Chiang Mai, Here I Come!

We're heading back to Chiang Mai, Thailand for a wedding (thank you, frequent flyer miles!) and to visit friends. I also plan to deliver copies of Bamboo People to those I acknowledge in the novel. Might try to vlog a bit, but we'll see. Enjoy the first half of August. I'll be back on the Fire Escape before my book launch party. Peace be with you.

Thanks, But It's Not Historical Fiction

One of the problems with gargantuan, impersonal booksellers is that the person who classified a novel hasn't usually read it., for example, put my novel BAMBOO PEOPLE in this category: "Books > Teens > History & Historical Fiction > Historical Fiction." Meanwhile, the product description says, "This coming-of-age novel takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma."

It's a small but strange mistake.

And the behemoth isn't alone. I've noticed this mis-classification popping up on other sites and in some blog tags. You hate to quibble when you're grateful for the mention, but why are people describing the novel as historical fiction when it's set in contemporary times? Am I missing something?

I posed this question on Twitter yesterday, and here are some of the answers that came in response:
@Suzigurl: Maybe b/c there are so few books like Bamboo People that folks don't know what to call it.

@yoyology:  My guess: exotic location + first-world blinders = "historical."

@erin_braincandy: My guess is a lot of people don't realize that child soldiers aren't just a thing of the past...

@SarahRettger: I know w/non-fiction, a lot of current events stuff gets classified (I assume by BISAC code) as history. #petpeeve
So what do you think? Honest mistake? One of the above? Or another reason?

Maybe I'll settle down if I hear about other mis-classifications. Authors, has your book been categorized oddly? If so, how?

You've Been Berry Berry Good To Bamboo People!

When you write a book that isn't a gothic-zombie-romantic-thriller-optioned-for-a-movie-before-pub-date kind of novel, you count on many, many advocates to spread the news so that young people can discover your story. That's why I'm eternally grateful to the bloggers and reviewers who have recommended Bamboo People (Charlesbridge, July 2010). Feel free to click like crazy on the links to read the reviews:

Aaron's Books 
A Chair, A Fireplace, A Tea Cozy
A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust
A Year of Reading
Albany Times-Union
Amy Reads
Asian Review of Books
Becky's Book Reviews
Bermuda Onion
Blue Bunny Bookstore
BookExpo America
Booking Mama 
Book Moot
Book Page
Bookselling This Week 
Boston Globe 
Boston Globe | Your Town
Brookfield Public Library
Bruce Wishart
Brown Paper
Café Saturday
Caribous Mom
Check it Out
Explore Dance
Foreword Reviews
Good Books and Good Wine
Helen's Book Blog
Hip Writer Mama
Kids Momo
Librarian by Day
Media Macaroni
Menasha Public Library 
Multiculturalism Rocks!
Murdoch's Musings 
NPR's On Point Radio
The Old Coot
The Planet Esme Plan 
Professor Nana
Reading in Color
Reading is Fundamental
She is Too Fond of Books
Shelf Awareness
Stanford Magazine
The Picnic Basket 
Unintentionally Funny Books
YA Bookshelf

Did I miss anybody? If so, please leave a note in the comments and I will add your review to the list. With a loud shout of thanks.

Of course, I also rejoice over industry reviews from the likes of Horn Book, Kirkus, Booklist and PW (read them here), but there's a Burma Shave kind of buzz that can only be generated by bunches of bloggers. And tweets. Plus Facebook "likes" and mentions. So, thank you, thank you, thank you, to everybody who has supported the launch of this book!

A Chat with Holly Cupala, author of TELL ME A SECRET

It's a joy to discover a YA novel in which an author has introduced a diversity of characters thoughtfully and proactively. TELL ME A SECRET (HarperCollins)—a tenderly told bildungsroman about forgiveness in a Seattle family defined by secrets and grief—fits the bill.

Today I'm delighted to host the author of this brilliant debut novel, readergirlz diva and superb storyteller Holly Cupala, on her whirlwind blog tour.

Namaste, Holly! So glad to have you here on the Fire Escape! Let's start with the journey of getting the novel published. What was a high point? A low point?

There have been many high points along the way—just being on the shelf after a long journey is a miracle in itself, and meeting so many lovely people along the way. A low point…probably how very, very hard I was on myself through the writing process. I even created a separate document in which to pour all of the scathing thoughts I had. I wouldn’t dare open it now, like Pandora’s Box. The SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant was a lifeline. After I finished, I could see how much power I’d been giving those thoughts. Lies, really! The second novel was so much easier.

