You're A Bit Too Oversensitive

"Why not let kids be color-blind for as long as they can? Let's just let them read a story and enjoy it, for goodness' sake."

I'm predicting this response -- spoken or unspoken -- to my article releasing tomorrow in School Library Journal. And when I blog about these issues on the Fire Escape, I often ask myself whether I'm being "over-sensitive." Who wants to have a chip on her shoulder -- or be accused of having one? Not me.

That's why I was encouraged by the always-brave Debbie Reese's post today, in which she uses research reported in Science Daily to demonstrate how subtle racism in books can take a toll on American Indian children. If an educator asks the hard questions about race while reading a book in the classroom, wouldn't that be a relief to young people who must constantly process such questions alone?

Debbie's post led me to other studies, like this one, showing that children as young as preschoolers tend to follow majority opinion. It's a Lord of the Flies world on the playground, people. Or this one, where white people – including children as young as 10 -- avoided talking about race so as not to appear prejudiced. "But that approach often backfires," the researchers concluded, "As blacks tend to view this 'colorblind' approach as evidence of prejudice, especially when race is clearly relevant."

So let me ask you -- how young is too young to ask questions about racism while reading a story with kids? Have you ever done it? If so, when, why, and how?

Glam and Glitz at the Library

Who needs a Hollywood red carpet to feel like a celeb? Experience the heady buzz of being fêted at the Newton Free Library's Annual Spring Fling instead ...

You hardly recognize the library. The lobby is festooned with spring colors, flowers, and glittering lights. Caterers from Baker's Best weave through the crowd, holding trays of scallops, satay, and something that looks like spanakopita. The Jane Potter Jazz Trio is playing where the copy machine usually stands.

You're greeted with hugs and kisses by a group of beaming trustees and librarians and ushered into the art gallery. The person assigned to care for you through the evening drapes you with a personalized nametag, and introduces you to the seven other honored guests.

You shake hands, wondering: Are discarded outfits strewn across their bedrooms? They appear relaxed and well-coiffed, so you decide it's just you who stressed over what to wear.

"Want something to drink?" your caretaker asks, and rushes off to bring you a cranberry spritzer.

Your husband arrives, and you mingle with the guests and bid on the tempting choices in the silent auction -- beautifully-wrapped baskets stuffed with Red Sox tickets, spa packages, gardening consultations, or other goodies, each with an appropriately-themed book on a stand beside them.

Posters of you and the other authors adorn the walls. You try not to linger too long in front of yours, but secretly hope to take it home after the event to show your parents. You spot the Mayor, the State Senator, alderman, neighbors, and fellow parents on the PTO. Members of the press include David Dahl of the Globe and a reporter from the middle school's prize-winning newspaper. To make you feel even more at home, friends from church arrive to surprise you.

The reference section of the library has somehow morphed into an auditorium, and your caretaker seats you and your husband in the front row. Library Director Nancy Perlow, elegant in heels, pearls, and flowing chiffon, welcomes everybody and introduces the Honorary Chair, Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR's On Point. He confesses his overdue fines to the crowd, describes the library as a shrine, and in a few pithy phrases underlines the privilege of living in a town where books and authors are revered.

Next, Beth Wilkinson, the chair of the trustees, introduces William Novak, an author, editor, and comedy scholar who has collaborated with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Nancy Reagan in creating memoir. Mr. Novak, who has interviewed you before the event, proceeds to enthrall the audience with introductions to all eight authors and books.

He starts with salient details about the writing of five works of non-fiction, Paris in Boston (Jack Dzamba), A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (Alex Beam), What's Wrong With My Dog? (Jake Tedaldi), New Rooms for Old Houses (Frank Shirley), and The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth (Solomon Schimmel). You're not surprised to learn that Mr. Novak is also a kaleidoscope aficionado, because he makes your mind spin and expand with new ideas and thoughts.

Next comes fiction. You wait your turn with a bit of trepidation as Mr. Novak introduces Xujun Eberlein (Apologies Forthcoming). But you forget your nerves as you're drawn into a short story about life during the Cultural Revolution, something the author experienced firsthand. When your turn comes, all you have to do is stand and receive applause -- Mr. Novak does the hard work of conveying your life, vision, and story to the audience in five minutes.

