A Chat With Jessica Leader, Author of NICE AND MEAN

I've been challenging my author friends—and myself—to take risks in crossing borders of class and race in fiction, but to do it wisely and carefully, respecting the inherent power of storytelling. It's lovely to find an example or two to showcase, like NICE AND MEAN, one of my favorite middle-school reads of 2010.

Sparkling with creativity and humor, this tween novel features two protagonists, Marina ("Mean") and Sachi ("Nice"), who is Indian-American. A pet peeve of mine is the insertion of a nonwhite character into a story whose sole purpose is to serve as a sinless foil for a main white character.  Sachi, in contrast, is a flawed but sympathetic middle-schooler. Author Jessica Leader gives her a first-person voice that's funny and true, and pays attention to cultural details as she invites us into Sachi's home. I asked Jessica to chat with us on the Fire Escape, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the conversation.

Briefly describe Jessica in middle school. Were you more like Sachi or Marina?

I must admit that there are times when I feel like I am still in middle school. As for the official 5th-8th-grade years, I would say I had elements of both Sachi and Marina. Like Sachi, I often felt completely different from the so-called popular kids. What was the coolness they saw in each other? Why did they all have such good hair? Like Marina, I sometimes felt frustrated with what I saw as my friends’ shortcomings and I may have tried to let them know it, just occasionally. Never with a nasty video, though!

One scene in the book made me squirm with old memories. I would have been *mortified* and *mad* (like Sachi was) if one of my born-in-the-USA classmates had come over while we were eating dinner as a family and my parents and I had to eat with our hands in front of her. Did you have good friends who were Indian? What kind of cross-cultural "research" did it take to write Sachi's character and family?

I’m glad that scene resonated, because I did a lot of research to make the Sachi-at-Home scenes ring true. At first, I read books and articles and eavesdropped on my Indian-American students. As the publication date got closer, I realized I needed more thorough verification and made connections with acquaintances who were willing to read the manuscript. They were very insightful about what rang true and what didn’t, and I’m still grateful for their help.

It’s funny that you mention the eating part. I actually didn’t know until late in the process that some Indian families ate with their hands, but I revised to put that in, because it opened up so many possibilities for deep emotion. I could just imagine how tough that would be for Sachi to do that with Marina looking on—on one hand, not wanting to feel ashamed for being different; on the other, knowing that Marina is not exactly the poster-child for cross-cultural understanding.

Your book made me want to take a class on making film! Have you ever made a video like the one you described?

Wow, you spotted my research topics a mile away! You must be some kind of writer or something.

Sachi and Marina are way more experienced at video-making than I am. I don’t think I’ve even used editing software! But I do have two friends who have taught video to middle-schoolers, and they helped me out with the details. One did so indirectly—I snooped around his classroom—and another read the video portions of the novel and corrected my errors. That included, “Jess, you keep saying that things are ‘offstage,’ but I think you mean, ‘offscreen.’” I wrote plays before I wrote novels, so I guess I had defaulted to theatre jargon.

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

What kicks the action for Sachi is that she wants so badly to take Video Elective that she goes behind her parents’ backs. In my earlier drafts, Sachi didn’t have any big plans for her video; she was going to wait until she got a partner to decide together. (This stands in stark contrast to her partner Marina, who begins the first class with a plot, a title, and props.)

My editor pointed out that Sachi should know what she wants to say with her video. After all, she’s willing to lie to her parents, so she must have some specific goals. I figured out that Sachi would want to do something like last year’s video winners did—a video that challenged her classmates to think about the racial divisions in her school. When I realized this about her, it gave me more momentum for her character, and more of a chance for readers to say, “Holy Bleep!” when Marina comes along with her plan to spoof a fashion TV show.

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

Low point: no specific point that I can think of; just the years of rejection, wondering if I’d ever know how to make it all work and who would point me out of the woods.

The high point, aside from learning that the book was going to be published, was learning that it would appear on the Summer IndieNext List, which is how independent bookstores recommend books to each other and their customers. I’d done so much work to self-publicize, and here was a bit of publicity that seemed to have legs of its own. Plus, I love indie bookstores, so it was a thrill to get their endorsement.

What's next for Jessica in the world of Kid/YA books?

You can read excerpts of what I hope will be my next middle-grade novel, NOT THAT GIRL, in the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Sunday serial series, published this past August. So Dickenzian, no? However, readers will be relieved to note that I am not being paid by the word. The story, about an eighth-grader whose life starts to crumble when she gets her first boyfriend, is, I hope, as zippy as NICE AND MEAN.

Thanks so much, Jessica, for spending time on the Fire Escape. So glad you're taking risks in writing fiction for tweens! Looking forward to NOT THAT GIRL. (Note: A former teacher, Jessica's available for author visits, including Skype visits. Contact her for more information.)

