YA Covers that FLY off Shelves

Librarians and booksellers weighed in on my call for great covers on books featuring protagonists of color. According to the experts, pictured below are several jackets popular with teens in many different kinds of communities (scroll down to see the cover art.)

Please note I'm not making any statement on the literary quality of these books (in fact, they differ quite a bit in writing style and substance), just their popularity based on the covers. Does anything strike you about the covers? Why would these kinds of designs draw teens?

If you sell or circulate books to young adults, feel free to add titles in the comments. Tune in on Monday, when I review the poll and share some lessons learned.

THE SKIN I'M IN by Sharon Flake
CODETALKER by Joseph Bruchac
BLUFORD HIGH series by Anne Schraff and Paul Langan
DRAMA HIGH series by L. Divine
KIMANU TRU series by various authors
LIAR by Justine Larbalestier
EXTRAS by Scott Westerfeld
BALL DON'T LIE by Matt de la Peña
AFTER TUPAC AND D. FOSTER by Jacqueline Woodson
SUCKERPUNCH by David Hernandez
CONFETTI GIRL by Diana López
MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Varian Johnson
GRAFFITI GIRL by Kelly Parra
HATERS by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
THE FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson
SHE'S SO MONEY by Cherry Cheva
ADIOS TO ALL THE DRAMA by Diana Rodriguez Wallach
TYRELL by Coe Booth
ALL ABOUT US series by Shelly Adina

A Call For Yummy PoC Kid/YA Book Covers That Worked

While we're waiting on the results of my unscientific poll on Kid/YA book covers, I thought I'd put out a call for GREAT covers on recent books that have sold or circulated well featuring protagonists who are people of color.

Before we start, I'd like to reflect on the term "people of color," because I'll admit that it makes white people sound bland and colorless. A 1988 New York Times essay by William Safire puts the term in a historical and cultural context:
As we speak, however, the English language seems to lump the colors together and treats white — the noncolor — as a race and a word apart ...
It strikes me, then, that people of color is a phrase often used by nonwhites to put nonwhite positively. (Why should anybody want to define himself by what he is not?) Politically, it expresses solidarity with other nonwhites, and subtly reminds whites that they are a minority [on the planet.]
When used by whites,  people of color usually carries a friendly and respectful connotation, but should not be used as a synonym for  black; it refers to all racial groups that are not white.
I hope that helps if you're uncomfortable with the term. I've been wondering if the Jersey Shore craze reflects a desire within white young America to claim some color, but that's for another post.

So, booksellers, educators, librarians, gatekeepers who serve young readers, could you share a few 2008-2010 titles that feature people of color as protagonists and have been relatively popular in your communities?

I'll also look through Goodreads and LibraryThing to find titles that show up in a lot of shelves, and showcase those covers that appear to have worked. Please leave the title, author, publisher, and date, as well as a snapshot of the racial/ethnic demographics you serve in the comments. Thanks!

Brown Faces Don't Sell Books? A Poll For Booksellers and Librarians

[No time to read this post? Just vote in the sidebar to the right.]

[Know a recent title featuring a POC protagonist that DID sell or circulate well? Please share it here.]

How much power do authors have over their covers? Not much. Dutton did give me the green light to post two possibilities for my First Daughter books and ask your opinion. And with Charlesbridge's permission, we debated the presence of a gun on the cover of Bamboo People via Twitter and Facebook (ended up with no gun.) But other than that, I take what I get, like most authors.

The fact remains that none of my books with brown young people on the covers have been picked up by the chains. Monsoon Summer sometimes turns up in a Barnes and Noble here or there, but it's the only book of mine with a cover that's ambiguous about the race of the protagonist. Get over it and write better books, I tell myself. Sometimes, though, I can't help wondering whether cover art has played any part in my struggle to sell books in the mainstream.

Given that publishing houses are tempted to white-wash the covers of books written by white authors even though they feature brown characters, the questions get louder in my head. Why would they do this unless it affects the bottom line? Do white kids really avoid books with brown, black, or Asian faces on the cover?

I've thrown this question out on Twitter and in presentations and received a few off-the-record responses from booksellers and librarians. "Kids don't buy or borrow books like that in my community," they tell me. Given what I see in youth pop culture, it's tough to believe that -- it seems to me that today's teens are fascinated with ethnic diversity and open to many kinds of faces and stories.

I'd like some statistics to back up or refute the murmurs and rumors. So I'm asking you, booksellers, teachers, and librarians, to weigh in on the anonymous poll in my sidebar. All votes, input, and comments appreciated, and I'll run the poll all week long.

Here's the poll for my RSS feed readers, but you have to stop by the Fire Escape to vote in the sidebar.