Then, last but not least, he introduces Andre Dubus III, and reads an excerpt from The Garden of Last Days. You're sitting near Mr. Dubus' wife, and learn that the two of you share something in common -- she, too, has a celebrity crush on the actor Ben Kingsley, who starred in the adaptation of her husband's novel, The House of Sand and Fog.

The evening ends with the signing of books, the consumption of tiny ice-cream cones, sipping cappuccinos decorated by an artist-barista, laughter, and good conversation.

As you leave, your feet, unused to high heels because mostly you're home writing barefoot, are in pain. But your heart is soaring, because you realize that your vocation is held in high esteem in your town. And tomorrow, unlike those Hollywood starlets, you get to slip a comfortable sweatshirt over your introverted, eccentric, unglamorous self, and do the work that you love best -- writing the next story.

YA Authors On Twitter

Here's the list (in alphabetical order) of published or about-to-be published authors who write for teens should you want to follow any or all of us. Note to new tweeps: this list is now maintained by Alessandra Lee at Blogging YA.
  1. Susan Adrian @susan_adrian
  2. Jill S. Alexander @jillsalexander
  3. Tara Altebrando @TaraAltebrando
  4. Laurie Halse Anderson @halseanderson
  5. R. J. Anderson @rj_anderson
  6. Joelle Anthony @joellewrites
  7. Andrew Auseon @andrewauseon
  8. Kim Baccellia @ixtumea
  9. Cyn Balog @cynbalog
  10. Jennifer Lynn Barnes @jenlynnbarnes
  11. Lauren Barnholdt @laurenbarnholdt
  12. Clare Bell @rathacat
  13. Robin Benway @robinbenway
  14. Jonathan Bernstein @jbpeevish
  15. Holly Black @hollyblack
  16. Coe Booth @coebooth
  17. Robin Brande @Robin_Brande
  18. Heather Brewer @heatherbrewer
  19. Susan Taylor Brown @susanwrites
  20. Meg Cabot @megcabot
  21. Janet Lee Carey @janetleecarey
  22. Ceil Castellucci @cecilseaskull
  23. Susane Colasanti @susanecolasanti
  24. Deborah Copeland @authorgrl
  25. Paula Chase Hyman @Paulachy
  26. Tera Lynn Childs @teralynnchilds
  27. Cassie Clare @cassieclare
  28. Eoin Colfer @eoincolfer
  29. Deborah Copeland @authorgrl
  30. Holly Cupala @hollycupala
  31. Sarah Dessen @sarahdessen
  32. Cory Doctorow @doctorow
  33. Kathleen Duey @kathleenduey
  34. Anthony Eaton @anthonyeaton
  35. Daniel Ehrenhaft @danielehrenhaft
  36. Beth Fehlbaum @bethfehlbaum
  37. Neil Gaiman @neilhimself
  38. Liz Gallagher @lizgallagherliz
  39. Linda Gerber @gerbsan
  40. K.L. Going @klgoing
  41. Alison Goodman @alisongoodman
  42. Alan Gratz @Alan_Gratz
  43. John Green @realjohngreen
  44. Lorie Ann Grover @lorieanngrover
  45. Megan Kelley Hall @megankelleyhall
  46. Brendan Halpin @bhalpin
  47. Jenny Han @jennyhan
  48. S.A. Harazin @saharazin
  49. Brent Hartinger @brenthartinger
  50. Louise Hawes @louisehawes
  51. Justina Chen Headley @justinaheadley
  52. Simmone Howell @postteen
  53. Mandy Hubbard @mandyhubbard
  54. Mark Jeffrey @markjeffrey
  55. Maureen Johnson @maureenjohnson
  56. Varian Johnson @varianjohnson
  57. Carrie Jones @carriejonesbook
  58. Heidi S. Kling @seaheidi
  59. Jo Knowles @joknowles
  60. William Kostakis @williamkostakis
  61. Marie Lamba @marielamba
  62. Margo Lanagan @margolanagan
  63. Justine Larbalestier @JustineLavaworm
  64. Jessica Leader @JessicaLeader
  65. E. Lockhart @elockhart
  66. Cara Lockwood @CaraLockwood
  67. Greg Logsted @greglogsted
  68. Lauren Baratz Logsted @laurenbaratzl
  69. Rita Lorraine @ritalorraine
  70. Eric Luper @ericluper
  71. Lisa Madigan @lkmadigan
  72. Bennett Madison @bennettmadison
  73. Sandra Malench @SandraMalench
  74. Marianne Mancusi @mariannemancusi
  75. Lisa Mantchev @lisamantchev
  76. Christine Marciniak @ckmarciniak
  77. Melissa Marr @melissa_marr
  78. Georgia McBride-Wohl @Georgia_McBride
  79. Lisa McMann @lisa_mcmann
  80. Neesha Meminger @NeeshaMem
  81. Kate Messner @kmessner
  82. Saundra Mitchell @saundramitchell
  83. Sarah Mlynowski @SarahMlynowski
  84. Tee Morris @TeeMonster
  85. Kirsty Murray @kirstymurray
  86. Alyson Noe @alysonnoe
  87. Sarah Ockler @sarahockler
  88. Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich @olugbemisola
  89. Micol Ostow @micolz
  90. Kelly Parra @kparra
  91. Mary Pearson @marypearson
  92. Marlene Perez @MarPerez
  93. Mitali Perkins @mitaliperkins
  94. Diana Peterfreund @dpeterfreund
  95. Karen Rivers @karenrivers
  96. Dana Reinhardt @dsreinhardt
  97. Chris Resttstatt @Rettstatt
  98. Christine Rose @christinerose
  99. Penni Russon @eglantinescake
  100. Carrie Ryan @carrieryan
  101. Sara Ryan @ryansara
  102. Lisa Ann Sandell @lisaannsandell
  103. John Scalzi @scalzi
  104. Yasmin Shiraz @yasminshiraz
  105. Janni Lee Simner @innaj
  106. Linda Joy Singleton @LindaJoySinglet
  107. Jon Skovron @jonnyskov
  108. Rhonda Stapleton @rhondastapleton
  109. Courtney Summers @courtney_s
  110. Sarah Sumpolec @SarahSumpolec
  111. Nikki Tate @WriterGrrrl
  112. Brooke Taylor @brooketaylorboo
  113. Tiffany Trent @tiffanytrent
  114. Gaby Triana @gabytriana
  115. Melissa Walker @melissacwalker
  116. Diana Wallach @dianarwallach
  117. Gabrielle Wang @gabriellewang
  118. Robin Wasserman @robinwasserman
  119. Sara Bennett Wealer @sbennettwealer
  120. Deborah Wiles @deborahwiles
  121. Lili Wilkinson @twitofalili
  122. Sara Zarr @sarazarr
  123. Michelle Zink @michellezink

