Showing posts from April, 2009

Not Your Mother's Market

One of my pet peeves is when a gatekeeper doesn't represent, publish, promote, or buy a great teen or tween novel featuring a nonwhite protagonist because "that's such a small slice of the market" or "we just don't have that population in our community."

That's old school, people, for two reasons.

(1) Do YOU read only those books featuring protagonists who share your particular mix of class, ethnicity, and educational status? Oh, so you're reading your autobiography again and again, then? Compelling reads are supposed to take us across borders, and that's why we adult readers love them. Why should young readers be any different?

(2) Checked the youth market lately? Tune into MTV or the Disney Channel and do an ethnic survey. Or watch the movie version of Twilight. When Ms. Meyer set her story in the small town of Forks, Washington, were you picturing the multicultural group of high-schoolers who appear in the film version? A cast like that is f…

Picnic Basket Book Promotion

Want to spread the buzz about your book to teachers and librarians, who in turn will share it with their students? Ask Deborah Sloan (former director of marketing, promotion, advertising and publicity at Candlewick) if she'll feature it in The Picnic Basket. Here's the premise:
We send you free books. You tell us what you think! Welcome to The Picnic Basket, where school and library professionals taste new and forthcoming children's books with first-come, first-serve sample copies of books for kids of all ages. Read the books, then post your reviews here for your colleagues to read.Twenty-some educators thus far have submitted reviews of my SECRET KEEPER, and I'm refreshed by their honesty and encouragement:
A thought-provoking book and a good read. In the spunky and opinionated Asha, pre-teens and teens can find a role model in their search for individuality.

I wept right in the middle of the mall as I read this book while waiting for my daughter to window shop with her …

Writing Race: A Checklist For Writers

We've been talking a lot about this on the Fire Escape, but I thought it might be helpful to sum up ten questions we writers can ask ourselves once we've completed a story (these were presented during my workshop at the NESCBWI conference last weekend):
How and why did or didn't I define race? Did I use labels like "Black" or "white"? If so, which ones and why?

Did my setting, plot, and characters determine the cultural casting?

Am I aware and in charge of any non-verbals that are race-specific (i.e. "grew pale")?

Who are my story's change agents culturally and why?

Are my characters of other races more than just foils for my protagonist?

Is my narrative voice specific when describing foreign places or people (i.e."Igbo" vs. "Africa")?

Have I relied on a certain jargon, diction, or accent to characterize, and inadvertently tapped into cultural stereotypes?

How did I define beauty ("big eyes" = "not Asian")?


Princess Tiana's Accent

Disney's first Black princess is voiced by Anika Noni Rose. Rose grew up outside Hartford, Connecticut in the community of Bloomfield, so she's from New England, but she sustains a Bostwanan accent in HBO's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency as Grace Makutsi. You can get a taste of Rose's New Orleans spin on Princess Tiana's voice in the teaser:

Here's what she sounds like in real life. Interestingly, Disney chose to write Prince Naveen, Tiana's true love, as Middle Eastern/South Asian-ish, and he's voiced by Bruno Campos, a Brazilian-born actor who grew up in the States. Wonder how his accent will sound? The film is set to release in December 2009, but the teaser says 2010.

Meet the Fugees

Stopped by the Carter Center in Atlanta last night for the tail end of a presentation by Warren St. John (author of OUTCASTS UNITED: A Refugee Town, An American Dream) and Coach Luma Mufleh, who leads the Fugees Family.

But the highlight of the evening was meeting the Fugees themselves, who sat in the front rows, resplendent in nice shirts and ties, and after the event patiently signed books for dozens of visitors -- and posed for their growing number of fans.

Now I'm about to teach three classes to aspiring and published writers. Here they are:

1) Baking up a Book: 13 Key Ingredients of the Writing Life

So you want to be a writer? In this class, we’ll cover a baker’s dozen of essentials you’ll need to know to get published. Get the skinny on queries, submissions, agents, editors, royalties, contracts, rejections, revisions, and other basics of the fast-changing book industry. We’ll close with questions — anything goes.

2) Name Branding: Creating a Niche as a Writer

Writing is abo…

The Gupta Brothers' Kahani Movement

That Sanjay Gupta! He's been lurking around the Fire Escape and stealing my ideas. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, since most of us with aging parents share a worry about losing that generation's stories. The Gupta brothers, though, are doing something about it.