A Kid/YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover:

... is NEVER bought or borrowed by white kids unless I push it.
... is RARELY bought or borrowed by white kids unless I push it.
... is SOMETIMES bought or borrowed by white kids unless I push it.
... circulates or sells THE SAME as other books, depending on buzz and reviews.

Party Day at ALA

Thought I'd share some snippets and snapshots of my whirlwind day at the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting in Boston last Saturday.

Donna Spurlock of Charlesbridge met me at the booth with 100 advance review copies of Bamboo People, coming July 1, 2010. I signed, and thanks mostly to Twitter and Facebook friends, all  the ARCs were gone by the end of the hour—a first for me.

Ran into friends everywhere on the exhibit floor, including Anindita Basu Sempere, Edith Cohn, and readergirlz Diva Holly Cupala, who signed an ARC of Tell Me A Secret, coming June 2010 from HarperTeen.

Just before my "Five Questions For ..." interview with Roger Sutton (on the left) of the Horn Book, we ran into Brian Kenney, editor-in-chief of School Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly.

"Do you like the label 'multicultural', Mitali?" Roger asked. "Has it helped or limited you? Oh, and does social media sell books?" No idea how I answered, but I hope it sounded coherent. (Photo courtesy of Judith Jango-Cohen.)

I was relieved to be done. Roger asked great questions and the hospitality at the Horn Book / Junior Library Guild corner of the exhibit floor was superb. Here we are showing off our product babies. (Photo courtesy of Judith Jango-Cohen.)

After a lovely lunch with Françoise Bui, my editor at Delacorte who shepherded both
Monsoon Summer and Secret Keeper, I spied out the venue of the ALA Kid/YA Lit Tweetup set for four o'clock that afternoon.

Co-organizer Deborah Sloan and I were relieved as people arrived and jumped into the spirit of the event, chatting, mingling, and talking Kid/YA books.

After the tweetup, Charlesbridge hosted a lovely celebratory dinner for
Bamboo People at the Legal Seafood Test Kitchen, inviting some of the premier bloggers in the kidlitosphere.

ALA Midwinter And Beyond

I'll be spending most of Saturday loitering around the whereabouts of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, since the 2010 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting is conveniently (for me) going to be there this weekend. Here's my schedule in case you want to say hello.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, stop by booth 1417 (Charlesbridge), where I'll be signing advance review copies of BAMBOO PEOPLE (hot off the presses, I'm told).

At noon, Roger Sutton of the Horn Book will be asking me five questions in booth 1564, right after he does the same to Kristin Cashore at 11. He'll be hosting Lois Lowry at 2, and M.T. Anderson at 3.

From 4-6 p.m., I'll be meeting and mingling with 200 or so people I mostly know in social media venues like Twitter or Facebook at our ALA Midwinter Great Kid/YA Lit Tweetup. We'll be swapping books and matching faces with profile pictures. In case excessive airbrushing was used to create particular online photos, we're providing name tags to help us recognize each other.

To end the evening, Charlesbridge is graciously hosting a cozy celebration launch dinner in honor of BAMBOO PEOPLE at Legal's Test Kitchen. I wasn't in charge of the guest list, so I'm eagerly anticipating those who turn up.

Early Sunday morning I'm leaving town for the west coast, where I have an author visit in Sacramento and another in Berkeley. Plus I'm having major withdrawal from Ma's cooking and Baba's jokes. I'll be back on the Fire Escape on Friday, January 22, 2010.

As for my award predictions (note: not preferences, so don't feel bad if I left you out) regarding the annual youth book and media awards to be announced on Monday morning?

I'm thinking my author buddies Rebecca Stead (WHEN YOU REACH ME), Kristin Cashore (FIRE), Deborah Heiligman (CHARLES AND EMMA) and Grace Lin (WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON) could be getting early wakeup calls, along with editor Cheryl Klein and Francisco X. Stork (MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD). Half the fun is speculation, but we'll see.

2009 Illustrated Books with African American Characters

In honor of MLK Weekend, I secured permission to reprint an excellent list of books compiled by Laura Scott of Farmington Community Library through the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) list-serv. Please feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section. Thanks, Laura and ALSC!

Illustrated Books with African American Characters Published in 2009

Bryan, Ashley. Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song. Atheneum. 

Greenfield, Eloise. Illus. George Ford. Paul Robeson. Lee and Low.

Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux. Illus. R. Gregory Christie. Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bess Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshall. CarolRhoda.

Shange, Ntozak. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  Coretta Scott. Katherine Tegen Books.

Hoose, Phillip M. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. Melanie Kroupa Books.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Illus. Brian Pinkney. Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp-Stride.  Hyperion. 

Rockwell, Anne. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Open The door To Liberty! A Biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture.  Houghton Mifflin.

