A Chat with N. H. Senzai, Author of SHOOTING KABUL

Our windows and mirrors mantra here on the Fire Escape certainly holds true when it comes to SHOOTING KABUL (Simon and Schuster / Paula Wiseman Books, June 22, 2010).

N.H. Senzai's  middle-grade novel beautifully illuminates life in war-torn Afghanistan and evokes empathy for those who flee to our country for sanctuary. It's also a quick page-turner for kids who will connect with Fadi's efforts to help his family, handle a complicated older sister, win a dream prize, make friends, and deal with bullies.

The hero of SHOOTING KABUL starts life in the United States as a foreigner, but by the end of the book, young readers will be cheering for Fadi as a good friend.

Today I'm thrilled to host author Naheed Senzai, and invite you to sit back, pour yourself a cup of tea, and enjoy the conversation.

So, tell us, Naheed, where is "home" for you?

I know this will sound a little “cheesy,” but home really is where the heart is! I grew up traveling quite a bit—when I was two months old I got on a plane for the first time and traveled from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area. By four I was on my way to Saudi Arabia and I learned at a young age to travel light—my dad had a rule, if you pack it, you have to carry it!

I soon learned to make a “home” wherever we landed, navigate through a new school, make friends and learn the secrets of my neighborhood. But the true place where I have roots is the Bay Area, which is where I’ve always returned, kind of like a homing pigeon. I love it here—the cultural diversity, my family and friends, the Pacific Ocean, the intellectual curiosity, the cutting edge innovation, the weather, and of course the food!

You're making me miss the Bay Area! I grew up there, too. I'd like to add great indie bookstores and hiking to your list. Okay, next question: Do you think young people want and/or need to read stories set in other places?

The simple answer is YES. Young people today are exposed food, fashion, technology and cultures from around the globe, and I think they’ve developed an appetite for new things. What better way to investigate a new world than to open the pages of a book, slip into the skin of someone “foreign,” and experience their story?

In reading about other places I truly believe that young people learn to see how similar we truly are. At the end of the day what the reader is looking for is an emotional connection with the story, to see something of themselves in characters they’re reading about.

As someone who has had the opportunity to live and travel around the world, I’ve learned firsthand that although people may look, speak or even act differently, their core values are the same—we all want security, access to education and healthcare, employment and a hope for a positive future.

Could you sum up for us the dream response of a reader who knows little or nothing about Afghanistan's history and culture?

For thousands of years, Afghanistan has been a battle­ground for outsiders. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan came with their armies, as did the British and the Soviets. All attempted to conquer and occupy, yet failed. There are lessons to be learned as the United States currently contemplates its role in this war-torn country. It is a land still ravaged by war and ethnic tensions, but despite these facts, Afghans remain a strong and proud people. It is my hope that the reader, having walked in Fadi’s shoes, learns that Fadi and his family are similar to their own; that their hopes, dreams and desires mirror theirs.

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

Truly, my path to publication was filled with many highs and very little lows! I wrote SHOOTING KABUL in short period of time—about six months. The next high was a great attention the book received when my agent, Michael Bourret at Dystel and Goderich, sent it out. We had a mini auction and I had the amazing opportunity to talk to two editors who had fallen in love with my protagonist, Fadi. In the end, after a tough decision, we went with Alexandra Penfold at Simon and Schuster. The editorial journey was wonderful, and fingers crossed, the reviews (even from Kirkus) have been very positive!

That's great news about positive reviews for the book, but not surprising. I loved it. What was the biggest change you made in response to an editorial suggestion?

The editorial process was a truly collaborative one and I really appreciated how Alexandra pulled the best out of me, while allowing space to maintain my voice and keep the book’s integrity. I like to joke that as an undergrad at Cal I was an accounting major and so still don’t know what a dangling participle or a preposition is, so I knelt at Alexandra’s feet and absorbed all the grammatical and language suggestions she suggested.

Alexandra and I had discussed her vision for the book when I had the chance to talk her during the mini auction, so I knew she didn’t have *too* many changes planned. So, little of SHOOTING KABUL was re-written, but much was massaged and exfoliated!

One area that was developed and strengthened was the role of Mariam, Fadi’s little sister who is accidentally left behind in Afghanistan, during their escape. Alexandra felt that the reader would feel much more strongly about her loss if she was a rich, three-dimensional character in her own right. I agreed wholeheartedly to her insight and thus reworked Mariam and her role within the family, and her special relationship with her brother. I wanted her find a place in the reader’s heart so they could empathize with Fadi as he frantically searches for her through the book.

I certainly did. My heart broke with Fadi's. Could you describe a fear you have about this novel that can or did keep you up at night?

