Thursday, February 25, 2010

Looking For Asian Guy Protagonists in YA Novels

I need a dozen good recent novels (2007-2010) featuring Asian or Asian American teen guy protagonists. Can you help? I've found five (three featuring adoptees, interestingly), and am on the hunt for seven more:

STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE by David Yoo
(Hyperion, 2008)

Before he met Mia, resigned loser Albert Kim was too busy dodging high school sociopaths to imagine having a girlfriend. Much less the adorable ex-girlfriend of alpha jerk Ryan Stackhouse. Yet somehow, by the end of a summer working at an inn together, Al and Mia are "something."

Then September arrives with a thud: Ryan has been diagnosed with cancer and needs Mia at his side. As the school year turns into one giant tribute to Ryan, Al can't help but notice that Ryan may not be quite who everyone--particularly Mia--thinks he is. Before his heart shatters completely, Al has just a few more things to point out...


KIMCHI AND CALAMARI by Rose Kent
(HarperCollins, 2007)

Kimchi and calamari. It sounds like a quirky food fusion of Korean and Italian cuisine, and it's exactly how Joseph Calderaro feels about himself. Why wouldn't an adopted Korean drummer—comic book junkie feel like a combo platter given:
(1) his face in the mirror
(2) his proud Italian family.
And now Joseph has to write an essay about his ancestors for social studies. All he knows is that his birth family shipped his diapered butt on a plane to the USA. End of story. But what he writes leads to a catastrophe messier than a table of shattered dishes—and self-discovery that Joseph never could have imagined.

AMERICAN-BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang
(First Second Books 2007)

All Jin Wang wants is to fit in. When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he suddenly finds that he's the only Chinese-American student at his school. Jocks and bullies pick on him constantly, and he has hardly any friends. Then, to make matters worse, he falls in love with an all-American girl...

Born to rule over all the monkeys in the world, the story of the Monkey King is one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables. Adored by his subjects, master of the arts of kung-fu, he is the most powerful monkey on earth. But the Monkey King doesn't want to be a monkey. He wants to be hailed as a god...

Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, and he's ruining his cousin Danny's life. Danny's a basketball player, a popular kid at school, but every year Chin-Kee comes to visit, and every year Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the shame. This year, though, things quickly go from bad to worse...


ALL THE BROKEN PIECES by Ann Burg
(Scholastic 2009)

Two years after being airlifted out of war-torn Vietnam, Matt Pin is haunted: by bombs that fell like dead crows, by the family—and the terrible secret—he left behind.

Now, inside a caring adoptive home in the United States, a series of profound events force him to choose between silence and candor, blame and forgiveness, fear and freedom.


SOPHOMORE UNDERCOVER by Ben Esch
(Hyperion 2009)

For fifteen-year-old, adopted Vietnamese orphan Dixie Nguyen, high school is one long string of hard-to-swallow humiliations. He shares a locker with a nudist linebacker, his teachers are incompetent, and he's stuck doing fluff pieces for the school newspaper. But Dixie's luck takes a turn when he stumbles across one of the jocks using drugs in the locker room; not only does he finally have something newsworthy to write, but the chance to strike a blow against his tormentors at the school as well.

However, when his editor insists he drop the story and cover homecoming events instead, Dixie sets off on his own unconventional-and often misguided-investigation. He soon discovers that the scandal extends beyond the football team to something far bigger and more sinister than he ever thought possible. Once he follows the guidelines of his hero, Mel Nichols (journalism professor at Fresno State University and author of the textbook Elementary Journalism) this high school reporter just might save the world. That is, of course, if Dixie can stay out of juvenile hall, the hospital, and new age therapy long enough to piece it all together.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Which Children's Novels Do You Re-Read?

As I consider Betsy Bird's posts of the top 100 children's books, I'm realizing that I categorize a novel as a favorite once I've read it at least five times with delight.

I tend to recycle my favorites during particular times of the year. Here are some examples that seem to fit with the seasons:

Winter:

Chronicles of Narnia
by C.S. Lewis
Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott
Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace

Spring:

Miracles on Maple Hill
by Virginia Sorensen
Secret Garden by Frances H. Burnett

Summer:

Thimble Summer
by Elizabeth Enright
Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

Fall:

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Which novels do you re-read?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Girls Under Pressure: Can a YA Book Help?

