First, California. Next, My Winter Retreat.

I'm heading to Southern California today for CSLA's annual convention. I'll be presenting "Books Between Cultures" on Friday from 2:15-3:15, and then signing in the exhibit hall from 3:30 to 4:30. On Sunday, I'll be at the Author Brunch listening to Bruce Hale's speech and schmoozing with librarians. If you're there in real life, come find me, and I'll be sharing news from the conference virtually on twitter using hashtag #csla2009.

After that, I begin my winter retreat, backing away from the internet to create space for writing and the holiday season. I'll be lightly involved via social media and commenting on other blogs, but won't return to the Fire Escape until 1/8. It's cold out here anyway, right? Enjoy the quieter winter season, and I'll see you out here again in 2010. Peace be with you.

Thanksgiving From The Margins

Thanksgiving is my favorite North American holiday by far. It doesn't make new or poor Americans feel as left out as some of the other festival days. During winter break, why did the fat dude in red bring presents for everybody in my class except me?

Duck For Turkey Day, a new picture book from Albert Whitman & Co by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kathryn Mitter, tells the story of Tuyet, a Vietnamese-American girl who worries about eating duck on "Turkey Day." A chorus of classmates reassures Tuyet at the end of the book, describing a diversity of food eaten at their tables as they too celebrated America's day of gratitude with their families.  

The book is wonderful choice for classrooms and families this Thanksgiving. School Library Journal says, "This sweet tale is written in straightforward prose and provides a brief glimpse of another culture. Mitter's bright illustrations accented with cozy details draw readers into Tuyet's happy home and enhance the story's heartwarming message."

Even as I enjoy Thanksgiving as the ultimate immigrant holiday, I'm aware of the festival's mixed messages. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, as I shared last Thanksgiving, Sherman Alexie's protagonist illuminates how strange Thanksgiving is for descendants of America's only non-immigrants:
I always think it's funny when Indians celebrate Thanksgiving. I mean, sure, the Indians and Pilgrims were best friends during that First Thanksgiving, but a few years later, the Pilgrims were shooting Indians.

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

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

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

We laughed like crazy. It was a good day. Dad was sober. Mom was getting ready to nap. Grandma was already napping.
(Source: Debbie Reese, American Indians in Children's Literature)
To find books and resources recommended by Indians about Thanksgiving, visit Oyate, "a Native organization working to see that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly, and so that all people will know our stories belong to us." I've included them below.

Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving” (short version)
[view] | [download]

Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving”
(long version)
[view] | [download]
Recommended books from an Indian perspective
[view] | [download]

Primary sources from a colonialist perspective
[view] |[download]

Wordle Your Brand

Not sure how to describe your blog's "brand" or "niche"? I do an occasional check on search terms or keywords using free tools like statcounter or google analytics. For fun, you can also create a wordle to get a quick snapshot of your blog's brand. Here's one generated for Books With Flair, for example:

Pretty much sums up what I'm up to over at that blog, right?

Could A Story Help This Happen?

I'm bullish on the power of story to inspire and revolutionize acts of justice and peace. So when I read about something as exciting as Bishop Desmond Tutu's simple yet powerful plan of universal birth registration, my mind begins to whirl around plot possibilities. A dystopian YA novel about teens with lost identities? A picture book featuring one of these children to show how important a birth certificate can be? As you watch the video below, what stories come to mind for you?

15 New YA Books Featuring Forgiveness

I put out a call for books published in 2009 that underline the theme of forgiveness, and received several responses in the YA category, listed below in alphabetical order by author's last name.

Thanks to everybody who contributed; if you don't see your suggestion, it's probably because the book wasn't released in 2009. Let me know if I've missed something.

I'm still collecting titles on the theme for tweens and kids, so feel free to add those in the comments, and don't forget to check the list of books honored by the Jane Addams Peace Association.  

Note: I haven't read most of these titles yet, so am relying on annotations provided by the publishers. Looking forward to some great reads.

1. Freeze Frame by Heidi Ayarbe

No matter how many times Kyle rewrites the scene, he can't get it right. He tries it in the style of Hitchcock, Tarantino, Eastwood, all of his favorite directors—but regardless of the style, he can't remember what happened that day in the shed. The day Jason died. And until he can, there is one question that keeps haunting Kyle: Did he kill his best friend on purpose?

