Why I'm A Slumdog Fan

I've heard three kinds of complaints about the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. Here's my rebuttal to each criticism, because guess what? I liked the film.

(1) "Unrealistic."

Of course it was improbable, Mr. Rushdie. Escapist fantasy mandates good triumphing over evil. One can survive a crawl from a toilet through excrement thanks to the power of love, while the love of power leads to death in a bathroom.

(2) "Exploitative."

The torture and suffering of children don't make it an easy view, so did Slumdog use poverty, orphans, and children as lazy storytelling techniques to elicit compassion and connection from rich viewers? What was it like to view it as a resident in Mumbai's Juhu slum, where much of the film was shot?


The "poverty porn" accusation did give me pause, but after reflection, I don't believe the film made this fatal error. The first reason is because it was a fairy tale, which requires an amping up of villainy and suffering before arriving at the eventual happy ending. The residents of Juhu seem to get this, and are celebrating the film's success.

Second, I felt the story ultimately respected children, and that's the main reason I enjoyed it. Slumdog makes it clear that children with or without power and privilege in every corner of the planet dream, love, laugh, err, forgive, weep, and make heartbreaking moral choices.

In a world that consistently overlooks, undervalues, and demeans children, what's wrong with that?

As I left the theater, I pictured the countless young faces I'd passed by in the slums and streets of Bengal, regretting that I hadn't taken the time to hear and know and share their stories, and hoping to have another chance someday.

(3) "A western view of India."

Let's say instead that Slumdog offers a between-cultures view of humanity.

England's Simon Beaufoy adapted India's Vikas Swarup's Q&A, bringing a stronger narrative arc to what was a collection of short stories. Swarup, a high-flying diplomat based in Pretoria, supported Beaufoy's screenplay despite some key changes made to his book. (Most intriguing was a switch in the main character's name, changed from the "every Indian" Hindu-Muslim-Christian Ram Mohammad Thomas to Jamal Malik, resulting in the boy's Muslim mother being killed by Hindus.)

Another cross-cultural partnership took place in the directing. The film's co-director, Loveleen Tandan (who worked on Namesake and Monsoon Wedding with Mira Nair), negotiated back and forth with Danny Boyle, melding the best storytelling techniques from both worlds to create a universal fairy tale.

My parents saw the film in California last week, and I asked if they thought it made India look bad.

"Not at all," my Mom retorted with pride. "What other country in the world could develop so far and so fast given so much poverty and corruption to overcome? Only our India."

Her main criticism was with A.R. Rahman's soundtrack. An accomplished harmonium player and singer, Ma felt the award-winning soundtrack didn't resonate enough with the richness and depth of classical Indian music. That response, of course, reflects a generational difference around music that's taking place both in India and in the west.

My only niggle with the film? Latika's gradual loss of spunk and verve throughout the story, resulting in yet another portrayal of a helpless South Asian female victimized and rescued by men. Sigh. Enough said.

Otherwise, it was a feel-good between-cultures fantasy that respected children and showed off the strength and creativity of my country of origin. What's not to like?

Is this a Job or a Vacation?

Writers gain an intimate view into communities that others get to visit only as tourist destinations. Take Sandwich, Massachusetts, for example, brimming with outsiders during the four to six warmer months of the New England year. But imagine traveling there as a visiting author on a brisk February day ...

Start with lunch at the high school library, where you and a few teenagers feast on the librarian's homemade meatballs, cheese, crackers, fruit, and spritzer water. The students inform you that most of their parents also went to their high school, and that many adults commute into Boston up to two hours each way just to stay in town.

Watch over a hundred high-schoolers stream in for your session. The poised, handsome sophomore guy who will introduce you tells you the school is mostly white. Some of the Cape communities are more diverse, he adds, with a Wampanoag community in neighboring Mashpee and an increasingly international population in Hyannis. You're impressed that he knows, and humbled by the work he's put into a two-page introduction to your work and life that he delivers flawlessly.