A new study in Scotland finds tween and teen girls crumbling under cultural pressure: 
Over the two decades, (Helen) Sweeting found that, while the 15-year-old boys she spoke to had experienced a small increase in psychological distress, the number of girls of the same age reporting mental issues from mild anxiety to issues serious enough to justify hospital treatment, had jumped sharply ... "Girls are growing up schooled like no other in the fine art of dissatisfaction – with their lives, their possessions and their bodies."
Assuming a growing global homogeneity of youth culture, I shared this article on twitter today and asked two questions:
  1. Are there cultural sub-pockets where strong girls find shelter from the "be successful *and* sexy or else" stress storm?

  2. When it comes to cultural pressure on teen girls, should YA writers try to mend, join the trend, or neither?
Theater, sports, Girl Scouts, fasting from media, and strong families were among the responses to the first question. (If you have others, leave them in the comments.)

As for the question of responsible writing for tweens and teens without didacticism, Janni Lee Simner, author of Bones of Faerie, gave this balanced answer: "They should try to show [the pressure] truly — to give it and readers a voice."

Books were definitely a haven for me in the face of cultural pressure, even though I came of age in a much less stressful time for girls. That's why I'm proud Secret Keeper made the 2010 ALA Amelia Bloomer List, a bibliography "intended to highlight feminist books examining women’s history, those that celebrate women who have blazed trails, and those that describe problems and identify solutions for situations we face today."

Monday, February 15, 2010

February Reading Retreat

I'm taking an internet fast for eight days to read and warm up my icy bones in the sunshine. Be back on the Fire Escape with more reviews, interviews, and reflections next Tuesday, February 23rd. Peace be with you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Valentine's Day Twitter Short Story

In the spirit of the Authors game played at Camp Lawrence in LITTLE WOMEN, twenty of us—writers, librarians, teenagers, bloggers, booksellers, editors—attempted to write a short story together via Twitter on the evening of 2/11/10.  

Each author tweeted to be in the queue, and when his or her turn came, was allowed up to 132 characters with 8 for our hashtag #shortya to keep the story going. Here it is—enjoy, and Happy Valentine's Day!

HAPPY BEGINNINGS: A LOVE STORY

by 20 tweeps in 20 tweets

He was sick of trudging to school through the snow behind her. Why couldn't he have the guts to say something? He thought of tossing a snowball, but that wasn't the right sentiment. He couldn't whistle. 


They passed the big oak tree. She paused at the old tree. He stopped, thinking he might say something. Then she bent down and began to dig under a root. He watched her long, pale fingers thrust deep into the forest mulch and held his breath. If only she'd touch his hair that way. The hair on his chest. He pressed his forehead against a cold lamppost and swallowed. Hard.

"Look at this," she said. She stood and looked in his eyes, burning into his brain. Could she tell what he was thinking?

He stood still except for the beating of his heart. "Come here," she said. "I want to show you this." She held out a small box.

He hesitated, running his fingers through his long, dark curls. But when she smiled, he stepped forward. And looked. Inside the box was a little golden heart, surrounded by ruby red gems. The gems were the color of blood. 

"Are you ready? I must give my heart by midnight or..." She sighed. "I noticed you following me for days."

That's when she first noticed the scar on his face. She gasped! She slowly ran her fingers across his cheek, catching her breath as he winced.

"We're alike, you and me," he said, grabbing her hand.

"Oh, really?" She smiled slyly as he reached over to pull the loose piece of hair from her ponytail away from her face.

"We've been cursed," he said, "both of us."

The first bell of midnight drifted on the night air. Her hand shook. "Do you believe in happy endings?" she asked.

"Happy endings?" He reached out and touched her lips. "No. But beginnings..." He trapped her in his steady gaze.

"Wait!" she cried pulling away. The bell chimed. "I must--"

"Must what?" He bent closer, heart pounding. 


She held up the gold heart.

Another chime. "Tell me what to do!" he said.

Shaken, she took a step away from him. The heart slipped from her hand into the snow.

He reached to grab it. The metal was surprisingly warm. Intense happiness filled him as he held it.

"It's yours," she said.

He pressed it over his heart. Each red gem sparked, spiraled, exploded. He gasped, then held out his hand. "As I am yours." 