Poetry Friday: An Original Lenten Poem


by Mitali Perkins

Your head swam with him.
You opened your mouth for the depth of his kiss.
Face to face, side by side, knee to knee, eye to eye.

You passed the place with a shudder.
He tugged you inside.
Scratch it on your skin, he said.

You picked the script, a rose, the heart.
Offering ankle, lower hip, upper arm.
Places easier to hide.
Forever, he said, tapping the hollow of your neck.
You measured his gaze, but complied.

He lied, he left, you lose.
Rose wilts, heart fades.
Scrape the lines of him away.

He was not the one who opened his palms.
See? There you are.
Your name tattooed beside the scars.

I wrote this years ago in response to one of my favorite verses in the Book of Isaiah: “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me." Isaiah 49:16, KJV

This week's Poetry Friday roundup is hosted by Julie Larios.

Photo: "Best Tattoos" courtesy of tantrum_dan via Creative Commons.

One Small Yes At A Time

In the writing vocation, saying "yes" to stuff that's not initially exciting can lead to unexpected surprises. Let me give you a few examples from the last couple of years.

1. It's just one of those not-so-great book signings, right? But you meet Judy O'Malley, who picks up a copy of Monsoon Summer and asks about your future work. You tell her about a picture book work-in-progress set in Bangladesh that's got you stumped. "Send it," she says. You do, and she applies her mad editorial skills. Result: Rickshaw Girl, a novel for upper elementary readers from Charlesbridge.