Students have been primed for your visit by reading your book. Their English teacher has created such a wonderful lesson plan that you ask for permission to share it with other educators via your website (to be added). As a result, his students are engaged and ready to ask thoughtful questions.

Smiling benevolently in the back of the room is member of the Sandwich Reads Together committee (responsible for luring Jodi Picoult, Geraldine Brooks, Allen Say, Anita Silvey, and Alice Hoffman to participate in their month-long festival). Also watching is the bookstore owner who invited you in the first place, the principal, and a few other teachers and parents.

When you're done, the librarian raffles off a few of your books and you personalize them. A lovely girl whose parents were born in Pakistan presents you a piece of glass hand-blown in Sandwich's famous Cape Cod Glass Studio. She quietly tells you how much it meant to her that you visited, and you try to hide that you're getting choked up.

Now you have two hours of free time to wander the town before your book signing. What do you do? You pop into the historic Daniel Webster Inn for a tour of the spa (luxurious but too steep for your writer's budget). Heading to a small (cheap) beauty salon instead, you wait for a hair cut and listen to an eighty-something widow explaining why she loves living in Sandwich.

Drive to the town beach next, put on your coat, and walk to the edge of the water, passing an elderly couple strolling hand-in-hand. The sun is sparkling on the waves and seagulls screech at the fish.

Next stop is your signing at Titcomb's Bookshop. The owner, a curator of charm, makes you feel like a visiting dignitary. She's baked Indian biscuits and Bollywood music wafts through the sunlit oak interior. You meet the owner's youngest sister, who also works there, and their parents, who started the shop years ago.

A customer tells you how much she loved your novel. It made her cry, she says, just like Gone With The Wind. She describes a childhood on one of the first blueberry farms in Cape Cod, just down the street, and then confesses that she's taught herself to read and write Arabic in recent years.

The elegant Mrs. Titcomb (pictured) gives you a tour of her adjoining home, built in the early seventeenth century, and you admire the family tree she's painted on the wall to display her 21 grandchildren.

You climb the wooden staircase, made by two of the Titcomb brothers, and discover Mr. Titcomb working with the rare books. He tells you his wife was mistaken. They've been married for 58 years, not 56.

Last stop is the Sandwich Public Library, where the librarian has planned a feast with Trader Joe's Indian food and invited twenty or so sets of mothers and daughters who have read your books. The tables are decorated with Sweet Tarts because the librarian discovered on-line that they were your favorite candy.

You gain more insight into community life over dinner conversations, sign books, answer questions, and leave laden again with gifts -- books about walks and seaweed in Cape Cod, a Titcomb's bookshop pen, homemade honey, and a bracelet made in Bengal, your native land.

After eight hours in town, you feel as if you've been on holiday visiting friends in Sandwich for a week. Another perk of the job, you realize. What a vocation.

Sandwich Reads Together

What do authors Geraldine Brooks, Alice Hoffman, Allen Say and I have in common? We're all part of Sandwich Reads Together, a month-long celebration that takes place in the small but vibrant town of Sandwich, Massachusetts. (Note to other communities: study the success of this successful public-private literary partnership.)

Today begins with a visit to Sandwich High School, where forty-some students have read SECRET KEEPER and will be armed with questions. Then I'll spend a couple of hours exploring this lovely Cape Cod town, followed by a signing at Titcomb's Bookshop from 4-5. The day will end with dinner at the library with a Mother-Daughter Book Club who have read RICKSHAW GIRL. If a day like this doesn't beat the New England winter blues, I don't know what will.

Writers = Desperate Self-Promoters?

"The best advice for today, and really in any financial climate, is to be fanatical and motivated to promote your book," a Random House editor told debut author Novella Carpenter (Book Publishers, R.I.P?, San Francisco Chronicle). "Do as many events as possible. Become a shameless self-promoter."

