and about the limits and possibilities of biography. She answered thoughtfully, as is her wont, and I've bolded a few phrases that I especially mulled over, so once again, emphasis mine. Pour yourself a hot cup of something, enjoy the conversation, and feel free to leave a comment at the end.

Since you're on the Fire Escape, could you tell us about any past experiences of feeling like an outsider or living between cultures?

Adolescence itself may be the ultimate outsider experience. It’s such a time of alienation—alienation from yourself because your body is changing, alienation from your parents as you struggle to establish your independence, and alienation from your peers, because there’s always some clique you’re not a part of. There’s always that conflict between wanting to be special and unique, and wanting to be part of the group. I think if we, as adults, can remember what it feels like to be a teenager, we’ll always understand what it means to be an outsider.

In a way, every aspect of one’s identity, everything that makes you part of a group, automatically makes you an outsider to some other group. One’s ethnic, racial, or religious identity is only part of the story. As a white, college-educated, Jewish wife and mother who lives in the Hudson Valley, writes children’s books, and enjoys cooking, swimming, and hiking, I fit into many categories and groups that help define who I am.

When you identify yourself as an outsider, there’s an implicit assumption about who’s on the inside. Who has the economic, political, military, or social power? In our country, the ultimate “insider” has always been the white, male, Protestant landowner. George Catlin fit that profile except that he didn’t have land or money, and that lack drove many of his choices in life. The indigenous peoples he painted didn’t fit into any of those categories.

In the foreword to PAINTING THE WILD FRONTIER, you describe Catlin as providing an "informed outsider's viewpoint," and tells us that "he clearly worked hard to express it with a high degree of integrity." Is there a lesson from Catlin's life for modern-day artists and writers striving for integrity as WE tell stories from an "informed outsider's viewpoint?"


The key is to look for common ground. Catlin wrote that he realized at an early age that Native Americans were human beings. That may seem ridiculously obvious to white people now, but it wasn’t necessarily obvious then. In his travels among the Indians, he had to establish some level of trust so that native peoples would let him paint their portraits. His paintings and writings depicted the unique culture of each tribe he visited, yet in his books and lectures he also repeatedly pointed out the similarities between whites and Indians. He walked a fine line between describing cultural differences and stressing a common humanity.

Catlin started by painting Indians according to the prevailing sentiment at the time, that these were untouched "noble savages." He chose to romanticize them, at least for a while, to gain an audience for his paintings. In other words, he was caving into the realities of the market. Do you notice any compromises that children's book writers and artists might be making today when it comes to the realities of the market?

Artists and writers who want to sell their work have to keep one eye on the realities of the marketplace and at the same time try to remain true to their artistic vision. It’s the rare person who writes or paints whatever they please, and then finds that’s exactly what the market is looking for.

As far as making compromises, I can only speak for myself. Every artist or writer has complex motivations for doing what they do, and for choosing certain subjects, genres, or styles. We all have needs and desires. Most people want to be successful, though each of us has a different definition of success--as some combination of money, fame, notoriety, appreciation, admiration, respect, or love. Unfortunately, we have no control over whether our work will bring us any of these things. And when we don’t get what we’re looking for, it can hurt. We submit a book to an editor, and it gets rejected. Or the book gets published, but doesn’t get the reviews or the sales we were hoping for.

So as artists and writers, it helps to concentrate on the work itself. It helps to have some psychological distance, to look at our work as objectively as possible and to separate our personal needs from the demands of the marketplace.

In your author's note, you tell us that, "While writing this book, I discovered prejudices I didn't know I had, often based on romantic notions of American Indians that I learned from depictions in popular culture. Sometimes I found myself going back over what I had written and occasionally changing it to reflect a newfound awareness of the Indian point of view." Could you give us an example of a change you made to the text as you edited it with this heightened awareness?

Prejudice is based on stereotypes, and stereotypes arise from a lack of knowledge and familiarity. As I read about, met, and spoke with American Indians, the stereotypes in my head began to dissolve.

I had written a caption for an image that showed whites and Indians fighting. It said, "Many settlers were killed in the battle." All of a sudden, I found myself looking at this picture through Indian eyes and realizing that my caption took an implicitly white point of view. How would an Indian child feel reading that caption? What about the Indians who were killed? So I changed it to, "Many people were killed in the battle." That one-word change made the story more inclusive.

