A Teenager's Benediction

I had the pleasure of addressing an assembly at Ramona Convent Secondary School this week in Alhambra, California. Natalie, a senior, stood up after my talk and issued this encouraging charge:
It is with great gratitude, Mrs. Perkins, that I say thank you for your time and interest in our school community. May you continue to write and inspire young minds for many years to come.
That's my hope, too, Natalie. From your mouth to God's ear.

Photos courtesy of Valerie M.

You're Invited To A Highlights Founders Workshop

Creating an Authentic Cultural Voice

Putting imagination, experience, empathy, and research to work

Children’s literature celebrates both our shared history and our unique cultures. Join Donna Jo Napoli (Bound) and Mitali Perkins (Bamboo People) as they help us understand the power of writing with a strong cultural voice. Through impeccable research, imagination, empathy, and experience, a true cultural voice can be achieved. Our goal at Highlights is to gather a community of open-minded children’s book authors April 26-29, 2012 who wish to think deeply about:
  • Who has the right to write multiculturally?
  • How do we bring humility to our research?
  • What audience are we writing for?
  • Does the term “multicultural literature” match the needs of today’s book market?
  • How is authentic cultural voice achieved?
This workshop also includes one-on-one manuscript critiques and author-guided writing exercises.

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Workshop Leaders

Mitali Perkins

Mitali was born in Kolkata, India, and immigrated at age seven to the United States with her family. Her award-winning books for young readers include Bamboo People, Monsoon Summer, Rickshaw Girl, Secret Keeper, and the First Daughter books.
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Donna Jo Napoli

Donna Jo Napoli is an award-winning writer of children's fiction, from picture books to young adult novels. She’s won the Golden Kite, the Sydney Taylor, the NJ Reading Association, and the Kentucky Bluegrass awards.
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Southern California Adventures

I'm heading to Ramona Convent School in Alhambra, California tomorrow. Here's the flyer designed by the librarian, Aniko Fekete:

Open Call for Submissions to YA Humor Anthology

photo via p.a.h. and creative commons
I'm privileged to be editing an anthology published by Candlewick Press tentatively called OPEN MIC, a compilation of funny short pieces written by some of today's best YA authors, people who grew up along the margins of race and culture in North America (including Hawaii). One of my dreams has been to introduce one or two fresh, relatively unknown voices in this anthology, so I'm excited to announce that I'm calling for submissions.


It’s easy to see teens exploring boundaries, definitions, and trends in ethnicity and race in standup comedy, sitcoms, and funny short and long films. Meanwhile, many teen novels confronting these topics tend to be serious, reverential, or sad. Humor crosses borders like no other literary device, right? Shared laughter fosters community and provides the freedom to talk about issues that might otherwise cause division or discomfort. It also gets teens reading, and that's what we're aiming for in this book. Our authenticity and humor, hopefully, will inspire teens to talk about their own experiences as they share the book in classrooms, families, and through social media.


Your OPEN MIC contribution could include poignant, deep content as well as laugh-out loud hilarious scenes. You don’t have to focus specifically on racism, but your piece will explore or illuminate coming of age and/or growing up along the margins of race and culture in North America (including Hawaii). Hopefully, it will also be funny.

Your target audience is middle school to early high school, grades 7-9, so keep your protagonists at that age level or above. If your piece is chosen, you'll receive an advance against a small royalty percentage on the sale of the book across formats. As for promotion, along with Candlewick’s usual stellar marketing efforts, we’re going to spread the news like crazy through social media to publicize you and your other work as well.


I'm considering submissions to this open call on a rolling basis until January 15, 2012. Maximum word count is 2500. Send your story or essay (noting word count on the first page) along with a brief introductory cover letter to OPEN MIC, Attn: Mitali Perkins, Candlewick Press, 99 Dover Street, Somerville, MA 02144. Manuscripts will not be returned.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not put your name on the manuscript itself, only on the cover letter. Candlewick will keep the cover letters and number manuscripts to track them. I'm hoping to consider submissions without knowing the identities of the contributors—and I can't wait to read your piece!


How To Write Fiction Without The "Right" Ethnic Credentials

Fiction, lest it morph into memoir, always involves the crossing of borders. We create characters who belong to different classes, genders, and generations. But when it comes to writing stories in our racially-charged  North American setting, we writers hesitate to cross borders of ethnicity.

Yet boldly there we must go, to shatter any kind of artificial, controlling apartheid with rules about who can write for and about whom. Do I give white or black authors the freedom to create brown protagonists? Of course! I want the right to include white and black protagonists in my fiction. I don't want to write only about Bengali-American girls growing up in California — been there, done that. So why should I protest if a topnotch Korean writer features a Bengali-American girl growing up in California and does it astoundingly well?