2. It's just a standard author visit, right? But school librarian Linda Spence Griset Facebook friends you, and encourages you to try twitter because she thinks you might like it. You take her advice and start to tweet. She was right -- you like the challenge of communicating your vision in 140 characters or less. Result: Kids Heart Authors Day and countless other connections, like this one at Ypulse.

3. It's just another blog post, right? But Brian Kenney, editor of School Library Journal, sees it. He asks if it's been published in print, and you say no. "Let me mull this over," he says. Result: next month's feature SLJ article, "Straight Talk on Race: Seeing Stereotypes in Kids' Books."

Not everything we say yes to has a happy ending, of course, and sometimes we have to say no. But we never know which of the dozens and dozens of small steps in this stumbling-bumbling vocation might lead to a relatively giant leap. Bottom line? Keep walking, because you never know what's coming next.

Sites for the Statistically Savvy

Yesterday we noted that less than half of children's books featuring African American content and protagonists were created by African American authors and illustrators.

We also saw that less than a quarter of children's books featuring American Indian content and protagonists came from American Indian creators.

Given these startling statistics, I thought it would be timely to remind my Fire Escape visitors of four great sites to bookmark:
  1. Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature: Critical perspectives of indigenous peoples in children's books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society-at-large.

  2. Oyate: Native American reviewer and reseller of books by and about Indians.

  3. The Brown Bookshelf: dedicated to uplifting African American creators of children’s literature.

  4. African-American Children's Book Writers and Illustrators: encouraging aspiring African-American children’s authors and illustrators in obtaining their literary achievements. Check out their first conference, featuring the dynamic aunt and nephew duo of Eleanora Tate and Don Tate!

A Familiar Refrain

"Why are children's books still so white?" we asked on the Fire Escape last year, and the year before. This year, the CCBC released their 2008 statistics about race and children's books, and once again we repeat the question like a mantra.

Keep in mind that recent U.S. Department of Education statistics show that whites make up 56% of total school enrollment, Latinos 21%, blacks 17%, Asian 5%, and Native Americans 1%. Okay, ready? Of the 3,000 or so titles received at the Center:
  • 172 books (or only 6% of all books) had significant African or African American content, with 83 books (less than half) by black book creators, either authors and/or illustrators.

  • 40 books (1.3% of all books) featured American Indian themes, topics, or characters, with 9 of them (less than a quarter) created by American Indian authors and/or illustrators.

  • 98 (3% of all books) had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content, and 77 of these (82% of Asian/Pacific-content books) were created by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage.

  • 79 books had significant Latino content, slightly more than 2% of all books, despite enrollment statistics showing that more than 20% of the country’s students are Latino. 48 of these (60% of all Latino-content books) were created by Latino authors and/or illustrators.
As you reflect on the trends and changes highlighted above, listen to the suggestion made by CCBC scholars Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, Tessa Michaelson, and Megan Schliesman:
We know that there are editors and publishers who care deeply about ensuring a continual output of wonderful new books that reflect the lives of children and teenagers today, but we also know that their passion for publishing multicultural literature cannot always carry the day in meetings with bottom-line number crunchers wanting to know whether such books will sell. We hope that librarians, teachers, caregivers, parents, and others will use their purchasing power to help committed editors and publishers make a convincing argument.

Encouragement For Writer Wannabes

I met twitter buddy @mommyniri for a chai and chat. She asked for two-minute off the cuff advice, so here it is -- my three Rs of surviving this vocation:

Mommy Niri (aka Nirasha Jaganath) is giving away an autographed copy of my RICKSHAW GIRL over at her blog.

White Space Needed

I'm commandeering creativity from blogging and status updates this week and next to focus on my article for next month's School Library Journal and my revision of BAMBOO PEOPLE for Charlesbridge. Be back soon!