Selling Color in a White World

Please answer this call from Elizabeth Bluemle, bookseller and blogger at Publishers Weekly, for input on how to "sell color in a white world."
At the New England Independent Booksellers Association trade show next week, the Children’s Bookselling Advisory Council is holding a panel discussion on this topic. I’d love for booksellers, authors, publishers and editors, sales reps and publicists to attend and share their successful strategies for getting past reluctant or stymied gatekeepers and reaching across color lines to share wonderful, diverse books with kids. I’ll be posting a follow-up in ShelfTalker after the panel. Here’s the description:
Friday, October 1, 10:15-11:45 am
Multicultural Kids Books: Selling Color in a White World
We all want to support and sell wonderful multicultural books, but many of us live in areas with fairly homogenous populations. How do we get past unconscious color barriers, both our own and our customers’, and put great books featuring characters of all colors in the hands of children? Participants will leave with helpful resources, including sample booktalks, tips for successful conversations with hesitant customers, resources for meeting the needs of multiracial families in your neighborhood, a list of helpful websites, and an annotated bibliography of great multicultural books by age. Panelists will include bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle (The Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, Vt.), author Mitali Perkins, Stacy Whitman (Editorial Director of Tu Publishing), and Karen Lotz (President and Publisher of Candlewick Press).

Reprise: Should We Bowdlerize Classic Children's Books For Racism?

When classic children's books strike us as racist today, Philip Nel raises an interesting question. Even if we amend them to tone down the racism, do we "simply dress up racial and colonial ideologies in different costumes?"

Nel says that if we answer affirmatively, we face a choice:
(1) Discourage children from reading them.
(2) Permit children to read only the bowdlerized versions.
(3) Allow children to read any version, original or bowdlerized.
I took a poll about this issue last summer, so I thought I'd re-post my findings given the resurgence of this issue, raised today by Nel and by Monica Edinger.

I asked visitors to the Fire Escape when, if ever, it would be okay to update a classic children's book to reflect changing mores about race. The results (152 votes) were almost equally split between those who thought some changes might be in order, while the rest arguing that a book must stand as is.
Slightly more than half of you (83 votes, or 54%) said never.

Among those who felt it might be worth it to change a classic book, we see a strong belief that an author alone retains the right to change the story. Fifty-nine voters (38%) thought it would be appropriate to update if the author were still alive and wanted the changes.

Twenty-eight (18%) thought it would be permissible to revise a classic children's book if the publisher included a note in the re-issue explaining the reasoning behind the change.

Fifteen of you (9%) thought it would be okay to update if the changes made were incidental rather than integral to the plot, and fifteen (9%) more were amenable if the copyright holder (a descendant) were still alive and authorized the changes.
Where do I weigh in? I was in the "let the author do it" camp until this discussion, because I made changes to one of my own books. But I'm surprised to find myself shifting into the "never" camp, albeit cautiously.

It's worth a read through the comments to understand the "never" camp's arguments. Part is aimed at those of us who write, because all authorial cheeks burn while re-reading our earlier work. Do we have the guts to let mistakes stand, own them, and even discuss them publicly as part of our call to mentor the next generation of storytellers? Maybe a "what I wish I could change" or "using my book as discussion" section should be a standard feature of an author's website (featuring those books out of print, for those earning our rice from writing.) No matter how much an author wants to retain control over a story, once it begins the dialectical dance with a reader, it's out of our hands. Our primary job is to focus on telling the next story while we have breath.

The remaining bits of the "never" argument boil down to a call to shepherd a child through books from the past so that she can enjoy and learn from them. That's what I attempted as teacher and parent. But did I succeed? I'm not sure. No matter how large or small an adult gatekeeper looms in the background, ultimately the meaning and message stays between a particular child and that story.

Here's where the caution comes in. Keeping my eye on the margins, I have to re-post the video "A Girl Like Me," a 7-minute exploration of girls and skin color written and directed by a sixteen-year-old filmmaker, Kiri Davis, and produced by Media Matters. As you watch, remember that the children choosing the dolls aren't much older than six or seven. They live in supportive communities in Los Angeles, California. How did they already internalize the message "dark skin = bad" and "light skin = good?"

Creators and packagers of children's stories, whether in film or in print, must strive to be aware of the messages we're endorsing consciously and subconsciously. Nobody wants to be didactic these days, but all stories are laced with values. It's the nature of the beast.

(Postcript about Babar: In Alison Lurie's December 16, 2004 article in The New York Review of Books, The Royal Family, she wrote that "Laurent de Brunhoff has regretted his early drawings of African 'savages'; he decided years ago that Babar's Picnic will never be reprinted.")

Second Prize Fire Escape Poetry Contest 2010

I'm delighted to present the second prize winner in the Fire Escape's Eighth Annual Poetry Contest for teens between cultures, MISMATCHED SOCKS, by Lucia, born in China.