THE END

AUTHORS in order of appearance: 

  1. @mitaliperkins 
  2. @loganberrybooks 
  3. @AudryT 
  4. @liakeyes 
  5. @jennbailey 
  6. @blanchardauthor 
  7. @thatwemightfly 
  8. @juliadevillers 
  9. @junegoodwin 
  10. @marjorielight 
  11. @booktoo 
  12. @treuting 
  13. @allisonosity 
  14. @bhalpin 
  15. @msforster 
  16. @natasharogue 
  17. @rillajaggia 
  18. @lkstrohecker
  19.  @yareviewnet
  20.  @SusanUhlig
  21. Titled by @PlanetAlvina

Stuff To Know About Shen's Books: A Chat With Editor Renee Ting

I had the good fortune to meet Renee Ting, president and publisher of Shen's Books, at the California School Library Association Convention last fall and she graciously agreed to join me on the Fire Escape. Here's Shen's vision statement:
Shen’s Books is a publisher of multicultural children’s literature that emphasizes cultural diversity and tolerance, with a focus on introducing children to the cultures of Asia. Through books, we can share a world a stories, building greater understanding and tolerance within our increasingly diverse communities as well as throughout our continuously shrinking globe.
Renee is a champion of children's literature, and I tune in regularly to the reflections and Multicultural Minute video series on her blog.  "Anyone has the right to tell any story," she said emphatically when I asked about authenticity in fiction. That's good news for writers, readers, and a free society. 


How did Shen's Books get started?

Shen's Books was founded in 1985 by a teacher named Maywan Shen Krach as a mail order catalog for Asian-themed books and teaching supplies. The first book published by Shen's Books came out in 1997, and since then Shen's has continued to publish two books a year. I have been the President of Shen's Books since 2001, when Maywan retired. We no longer distribute other books or supplies and simply focus on publishing now.

How does Shen's Books make money as a small, independent publisher?

Generally, we try to reach teachers and librarians directly through our catalog, conferences, and social media. Because when you're this small, every single book counts. Every person I meet at a conference or online makes a difference. Every teacher that learns about Shen's Books and then goes back to their school to advocate for our books makes a difference. And it goes without saying that creating the highest quality books addressing important themes and issues comes first.

Name two of your bestselling books and tell us why you think they sold well.

Our bestselling group of books is our Cinderella line. Almost every culture in the world has its own version of the Cinderella story, and we have published a series of books retelling a number of them. The bestselling book of these is Domitila: The Mexican Cinderella. All these books have the same beloved fairy tale at their cores, but they also show how different cultures all have a similar emotional basis in their folklore. They also reflect the landscapes and cultures of different places within a story that is familiar yet different.

Describe a typical day in Renee Ting's life--if that's possible. If not, tell us what you did yesterday.

My days tend to be full of minutiae, a million little things that fill timeand add up. I spend an inordinate amount of time on email, since every aspect of running a business seems to require it. I answer customer service emails and phone calls, and I check correspond with my authors and illustrators who have questions or need help. Yesterday I processed orders by typing invoices and placing the orders through our fulfillment warehouse. I also did some bookkeeping and sent a stack of 1099 forms to the IRS. I corresponded with a few printing companies regarding the quotes, paper stock, etc. for the printing of our next book, as well as totally different printing companies for the printing of our Spring catalog. I was able, though, to get a solid two or three hours in of designing the catalog, which needs to be sent off to the printer at the end of next week.

Does an active online presence make a difference in whether or not you'll publish somebody?

No. I look, first and foremost, at the quality of a manuscript. I'm happy to learn after the fact if the author has an enthusiasm for self-promotion, but it is not a prerequisite.

Could you share a sample paragraph or two from a query letter that made your heart beat faster?

We don't accept query letters, actually. Because we are only looking at picture books right now, I only accept full manuscript submissions. And generally, I don't look too carefully at the cover letter. I find that the manuscript should speak for itself.

What's your view on "authenticity" or the question of who can write a multicultural story?

