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 fairly standard for young Hollywood these days, and teens and tweens in urban, suburban, and rural North American communities expect it on the big and small screen. Why not on the page?
We can write race all we want, but until excellent, entertaining fiction with a mosaic of protagonists, antagonists, and sidekicks are sent from the publishing houses into the mass market, the book industry is stuck in a last-gen world.
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.Now that's praise from the praiseworthy, and well worth the investment.
I wept right in the middle of the mall as I read this book while waiting for my daughter to window shop with her friends. I couldn't put it down, or concentrate on anything else. I was a blubbering fool. I felt as if the author pulled up a stool and sat me right at Asha's family table.
This was a wonderfully written book, and I look forward to sharing it with my high school sophomores and juniors.
I’m going to warn you: I cried at the end of SECRET KEEPER. Don’t worry; I won’t give away too many secrets. Just one: I didn’t cry because of the sad ending. I cried because author Mitali Perkins resisted the urge to "go Disney," and I instantly loved her for it.
I just finished reading SECRET KEEPER. It is a fantastic story! My students can definitely relate to having to live with extended family members and having to obey others rules and not having any space/privacy of their own. They tell me this daily. They can also relate to the importance of keeping promises, even if they mean hurting yourself. And they definitely can relate to being poor and not having any money.
- 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")?
- Could my characters be imagined as different ethnicities? Do I want that?
- Should I hand more casting power to my reader and cut back on some physical descriptions?
Photo Credit: Mahidoodi via Creative Commons
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.
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 about making a difference, but it’s also about making a living. A niche can give you an edge in a competitive industry, leading to writing assignments, speaking gigs, and book contracts. Leave this class with a practical plan to brand yourself as a writer.
3) Pajama Promotion: Web-Savvy WaysTo Generate Book Buzz
Thanks to the power of the internet, you can spread the word about your writing without leaving that comfy recliner by the fire. In this class, you’ll learn how to overcome fears about wired marketing, rev up your website, refine the art of blogging and micro-blogging, join groups and social networks, partner with booksellers, and set manageable goals.
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 conversation with their immigrant ancestors.
"These cherished stories are evaporating along with the people who lived them," Sanjay Gupta said. "It is our generation's responsibility to preserve those stories, so that they are never lost."
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 languages, and are racially diverse, but end up bonding like family. Why? The answer's easy to see in the book -- because they all want to win.
Kofi Annan, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, launched the Year of Sports in 2005, reminding us that "when young people participate in sports or have access to physical education, they can experience real exhilaration even as they learn the ideals of teamwork and tolerance."
The Fugees Family website describes how exploiting the strong internal motivation that comes with sport can help kids at risk:
Soccer draws these players together. Before they join the Fugees Family, they already love the game. It's the most popular sport in the world, and the fastest-growing youth sport in the country. On the field, the players experience the freedom, release, power, and sense of achievement that they do not experience in school. Soccer builds their confidence, and gives them the lift, the spirit, to persevere in their academics - long, slow work that does bring rewards, but not instantly. Their enthusiasm for the game is what attracts the kids' participation, and, once involved, they are impelled to excel not only on the field but off it.How might we use the universal competitive drive and love of sport to shatter barriers and motivate success?
2. Lesson from Clarkston: Commandeer change instead of resisting it.
One of the most revelatory sections of the book was chapter 19, titled "Getting Over It." Here St. John features a few people and groups who rose to the challenge of Clarkston's demographic change by innovating -- a church, a grocery store called Thriftown, and the police force. I especially enjoyed the ecclesiastical example, since religious institutions are so often portrayed in our culture as barriers to change:
As refugees moved to Clarkson in the 1990s, many members of the church's white congregation became so uncomfortable with their changing surroundings that they decided to move away ... Membership in the church plummeted from around seven hundred to just over a hundred ... A group of church elders met to discuss the congregation's future. They looked to the Bible for guidance, and read a passage in which Jesus described heaven as a place for people of all nations ... [As a result] the Clarkston Baptist Church renamed itself after 125 years: it's now the Clarkston International Bible Church. On Sundays, separate congregations of Liberians, Ethiopians, French-speaking West Africans, and Sudanese meet ... and a bigger, come-one, come-all service takes place in the main sanctuary in English ... Pews in the sanctuary, once nearly empty on Sunday mornings, are now near capacity, and membership has grown to over five hundred.The Thriftown Grocery and the Clarkston police force were also willing to take risks for the right reasons in response to changes they couldn't control. Are we?
3. Lesson from Luma: Leave your bleeding heart at home.
Steven Roberts, in his Washington Post review of the book, notes that tender-hearted readers may not like Luma Mufleh's coaching style:
In truth, she can overdo the "tough" part of "tough love." I cringed when she banished Mandela Ziaty for insubordination, called her players "a pathetic excuse for a soccer team" and told them that they "deserved to lose."But undoubtedly Luma's toughness brings out the best in these boys. She requires them to participate in after-school tutoring at least twice a week. If the boys miss tutoring, they miss playing in their game that week.