When considering heroic artists and writers in the past, how do you study their lives without using twenty-first century eyes to judge their choices -- i.e., when I read about Catlin basically dumping his daughters without a letter for NINE YEARS in pursuit of art, my spirit recoiled, but would that have been more "morally acceptable" back then if the girls were living happily as teens with a governess and he was providing for them?

Yes, of course, it’s shocking that he didn’t write to his daughters. And it’s easy to think of him as a terrible person for abandoning them (at least psychologically—after all, he did make arrangements for their care.) But given his inability to support them, and the very distinct roles of men and women at the time, they probably were better off living with their aunt and uncle in New Jersey. This arrangement not only provided for their physical needs, but also allowed the aunt and uncle to give them a more normal family life. We can only guess how Catlin’s daughters felt about this. So far, the historical record only tells the story from his point of view.

By the 1850’s, the stresses in Catlin’s life had taken a severe psychological toll. As I wrote about this period in his life, I wondered about his mental state. What 58-year-old man in his right mind would abandon everything to go off to the South American jungle in pursuit of a lost gold mine?

Catlin’s artistic vision had been a driving force in his life from the time he was a young man, and his financial aspirations were inextricably bound to his art. During the last twenty years of his life, he became completely obsessed. His actions may even make him less appealing as a moral example. But this isn’t a novel, it’s a biography. I couldn’t change the end of the story to make the main character more palatable. All I could do was tell the story as clearly as possible, in hopes that the reader would come away with a nuanced understanding and appreciation of George Catlin.

If the main consideration for choosing a biographical subject for a children’s book was moral worth, there wouldn’t be very many biographies for children. By presenting Catlin as a complex person, I hope that young readers will be challenged to think about his behavior and question his decisions. After all, that’s what they need to do for themselves in order to become responsible adults.

Essentially, a biographer is always an "informed outsider," and you do it so well, with so much integrity. What are a few tips you could give to a biographer-wannabe about portraying another person's life, especially when crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries (as you did in this book as well as with your biography about José Limón)?

As a biographer, I try to get to know my subject as deeply as possible. It takes a lot of time, and it certainly helps if you love doing research, as I do.

When I was researching Catlin and Limón, for example, I didn’t just read books by and about them. I also did a lot of tangential reading to help me understand the historical context. With Limón, I read about Mexican history and culture, as well as the history of modern dance going back to Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. For Catlin, I studied 19th-century portrait, landscape, and genre painting, the history of art patronage, and the evolution of 18th- and 19th-century esthetic philosophies. I researched Native American cultures and the settlement of the West, as well as the interaction of Europeans and indigenous peoples in South America and the principles of anthropology. And those are just a few examples of where my books took me.

But there’s something else, something beyond the call to do thorough research. It has to do with using one’s self in the creative process. No two books on Jose Limón or George Catlin are alike, because each biographer’s personality and life experiences are different. Each of us sees and interprets the subject from a unique angle. My training as a professional dancer and my family’s stories about immigration helped me understand Limón. My knowledge of art history and my experience of what it means to live the life of an artist helped me understand Catlin.

And of course, although a writer spends countless hours alone at a desk, creating a book eventually becomes a collaborative process. Lynne Polvino, my brilliant editor, helped to shape Painting the Wild Frontier. So did my husband, Gary Golio, a visual artist, social worker, and children’s book author, and my daughter, Laurel, a photographer with a background in visual anthropology. (Mitali's note: Laurel gets the credit for the lovely photo of her mother above.)

When it comes to crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries, every time we communicate -- whether by speaking, writing, painting, singing, or dancing -- we’re crossing a boundary between one human being and another. Sometimes, in order to share what we want to say, we just have to reach out a little bit further.


Thank you so much, Susanna, for joining us, for your commitment to excellence in all you do, and for telling this particular story. Enjoy the rest of your blog tour!