I believe that anyone has the right to tell any story. The authenticity of the author's written voice is going to determine the quality of the book, not the author's racial or ethnic background. Naturally, if an author is close the subject and has done her research, it will be easier for her to attain an authentic voice than it is for someone who is writing about a subject they do not know well. I think this personal investment in a story shows through a manuscript loud and clear. On a more practical note, it is impossible for me to tell the race or ethnicity of an author just from their name on a manuscript. These days, we can't assume anything from people's names. And it just seems wrong to me somehow to judge work based on any criteria other than its own merit.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

2010 Notable Books For A Global Society

Each year the Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association selects 25 outstanding trade books enhancing student understanding of people and cultures throughout the world. Winning titles include fiction, nonfiction, and poetry written for students in grades K-12. I'm thrilled that Secret Keeper is on this list in such good company!
Ajmera, Maya. Faith. Written by Maya Ajmera, Magda Nakassis, and Cynthia Pon. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Baskin, Nora Raleigh. (2009). Anything But Typical. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Bausum, Ann. Denied, Detained, Deported: stories from the dark side of American immigration. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.

Bryan, Ashley. Words to my Life’s Song. Photographs by Bill McGuinness. New York: Atheneum.

Burg, Ann E. All the Broken Pieces. New York: Scholastic.

Combres, √Člisabeth. Broken Memory: a Novel of Rwanda. Translated by Shelley Tanaka. Toronto, ON: Groundwood.

Deedy, Carmen Agra. 14 Cows for America. In collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. Illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.

Edwardson, Debby Dahl. Blessing’s Bead. New York: Melanie Kroupa/Farrar Straus and Giroux.

Griffin, Paul. The Orange Houses. New York: Dial.

Hoose, Phillip. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Freedom. New York: Melanie Kroupa/Farrar Straus Giroux.

Khan, Rukhsana. Wanting Mor. Toronto, ON: Groundwood.

Lin, Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York: Little, Brown.

Marshall, James Vance. Stories from the Billabong. Illustrated by Francis Firebrace. London: Frances Lincoln.

Murphy, Jim. Truce: The Day The Soldiers Stopped Fighting. New York: Scholastic.

Naidoo, Beverley. Burn my Heart. New York: Amistad/HarperCollins.

Napoli, Donna Jo. Alligator Bayou. New York: Wendy Lamb/Random House.

National Geographic. Every Human Has Rights: a Photographic Declaration for Kids. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.

Nelson, Marilyn.  The Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial.

Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux. Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves. Deputy U.S. Marshal. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda.

O’Brien, Anne Sibley. After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance. Written by Anne Sibley O’Brien and Perry Edmond O’Brien. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Partridge, Elizabeth. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary. New York: Viking.

Perkins, Mitali. Secret Keeper. New York: Delacorte.

Reynolds, Jan. Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming. New York: Lee & Low.

Russell, Ching Yeung.  Tofu Quilt. New York: Lee & Low.

Stork, Francisco X. Marcelo in the Real World. New York: Arthur Levine/Scholastic.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

An Accurate Definition of "Push"

Last week we discovered that for some white teens, it takes "push" from a gatekeeper to read a book featuring a main character who isn't white. No surprise there, right?

Does that mean we sit back and wait a few decades until young North Americans move beyond the primacy of racial self-identification?

Not if we believe that good stories are for all readers.

Not if we notice that with a bit of push, white teens are buying books about teens who aren't white.

Why put the push onus on parents, educators, and librarians? Isn't "push" another word for marketing? That's a vocation people study in graduate school so they can do it well and hopefully earn six-figure salaries working for successful companies.

Colleen Mondor makes the point that other products of youth culture (music, movies, television shows) cross racial boundaries better than books. Not surprisingly, the buzz for these products begins with a great marketing/sales plan within the companies. We've even noticed that books receiving marketing intentionality DO sell.

While most houses these days can point to published books featuring protagonists of different shades and races, bloggers Ari, Laura, and Doret are on the hunt to showcase those publishers who put marketing talent and dollars behind such books. I've worked with a few myself.

We writers are curious about their discoveries. We want to know which houses are going to spend some time and talent and money getting books about kids of color into the hearts and hands of all young readers. Times are tight and we'll do a lot of "pushing" ourselves, we promise ... but if there's a standout house or two in the crowd with a track record, we want to know, because these are the forward thinkers publishing for an increasingly multicultural story-consuming society.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep writing stories for many young readers about many kinds of young people. And I'll do my best on the Fire Escape to generate buzz for good books featuring protagonists along the margins of prosperity and culture. How about you?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Spirit of PaperTigers Project

As a big fan of PaperTigers, I'm delighted to share the news about the recently launched Spirit of PaperTigers Project, an initiative to promote literacy and books that encourage empathy and understanding.