As I read the book, my (bleeding) heart went out to one boy after another, but one of my favorites had to be Kanue Biah. This fifteen-year-old dedicated player originally from Liberia was heartbroken after Coach canceled the under-15s' season due to the absences of his teammates -- one of her harshest decrees.
But Kanue didn't give up. The Fugees meant too much to him. He painstakingly organized his teammates to advocate for a second chance. He recruited new players and chased the old ones until he had enough players to form a new team. And somehow he convinced Coach to let them try out again.
After Luma agreed to reinstate the team, St. John writes:
Kanue dropped his head in relief. His team was alive. He had vetted the newcomers and let them know Coach's rules -- he'd read the contract to many of them himself -- and he was going to make sure everyone was there on Thursday afternoon, on time ... "I told her I appreciate her," Kanue said later. "I told her thanks, and that we were going to do everything to follow the rules and give her the respect she deserves."What an exercise in advocacy and leadership -- skills this young man might not have learned without Luma's strong boundaries in place.
Despite my lesson-gleaning, Outcasts United isn't out to convey tips and morals for the good of society. It's replete with stories about boys who have endured much, a sport that they love, and the Coach they learn to trust and respect. And that's what makes it such a great read.
Note: Author Warren St. John will be visiting us on the Fire Escape for an exclusive follow-up interview, so stay tuned!
Here's the poem that won first place in the 2008 contest:
Doll Skin by Monika, Panama/USA, Age 17
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 never gave you one
that your thick dark hair
never was braided
never was brushed
I am sorry I pronounced your name
with a stiff and angry
I knew it was wrong
but most of all
I am so sorry
that I hated my
and that you
live in it
Read other past winning entries here, and please note the contest rules:
Do you love to weave words together?
Were you and/or one or both of your birth parents born in another country?
Do you live in the United States or Canada now?
Are you 13-19 years old?
If you answered yes to ALL of the questions above, YOU qualify to enter the 2009 Fire Escape Writing Contests! Submit an original, unpublished poem or story that reflects some of the joys and struggles of growing up between two cultures in America. The Fire Escape will only consider one poem and story per person, so send your best work. (If you like writing non-fiction, too, check out the Fire Escape's Write-a-Review Contest.)
Poetry (up to three poems)
Short Fiction (up to 800 words)
First Prize: $50
Second Prize: $35
Third Prize: $15
How to submit an entry:
Paste your poem or story into an e-mail message and send it to contests -at - mitaliperkins.com. I will not open attachments.
Proofread thoroughly and keep your presentation simple. Entries with spelling, grammar or punctuation errors and funky characters/fonts may be disqualified without notice. Do not include any clip art, images, or photos with your entry. Words only, please. Fiction longer than 1000 words will not be considered.
Include your name, age, and e-mail address in your e-mail. Also include your countr(ies) of origin. You and/or ONE of your birth parents must have been born outside North America. If you were born in Puerto Rico and are now living in one of the states or Canadian provinces, you qualify.
Current U.S. or Canadian residents only please, and previous winners in one category are not eligible to enter that category. To qualify, your entry must be received between September 1, 2008 and June 1, 2009.
REPEAT: you must be an immigrant or internationally-adopted teen or a teen with one immigrant parent currently living in the United States or Canada.
NOTE: Failure to follow all of the contest guidelines will disqualify your entry.
Winning Poems and Stories will be published on the Fire Escape. Winners will be notified by June 30th. If you do not hear from us by June 30th, you can assume that your entry was NOT a winner. Prizes must be claimed by September 1, 2009. Please note that editorial or any other personal comments will not be provided for contest submissions. The Fire Escape reserves the right to award no prizes if no entry meets the judge's standards.
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!
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 able to play in the big leagues where the conditions were better. It was the ultimate dream for all baseball players to play in the Big Leagues. To be kept out because of color and not talent wasn't right.
Read more here.
Interestingly, Jackie Robinson's big brother Matthew won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash—just behind Jesse Owens—at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. They were raised by a single mother, a hero behind the hero who wielded the proverbial "hand that rocked the cradle."
Branch Rickey, labeled the "Mahatma" for his strong faith, was also instrumental in Robinson's life. As President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, he signed the first black player in Major League Baseball. "The thing about him was that he was always doing something for someone else," Robinson recalled at Rickey’s death in 1965. "I know, because he did so much for me."
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.
ONE THOUSAND TRACINGS by Lita Judge
In the aftermath of World War II, the author's family in America established contact with a family in Germany and to help them sent them supplies, including shoes. The German family was extremely grateful and asked if their American friends would help others in Europe. Soon shoe tracings from all over the continent started pouring in to the modest Midwest farm. (Find discussion guide here.)