I don't know about you, but that job description sucks the creativity right out of me. She's right, of course -- selling books is a bottom-line requirement in the publishing industry. Unfortunately, this focus can lead to a glazed-eyed obsession with Amazon sales rankings and the consumption of massive amounts of chocolate after a not-so-stellar royalty statement.

Not the best atmosphere to inspire the next story.

Career writers have always needed to muster endurance for the long haul. That's why I prefer to stay motivated by a vision statement that reaches beyond a single title or a belt-tightening shift in the publishing industry.

Here's my best advice to the debut or wannabe author of a children's or teen book in this tough financial climate, even if it does sound sappy or idealistic: shamelessly create and celebrate good stories, and be fanatical about getting them into the hearts and minds of young readers.

Photo courtesy of Thorinside via Creative Commons.

Writing Routines and Winter Break

I'm about to escape for winter break, and it feels like I just finished final exams, thanks to Kids Heart Authors Day. I'll be back on the Fire Escape on 2/24. In the meantime, I leave you with my answer to the question asked last week by Shonna Slayton during her blog's Author Crush Month:

"What are your writing routines?"

Long Showers, Lattes, and Permission to Fail

By Mitali Perkins

As a former teacher, it’s helpful for me to think of dividing the year into four academic quarters. I set goals in marketing and writing at the start of each quarter. Fall and spring quarters are busy with school and library visits, but I also try to write as much as possible during those months. During the winter and summer quarters, I slow things down and focus primarily on writing.

I have a writing buddy in town (Karen Day/NO CREAM PUFFS) who meets with me regularly. We tell each other our goals and try to hold each other accountable.

It takes at least a year for me to write a book. I begin by brainstorming in my journal (and/or during long, hot showers), letting characters and a narrative arc form themselves in my mind. Once I have that story arc and a strong character, I start by taking Jane Yolen’s BIC (Butt in Chair) advice. That chair for me is usually in a local café. I tell myself I can’t leave the place until I write at least 1500 words. I am only allowed brief bathroom breaks and one latte refill.

The next day I’ll head out again (usually to a different café as I don’t want to wear out my welcome), and start by cutting and revising. Then I try to add another 1500 words, and so on and so on. I give myself permission to write garbage because I know my strength is revision. Once I have a lousy first draft done, it gets more fun. I go back and hone and cut and polish and carve and paint and decorate until it’s finally ready to send to my agent.

So on a day without an author visit, I’ll ideally dedicate about 3 pre-lunch hours to writing. Then I spend about 3-4 hours/day on correspondence, editing work that’s closer to publication, promotion and marketing, networking, writing blog posts, reviewing/reading other books, doing interviews, and/or preparing talks for upcoming appearances. I’m finding that younger writers are asking for more of my time these days, so I’ve added mentoring to the list.

I rarely meet my goals, but if I didn’t set them at the beginning of each quarter, I think I’d be half as productive. And while I know I’m blessed to be a full-time writer, my biggest challenge is shared by all those who are self-employed: motivating myself and staying on task. It’s a constant struggle as self-discipline and delayed gratification don’t come easily for me, but I’m growing. Thanks be to God, we can always grow and change, no matter how long we’ve been pursuing our dreams.

Photo courtesy of Francesc Esteve via Creative Commons.

Eight Cousins on V-Day

I'm celebrating Kids Heart Authors Day with five other authors at Eight Cousins, a landmark children's bookstore in Falmouth, Massachusetts founded by Betty Borg and Carol Borg Chittenden (pictured to the left).

The first and last sentences in their mission statement might help explain why I'm so excited to drive a couple of hours each way and spend half my Valentine's Day in this charming independent bookstore on the Cape:
Eight Cousins presents for sale a distinctive collection of quality children's books, chosen to offer culture, fun, beauty, insight and knowledge on many topics from the world over ... Our collection --- this unique grouping of books --- is the most important thing we have to offer. You can find books to buy anywhere, but this thorough and thoughtfully assembled group of books is one of a small handful in North America. We present it to you with pride.
Come and join us!