As with most resounding affirmations, though, there are caveats. My theory is that when we feel we lack an authenticity credential in our idea for a story, we must compensate with three powerful tools: imagination + empathy + research.

Read widely, writers. In this case, our imagination is best fed by reading the works of writers who are different than we are. When is the last time we finished a novel written by an author of a different race or ethnicity than ours?
Tread carefully, writers. If a particular community is processing a shared experience of suffering through the healing power of story, maybe it's time for our "outsider" version to wait. When we have more power in society than our protagonist, it's always good to ask whether to speak on his or her behalf. If we still feel compelled by the story, we must lean heavily on the gift of imaginative empathy. Always, love deeply within that community and listen well. Someone once said that to cross a border of power to tell a story, a writer better live there first, shut up, and hold a bunch of babies.
Study diligently, writers. Authenticity rings in the details of story. Dialogue and nonverbal gestures and postures come instinctively to insiders; outsiders must become A+ students of cultures not our own. Books, visits, interviews, academic journals, photographs, videos, movies ... each border-crossing novel should generate a bibliography, and feel as intense as a thesis when it comes to mastering the details.
The bottom line is that even if we've covered the bases of imagination, empathy, and research, we'll still make mistakes. But so what? Nobody, insider or outsider, has ever written a novel without something cringe-worthy in it—even if the author's the only one who notices it. All we can do is swallow our pride, admit to and learn from errors, and keep pressing on in the good work of storytelling.

Fresh Ink: How One Indie Bookseller Gets Teens And Tweens Reading

Tonight I'm heading to Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Ma, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of an innovative program called Fresh Ink. Last year, the indie bookseller sent out this invitation to the community:
Want to be the first one to read new and upcoming books BEFORE anyone else? Introducing a new program at Porter Square Books called FRESH INK that allows young people between the ages of 7-17 to read books BEFORE they are published. How do we do this? Publishers send us early copies of books months ahead of publication to help us decide which books we want to carry on our shelves. These early books are called Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) and unfortunately for us, we just don't have time to read everything. So we're asking for your help.
FIVE HUNDRED reviews later, the store is throwing a party, and rightfully so, don't you think? Here's the schedule of events starting at 7 o'clock in the evening:
  • Carter Hasegawa, bookseller and erstwhile Candlewick guy, is giving an introduction.
  • Three Fresh Ink reviewers will discuss writing reviews: Jenna, age 15, Ty, age 8, and Allison, age 11.
  • Anne DeCourcey, sales rep from HarperCollins, will share why publishers value reviewers.
  • Three guest authors will discuss memorable reviews or how reviews have impacted their work:
  1. Sheela Chari, author of VANISHED (Hyperion, Aug 2011)
  2. Karsten Knight, author of WILDEFIRE (Simon and Schuster, July 2011)
  3. Mitali Perkins,  author of BAMBOO PEOPLE (Charlesbridge, July 2010)
Doesn't this sound like the perfect event to demonstrate the power of an independent bookseller? I'll be taking photos, so stay tuned for an update. And if you're in the area, please stop by and introduce yourself.

books + teachers + tech + teens = awesome

step one: books

BAMBOO PEOPLE is assigned as required summer reading for all entering freshmen and sophomores—over 200 students at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas.

step two: teachers

Educators in World Geography, Biology, English, Technology, and Math develop an interdisciplinary unit to teach the book.

step three: tech

Google alerts me about their plan and I contact the tech teacher, Mitzi Moore, to offer a free skype visit. The teachers and students prepare thoroughly and we have two virtual Q and A sessions.

Photo courtesy of sophomore Jon Ontiveros
step four: teens

Some of the students find me on twitter and we exchange tweets about the experience. Others follow up on Facebook.

A few years ago, we couldn't have dreamed of this kind of virtual village gathering around fiction. What's next, I wonder? Live chats with an author as we read a digital book? An online fan community co-creating gaming experiences or films to extend a novel? Your guess is as good as mine, but one thing's for sure — it still starts with story, and that's never going to change.

Back to Work: Reclaiming the Vocation

I've taken a bit of a break from my full-time work of writing books for young readers to launch our twins to college. Now that they're there and I'm back in an empty nest, I've been entertaining crazy thoughts of reinventing myself (and our bank account) with a new vocation.

Maybe I should "get a real job" as a social media guru, exploiting my twitter and facebook skills to help pay for tuition. Or I could be doing something that "makes a difference" by working for a nonprofit to battle hunger or illiteracy.

That's when I have to remind myself of a truth I've claimed and declaimed since I started in this line of work: stories can and do change the world by widening the hearts and minds of young people.

I spoke about this very topic at the Highlights Foundation Chautauqua Writers Workshop in July. And now my hypothesis has some research to back it up:
Researchers have measured the impact of reading fiction, and find that it "improves empathy" in young people.

So guess what? I'm heading back to my real job—writing children's and teen books. It's good to be home.