The Project will select a set of books, donate them to schools and libraries in areas of need, and report responses of children from all around the globe. (For details on how to get a set, visit the PaperTigers site.)

The 2010 Book Set is fantastic. Check it out:


Written and illustrated by Lynne Barasch. Lee & Low, 2009. Ages 4-8.

Little Leap Forward
Written by Guo Yue and Clare Farrow, illustrated by Helen Cann. Barefoot Books, 2008. Ages 9-12.

 
Written and illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren. Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2009. Ages 4-8.
 
One Hen
Written by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes. Kids Can Press, 2008. Ages 7+.

Planting the Trees of Kenya
Written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola.
Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Ages 5-8.

The Storyteller's Candle
Written by Lucia Gonzalez, illustrated by Lulu Delacre.
Children's Book Press, 2008. Ages 4-8..

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Written and illustrated by Grace Lin.
Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009. Ages 9-12..


Friday, February 05, 2010

THE WAGER by Mitali Perkins

I wrote an original short story for Scholastic's Expert21 Program, and they commissioned my mother, Madhusree Bose, to create alpana art for the background design of the pages in the story. Having secured permission to share the first two pages with you, I'm proud to introduce THE WAGER, a story about how the Grameen Bank has changed lives in Bangladesh through the power of microcredit.

The Wager by Mitali Perkins

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Chat with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Author of 8TH GRADE SUPERZERO

I'm delighted to welcome the author of one of my favorite recent reads, 8TH GRADE SUPERZERO, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, better known in the kidlitosphere as Gbemi.

Pour yourself a cup of tea and join us as we find out more about the author (who is lighting up the Fire Escape with her beautiful smile, no?) and her funny, inspiring middle-grade book featuring an unforgettable guy protagonist.

Describe Gbemi at age fourteen.

Yikes! Trying to set a record for number of after-school activities. Obsessed with "A+"s. Tired of people suggesting that she change her name to something easier when she gets older. Certain she'd be a playwright and live in a very modern Central Park West apartment with lots of windows and stainless steel appliances. Lots of rubber bracelets, large and mismatched earrings, off-the-shoulder fashion, mini skirts and patterned tights. Enthusiastic participant in lip-sync competitions, and secret member of the math and debate teams. Voracious reader and painfully earnest journal-writer who desperately wished someone would know that she was a 'true princess', and a dreamer who was never quite able to mask just how out of place she felt.

I can just picture you, Gbemi. We would have been friends for sure. Okay, now about the book. What was the biggest (hardest) change you made in response to Cheryl Klein's editorial input?

Cheryl is such a gifted editor, and it was wonderful to work with someone who has such a passion for her work. She really understands story structure, and that focus really worked well for a character-driven story like mine, and we spent a lot of time moving chapters around to keep Reggie's story moving.

Just one example: Cheryl made this wonderful suggestion to move a segment that came in the later part of the book to the beginning, and I think that was a key change that helped Reggie's likeability factor. One of the hardest changes for me to make was the opening. I'd started with an opening sentence back in 2002, and was very much attached to it. I'd also spent a lot of time working on coming up with a *really* gross scenario on the opening pages, and I guess I succeeded; the verdict was that it was just a little too disgusting. But I was tremendously pleased with myself for going there, so it was hard to let that go. :-)

In general, I learned a lot about the importance of getting out of the way of my own work in the revision process. You can fall in love with a line, a passage, a character, and you want the world to know just how clever you are, what literary heights you can achieve (and by 'you', I mean me). I worried a lot about how I would be perceived, what image this book would project. There was a 'deep breath' moment in revising when I had to ask myself if I wanted to use Reggie and the other characters to tell my story, or if I wanted to listen and work faithfully to tell theirs.

Reggie was not an easy character to write. It took me a long time to love him; I spent a lot of time thinking variations of 'what a whiner/punk/irritant' this kid is! I can't believe him!' as I wrote. It was important for me to go back and re-discover his lovable moments, his positive qualities and revise with those things in mind, to add dimension and depth. I can't write without really loving my MC—I may not like them sometimes, and they may do, say, and think things that make me crazy, but they're like family, and I have to love them and want to wade through their lives with them in order to make a story work.