I wrote in my author’s note that I didn’t want to write SHOOTING KABUL, really, I didn’t. I resisted it for many years because it deals with many sensitive and personal issues—9-11, the war on terror, Islam, Afghan culture and politics, coupled with my husband’s family history and escape from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Plus, I’m not an Afghan, so I tread carefully and made sure I researched the right answers before folding it into the story, such as the concept of Pukhtunwali, the code of honor that the Pukhtuns live by. So as I began to write it, my biggest fear was to talk about these subjects with as much accuracy as I could. As you can imagine, there is tremendous complexity in explaining things like terrorism, Afghan culture, Islamic practices etc. and I wanted to do it in a nuanced, truthful way that could be understood by young and old alike. I still wake up sometimes thinking I know I’ve offended someone, but hopefully not too much!

I feel the same way about crossing borders to write. It's scary and you feel immensely privileged to tell the story. Okay, here's my last question: What's next for Naheed Senzai in the realm of children's books?

I am working on another book idea that involves politics, a mystery and pakoras, but unfortunately for now, my lips are zipped!

And that's the way it should be. Can't wait to read that one. Thanks so much for chatting with us on the Fire Escape, and congratulations on writing a superb story. May it be devoured by many young readers!

ALA 2010 Twitpic Gala Gallery

I invited people attending the American Library Association's Annual Convention in D.C. to stop by Charlesbridge's booth and be photographed with their own or any book they were excited about. These lovelies took me up on it:

Your pictures and fotos in a slideshow on MySpace, eBay, Facebook or your website!view all pictures of this slideshow

Thanks, everybody! It was fun to meet old and new friends. If you spot yourself, could you leave a comment sharing the book's title and author? Track all my photos from ALA on twitter by searching for hashtag #ala10pic.

Summer Fun: New Harry Potter Trailer

You're Invited: ALA 2010 Twitpic Gala!

I'm going on a bit of a hiatus from the Fire Escape to write. Meanwhile, in a valiant effort to prevent loneliness—been there, done that—during my signing at the American Annual Library Association Convention in DC, I'm hosting an...

••••• ala 2010 twitpic gala! •••••

You're invited! Stop by and I'll post a photo of you on twitter holding *your* favorite ALA book (with hashtag #alatwitpic and your twitter handle). It could be your own hot-off-the-presses release or an oldie but a goodie. If you don't like photos of you, we'll snag a stranger to clutch it. And you don't even have to get a copy of Bamboo People, I promise.

So stop by, be twitpic-ed, schmooze, and say hello at Charlesbridge's Booth #2710 in the Exhibit Halls from 1-3 pm Sunday, June 27. RSVP below or just show up, hold up a book, and ask for the paparazzi.

Blog of Note: Bamboo People in the Blogger Limelight

Nineteen hours ago, I tweeted this:
Didn't I make my book website pretty with @blogger's new template design tools? http://bamboopeople.org
About an hour later, blogger (a Google affiliate which I use as a platform for this blog), obviously on twitter, graciously featured my book site as yesterday's "Blog of Note."

What is a blog of note, anyway? Here's the official description:
Blogs of Note ... waited for its moment, which finally came when an attempt to put a Blog Search box on the Blogger homepage went awry and ended up as Explore Blogs, an overly delightfully-animated look into the most interesting, most recent, and most random blogs on Blogger (plus a search box). Finally, Blogs of Note was given back its spotlight and — so as not to look stale and lame — we kicked it up a notch and started updating it more often, showing off a new noteworthy blog every day.  In the past five years, over seven hundred blogs have appeared on Blogs of Note (at least one of them twice!)
What this means is that two weeks before pub date, I'm getting hundreds of visitors from all over the world to the book's website. Check out my site stats for the last 24 hours:

Does this mean I'm selling books? Probably not. But we're shining a bit more light on the children of Burma, right?

Ms. Porter's Second Grade Library Class versus Barnes and Noble Bookstores

Eight-year-olds can be fierce Davidic champions. For example, second-graders in Concord were mad because they couldn't find my books in most of the chain stores in Massachusetts. I was cc'ed as this letter went out to Barnes and Noble last week, and reprint it here with permission. Thanks, Ms. Porter's class!

June 2nd, 2010

Barnes and Noble Inc
122 Fifth Ave
New York, NY 10011

Dear Madam or Sir,

Mitali Perkins is a very good author. We think other customers would like to read her books. We think many of your customers would like her style of writing. We highly recommend them because her writing is very good. Her books can teach life lessons.