What was one big change you made in response to your editor’s suggestion?

I cut about ten thousand words! My wonderful editor, Catherine Onder, had said from the beginning that she thought the story arc was sound and we just needed to speed up the pace. Of course, this sent me into a tailspin of terror, despite her assurances. What do they call it, when you expect the worst and reality turns out to be not-so-bad…? Her letter was quite nice, and very doable. I would get to a place where she had written, “I don’t understand what you’re saying here.” I’d read it over, and I didn’t understand, either! So I would cut, cut, cut. We also clarified some of the issues between Miranda and Kamran and honed a lot of the details.

I loved how you included characters like Kamran and Shelly, describing race and ethnicity with such deft writing. Can you describe some challenges you faced in creating multicultural characters in TELL ME A SECRET? How did you resolve them?

My hope was always to portray a wide range of characters in the most honest way possible in the context of the story. Sometimes that meant hinting at ugly attitudes—for instance, the mother blames the Latino boyfriend for her older daughter’s death and makes prejudiced remarks. Miranda dates Kamran, a Persian boy, partly in the hopes that they will have some of the same con leche that defined her sister’s relationship. Her greatest mentor ends up being quite the opposite of her racially and culturally, though they share key bonds.

A subtle arc in the story is the shifting of the family’s ideas. I was in the middle of revisions when the cover controversies exploded and brought race in YA to the fore—which made me all the more nervous to tackle the subject. But many fruitful discussions came out of that. I wanted so much to write these characters with love and respect, and the dialogue with you (thank you, Mitali!) and on Chasing Ray and other blogs were incredibly enlightening. It also helps that I am married to a devastatingly handsome American-born half-Parsi, half-South Indian who consulted on some of the particulars!

You're very welcome. It meant a lot to be asked for input as you were writing this novel. One last frivolous, fashion-related question: Have you ever made, seen, or worn a safety-pin dress as described in the novel?

Ahhh! I’m so happy you asked! Xanda’s safety-pin dress was inspired by this amazing razor blade dress, worn by Blondie’s Debbie Harry, that I saw in Seattle’s Experience Music Project museum years ago. There’s definitely something Blondie or Courtney Love-ish about Xanda, so the dress just popped out of the subconscious. I tried to make one (unsuccessfully)…then called upon my costume designer sister to help me. It turned out to be an even more painstaking process than I imagined—she and my niece have assembled a safety-pin cami so far. Maybe someday they will let me wear it…

Thank you so much for visiting, Holly, and for (1) including multicultural characters in your novel, (2) taking the time and thought needed to write about race and diversity, and (3) writing a sensitive coming-of-age novel that ends with hope and grace.

Get a taste of Holly's ability to create unforgettable characters by reading a two-chapter preview of the novel at Vermont College's journal Hunger Mountain.

This TELL ME A SECRET tour includes prizes awarded each week for blog comments – signed books, t-shirts, music, journals, gift cards, and more! So comment here or on any of her other stops this week, including tomorrow's destination, Green Bean Teen Queen. Here are the official tour contest entry rules:

TELL ME A SECRET Tour Contest Entry Rules
  • Leave comments at any official tour stop or Holly’s blog throughout the tour! Each comment counts as an entry (one comment per post*), so start right here.
  • Tweet about the tour (@hollycupala) and tell her what you think.
  • Post about the tour, then leave a comment at Holly's blog.

How Should We Write Across Cultures?

Here's a great mission statement:
Imagine. Envision. Write. Revise. Submit. YARN publishes outstanding original short fiction, poetry, and essays for Young Adult readers, written by the writers you know and love, as well as fresh new voices ... including teens.
That's the purpose of Young Adult Review Network, also known as YARN. The site editors recently asked me to contribute an original short story and also posed three interesting questions during a brief Q and A. Here's one of them, along with my answer:

YARN: What advice might you give young people who are considering writing across the lines of culture?

MP: If you’re an “outsider” to the culture, do your homework. Listen, do research, love someone deeply who belongs to that culture. Let it be read by people of a different class and/or culture than yours and receive their critique. Consider whether the story wouldn’t be better served if written by an “insider,” and have the grace to let it go. Or to wait on it.

The other part of the equation is power. If you’re perceived as a powerful outsider thanks to race and/or class and/or gender, your story is going to be told and heard differently. Are you going to commandeer space on the shelves and displace a story that could be told by a less powerful “insider"? Or is there room in the global library both for your version and hers?

On the other hand, I don’t believe in setting up some kind of “right-ethnic-credentials” apartheid in stories. Who gets to decide who writes for whom, anyway? We’re all essentially outsiders when we write fiction, right? Otherwise, we’d be writing memoir. Let’s represent lots of races and cultures in our stories as the setting and plot demand.