189 Main Street Map
  • Erin Dionne
  • Salley Mavor
  • T.M. Murphy
  • Mitali Perkins
  • Brett Runyon
  • Amy Wilson Sanger
Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies, Dial Books (YA)

Wee Willie Winkie, Houghton Mifflin (PB/BB)

Belltown Mystery Series, J.N. Townsend Publishing (MG)

Secret Keeper,
Delacorte (YA)

Surface Tension, Random House (YA)

Chaat and Sweets, World Snack Series, Ten Speed Press (PB)

Happy Valentine's Day, New England!

One 140-character tweet in December, and 171 children's and teen book authors and illustrators visit 44 independent bookstores on February 14, 2009. Can you believe it? And no snow in the forecast to boot!

Contact: Deborah Sloan, 978.684.5005

For Immediate Release

February 14 is Kids ♥ Authors Day in New England

Over 40 independent bookstores and 170 authors and illustrators share Valentine’s Day events with kids and families throughout the region

Andover, MA, January 18, 2009: Shower your pint-sized (or teen-sized) valentines with literary love. On Valentine’s Day, Saturday, February 14, 2009, from 10 a.m. to noon, independent booksellers throughout New England will host illustrators and authors of books for kids and teens, kicking off a new tradition of signed literary valentines for families.

Over 170 authors and illustrators and more than 40 independent booksellers in Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New York are participating in Kids ♥ Authors Day. Bookstores will provide bunches of books, and authors and illustrators will personalize them, talk about why they do what they do, and answer any and all questions about writing and drawing. Whether it’s an illustrator demonstrating his technique to a group of fascinated onlookers or a teen author chatting with excited fans about her characters, Kids ♥ Authors Day promises something for book lovers of all ages.

How did Kids ♥ Authors Day get started?

It began with a 140-character Twitter message on December 7, 2008 from Newton, MA resident and author Mitali Perkins, whose new novel for teens, Secret Keeper, is just out from Delacorte/Random House. “IDEA,” she tweeted. “Indies partner with authors for a ‘give a signed book’ day, all Kid/YA authors in area show up at stores to sign one afternoon.” Strong response from Perkins’ Twitter followers gave way to discussions with the New England Children’s Booksellers Association (NECBA) and New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA), and Kids ♥ Authors Day was born.

It’s for the Community and the Kids

“There's nothing like enjoying a warm fire, family, friends, and great stories on a February day in New England,” says Perkins. “On Kids ♥ Authors Day, it's like each bookstore is inviting their community to gather around a hearth with a loved one or two to meet some of our region's storytellers."

"One nice thing about hard economic times is that it makes people reflect upon the importance of community, and this event is an appropriate and meaningful vehicle for strengthening our community of New England authors and independent booksellers,” says Kenny Brechner, NECBA co-chair, of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers, Maine.

Show your support for local business and head to an independent bookstore on Saturday, February 14th. To find out who’s going where and read 100-plus reasons why we need independent bookstores, visit www.kidsheartauthors.com.

Extend the literary love with free bookmarks created by participating bookseller Jennifer Hopkins at the Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, VT. T-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, and pins designed by author Laya Steinberg are available from the Kids ♥ Authors Day Cafe Press Store, with proceeds going to Reach Out And Read, a Boston-based national non-profit that gives books to children in pediatric exam rooms across the nation.

# # #

Rita Williams-Garcia on rgz LIVE!

This month's readergirlz featured author is Rita Williams-Garcia, author of NO LAUGHTER HERE, a novel that takes an unflinching look at the effects of female genital mutilation, or FGM. FGM is experienced by approximately 138 million women around the world with another 2 million girls at risk each year. To learn more about female genital mutilation, view this heartbreaking video or visit FORWARD.