For example, we read one of her books called Rickshaw Girl and we loved it. In Rickshaw Girl, Naima, who is the main character, lives in a time when girls are not allowed to work and she feels that that is not fair. Naima lives in a small poor village in Bangladesh and she can’t afford to go to school at the same time as her sister.

We think it’s a book from which you can learn. It is a “Windows” book about someone else’s experience or a life different for various people. I hope you buy and sell these books so people can learn about India and Bangladesh. This book is a “mirror” for Indian-Americans and we think they should have a chance to read books about their heritage.

So we were surprised when we figured out that most of your bookstores in Massachusetts don’t carry her books. Why do you not carry Mitali Perkins’ books in your bookstore?!  

Is it because you don’t know who Mitali Perkins is? Do you not carry her books because your customers have not asked if you have them? Is it because you don’t know about her books? Or is it because Barnes and Noble doesn’t carry Indian-American books? Do you not carry her books because they are not well-known? Or do you think it is because the customers won’t like them? Is it because your bookstore likes to carry series titles because you will make more money with repeat customers? 

You are a big bookstore. Therefore, we would expect you to carry her books because you have room for different kinds of books. Do you want to carry her books and if you don’t why not? 

Will you please get her books in all your stores sooner rather than later? Please reply and tell us why you don’t have her books in your bookstore.

Yours Sincerely,

Dictated by Ms. Porter’s Second Grade Library class 

Nashoba Brooks School
200 Strawberry Hill Road
Concord, MA 01742


Quite a bit of Bollywood-esque celebratory jiggling going on in my study this morning, thanks to a starred review from Publishers Weekly for my forthcoming novel, Bamboo People. Here's a excerpt of the review:
"... Perkins seamlessly blends cultural, political, religious, and philosophical context into her story, which is distinguished by humor, astute insights into human nature, and memorable characters ... As Chiko and Tu Reh wrestle with prejudices of culture and class, Perkins delivers a graceful exploration of the redemptive power of love, family, and friendship under untenable circumstances."

Faces on Covers: Tanita vs. Me at Hunger Mountain

The new issue of Vermont College's journal, Hunger Mountain, features flipside pieces from author Tanita S. Davis and myself.

Tanita's essay, Reflected Faces, is eloquent and extremely convincing.

I'm not so sure about mine, Teens Do Judge A Book By The Cover, but our shared goal was to get people talking and thinking about the issue. Weigh in with your comments and responses — some good ones are there already.

And don't miss these two articles:

My Speech and Slideshow at BookExpo America Children's Breakfast 2010

If you weren't there, BookExpo Cast has the 2010 Children's Breakfast at Book Expo America in entirety, including the other two speakers, Cory Doctorow and Richard Peck, and the Master of Ceremonies, Sarah Ferguson, but here's just my speech in two parts:

One note — they cut my white doves! Right after describing how angry I felt when I saw the grandson of the man who commandeered our ancestral property, I shared about how two white doves landed on the house. It was a clear symbol of forgiveness and peace that changed my heart, but somehow the video crew blipped through that redemptive moment. Oh, well. Here's the slideshow I showed:

First Reviews of BAMBOO PEOPLE

Here's a roundup of reviews of my forthcoming novel, Bamboo People, including this nice quote from Kirkus Reviews:
While Perkins doesn’t sugarcoat her subject—coming of age in a brutal, fascistic society—this is a gentle story with a lot of heart, suitable for younger readers than the subject matter might suggest. It answers the question, “What is it like to be a child soldier?” clearly, but with hope. 
For new visitors to the Fire Escape, the book releases July 1, and is a Junior Library Guild selection as well as a Summer 2010 Indie Next Pick. Hooray!

Save Five Lives For Burma

In Burma, $50 can save five lives — providing rice, a cooking pot, a machete, a lighter, and a plastic tarp to boys like Tu Reh, Chiko, and their families. 

After reading Bamboo People, if a classroom, scout troop, or book group wants to help, why not raise $50 through a bake sale, car wash, or other brilliant idea and send it to Partners World? After you raise the money and send it, write me (mitaliperk@yahoo.com) and I'll list you here along with other groups who participate.