Bottom line—cross cultures boldly, but humbly.

YARN also asked two other thoughtful questions:
  1. How do you point out the importance of quiet reflective time for young aspiring writers to whom being alone is almost a foreign concept?

  2. How do you encourage young people to ignore the faces on the book covers and the television screen long enough to believe that the stories they have to tell are valid and important?
If you're interested, you may go there and scroll down past my short story to read my answers. And leave a comment on their site, would you? Because here's the rest of YARN's mission statement:
We also believe in feedback, which is why we encourage readers to post comments on pieces that inspire thought, emotion, laughter ... or whatever.

A Chat with Christina Gonzalez, Author of THE RED UMBRELLA

I love historical fiction when both words are handled excellently by an author, don't you?

I've been lounging in the garden this summer, making my way slowly but surely through a pile of books. But time didn't plod as I read Christina Gonzalez' THE RED UMBRELLA (Knopf Books for Young Readers) — it flew as I turned page after page without stopping.

This tender, intimate look at one family's separation is a superb way to learn about Operation Pedro Pan and the Castro revolution in Cuba. Between 1960 and 1962, with the help of the  the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, over 14,000 children from Cuba were sent by parents who opposed the revolutionary government. These children were placed with friends, relatives and group homes in 35 states.

The first half of the novel is set in Cuba, and provides an incredible firsthand look at how a young person's life can change drastically and quickly under a repressive government. Everything is at risk as the danger builds — friendships, romance, work, home, family.

The second half is set in Nebraska, and focuses on Lucia's efforts to become part of life on a North American farm while taking care of her brother Frankie and missing her parents intensely. Yes, I got choked up in places, especially the ending, and so will you. THE RED UMBRELLA is a perfect read for middle-schoolers and I've been recommending it right and left.

Today I'm thrilled to host Christina on the Fire Escape as she talks about her debut novel. We invite you to sit back, put on some Cuban jazz, pour a chilled glass of guarapo (sugar cane juice), and enjoy the conversation ...

So, tell us, Christina, when, why, and how did a successful lawyer decide to write a children's book?

I've always been a big reader, but when I saw my children reading some of the same books I loved as a child, my passion for writing was re-ignited. I enjoyed being an attorney, but I wasn't passionate about it. Writing for middle graders/young adults is what I love to do because I believe that is the time in your life when everything and anything is possible...your whole life lays before you and you take those first steps in choosing who you will be. What can be more exciting?

Absolutely nothing. Moving from passion to hard work, what kind of research apart from talking to relatives did you do for THE RED UMBRELLA?

I read American and Cuban newspapers of the time to see how the same historical events were being depicted in the two societies. Yet there is nothing like getting first-hand accounts and so I spoke with many people outside my family who were part of Operation Pedro Pan.

This really gave me an even deeper insight into what my parents and mother-in-law went through when they were sent out of Cuba as teenagers. Of course, this all caused me to want to learn more and so I asked more probing questions about my own family's experience and listened closely to the stories I'd probably heard since I was born...amazing what you find out when you truly listen!

I encourage everyone to pay attention to their own family stories, whether it's a story of how their family came to the U.S. or how a relative fought valiantly during wartime or how someone succeeded in the face of many obstacles...these are all unique family stories and they should be preserved for future generations.

Absolutely! I agree 100%. Have you visited Cuba? Have your parents gone back? Your mother-in-law?

I've never been to Cuba, but hope to be able to visit a "free Cuba" one day. My parents and mother-in-law have not returned since they left almost 50 years ago.

How Cuban are your kids when it comes to identity? Do you purposefully foster a bicultural identity in your home?

My kids definitely identify themselves as American first, but they are very proud of their Cuban heritage. It is a bit of a struggle to have them be bilingual, but my husband and I are trying. The bicultural identity seems to be developing's just who we are. I also realize how very lucky we are to be living in a community such as Miami where so much of the Cuban culture surrounds them...from the food, music and friends who have similar permeates the air.

Since I live in Boston, I love reading about something the Catholic church did well. Or at least tried to do well. What's your feeling about the way the church handled the whole operation?

The Catholic church really did a remarkable was a huge undertaking to organize the entire exodus of children. Providing for 14,000 children who were now separated from their parents, their country and their culture was no easy task, but, thanks to the generosity of the American spirit, many families stepped forward and offered their homes to these children. It makes me proud to be an American! (Okay, did I just break out into song?)