Susanna Reich’s Blog Tour
November 3-10, 2008


Monday, November 3: Becky's Book Reviews

Tuesday, November 4: Tina Nichols Coury and Big A little a (review)

Wednesday, November 5: Mitali’s Fire Escape

Thursday, November 6: Gail Gauthier: Original Content

Friday, November 7: One Book Two Book

Monday, November 10: Chicken Spaghetti

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Here's the Story of a Lovely Lady

On this historic Election Day, I want to offer a tribute to one of the most inspiring women in our nation. She's a champion of freedom, unyielding in her position, and best of all, I think she's wearing a saree.

Yes, I'm talking about the Statue of Liberty, and if you haven't bought your copy of her biography, what are you waiting for? Today's the perfect day to give or get this beautiful book published by Candlewick Press (and download the fabulous free teacher's guide, too).

Written by Doreen Rappaport, the granddaughter of a Latvian immigrant, and magnificently illustrated by Matt Tavares, the grandson of a Portuguese immigrant, LADY LIBERTY describes how our country's symbol of hospitality was built against all odds.

Thanks to a medley of first-person voices, including an engineer, a plasterer, a carpenter, a poet, a coppersmith, a journalist, and even a farmer's daughter, this story of the Statue reads like a song that makes you want to place your hand over your heart. Or use it to clasp a torch and lift it high.

Happy Voting!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I'm voting tomorrow morning here in Massachusetts and then flying to Illinois for three days, followed by a trip to Nashville, Tennessee this weekend to present at YALSA's YA Literature Symposium.

Here's an invite blurb for those who live in the Chicago area. Feel free to post and email it right and left -- I'd love to get a good turnout for the faithful librarians who have worked so hard to make this author visit happen.
Mitali Perkins (author of MONSOON SUMMER and the FIRST DAUGHTER books) is coming to the Chicago area for author visits to the Skokie and Schaumburg communities.

On Wednesday, November 5 from 7-8:30 p.m., she'll present a workshop for adults, BOOKS BETWEEN CULTURES, in the Skokie Library's Mary Radmacher Meeting Room. This free event is open to the public, and is similar to the workshop she'll be giving at YALSA's YA Lit Symposium in Nashville on Saturday, November 7th.

On Thursday, November 6 from 7-8 p.m., she'll offer STORIES ON THE FIRE ESCAPE at the Schaumburg Library in the Youth Services Classroom for visitors ages 10 & up. A book sale and autographing will follow the presentation. Free tickets will be distributed in Youth Services at 6:40 p.m.

LINKS:

http://www.mitaliperkins.com
http://www.skokie.lib.il.us/s_kids/kd_going/kd_go_files/Perkins/index.asp
http://www.stdl.org/

Saturday, November 01, 2008

I Get Choked Up When I Vote

I remember singing MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE as a new American. I'd shut up for one line: "Land where my fathers died," because that wasn't true for me. But when it came to "Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing," I BELTED it out, and still do.

I don't want to take for granted rights that people are willing to die for in other parts of the world. As I head to the polls on November 4, 2008, I remember two freedoms I cherish as an American by choice.

1. I can speak my mind.

Nobody's going to drag me off to prison if I stand on the street declaring my allegiance to either Barack Obama or John McCain. I can denounce the current administration in front of the White House day and night and the police would have to protect me.

It's not like that everywhere. In Burma, for example, I'd be hauled off to prison if I wrote or spoke my support of Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader chosen by the people but sentenced to silence and house arrest by the government for over a decade now.

And what about China? Author Justina Chen Headley, who is spending a year in Shanghai, informed me that even my own little blog, Mitali's Fire Escape, is banned there. Why? Maybe because I posted my support of PEN's efforts to free Chinese dissident writers.

Here in the Land of the Free, I can speak my mind, write my mind, and share my mind with others. Alleluia.

2. I can vote.

This Tuesday, I'll head to our local elementary school, register, enter the privacy of a booth, and cast my vote without paying a penny.

As always, I'll think of the heroes, known and unknown, who fought for suffrage so that an immigrant brown-skinned woman like me can help choose our President.

I used to be embarrassed because my eyes got blurry as I submitted my ballot. Now I just bring the tissues and celebrate.

I know so many of you are passionate about picking your candidate, and that's wonderful, but that doesn't come first. What comes first is remembering the past struggle for freedom and giving thanks for this "sweet land of liberty." Then go cast your vote, and rant about the election results all you want -- like a true American.