Children's and YA Books about Refugees and Resettlement Camps

Children around the world seek refuge because of war, famine, persecution, and other horrors. Others are waiting in or forced to move to resettlement camps. Thanks to librarian Analine Johnson of Rodolfo Centeno Elementary School in Laredo, Texas and the child_lit listserv, here's a list of books illuminating their experiences, past and present, categorized by grade levels:

Lower Elementary
  • How Many Days To America? by Eve Bunting
  • So Far From The Sea by Eve Bunting
  • Rebekkah's Journey by Ann Burg
  • Dia's Story Cloth by Dia Cha
  • The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland
  • The Roses In My Carpets by Rukhsana Khan
  • Chachaji's Cup by Uma Krishnaswami
  • The Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai
  • Ziba Came On A Boat by Liz Lofthouse
  • Home and Away by John Marsden
  • Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
  • Passage To Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki
  • The Silence Seeker by Ben Morley
  • Hamzat's Journey by Anthony Robinson
  • Angel Child, Dragon Child by Michele Maria Surat
  • The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida
  • Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams
  • Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen
Upper Elementary
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
  • Christophe's Story by Nikki Cornwell
  • Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman
  • Girl Underground by Morris Gleitzman
  • Lucky Baseball: My Story In A Japanese-American Internment Camp by Suzanne Lieurance
  • A Song for Cambodia by Michelle Lord
  • Lost For Words by Elizabeth Lutzeier
  • Half Spoon of Rice by Icy Smith
  • Brothers In Hope: The Story Of The Lost Boys Of Sudan by Mary Williams
Grades 5-9
  • All The Broken Pieces by Ann Burg
  • Give Me Shelter by Nikki Cornwell
  • The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
  • Mud City by Deborah Ellis
  • Parvana's Journey by Deborah Ellis
  • Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipović
  • Warriors In The Crossfire by Nancy Bo Flood
  • The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez
  • Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse
  • The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho
  • A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata
  • The Storyteller's Beads by Jane Kurtz
  • The Return by Sonia Levitin
  • Goodnight, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian
  • Escaping the Tiger by Laura Manivong
  • Good Night, Maman by Norma Fox Mazer
  • The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson
  • Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino
  • Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins
  • The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
  • Tangled Threads by Peggy Deitz Shea
  • Whispering Cloth by Peggy Deitz Shea
  • Anna is Still Here by Ida Vos
  • Hide and Seek by Ida Vos
  • The Kingdom by the Sea by Robert Westall
  • One Day We Had to Run by Sybella Wilkes
High School
  • Under the Domim Tree by Gila Almagor
  • Two Suns in the Sky by Miriam Bat-Ami
  • Children of the River by Linda Crew
  • Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream by Jay Feldman
  • Libertad by Alma Fullerton
  • No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War by Anita Lobel
  • Gringolandia by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
  • Finikin of the Rock by Marlina Marchetta
  • Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera
  • A Pocket Full of Seeds by Marilyn Sachs
  • Abe in Arms by Pegi Deitz Shea
  • Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, An American Town by Warren St. John
  • Faraway Home by Marilyn Taylor
  • Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
  • Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

Suggestions? Additions? Corrections? Kindly leave them in the comments and I'll make the changes.

Targeted Facebook Ads For Book Launches

With the release date of my forthcoming novel Bamboo People (Charlesbridge) only one month away, I've been tinkering with a Facebook ad that's showing some nice preliminary results. Here are a few steps in my virtual book launch using a combination of Facebook and Blogger:
  • Set up a site via blogger exclusively for the book and registered a domain name (bamboopeople.org). At the site, I provide an educator's guide generated by Charlesbridge, links to more about the situation in Burma, reviews, and options to purchase using Indiebound (gateway to independent bookstores) and GetGlue ("an innovative social recommendation network for movies, books, and music.")
  • Installed a free hidden statcounter code to track hits to the site.
  • Set up a page for Bamboo People on Facebook.
  • Currently playing with an ad on Facebook with a $2/day limit, targeting people who live in the UK and the USA who "like" Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma, Burma Campaign UK, Daw Aung Aan Suu Kyi, Myanmar, Refugee, Refugees, or US Campaign for Burma. I set my pay per click (vs. view) at $.65, within the parameters suggested by Facebook, and linked the ad to my bamboopeople.org website. My click-through rate has been outstanding, and the ad has shown up over 500,000 times in April and May, even with me putting it on pause for days to save money. The week before and after launch, I plan to increase the daily spending limit, add more keywords, and keep an eye on my click-throughs.
    I plan to spend $100-$150 total for this venture, including the registration of the domain name. Anyone else tried a book-related ad on Facebook? What's your experience or advice?

    BAMBOO PEOPLE at Reading is Fundamental

    Carol H. Rasco, the CEO of Reading is Fundamental, graciously hosted me and my novel Bamboo People (Charlesbridge | July 1, 2010) on her blog for Memorial Day.

    "I was transported to Burma and experienced the lives of two child soldiers and their families who are on opposite sides of the conflict there," Carol writes in her introduction to my post. "What an excellent book for all of us adults to read ourselves and then to discuss with children in the upper elementary grades, the target audience for the book."

    Read my RIF guest post here.