"The hardest thing about balancing two cultures is...well...dealing with the fact that they can't be balanced," says Lucia. "The scale is always tipping one way or the other as you try to satisfy both cultures' vastly different customs and beliefs. But being thrown about as the scale goes topsy turvy is also one of the most exciting things about being an immigrant. That, and the food of course."

It can feel like a roller-coaster ride, Lucia, and I certainly agree with you about the food. Enjoy her poignant poem, Fire Escape visitors.
Mismatched Socks
by Lucia, China/USA Age 16

Two socks.
Two worlds.
Estranged by an ocean,
Brought together under the same untainted sky.

I pull both socks on,
An eruption of yellow stars circling my left ankle,
A wave of white ones crashing at my right toe.
No longer garish and clashing,
But two dynamic complements,
Each augmenting the other.

I am a rope,
Not flimsy and single-stranded,
But comprised of two fibers
Intertwined tightly
In an unbreakable helix.

I am a bowl of zesty soup,
Not homogenous and bland,
But composed of a medley of exotic flavors
Intermingling in a delectable mélange.

I am a pair of mismatched socks,
Remarkably interlocked like Yin and Yang,
With differences spanning half a world,
Yet one cannot exist without the other.
Please leave comments for the poet below, and you may enjoy past poetry winners here.  For example, read the first prize entry, CITY IN THE EAST AND CITY IN THE WEST, written by Mirette, who was born in Egypt.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Yvonne via Creative Commons.

Brooklyn Book Festival 2010 ... with an NYPL Postscript

I was invited to present on a panel at Brooklyn Book Festival 2010, so I traveled to New York after a lovely couple of days in Lititz, PA. I promised to take you along, so here we go ...

Brooklyn Borough Hall. The place to to be on 9/12/10.
Rain does not daunt book-loving diehards.
Indie bookseller WORD Brooklyn was having a blast. Can't you tell? (L to R: Stephanie Anderson, Christine Onorati, Jenn Northington)
Susanna Reich, Mikki Knudsen, and Rebecca Stead chatting in the PEN booth during a podcasted series of conversations.
Susanna Reich (PAINTING THE WILD FRONTIER), Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (8TH GRADE SUPERZERO), and me after chatting about social justice, faith, and fiction in the PEN booth. Podcast coming soon.

What kind of sorry writer stalks and snaps a photo of an innocent reader browsing her book? I have no idea.
Nervously, I watched bestselling authors Kirsten Miller (moderator), Jenny Han, Sara Shepard, and Lauren Oliver during their panel, Happily Ever After. According to the Festival guide, their books feature "characters who are forced to relive their past and come to terms with haunting memories after committing terrible acts." I listened spellbound along with a packed crowd.
Time for our panel. Does everybody else look as nervous as I feel? Here's the official description: Making It. Mitali Perkins (Bamboo People), Francisco X. Stork (The Last Summer of the Death Warriors), and Kate Milford (The Boneshaker) bring tales of their characters’ extreme survival to the stage, from a teen soldier in Burma to an orphanage in Mexico to a girl in 1913 Missouri, who finds herself in the middle of a battle between good and evil. Moderated by Anjali Wason (Body Talk).
Big smiles after the panel. All went well.
The following morning I had a quick breakfast with the one and only Jennifer Hart, VP of HarperPerennial and fellow Lovelace aficionado. Next I met with Lee and Low, including staffers Hannah and Miriam (above), to talk all things social media and multicultural books.
With a couple of hours until my train back to Boston, where else to go but back to the library of my childhood? "Still love you after all these years, @NYPL," I tweeted, attaching this picture. The venerable institution kindly and promptly retweeted it, adding a "Thanks for the shout-out. Nice pic!"
Librarian Betsy Bird shows off the leather-bound book signed by Kid/YA authors who have meandered into the children's room. I also paid a quick visit to the original (stuffed) Pooh and company cherished by Milne's son, encased beyond Betsy's shoulder.
I didn't notice the building much when I was a kid. This quote by Milton was one of the many beautiful sights to mesmerize my middle-aged eyes, along with the painted ceiling visible through the window surrounding it.
Last but not least, I said hello to the Gutenberg Bible, Pooh's library mate on the third floor of the NYPL, and then raced to Penn Station to catch my train. (Wish I could show you a picture of LeBron James, but was too stunned to snap one as he sauntered off the Acela while I was waiting to board.)

Thanks, New York! And here's a bonus: a clip of Francisco X. Stork reading an excerpt of his newest novel. Enjoy.