Shelton, Paula Young. Child of the Civil Rights Movement. Schwartz and Wade.


Cook, Michelle. Illus. Bryan Collier. Our Children Can Soar: a Celebration of Rosa, Barack and the Pioneers of Change.

Hughes, Langston. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis. The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Hyperion.

Hughes, Langston.Photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr. My People. Atheneum.

Isadora, Rachel and Grimm Bros. Hansel and Gretel. Putnam.

Moore, Clement. Illus. Rachel Isadora. The Night Before Christmas. Putnam.

Myers, Walter Dean. Illustrated by Christopher Myers.  Looking Like Me. Egmont.

Obama, Barack. illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Change Has Come: An Artist Celebrates Our American Spirit. Simon and Schuster.

Nelson, Marilyn. Illus. Jerry Pinkney. Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of The Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in The World. Dial.

Picture Books

Blue, Rose and Corinne J. Naden 
Illus. by Don Tate. Ron’s Big Mission. Dutton.

Cherie, Tonya. Illus. Cozbi A. Cabrera Most Loved in All the World. Houghton Mifflin. (December 2008).

Demas, Corinne. Illus. by Noah. Z. Jones. Always in Trouble. Scholastic.

Evans, Shane. Olu’s Dream. Katherine Tegen Books.

Grimes, Nikki. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel. Putnam.

Malaspina, Ann. Illus.Colin Bootman. Finding Lincoln. Albert Whitman.

Morrison, Toni and Slade. Illus. by Joe Cepeda. Peeny Butter Fudge. Simon and Schuster.

Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux. Illus. Sean Qualls. Who Will I Be, Lord? Random House.

Paul, Chris. Illus. Frank Morrison. Long Shot: Never too Small to Dream Big. Simon and Schuster.

Slate, Joseph. Illustrated E.B. Lewis. I Want to Be Free. Putnam.

Turner-Denstaedt, Melanie. Illus. Frank Morrison. The Hat That Wore Clara B.  FSG.

Suggested Web sites:

ALSC-L suggestions compiled by Laura Scott, Farmington Community Library, December 2009 

Kid/YA Books Set in Haiti

As we focus on the disaster in Haiti, I thought I'd compile a few books written for children and teens set in that country. Stories can bring faraway people and places from the screen into our homes and hearts, and keep them there, even through information overload or compassion fatigue. As always, feel free to suggest additions in the comments.

by Youme Landowne
Cinco Puntos Press, 2005
Ages 5 to 10

The true story of Sélavi ("that is life"), a small boy who finds himself homeless on the streets of Haiti. He finds other street children who share their food and a place to sleep. Together they proclaim a message of hope through murals and radio programs.

by Karen Lynn Williams, Catherine Stock (Illustrator)
Clarion, 1995
Ages 4 to 8

After selling oranges in the market, a mother and daughter have enough money to ride the tap-tap, a truck that picks up passengers and lets them off when they bang on the side of the vehicle.

by Karen Williams, Catherine Stock (Illustrator)
HarperCollins, 1998
Ages 5 to 8

Because her family is too poor to be able to buy paints for her, eight-year-old Ti Marie finds her own way to create pictures that make the heart sing.

by Karen Williams, Linda Saport (Illustrator)
Eerdmans, 2005
Ages 4 to 8

After many futile attempts to plant a tree in honor of his new baby sister, a young boy discovers the perfect solution.

by Amy MacDonald, Emily Lisker (Illustrator)
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002
Ages 4-8

Using his tricky ways, Malese takes advantage of his neighbors, until they catch on, after which he manages to pull an even bigger trick on them.

by Francois Turenne Des Pres
Universe, 1994
Ages 5-10

A collection of folktales featuring magical human and animal characters, from tricksters and buffoons to dancing dolls and talking fish, by the late Haitian artist and writer Turenne Des Pres (1907-1990).

by Denize Lauture, Reynold Ruffins (illustrator)
Simon and Schuster, 1996
Ages 3-8

Six children awaken before dawn each morning to run barefoot to school, a journey that is complemented by the sounds of nature and the bright morning sun, in a rhythmic ABC story that captures the nation's hill and meadow regions.

by Edwidge Danticat
Scholastic, 2005
Ages 9-12

Queen Anacaona was the wife of one of her island's rulers, and a composer of songs and poems, making her popular among her people. Haiti was relatively quiet until the Spanish conquistadors discovered the island and began to settle there in 1492. The Spaniards treated the natives very cruelly, and when the natives revolted, the Spanish governor of Haiti ordered the arrests of several native nobles, including Anacaona, who was eventually captured and executed, to the horror of her people.

by Francis Temple
HarperCollins, 1991

In the hospital after being beaten by Macoutes, seventeen-year-old Djo tells the story of his impoverished life to a young woman who, like him, has been working with the social reformer Father Aristide to fight the repression in Haiti.

by Edwidge Danticat
Scholastic, 2002

It's election time in Haiti, and bombs are going off in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. During a visit from her home in rural Haiti, Celiane Espérance and her mother are nearly killed. Looking at her country with new eyes, Celiane gains a fresh resolve to be reunited with her father in Brooklyn, New York. The harsh winter and concrete landscape of her new home are a shock to Celiane, who witnesses her parents' struggle to earn a living, her brother's uneasy adjustment to American society, and her own encounters with learning difficulties and school violence.