Don't miss the chance to chat with Rita Williams-Garcia this Thursday, February 12th at the readergirlz forum, 6 PM PST/9 PM EST. The chat will last for about an hour. Check out these fascinating tidbits about this award-winning author from the readergirlz February issue:

On the nightstand: 2 pairs of glasses, phone, Bible.

Pets: I'm grandma to Chase, my daughter's German Shepherd.

Place to write: Any outdoor bench under the sun.

Inspiration: Fried catfish, nachos with cheese. Can't write hungry.

Dream book tour: To all of the states with 75 degree weather.

Cure for writer's block: Hitting speed bag with boxing gloves

Laptop or longhand? Long-hand first. Then laptop.

Next up: JUMPED. A knows B will jump C by the end of the day. Alas, if only A cared or C knew.

A Graceful V-Day Gift

The love of your life will adore this month's painting by author-illustrator Grace Lin:

The painting is roughly 5X5 inches, gouache on Arches watercolor paper. Estimated value is $450. Includes a certificate of authenticity, signed and dated by the artist. 100% of the sale proceeds of the original artwork will go to the Foundation of Children's Books, a small non-profit organization in Boston bringing children's book authors and illustrators into under-served schools in Boston for visits and residencies. Check out the bidding details here.

This Ship Has Sailed

No doubt about it -- my novel SECRET KEEPER has definitively been launched. Some of you gathered to party on the west coast, wishing the book (and me) well in Bellevue, Washington or joining the harambee in Palo Alto, California.

And yesterday, seventy or so of you showed up to celebrate at Newtonville Books in Newton, Massachusetts. What fun! The samosas were yummy thanks to Punjabi Dhaba in Cambridge, my son made the chai, we raffled off prizes, the girls all sported bindis, and you made bookseller Mary Cotton (and me) very happy by buying quite a few books. (Photos courtesy of Laya Steinberg.)

I wore the same Ann Taylor pants at all three parties.
They were comfy.

My writer's group showed up en masse. From left to right: J.L.Bell, Steve Smith, Laya Steinberg, Mordena Babich, Karen Day, Kathryn Hulick, and Ammi-Joan Paquette. Yes, I'm the most fortunate girl on the planet. Tell me something I don't know.

Here's Yolanda Leroy of Charlesbridge asking sotto voce how
that revision of Bamboo People is coming along.
Mary Newell DePalma brought the fantastic flowers.

Boston-Area Launch Party Tomorrow

You're invited! It's at Newtonville Books, Sunday, 2/8, 2 o'clock in the afternoon.

This is my last solo party for SECRET KEEPER, as next Saturday I'll be at Eight Cousins in Falmouth with five other authors for Kids Heart Authors Day.

Check out these nice reviews from Paper Tigers, All Things Girl, Marjolein's Book Blog (warning: review has a spoiler), and My Friend Amy.

The Life Uncommon

"How did you decide to be a writer?" asked Nacie Carson, author of THE LIFE UNCOMMON. Here's my answer.
When I was growing up as an immigrant kid, reading fiction helped me understand myself as well as gain insight into North American mainstream culture. I kept scribbling stories and poems in my journals and reading children’s books, even while studying political science and public policy, and then teaching middle school, high school, and college.

I wrote my first novel, The Sunita Experiment, for fun after finishing my lesson plans and grading papers, and was stunned when Little Brown wanted to publish it. Although I was teaching at Pepperdine University at the time, I didn’t have a PhD. Was it time to get one? I enjoyed equipping my students with economic and political strategies in the battle against poverty and human rights violations, but was that what I really wanted to do with my life?

I took a silent retreat at a monastery in the Santa Monica Mountains to wrestle through this decision ...
... Read the rest here.