More White Space Please courtesy of Herruwe via Creative Commons

rgz LIVE! with Mary Pearson

This month's featured novel is THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by the one and only Mary E. Pearson. Haven't read the book yet? Here's why the reviewers think you should:

"Outstanding examination of identity." - Kirkus, starred review

"Gripping...seamless..." - School Library Journal, starred review

"Expert plotting." - Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Quite literally breathtaking." - Kliatt, audio starred review

Optioned by 20th Century Fox for a feature film

As part of our readergirlz community, you get to talk about the book and get to know the person behind the work. This month's issue tells us where Mary writes:
"In my office, which is quiet and dark with a big leafy tree just outside my window. Sometimes I take my laptop down to the Four Seasons and write in the lobby. Big comfy chairs and no Internet."
Her cure for writer's block? "Long walks, music, and driving." And there's more. Listen to the tunes Mary compiled for readers of ADORATION, find out what's coming next from her talented pen, and last but not least, sign up for the forum at MySpace so you can join in our live chat on Thursday, March 19th at 6 PM PST/9 PM EST. The chat lasts for about an hour.

Operation Teen Book Drop 2009

On April 16th, 2009, thanks to readergirlz, GuysLitWire, YALSA, and publishers of YA books, teen patients in pediatric hospitals across the United States will receive 8,000 new novels, audiobooks, and graphic novels as part of Operation Teen Book Drop 2009.

I'll be hauling a box of books over to Boston Children's Hospital and strewing copies of SECRET KEEPER at T-stops and in post offices. You, too, can be a part of this nationwide book drop. Readergirlz is inviting YA readers and authors to leave a book or two in a public place on April 16th. Download bookplates and bookmarks here to put into the books you'll leave behind. Oh, and don't miss the TBD Post-Op Party, open to everyone at the rgz MySpace group forum at 6:00 PM Pacific/9:00 PM Eastern. Plan to rock the drop in 2009!

The Truth About Book Covers

Most authors have little to do with book jackets. It's strange because a good cover can spur sales while a boring cover can kill your book, especially when it comes to teen readers. Not to mention the fear of an artist usurping power by representing a character differently than the author imagined, or adding stuff to the plot that simply isn't there.

But a novel is a collaborative process from start to finish, and authors have to trust editors, art directors, designers, and artists with book covers. While they might seek input from us, the final decision isn't in our hands.

Melissa Walker (rgz diva and author of the VIOLET series) interviewed me about the jacket of SECRET KEEPER (pictured in the sidebar) as part of her Cover Stories series. Here's an excerpt:
"My editor asked for input, and I told her that there were a glut of covers set in India with girls peeking over veils or around sarees ..."
To discover new designers and see a gallery of cover art, visit The Book Cover Archive (hat tip: Kathy Christie Hernandez). Ben Pieratt of General Projects and Eric Jacobsen of Whisky Van Gogh Go maintain the archive and an interesting blog about covers. Here's their list of other places to visit for even more about book covers:

SECRET KEEPER Reviews, News, Events

School Library Journal liked my newest novel:
Well-developed characters, funny dialogue, and the authentic depiction of spunky Asha’s longing for romance and female self-determination, set in a culture that restrains women’s choices, make this book an attractive pick for teenage girls.
Thanks, SLJ!

Yesterday, Françoise Bui, my editor at Delacorte, called to tell me that the book has sold nicely (whew) since pub date of 1/16. We expressed our mutual delight that SECRET KEEPER is going to be translated into French and published by Editions Thierry Magnier in Paris. Vive La France!

Last but not least, Françoise asked for updates about my upcoming events and any buzz about SECRET KEEPER. Authors, note that you should be keeping your editors and publicists informed about any and all mentions of your book, as well as your appearances. It helps. Here's what I sent to Random House:

On the Web and in Print:

This month's School Library Journal featured several authors who twitter, and the book got a nice mention.

I talked about my book launch in my column for Boston Globe/yourtown.

Publisher’s Weekly mentioned SECRET KEEPER in an article about Kids Heart Authors Day.

The community of Sandwich enjoyed the book and my visit.

PaperTigers gave the book a lovely review, and published my essay on how books shape a child's heart.

Suzi Steffen of Eugene Weekly liked it, too.