 2. Crazy Beautiful by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

In an explosion of his own making, Lucius blew his arms off. Now he has hooks. He chose hooks because they were cheaper. He chose hooks because he wouldn’t outgrow them so quickly. He chose hooks so that everyone would know he was different, so he would scare even himself. Then he meets Aurora. The hooks don’t scare her. They don’t keep her away. In fact, they don’t make any difference at all to her. But to Lucius, they mean everything. They remind him of the beast he is inside. Perhaps Aurora is his Beauty, destined to set his soul free from its suffering. Or maybe she’s just a girl who needs love just like he does.

3. Fat Cat by Robin Brande  

You are what you eat . . . . Cat smart, sassy, and funny—but thin, she’s not. Until her class science project. That’s when she winds up doing an experiment—on herself. Before she knows it, Cat is living—and eating—like the hominids, our earliest human ancestors. True, no chips or TV is a bummer and no car is a pain, but healthful eating and walking everywhere do have their benefits. As the pounds drop off, the guys pile on. All this newfound male attention is enough to drive a girl crazy! If only she weren’t too busy hating Matt McKinney to notice. . . .

4. Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets. Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.

5. Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis

Octavia and Tali are dreading the road trip their parents are forcing them to take with their grandmother over the summer. After all, Mare isn’t your typical grandmother. She drives a red sports car, wears stiletto shoes, flippy wigs, and push-up bras, and insists that she’s too young to be called Grandma. But somewhere on the road, Octavia and Tali discover there’s more to Mare than what you see. She was once a willful teenager who escaped her less-than-perfect life in the deep South and lied about her age to join the African American battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. 

6. If I Stay by Gayle Forman

In a single moment, everything changes. Seventeen year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall riding along the snow-wet Oregon road with her family. Then, in a blink, she finds herself watching as her own damaged body is taken from the wreck ...

7. Nothing But Ghosts by Beth Kephart

Ever since her mother passed away, Katie's been alone in her too-big house with her genius dad, who restores old paintings for a living. Katie takes a summer job at a garden estate, where, with the help of two brothers and a glamorous librarian, she soon becomes embroiled in decoding a mystery. There are secrets and shadows at the heart of Nothing but Ghosts: symbols hidden in a time-darkened painting, and surprises behind a locked bedroom door. But most of all, this is a love story—the story of a girl who learns about love while also learning to live with her own ghosts.

8. Girl on the Other Side by Deborah Kerbel

Tabby Freeman and Lora Froggett go to the same school, but they live in totally opposite worlds. Tabby is rich, pretty, and the most popular girl in her class. But behind closed doors, her 'perfect' life is rapidly coming apart at the seams. On the other side, Lora is smart, timid, and the constant target of bullies. While struggling to survive the piranha-infested halls of her school, she becomes increasingly nervous that somebody might discover the unbearable truth about what's been happening to her family. Despite their differences, Tabby and Lora have something in common - they're both harboring dark secrets and a lot of pain.

9. Surviving the Angel of Death by Eva Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri

Eva Mozes Kor was 10 years old when she arrived in Auschwitz. While her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, she and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man known as the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Mengele's twins were granted the privileges of keeping their own clothes and hair, but they were also subjected to sadistic medical experiments and forced to fight daily for their own survival, as most of the twins died as a result of the experiements or from the disease and hunger pervasive in the camp. In a narrative told with emotion and restraint, readers will learn of a child's endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil. The book also includes an epilogue on Eva's recovery from this experience and her remarkable decision to publicly forgive the Nazis.

10. Pop by Gordon Korman

When Marcus moves to a new town in the dead of summer, he doesn't know a soul. While practicing football for impending tryouts, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with an older man. Charlie is a charismatic prankster—and the best football player Marcus has ever seen. He can't believe his good luck when he finds out that Charlie is actually Charlie Popovich, or "the King of Pop," as he had been nicknamed during his career as an NFL linebacker. But that's not all. There is a secret about Charlie that his family is desperate to hide. When Marcus begins school, he meets the starting quarterback on the team: Troy Popovich. Right from the beginning, Marcus and Troy disagree—about football, about Troy's ex-girlfriend, Alyssa, but most of all about what's good for Charlie. Marcus is betting that he knows what's best for the King of Pop. And he is willing to risk everything to help his friend.

11. Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

According to her best friend Frankie, twenty days in Zanzibar Bay is the perfect opportunity to have a summer fling, and if they meet one boy ever day, there's a pretty good chance Anna will find her first summer romance. Anna lightheartedly agrees to the game, but there's something she hasn't told Frankie—she's already had that kind of romance, and it was with Frankie's older brother, Matt, just before his tragic death one year ago.

12. Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same by Mattox Roesch

Cesar leaves his gangbanging life behind in Los Angeles to help his mother reconnect with her estranged family in rural Alaska, where she hopes they both can get a fresh start. When Cesar arrives, he meets his college dropout cousin, Go-Boy, who believes he's part of a good world conspiracy and who bets Cesar he will stay in Alaska for a year.

13. Bait by Alex Sanchez 

When a guy in his class looks at him funny, Diego punches him in the face, and ends up on probation. At first he wants nothing to do with his probation officer. But as Diego starts to open up, he begins to realize that Mr. Vidas is the first person in his life who ever really wanted to listen to him. With Vidas's help, Diego begins to make real progress in controlling his anger. He even opens up enough to tell Vidas about the shark tooth that his stepfather gave him that he uses to cut himself. But only if Diego can find the courage to trust Vidas with the darkest secrets from his past will he be able to heal completely.

14. The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones

Mimi Shapiro had a disturbing freshman year at NYU, thanks to a foolish affair with a professor who still haunts her caller ID. So when her artist father, Marc, offers the use of his remote Canadian cottage, she’s glad to hop in her Mini Cooper and drive up north. The house is fairy-tale quaint, and the key is hidden right where her dad said it would be, so she’s shocked to fi nd someone already living there — Jay, a young musician, who is equally startled to meet Mimi and immediately accuses her of leaving strange and threatening tokens inside: a dead bird, a snakeskin, a cricket sound track embedded in his latest composition. But Mimi has just arrived, so who is responsible? And more alarmingly, what does the intruder want?

15. Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

Samara Taylor used to believe in miracles. She used to believe in a lot of things. As a pastor's kid, it's hard not to buy in to the idea of the perfect family, a loving God, and amazing grace. But lately, Sam has a lot of reason to doubt. Her mother lands in rehab after a DUI and her father seems more interested in his congregation than his family. When a young girl in her small town is kidnapped, the local tragedy overlaps with Sam's personal one, and the already-worn thread of faith holding her together begins to unravel.

Kid/YA Books About Forgiveness

My grandfather died a bitter man. He never recovered from the commandeering of our family jute farm in Bangladesh, hating that he'd had to resettle in Kolkata as a dependent, almost penniless old man.

Two generations removed from that loss, I have the freedom and distance to reflect on the shadow of unforgiveness in our family. I've shared the story of a meaningful visit I made to our ancestral property, when two white doves appeared out of nowhere to rest on the doorway of the house. (I was so stunned, I took a photo so I wouldn't think I was dreaming.) One of the reasons I wrote BAMBOO PEOPLE was to explore the possibility and process of forgiveness.

I've been reading stories posted at The Forgiveness Project — stories of those who've suffered deeply and yet managed to forgive the person who caused that suffering.  And what about the other side? How does it work for the perpetrator? Declan Kavanagh's poem "What Kept Us Apart" as featured in this video sheds light on how it is to live with blood on your hands (scroll forward to 6:13 if you're short on time).

As the year comes to a close, I want to compile a list of novels published in 2009 for children and teenagers that illuminate the difficult task of restorative justice and forgiveness. Any suggestions? Please leave them in the comments.

Curators of YA Lit Keep Us Up-To-Date

In a hurry to find new stories for teenagers? Trying to discover what's hot off the presses? To save time, tune into lists generated by a few excellent curators of young adult literature:
  1. Quick Picks for Reluctant YA Readers
  2. Fabulous Films for Young Adults 
  3. Great Graphic Novels for Teens
  4. This Week's New YA releases
  5. All YA book releases 

Poetry Friday: Naomi Shihab Nye

Here's the brilliant Naomi Shihab Nye reading four of her poems, "Please Describe How You Became a Writer," "Fresh," "During a War," and "Truth Serum," at the Dodge Poetry Festival on 9/27/08:

The Poetry Friday round up this week is at Wild Rose Reader.

But What About Your Writing, Mitali?

I've been doing a ton of author visits this fall, for which I'm grateful, and also enjoying several new adventures with social media. But what's been happening with my primary vocation, you might be wondering? Inquiring Fire Escape visitors deserve to know.