FOUR FEET TWO SANDALS by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed
When relief workers bring used clothing to the refugee camp, everyone scrambles to grab whatever they can. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet, each wearing one coveted sandal. Together they solve the problem of having four feet and two sandals. (Download .pdf discussion guide here.)
RUNNING SHOES by Frederick Lipp
More than anything Sophy wants to go to school, but there are no schools in her small Cambodian village. The nearest school is many miles away over terrible roads. When Sophy is given a pair of running shoes, her life changes forever. (Find out more here.)
2. Give away shoes
Thanks to the power of a good story or two, your hearts will be open to the possibilities of making a difference. The next step is to visit two websites with your kids and consider donating your extra shoes. If you're in a community where shoes are luxuries rather than necessities, these organizations might even help you get some for your children.
- Share Your Soles: an organization dedicated to getting shoes to those in greatest need around the world.
- Soles 4 Souls: A charity that collects gently worn shoes to donate them to those in need.
This week, consider participating in ONE DAY WITHOUT SHOES, a campaign created by the retailer TOMS Shoes:
On April 16th, we want you to leave your shoes at the door. Walk barefoot in an effort to create awareness about the impact a simple pair of shoes can have on one’s life. One Day Without Shoes was established in 2008, primarily on campuses around the US, as students rallied together for a one mile barefoot walk. This year, TOMS wants to inspire all individuals to take part. Perhaps you kick off your shoes during an afternoon meeting, or you walk 2 blocks barefoot, or carry your shoes in your hand just long enough for someone to ask, “Why?”
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.
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 no surprise that many white Americans are eager to divest themselves of their whiteness entirely ...
Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple University ... has observed that many of his white students are plagued by a racial-identity crisis: “They don’t care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, ‘I don’t have a culture.’ They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don’t have a culture that’s cool or oppositional... We’re going through a period where whites are really trying to figure out: Who are we?”Talk about irony, right? Welcome to life between cultures, people. It's about time you got here. Those of us who've crossed ethnic and racial borders since childhood know this place well. We know about feeling constrained and stiff and unsafe when it comes to writing race and ethnicity. Sometimes you tell yourself yes, and sometimes you tell yourself no, but at least you ask the hard questions and listen to thought-provoking criticism. In a fast-changing time without clearcut rules and definitions, there's grace for mistakes and rewards to anticipate, especially for the kids and teens we serve.
A few readers have wondered why this was so bad. One commenter on a recent post raised the question:
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 her trademark smiles just to prove it.
I fumed, but, dang it, the reviewer was right. Exotic Indian princess? What was I thinking? Enduring a twinge of shame, I moved on and tried to learn from my mistake.
When my publisher decided to reissue the book in 2005, I was asked if I wanted to make any changes. “Yes!” I shouted, pumping my fist.
Here’s how the book, renamed The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, ends now:
“You look… just like I thought you would, Sunni,” he whispers when she reaches him. “Are you sure you’re still the same Sunita Sen? The California girl?”
“I’m sure, Michael,” she tells him, giving him one of her trademark smiles just to prove it.
Thank goodness for second chances.
You chastise yourself for referring to your character as an "exotic Indian princess." I fail to see what's wrong with the image, depending on who's making the statement. South Asians are exotic to Westerners. What's wrong with saying that?Here's my answer:
When I look back with distaste at the "exotic Indian princess" descriptor for my between-cultures Sunita, I'm thinking of young Asian women who must deal with the fact that some non-Asian men will pursue them because of an exotic-cum-submissive Asian female stereotype. My writing emphasized that unhealthy dynamic because it was said by Michael, the object of Sunita's affection -- it's not even a natural, young-teen-guy kind of thing to say. The point of the novel is that Sunita IS a California girl, not an exotic "other," so it was a misstep I was glad to fix on many levels.Does that help clarify the problem? If not, let me know, and I'll gladly elaborate.
I've appreciated the thoughtful responses to my article, and am overwhelmed by the positive feedback. But since it's a subject that's fraught with tension, I want to encourage honest questions and dialogue. I'd be troubled if someone read the article and didn't feel safe to respond with criticism. Comment or raise questions anonymously here on the Fire Escape -- I have no problems with that.
Tomorrow, I'll take on this particular visitor's two other questions.
First, when it comes to writing race, she asks, "Why does it seem like white authors can never win?"
And second, she wonders, "What's so wrong about authors leaving race out of descriptions?"
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.
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 reflect on the "transformation of immigrants in America as the next generation assimilates." Danticat reminds us of the power of grandparents, which our family experiences each time we visit California:
Do you have older living relatives who, in addition to everything they represent, also represent a culture that we're no longer living in? So having these sort of living libraries, I think, is important to this next generation.It's clear that North American older adults of all races and cultures are an untapped source for young people struggling with identity and self-esteem issues. In a culture that divides seniors and teens, it seems daunting to connect the generations. Perhaps stories told by newer Americans like Danticat, Diaz, and Ali are uniquely able to inspire and inform our communities in this challenge.
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 about how 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.)