Lititz Kid Lit Festival 2010

A thousand thanks to the incomparable indie bookseller Aaron's Books and the town of Lititz, Pennsylvania, including the fabulous Lititz Bed and Breakfast, for a weekend of hospitality and just plain fun. Here are some highlights:
Pennsylvanians must read their papers because many came in response to this article that ran last week in the Lancaster Times.
The warm and welcoming children's area in Aaron's Bookstore.
Cyn Balog, Holly Huxter, Josh Berk, Bookseller Sam Droke-Dickinson, and Laurel Snyder are ready for Lilitz-ians on the day of the Festival.
This lovely lady made my day. She picked up SECRET KEEPER and loved it so much that she raced through all of my books in a week. "I have piles of laundry in my house," she confessed. "I couldn't stop reading."

Author events are definitely not all work. The play started with the contents of a gift bag waiting at the lovely Lititz Bed and Breakfast (highly recommended, by the way).
Oddly, all weekend long, I kept hoping to run into Matthew Cuthbert. Irrational, I know. I wasn't in PEI. But I was in a rural area abounding with hospitality for the alien and the stranger. That's why I was delighted to find this on my door.
No matter where I travel, I like to find a quiet place to walk in the mornings. Lititz did not disappoint.
The walk was needed, because this chocolatier prepared to fatten me and other visitors at the famous Wilbur Chocolate Factory.
We also visited the oldest girls' school in the USA, Linden Hall School, where an astute audience of teens and adults interacted with Josh Berk, Laurel Snyder, and myself in a discussion about diversity in children's books. Last but not least, I gave a brief keynote at a dinner fundraiser for the local chapter of Reach Out and Read at the General Sutter Inn. Altogether fun and inspiring. Tomorrow I'll post  highlights of the Brooklyn Book Festival, so stay tuned ...

The Little Indie That Could

“I love your work!  I only wish I had more African American students so that I could use your books.”

"HUH?" asks NYT bestselling author Nikki Grimes in the current issue of Hunger Mountain, and many of us echo her incredulous response.

As an antidote to discouraging words from such gatekeepers, may I present—TA DA!—Aaron's Books Lititz 2010 Kid Lit Festival.

2010 Lititz Kid-Lit Festival
Focuses on Diversity in Children’s Literature

If you traveled to the small town of Lititz, Pennsylvania, you'd probably notice that it's not quite a hotbed of ethnic diversity. As you strolled down South Broad Street, though, you'd discover one indie bookseller who's passionate about offering all kinds of books to the community.

Sam Droke-Dickinson contacted me months ago to see if I was available, she's paying my train ticket and has booked me a room at the supportive Lititz Bed and Breakfast, and best of all, she's been championing my books all year.

I treasure my lovely and growing collection of booksellers and librarians like Sam. There's nothing like one of those to encourage a brown writer's heart.

Here's the full schedule of events at the 2010 Lititz Kid Lit Festival:

Friday, September 10, 6-8 pm

Local author night book signings
Amy Ignatow
Chryssa Smith
Sandy Swann and Susan McKain
Ruth Zavitsanos

Saturday, Sept 11

10-11 am
Story-time with picture book authors and illustrators introduced by Mother Goose
Laurel Snyder
Amy Wummer
Kerry McGuinness Royer
Matt Royer

12:30 - 2:30 pm
Group Book Signings
“Books on Broad,” an outdoor book signing with some of the best authors writing for kids! (Located in front of Aaron’s Books and Dosie Dough)
Cyn Balog
Josh Berk
Mitali Perkins
Laurel Snyder
Holly Nicole Hoxter
Suzanne Supplee
Amy Wummer

3-5 pm
Panel discussion “Diversity in Children’s Literature," Linden Hall, Snavely Family Theater
Mitali Perkins
Laurel Snyder
Josh Berk

6-8 pm

In keeping with the theme of "Books Open Worlds" we are hosting an author dinner and silent auction to raise funds to benefit the Lancaster County Reach Out and Read Coalition, which distributes about 10,000 books each year to children throughout the county. Authors will rotate amongst tables of guests through a 4 course dinner. Keynote speaker, Mitali Perkins, will speak briefly about the importance of diversity in children's literature and providing good books to children. A silent auction with a variety of donated items will also be taking place.

Authors attending include: Mitali Perkins, Laurel Snyder,Amy Wummer, Eric Wight, Josh Berk, Cyn Balog, Holly Nicole Hoxter, A.S. King

Sunday, Sept. 12, 12-3
Seminar “Writing and Editing Techniques,” with author Vicky Burkholder. At the conclusion of the one-hour seminar, Vicky will meet one on one with aspiring authors and provide a 15-minute critique. Interested writers should include a three page sample in a text document with their RSVP to sales@aaronsbooksonline.com.

A Dozen Great Multicultural Blogs

I follow some great blogs, as you can see by the list in my sidebar, but here are a few that focus specifically on ethnic and cultural diversity in the Kid/YA book world.
Are there others you would add to this list? Please leave them in the comments.