With Bamboo People in the copy-editing stage, I'm getting ready for a Fall 2010 release from Charlesbridge by reserving a domain name and gathering resources (it's not pretty yet, but it's a start.)  Can't wait to see the finished cover art, which I'll be posting there and here soon.

I'm almost done with a chapter book called Tiger Magic that was commissioned by a doll company. It's a set in the Sundarbans of West Bengal and features the endangered Bengal Tiger, one of my favorite creatures on the planet. More on that to come.

On December 1st, I'll be retreating a bit from the virtual world and beginning a new novel. Can't say much about it, but I've been scribbling ideas longhand in a journal, giving my imagination time and space to meditate on the story. It's exciting to be in the conception phase again after a few years.

In the meantime, if you're wondering what Bamboo People is about,  read on ...
Bang! A side door bursts open.

Soldiers pour into the room. They’re  shouting and waving rifles.

I shield my head with my arms. It was a lie! I think, my mind racing.

Girls and boys alike are screaming. The soldiers prod and herd some of us together and push the rest apart as if we’re cows or goats.

Their leader, though, is a middle-aged man. He’s moving slowly, intently, not dashing around like the others. “Take the boys only, Win Min,” I overhear him telling a tall, gangly soldier. “Make them obey.”

Chiko isn’t a fighter by nature. He’s a book-loving Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family's home and bamboo fields. Timidity becomes courage and anger becomes compassion as each boy is changed by unlikely friendships formed under extreme circumstances.

This coming-of-age novel takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. Narrated by two teenagers on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma, Bamboo People explores the nature of violence, power, and prejudice.

ALA Midwinter Kid/YA Lit Tweetup

Coming to Boston for the ALA Midwinter conference? If you're a tweeting librarian, author, illustrator, publisher, agent, editor, reviewer, blogger, or anyone interested in children's and YA lit, join us on January 16, 2010 from 4-6 in the Birch Bar at Boston's Westin Waterfront Hotel.

The brilliant Deborah Sloan found a venue that's connected to the Conference Center so we won't have to don winter woolies. We'll chat about books, share program ideas, see old friends, and, if you've been tweeting a while, finally meet the people you've been re-tweeting, listing, and following.

Can you come if you're not on Twitter? Well, if you're reading this blog, you're online, so it'll take about two minutes to sign up for twitter. Here's a newbie's guide to get you started. Do a search for #alatweetup to find news and updates about the event, and if you tweet about it, use that hashtag at the end of your tweet so we can discover you.

Here's a description of the successful BEA tweetup from the LA Times, if you're curious about what our event might be like, but we won't have (1) loud, hip music, (2) free vodka (ours is a cash bar) or (3) great swag and fancy giveaways. Your presence is our swag. Unless, of course, you want to get your swagger on by doling out cool stuff -- if so, contact Deborah or me. We will have a book swap, so authors, illustrators, and publishers, bring a copy of your book(s) to display and share.

Invite your friends, but our capacity is 150, so register here and save your spot. How many good things in life are  free? Thankfully, congenial company in the world of Kid/YA books is still one of them.

Surfing Outside Your Zone

One of the many gifts of new media is an increased democracy in the public square (with thanks to our public libraries, who fight to narrow the digital divide). In her School Library Journal cover story about blogs, Betsy Bird quotes editor Cheryl Klein: “Book blogs have created community—a place where we adults who take children's literature seriously can discuss it seriously and at length, in a forum open to the whole Internet.”

Virtually, as in life, it may be easier to commune with people with whom we have quite a bit in common. The challenge is to tune into voices we might not otherwise hear, listening and learning from people who aren't "like us" at first blush. Good blogs help us cross borders, and sometimes take us to uncomfortable places where we either change our convictions or deepen them through discourse and dialogue. 

Since I don't know how you define your "comfort zone" in the realm of Kid/YA literature, here are a few options to get you thinking:

If you're a woman and typically only read books about girls, peruse Guys Lit Wire.

Live in a mostly white community? Delve into Reading in Color, Crazy Quilts, or Color Online.

If you've never had to think about what it's like to grow up as an American Indian, tune into American Indians in Children's Literature.

Wondering what it's like to be a Latino writer in the world of North American literature? Read La Bloga.

Don't have any conservative white friends who home school? Consider Semicolon's take on literature.

And so on ....