Picture Books in Hard Times

As I was writing my essay for PaperTigers about raising compassionate children, Mary E. Cronin asked members of the Child_Lit listerv to recommend picture books depicting families experiencing economic hardship. I thought my fire escape visitors might appreciate seeing her compilation. Interestingly, most of the suggested books focus on life in North America, and shoes seemed to be a common theme:
  • Adler, David. The Babe and I.
  • Bunting, Eve. A Day’s Work.
  • Bunting, Eve. Fly Away Home.
  • Cooper, Melrose. Gettin’ Through Thursday.
  • Fleischman, Sid. Scarebird.
  • Gunning, Monica. A Shelter in Our Car.
  • Hazen, Barbara Shook. Tight Times.
  • Hesse, Karen. Spuds.
  • Hopkinson, Deborah. Saving Strawberry Farm.
  • Jimenez, Francisco. The Christmas Gift = El Regalo de Navidad.
  • Lindsey, Kathleen D. Sweet Potato Pie.
  • Lipp, Frederick. Running Shoes.
  • Miller, William. Rent Party Jazz.
  • Noble, Trinka Hakes. The Orange Shoes.
  • Palacios, Argentina. A Christmas Surprise for Chabelita.
  • Ringgold, Faith. Tar Beach.
  • Rylant, Cynthia. When I Was Young in the Mountains.
  • Rylant, Cynthia. Silver Packages.
  • Smothers, Ethel Footman. The Hard Times Jar.
  • Stewart, Sarah. The Gardener.
  • Stuve-Bodeen, Stephanie. Babu’s Song.
  • Stuve-Bodeen, Stephanie. Elizabeti’s Doll.
  • Williams, Vera B. A Chair For My Mother.

Around The World in 35 Names

Did you know that each of us has a unique voice print? That's clear in Teaching Books' wonderful Author Name Pronunciation Guide, where a host of us use our own voices to share the stories behind our names.

Now Teaching Books has gathered 35 of us to help kids connect authors with countries. You may sample the first four authors and countries below (one voice might sound familiar to those who have met me face-to-face):

Ashley Bryan (Antigua and Barbuda)

Janet Tashjian (Armenia)

Mem Fox (Australia)

Mitali Perkins (Bangladesh)

How Kids Can Change The World

"Stories are powerful allies as we seek to raise a generation of compassionate children. I distinctly remember the moment when I grasped the beauty of sacrificial giving. I was nine years old and befriending Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess for the first time ..."

Read the rest of my essay, Stories Can Shape a Child's Heart, in PaperTigers' February issue, a compilation of reviews, articles and interviews highlighting a "growing global awareness of the power of children to change the world."

Don't miss Children as Change-Makers: On and Off The Pages by Aline Pereira, and the interviews with author Katie Smith Milway about her book, One Hen: How One Small Loan Made A Big Difference and Jan West Schrock, author of Give a Goat and advisor to the charity Heifer International, who describes a childhood filled with inspirational stories of giving.

Photo courtesy of Uncultured via Creative Commons.


Welcome to the first stop on Justina Chen Headley's blog tour for NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL (Little Brown), a novel for teens that's currently featured as a pick of the week on the home page of Barnes and Noble. Justina will be traveling from the Fire Escape to four other virtual venues this week to give us the inside scoop about a novel that has already garnered starred reviews from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, and Kirkus.

Those who follow me on Twitter or are my Facebook buddies know how often I laud NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL as one of my all-time favorite teen reads -- here's my response to the story right after I read it. You actually have FIVE chances to win a signed copy (details at the end of the post), but for now, let's spend a bit of time with Justina since we're fortunate enough to have her here.

Were you as popular and gorgeous in high school as you are today? What were you like, describe your school, tell us about your best buddies, and give us the inside scoop on boyfriends.

Mitali, popular and gorgeous are the last two adjectives I’d ever use to describe myself, then or now. Think quiet geekster, and you have a more accurate picture of me.

My years at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California (home of the iPod!) was all about journalism and speech & debate. Which, let’s face it, are geeky activities. I’m still close to friends (hi, Si Oyama and Julie Yen!) who date back to second-grade, monkey-bar, cherry-drop days on the playground.