Co-founded by brothers Dr. Sanjay Gupta (CNN) and Suneel Gupta (Mozilla), the Kahani Movement (not to be confused with our beloved Kahani Magazine, although we hope it's a win-win situation) is a non-profit project aiming to inspire generations of Indian-Americans to capture and share stories from their ancestors that immigrated to the United States from India.

The project takes a Hollywood 2.0 approach to sharing these stories by motivating young Indian Americans to pick up a camera, interview their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and then post that footage to Kahani's web platform. The eventual audience for this content is a generation of people who may never have the benefit of a real…

The Lessons of OUTCASTS UNITED by Warren St. John

Got the blues about life in America? Don't waste time. Read Outcasts United: A Refugee Town, An American Dreamby New York Times reporter Warren St. John as soon as you can.

St. John's uplifting story is about a small town in Georgia, an influx of refugees from war-torn countries, boys, and the sport of soccer. But the book also sheds light on immediate demographic and cultural forces that are pulling and shaping our society -- forces that must be understood if we are to serve the next generation well.

While the author steers clear of pontificating, I couldn't help making the didactical leap as I devoured the book on a nonstop flight from Boston to SFO. What do the Fugees football team, the town of Clarkston, and Coach Luma Mufleh teach the rest of us about serving young people in America's fast-changing communities?

1. Lesson from the Fugees: Sports can change lives.

Fugee players fled here from different countries, worship in different ways, speak a wide variety of lang…

A Call For Entries

Please spread the word about the Seventh Annual Fire Escape Contest for teen-authored poetry and short stories. Entries are due by June 1, 2009, and cash prizes are awarded for first, second, and third place (plus winning looks great on those college apps, right?)

Here's the poem that won first place in the 2008 contest:

First Prize:
Doll Skin by Monika, Panama/USA, Age 17Dear Josephina,I owe you an apology
many years in the making
I am sorry that you were always
last in line
That when my mother said
you look so much alike
I would scowl
I am sorry that I
loved Summer over you
that her blond hair
and green eyes
made me smile like
I never smiled at you
I am sorry that when my grandmother
made matching dresses

I Rocked The Drop ...

... at Boston Children's Hospital's Booking it in the Waiting Room. I brought along a box of various new books sent to the Fire Escape, along with a signed copy of my own Secret Keeper:

Dr. Jessica Daniel received me at noon, and then met with a group of Simmons College visitors later in the day who brought their book drop donations.

Before I left, I ducked into the Harvard Coop and saw a display of new teen books that included North of Beautiful by rgz Diva Justina Chen Headley (see third shelf from bottom), which I thought was apropos:

Did you rock the drop? Come tell us about it at the readergirlz chat tonight at 9 p.m. EST, 6 p.m. PST. See you there!

Happy Jackie Robinson Day!

All 1000 or so Major League Baseball players in the United States are wearing #42 today to honor the great Jackie Robinson, who said, "A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives."

Why not read the story of this hero as told by his daughter Sharon Robinson in PROMISES TO KEEP (Scholastic)? Listen to excerpts from an interview Ms. Robinson gave to Time For Kids:

How did he find the strength to continue playing even when people were insulting him and threatening his life?

He was committed to his overall mission, and his goals for creating change. He had a strong spiritual foundation, a strong mother, a strong, loving wife, and strong faith. All of those helped give him the strength to overcome those obstacles.

How was the atmosphere for a black player different back then?

Back then African Americans didn't have the option of playing in baseball's Major Leagues. You had to play in a separate league and that was unfair. It wasn't fair not to be …

One Day Without Shoes

I notice shoes.

Maybe it's because when we first arrived in New York, times were tough and Ma used to cut a slit in the toe box of my sneakers when they got tight. That way, I could wear them for a few more weeks before having to buy new ones.

Or maybe it's because of Baba's stories about walking barefoot for miles to his village school in Bengal. "One pair of shoes," he told us. "That's all I had. I didn't want to ruin them in the mud."

Across the globe, shoes represent wealth, privilege, status, class. They prevent disease, protect the foot, enable children to attend school, and allow us to walk longer distances and carry heavier burdens. But not every parent can afford to buy shoes for their children.

Because shoes are so universal, they serve as the perfect symbol to connect us across cultures. Here's a three-step process to make that happen in the classroom or the family room.