I absolutely loved Reggie, so I don't want to hear any criticism about him, Ms. Gbemi. I admired his commitment to church and to social justice—both of these are rare in fiction for kids, but very much a part of the lives of many young people I know. Any tips or suggestions for other YA/MG authors when it comes to the expression of faith in fiction?

Madeleine L'Engle wrote once that everything an artist does is her witness, we cannot hide what we are. And I think that's true. Whatever you believe, whoever you are will come out in your work. I think it's important to be true to the story—to put the storytelling first, and to be honest. Don't write what you think you *should* write because then false notes are inevitable, I think. Trust, and be willing to take risks, and make mistakes. Remember that it's not only, or even mostly, about you. And if you're a praying sort of person, pray in all of its wonderful forms.

Amen, sister. I'm certain that future writers are going to be quoting *your* pithy remarks in tweets and status updates. Besides Reggie, one of my other favorite things about 8th GRADE SUPERHERO was a great sense of place. What's your connection to the community you describe in Brooklyn?

I've lived in this part of Brooklyn for almost 13 years, and had been wishing I could live there for about 6 years before that! It is a place where I do feel that I can be most myself without worrying if I'm too much of this or too little of that, where I don't *have* to fit in.

It is a wonderfully alive and complex cluster of communities, and what I most enjoy is it's genuine diversity, something that I think is becoming more and more rare in today's America. Gentrification, urban planning, etc. mean that it's by no means always a comfortable diversity, but we are compelled to see each other in different ways and many contexts, and I'm grateful for that. I'm glad that my daughter can see people of all ages, differently-abled adults and children working and playing, hijabs, geles, yarmulkes, Sikh turbans ...that we can easily buy falafel, pierogi and gari.

I'm also aware that it's easy to fall into a trap in a community like this, where you verbally celebrate the 'diversity' while treating each other as though we're all museum exhibits, behind those glass walls—not really engaging with each other. So there's a lot of opportunity here, I have to remind myself to be active and take it.

Sounds like Berkeley. I'm coming to visit for sure. I hear you, though—sometimes my job title feels like "author and museum exhibit,"  but authentic engagement is a great balm. Okay, now I want you to finish the sentence twice, first from an idealistic "literature changes lives" point of view and then give the savvy marketer's take.

(1) idealistic answer:

8th GRADE SUPERZERO will be a successful novel if ...

... first and foremost, that a reader enjoys it, that someone thinks about the book in relation to their own lives, connects with it in some way that helps them think or work through whatever they're thinking about or going through.

My own teen years were some of the richest for me as a reader, I got so many gifts that I'd love to give that back in some way. Books were a place of respite for me during a tough time; they gave me a space to work out who I was, even try on different identities at times. My teen reading years were also a period when I learned to read critically.

I hope that a reader connects with the idea that there are many different kinds of 'heroes', many ways to be an activist—the small things they do matter, and not everything that we say, do, and think needs to be for public consumption or for some sort of recognition. And there is always room for mercy, redemption, and growth. And maybe they read it again. And maybe they write something of their own.

(2) practical answer

8th GRADE SUPERZERO will be a successful novel if ...

... a line of Ruthie's knit hats (a related contest coming up!) in a store near you, a syndicated Superzero TV show and a chocolate-flavoured breakfast cereal that is simultaneously really sweet and super-healthy.

Sign me up for a hat or two—great gift for librarians, eh? Love the British spelling of "flavour!" What's next for Gbemi in the realm of children's books?

More writing that I hope gets published! But more writing, whatever happens. I am working on a YA manuscript about a girl who says to her brother "I wish you were dead" in an argument; he is killed that day. It's an exploration of guilt and grieving, and forgiveness.

I would love so much to write chapter books. I have younger characters who are waiting around in my head for a story, and they're getting really impatient! And I'd started working on a book featuring one of the Superzero characters—Ruthie. So far, she's spending a few weeks in Jamaica for the summer, and her ideas about identity, homeland, and true love are all challenged. We'll see how that goes. And lots of reading. That's always next. Got any recommendations? :-)

They all sound fabulous. Just keep writing. We're eagerly waiting for any and all of the stories you will share. Congratulations on the book and the great reviews and buzz. I'm talking about it anywhere and everywhere with a five-star Fire Escape salute!