To get involved in a children's book specific way, consider joining our new Ambassdor Katherine Paterson by supporting the International Board of Books for Young People's Children in Crisis Fund, which has a project in Haiti.

A Dream-Come-True Invitation

I was sampling veggie burgers in a Costco aisle yesterday when I decided to check my email. My phone uploaded a message from Jennifer Hart of HarperPerennial; here's part of what she wrote:
... I was wondering if you would be interested in writing the foreword to the new edition of Emily of Deep Valley. I’m thrilled to be bringing this one back especially as so many fans cite it as among their favorites of Maud Hart Lovelace's books. I also think it touches on so many interesting themes that are still relevant today ...
I re-read the email, heart racing, tears blurring my eyes. The veggie burger guy watched with a look of concern as I managed to word this response on my iPhone:
Do you know how much I love Emily of Deep Valley? I have re-read it countless times since I discovered it as a newcomer to this country years ago in the Flushing library.
I am honored, thrilled, ecstatic, over-the-top, doing-a-Bollywood-Dance delighted.
I accept with gratitude and humility as I consider Ms. Lovelace's impact on me through the years.
Jennifer gave me permission to share this with you, so that's my Ta-Da announcement! Can you believe it? Anyone have a time machine? I want to find nine-year-old Mitali scouring the NYPL shelves for anything Maud Hart Lovelace and tell her the news.


Here are ten reasons I'll be happy if this year's ALA Printz Award goes to MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD by Francisco X. Stork:
10.  The story is classic bildungsroman.

9.  We get a Latino teen guy protagonist who isn't in a gang, on the streets, or primarily defined by cultural angst.
8.  We're intrigued and captivated by descriptions of music. (Stork even created a playlist to accompany the book for the New York Times' blog, Paper Cuts.)
7. We're given a stark, honest portrayal of sexual tensions in the workplace.

6. Who doesn't enjoy a good legal thriller?

5.  We root with all our might for a flawed but brave hero in Marcelo.

4. We come to love a flawed but strong character in Jasmine.

3. We'll want to know more about an individual's situation the next time we hear the word "autism."

2.  Faith is expressed and explored freely.

1.  Justice rolls down as the "weak" are able to right wrongs perpetrated by the "strong."
Best of all, perhaps, is that I couldn't put it down. I really did love it, in the way that Stork himself defines the verb.  I'm looking forward to his THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS, coming March 1, 2010 from Arthur A. Levine Books.

Crossed Any Borders To Read?

During the last Twitter #kidlitchat, I asked, "What's a recent Kid/YA book you've read featuring a protagonist of a different race than yours?" I thought I'd kick off another year on the Fire Escape by sharing the responses, some of which were new to me.

One caveat is that almost all of the responses came from white authors, partly because those of us who aren't white often cross racial/ethnic lines to read in English. It's the rule of reading for us rather than the exception. Also, I only included books published in the last two years; feel free to add more in the comments including titles and authors.

Middle Grade
  • The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott
  • The Magical Midadventures of Prunella Bogthistle by Deva Fagan
  • The Broken Bike Boy and the Queen of 33rd Street by Sharon Flake
  • Brendan Buckley's Universe And Everything In It by Sundee T. Frazier
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
  • Paris Pan Takes The Dare by Cynthea Liu
  • Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters by Lenore Look 
  • The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
  • Ryan and Jimmy and the Well in Africa that Brought Them Together by Herb Shoveller
  • Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) by Lisa Yee
Young Adult
  • Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel- Fattah
  • Kendra by Coe Booth
  • All The Broken Pieces by Ann Burg
  • The Marvelous Effect by Troy CLE
  • Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis
  • November Blues by Sharon Draper
  • Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier
  • The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon
  • Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino
  • Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins
  • Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
  • Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
  • Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
  • The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner  
  • Moribito by Nahoko Uehashi
  • My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
Gosh, it's good to be back on the Fire Escape, despite the winter chill. I've missed blogging! Don't forget to sign up for the January 21-day Comment Challenge over at Mother Reader.