Singing with you. But let's move to the journey of getting the novel published. What was a high point? A low point?

A definite high point was when I met my editor at an SCBWI conference and she critiqued the first ten pages of my manuscript. She told me that she loved my writing and that Random House might be interested in acquiring the novel. I couldn't believe she was saying those words to me!

I barely heard anything else she said after those magical words until she asked me one particular question...which could have easily become a low point. She asked "Are you almost done with the book?"

A perfectly normal question except I'd only written 15 pages! I swallowed the lump in my throat, smiled and answered, "I'm almost done." My editor was very happy to hear that and asked that I send her the finished manuscript by the end of the summer ... did I mention that it was already June?

I arrived home the next day, put my kids in camp, enlisted my parents to help me in the evenings by cooking dinner for the family and wrote non-stop for six weeks. By August, I was done and what had originally been written as a five-page short story (which had been rejected several times by several people) was transformed into a full novel. There's truly no better incentive than knowing that your dream in within arm's reach!

She must have been tickled when you told her the truth. What was the biggest change you made in response to an editorial suggestion?

There were no real "changes", but there were several instances of "we need more." One of the things my amazing editor wanted was a holiday scene. I chose to add a chapter about Christmas Eve and then my editor cried out, "You can't leave us us Christmas Day, too!" I ended up loving those chapters and they are all thanks to the encouragement of my editor.

Could you describe a fear you have about this novel that can or did keep you up at night?

I feared that it would not do justice to what these children went through in leaving everything behind. It has been incredibly rewarding to receive emails from so many of the Pedro Pan children who say that they love the book and that my fictional story mirrors their own real-life experiences.

Those are the best kind of fan letters. Okay, here's my last question: What's next for Christina Gonzalez in the realm of children's books? Are you sticking with historical fiction, or do you have other interests to pursue?

For now, I'm sticking with historical fiction as I just sold my next book to Knopf/Random House (working again with my amazing editor) and it deals with two teens who survive Hitler's bombing of the Basque city of Guernica. This new book (tentatively titled A THUNDEROUS WHISPER) is about friendship, war, family and finding one's own importance in the world.

That sounds wonderful! I, for one, am grateful that you decided to follow your bliss. Congratulations on all your successes. I have a premonition this book will garner many awards. Thank you for spending time with us on the Fire Escape.
Bonus! Leave a comment with email address to enter a contest for a personalized book sent from Miami with love to the recipient of your choice. Giveaway contest ends Wednesday, July 28, 2010!

What Should Mitali Write Next?

For the first time in years, I'm not writing under contract. It's an exciting, creative space. I'm planning my writing time for the coming year, and I need your help. I've got four unwritten projects on my mind. Which one should I tackle first?
  1. YA Bollywood-esque action novel with a funny guy hero. Theme: international adoption and power.
  2. Short novel for elementary-aged readers set in Nepal about wells, water, and arsenic. Theme: do good well (no pun intended.)
  3. Picture book fairy tale featuring a South Asian boy prince and his love for Bengal Tigers. Theme: overconsumption versus conservation.
  4. YA novel sequel to SECRET KEEPER set in the 1990s featuring Reet's daughter. Theme: following your bliss and battling college pressure.

You're Invited: Boston Book Launch Party

Taking a two-week break from blogging to visit my parents, so I'll leave you with this invitation to come to my book launch party for Bamboo People on August 19, 2010 at 7:00 p.m., Porter Square Books, Cambridge, Ma. Bring friends to enjoy the Burmese appetizers; everybody's welcome! RSVP here or by email.


It started as a picture book, and after 10+ years of revisions and rejections, my novel Bamboo People launches today. Thanks to everybody who had a hand in it. I pray it sheds light on the young people forced to fight in Burma as well as on the Karenni refugees forced to flee that country. Many now live along the Thai-Burma border in camps and are beginning to come to the United States. In honor of them and those who advocate for them, I'll be tweeting links from great organizations all day. Check out #bamboopeople to track them.

And if you're in the Boston area, join us for an 8/19 Launch Party at Porter Square Books!

"A graceful exploration of the redemptive power of love, family, and friendship." —★ Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Summer 2010 Indie Next Pick 
Nominated for ALA's Best Fiction for Young Adults
Published by Charlesbridge
Bamboo People

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 fifteen-year-old boys 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.

Get it at your local Indie Bookseller! 

Send it lovingly gift-wrapped to anywhere in the United States for $14.18 from Indiepride — including tax and shipping.

This cake by a middle school baker extraordinaire
was devoured at our writer's group last night. Thank you, Miss Emma!