1. Read a great story.


In the a…

India in Children's Books

India Stories
by Mitali Perkins

You want your ancient India,
Your other India,
Your monkey-jewel-barefoot India.

Draped in a tired colonial nostalgia,
Veiled and demure, perched on elephants.

But they are a dancing India,
A changing India,
A buying-selling-reading India.
Sorry. Can't have your bleeding India.

A No-Win Whiteness?

I want to write race, my white writing buddies confess. Demographics are shifting in America, and I know I should. But I feel stuck.

Most of them don't feel comfortable writing a nonwhite protagonist. How is that authentic? they wonder.

They don't feel free to create antagonists of color.How is that not racist? they ask.

And the answer isn't simply including secondary characters -- foils, sidekicks, or "magical negroes" who exist only to help or inspire a white protagonist. How is that not tokenism? they ask.

How in the world, then, can my white writing friends safely write race?

The answer is easy. They can't. Write race safely, I mean. None of us can. But we can be brave enough to try.

In The Atlantic's The End of White America?, Hua Hsu describes how white people feel in circles of influence:
... If white America is indeed “losing control,” and if the future will belong to people who can successfully navigate a post-racial, multicultural landscape—then it’s n…

Mea Culpa in Writing Race

I've made plenty of missteps as I journey along with the rest of my author friends to include and describe characters of different races, but I featured a particular error in my article for School Library Journal:
Overexoticizing a nonwhite character to appeal to white readers can happen inside a story as well as on a cover. Take my book The Sunita Experiment (Little, Brown, 1993), the story of an eighth grader whose California home becomes much more traditional when her grandparents visit from India.After the novel was published, a reviewer chastised me for the “unnecessary exoticization” of my protagonist. Here’s how I ended the story, with Sunita championing her South Asian heritage by trying on a saree and modeling it for the guy she likes:“You look… just like I thought you would, Sunni,” he whispers when she reaches him. “Are you sure you’re still Sunita Sen and not some exotic Indian princess coming to cast a spell on me?”“I’m sure, Michael,” she tells him, giving him one of …

Rock the Drop!

Where will you lose a book on April 16, 2009?
You've probably heard that rgz, GuysLitWire, YALSA and publishers are giving away 8,000 new young-adult novels, audio books, and graphic novels to hospitals for teens across the country on that day.
Now rgz is inviting readers and YA authors to leave a young adult book in any public place on April 16th. Here's what to do:Download a bookplate and put it in a book.
Leave a comment about which title(s) you plan to drop in your community and where.Take a photo as you drop your book.Upload the photo during the TBD Post-Op Party, a live chat taking place at the readergirlz blog that night at 6 PM Pacific/9 PM Eastern.Join in the chat; lots of authors will be stopping by.
I'm carting a box of books to the Boston Children's Hospital, and dropping a signed copy of SECRET KEEPER either at a T-stop or a local coffee shop. See you at the rgz party on 4/16!

Grandparents as Living Libraries

Ostensibly, my sons and I traveled from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area this past weekend to celebrate Baba's birthday.

That's what I told people, anyway.

But the truth is that these regular trips to Didu and Dadu's house -- note the open door and my Dad waiting on the porch -- are a shortcut to keeping my heritage alive in the next generation.

The best part is that it's never forced. Bengali music constantly plays in the background. Ma lavishes them with her fresh-cooked specialties, and the boys are always free to eat with their fingers as they would if they were in Kolkata. Baba tells them stories about his high school days, and we laugh at his jokes. Both my parents forget and speak Bangla as if the boys understand it, and I watch in amazement as sometimes they seem to.

Like me, authors Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic), and Salma Ali (India), came to the U.S.A. as children. As part of NPR's series on the children of immigrants, they r…

Authors, Cowboy Up

One of my goals in Straight Talk on Writing Race was to encourage and inspire writers -- some of the most creative people on the planet -- to come up with fresh ways of portraying race in stories for young people.

A twitter buddy responded to my article. "As a white author," she said. "I generally can't win when it comes to writing non-white characters."

"Fear of making mistakes is an honest answer," I told her. "Don't give up, it takes work, but that's true for those of us who aren't white, too."

So writers, here's your challenge: pick up a recent work, and think abouthow and why you DID or DIDN'T mention or describe race. Share the answer if you feel comfortable.

I'll start. In Secret Keeper, I didn't have to, because everybody in the story is Bengali (ha — that was easy, sorry.)