More about 8th GRADE SUPERZERO:

review from award-winning author Tanita S. Davis.

A new Q & A online, and a Twitter chat transcript between Gbemi and Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein.

An interview by Ari over at Reading in Color.

Superzero is one of the Best Books of the Month (Best Middle Grade Novel) at Amazon.com.

Order the book RIGHT NOW from your local independent bookseller.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Faces and YA Book Covers: A Proposal

After taking a poll, issuing this call, and listening to various comments here and there, I've come up with three hypotheses about covers for children's and teen books.


Hypothesis #1

It doesn't make much of a difference in sales or circulation when characters of color grace the covers of children's picture books and middle grade novels. 

Why? Perhaps because typically adults buy and borrow these books. Another possibility is that developmentally, children (vs. teens) aren't looking to identify or connect as much with a protagonist and/or to "look cool" with a book. They're more open to books as windows instead of on the hunt for mirrors.

If this is true, let's keep diversity flowing on the covers of picture books and middle grade books and in stories written for all ages. The main problem in our industry are face-adorned covers on YA books.


Hypothesis #2

YA books sell or circulate better among teen guys when they DON'T have faces on the cover.

Several librarians and booksellers weighed in with this input. If you take a look at Amazon's bestsellers in literature and fiction for teens or Indiebound's bestselling children's books, for example, most of the covers don't feature faces. Publishers are successfully targeting readers of both genders with the covers for novels like The Hunger Games and The Percy Jackson books. For more to support this theory, check out the popular books over at the fantastic Guys Read site—few feature covers with faces unless they're celebrity biographies.

If this is true, the tussle when it comes to covers are with books aimed at teen girls—who make up a large portion of the buying and borrowing audience for YA books.

Hypothesis #3

YA books sell or circulate better among all kinds of teen girls when they DON'T have faces on the cover.

Check out the general bestselling teen titles on Amazon.com or the bestselling SciFi/Fantasy books at Indiebound. Not many have full frontal faces.

I understand the call for better representation on the covers of books—kids of color tire of never seeing themselves on books, right? Thankfully, kids grow up these days seeing a rainbow of faces on covers through the picture book and middle-grade book years. By all means, I hope our industry continues and improves this, because through fifth grade, kids tend to have more malleable hearts and minds.

The problem smacks into a reader during the teen years when she starts to see a majority of white faces on YA bestseller shelves. Ari put it well in her open letter to Bloomsbury:
I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color?
But imagine for a minute that the teen shelves have hardly any faces at all on the covers, while the MG and PB sections are well-stocked with stories about kids of color. Would the sting of under-representation dwindle?

I also get the temptation to whitewash covers for the sake of sales, given the results of my poll. But lists of bestsellers show that to draw in teen guys as well as all kinds of girl readers, books without faces sell and circulate in greater numbers. Covers with faces also go out of date sooner because styles and trends in youth culture change quickly. Wouldn't it make better financial sense to omit faces on covers of YA books written by writers of all races?

A rising trend in gaming and social media is the evolution of an avatar or mii, where teens use their imaginations to design a rendition of a protagonist resembling themselves. If books without faces on the cover sell well, why not leave the physical appearance of characters to the imagination of the teen reader in response to an author's skilled writing?

So here's my suggestion:  

For financial AND fairness reasons, the industry should continue to publish and promote more diversity in books but shift away from using faces on the covers of young adult books.  

Responses?

Monday, February 01, 2010

PoC Faces on Book Covers: Poll Results

138 librarians and booksellers responded to my unscientific but informative poll last week, and here are the results:
25% said, "A Kid/YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover is RARELY bought or borrowed by white kids unless I push it."

37% said, "A Kid/YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover  is SOMETIMES bought or borrowed by white kids unless I push it."

38% said, "A Kid/YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover circulates or sells THE SAME as other books, depending on buzz and reviews."
Discouraging at first glance, isn't it?  No wonder people with an eye on the bottom line are tempted to whitewash. But after listening to the conversation, I have several theories, further questions (i.e, do we need fewer or more faces on covers?), and ideas I'll share tomorrow. For now I invite you to leave your thoughts and reactions in the comments.