Blog Buzz

Teen Reads


Jen Robinson's Book Page

My Friend Amy

Pink Sneakers N'at

Tortoise Lessons

Sarah's Random Musings

Archimedes Forgets

Marjolein Book Blog

My Friend Amy

Uncommon Lives

Young Adult Romance Reviews

Blatant Bibliophiles

Spring 2009 Events and Appearances

Boston College Lecture, Ma (March 9, 2009)

Williams School, Newton, Ma (March 10, 2009)

Clarke Middle School, Lexington, Ma (March 24, 2009)

Proctor School, Topsfield, Ma (March 25, 2009)

Spring Fling, Newton Free Library, Newton, Ma (March 28, 2009)

Teen Writer's Workshop with author Karen Day, Newton Free Library, Newton, Ma (March 30, 2009)

World Savvy High School Visit, San Francisco, CA (April 3, 2009)

Presbyterian Writer's Workshop, Columbia Theological Seminary, GA (April 23-24, 2009)

"Many Voices," NESCBWI Conference, Workshop Presentation on Writing Race (April 25, 2009)

Belmont Middle School, Belmont, Ma (April 27 and 29, 2009)

Lyme School, Lyme, CT (May 1, 2009)

Newman School, Needham, Ma (May 5, 2009)

Underwood School, Newton, Ma (May 8, 2009)

Asian American Writer's Workshop, New York, NY (May 16, 2009)

Franklin Elementary School, Newton, Ma (May 28, 2009)

Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library, Chattanooga, TN, (June 20, 2009)

Vocabulary For Conversations About Race

Lately, it seems that every word or phrase related to race sounds wrong or laden in certain circles. It matters who uses which words or qualifiers, and I worry that I'll get in trouble if I don't know the rules. Who makes the rules, anyway, and why do my teens seem to know them way before I do?

It might seem safer not to enter the discussion, but safety isn't always a good priority for an industry during times of change. The best way to innovate is to give each other freedom to make mistakes, and to trust one another. As artists, publishers, agents, publicists, librarians, and booksellers, we share the goal of getting stories and knowledge into the hearts, hands, and minds of young people. How do we best do that in a society with a heavy past, a tentative present, and an unwritten future when it comes to race?

Yesterday's call for questions about diversity in children's and YA books elicited great responses. I thought I'd post edited versions of the questions here in the hopes of getting more. I've italicized certain terms, however, signifying the challenge of ensuring we're on the same page as we hear or speak them.

Creating it
Does it matter if an outsider writes an ethnic story if s/he does her research?

Why don't more books for early readers reflect a diversity of names? Does it sound contrived when a writer includes ethnic names?

E.B. Lewis, winner of numerous Coretta Scott King awards for his illustrations, has said that there's no such thing as an African-American painting. There are African-Americans who paint. Couldn't this also be said of writing?

Doesn't everyone bear the responsibility of including everyone in their art? Doesn't that mean that white people must write about people of color?

How can white writers be bold about including other cultures without fearing the label of cultural appropriation?
Publishing it
How do you meet the challenge of white agents/editors/publicists/librarians/booksellers serving as gatekeepers between writer and reader?

How much is it a publisher's responsibility to seek out multicultural books?

Which editors or imprints actively seek authors and illustrators of color?

Since so many editors--even at a multicultural press--are mainstream, what steps are being taken to at least achieve a level of (multi)cultural competence to aid in negotiations with minority writers?

How can white people in the industry successfully advocate for diversity without seeming to be "speaking for"?
Getting it to young readers
What makes a book multicultural, and does the label help or hinder sales?

Will the term multicultural literature be obsolete someday? Is that something to be hoped for, or avoided?

How can librarians influence publishers and authors to create books by and about children and teens of color?

As a white librarian, how do I make sure that my voice as an ally counts?

Isn't basing an award on ethnicity/race an essentialist practice?
Keep the questions coming, please. There's power in asking them. And if you think some of the words were mistakenly italicized because they're clear as glass to you, I'd like to hear your definitions. In fact, I'm desperate for them.

Photo courtesy of Shapeshift via Creative Commons.

Wanted: Tough Questions About Diversity in Children's Books

I'm helping to gather questions for a panel at the New England Society for Children's Writers and Illustrators Annual Conference this Spring. We want the session to be salty, fun, and enlightening, and I need your help. Which changes, trends, achievements, and challenges in the industry would you hope to see discussed? What would you like to know about diversity in children's and teen books? Anything goes, and the harder the question, the better.