TECHNICALLY (ahem), I wasn’t allowed to date in high school. But (shhhhh) I managed to squeeze in a few boyfriends here and there. And then I did go to something like 13 proms… Doesn’t that sound like a YA title: 13 Proms.

Maybe that's why we get along so well -- we're both geeks. Write 13 Proms after you finish the fantasy you started during the writing workshop in Bellevue last month. Okay, next question. Terra’s father and mother are such richly-drawn, but heartbreakingly flawed characters. How do your parents feel about your writing fiction? Have they read NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL?

I think my need to write mystifies my parents, but now they’re proud of my books. And proud that I’m a writer. Still, all through college, it was push-push-push for me to be an engineer. Or a doctor. Which really is ludicrous given my inability to calculate sums mentally, visualize in 3D, or handle blood. My dad read my first novel and his reaction was: “This is better than I thought it would be.” But lots of little birdies have told that they do that Asian bragging thing to their friends—“We knew Justina was always going to be an author! Of course we knew! Her middle name means lover of words!”

Our parents must meet. Since we're on the Fire Escape, let's talk about the hyphen that's a part of both of our lives. As the mother of teen boys who don’t often see an Asian-American as the “it” guy in pop culture, I’m grateful that you created such a hunk in Jacob. Do you consider yourself a Taiwanese-American writer? If so, how does that impact your fiction? If not, why not?

One of my missions as a writer was to create a hunk who happened to be Asian! That was a gift for my two brothers and my son…and all the Asian-American dudes out there who need to see guys like themselves as cool. Heartdroppingly cool. Devastatingly cool. It makes me feel great that readers of all ages are emailing me: “I. Am. So. In. Love. With. Jacob.” Mission accomplished!

I consider myself as a writer. Period. While I am proud of my heritage, I don’t think my ethnicity should define or limit or categorize me or any of the work I create. Certainly, I like to weave some of my background into my novels—tidbits of Taiwanese history in NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (AND A FEW WHITE LIES) and the Cultural Revolution in GIRL OVERBOARD. But those elements informed the story and explained character motivation. They were central to why Patty’s mom and Syrah’s mom acted the way they did. History—whether personal or political or both—shapes who we are. Ethnicity by itself isn’t a character attribute; history is. Those telling details are what should be included in stories.

Love it. Your response might merit another post altogether. Moving on for now. You create a magnificent sense of place in NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL. In fact, you take us to two places — the Pacific Northwest and Shanghai. Which comes easier for you as a writer, plot, place, or people?

What a compliment—particularly when setting is hard for me; it’s actually the last thing I write when I’m in first draft mode. My novels unfold to me in layers: first come the characters. I can see them, hear them. I know what they want and how they’re suffering. What happens to them—the plot and conflict—comes next. Very last is setting, like a grace note. Or a procrastinated chore. I marvel at writers who create such a tangible sense of place that I feel as if I am on location as I read. That’s a true gift.

Thank you so much for joining us here, Justina. I am so proud of you and know that teens and adults alike will absolutely love NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL. Here are the next stops on your tour; I'm going to be accompanying you from site to site as a silent lurker/cheerleader:

Monday, February 2: Kickoff at Mitali's Fire Escape

Tuesday, February 3: Shelf Elf with Kerry Millar

Wednesday, February 4: Archimedes Forgets with Sarah Rettger

Thursday, February 5: Bibliophile with Jennifer Rothschild

Friday, February 6: Teen Book Review with Jocelyn Pearce

Each day, the blogger hosting Justina will ask a question, and a commenter who answers that particular question correctly will become eligible to win a signed copy of book. Here's today's question:


Answer the question correctly before midnight EST in the comments below to qualify. My question's fairly easy, so I'm going to pick a random winner, but if you don't win here remember that you have four other chances.