Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shattering the Multicultural Myth of the Market. Let's go.

"A young adult book featuring a protagonist who isn't of European descent will never become a bestseller."

"The majority of readers won't read a young adult novel featuring a protagonist who isn't of European descent."

We imagine these kinds of comments, spoken or unspoken, governing the publishing industry. In our guts, we know they're not true. We gripe about this issue. We try to disprove such claims through social media and conferences, panels and articles, speeches and radio shows. Unfortunately, nothing so far has resulted in such a young adult novel breaking through into widespread success.

The truth is that, for all of our good intentions, publishing is a for-profit industry.

Money changes minds.

"Adults don't read books for young readers." Harry Potter shattered that one, didn't it?

"Boys don't read girl books." Along came Suzanne Collins with Katniss, and middle-aged men were tearing through The Hunger Games trilogy.

Yesterday I tweeted this:
I got several suggestions including books like Joseph Bruchac's Killer of Enemies, The Living by Matt De La Peña, Fake ID by Lamar Giles, and Prophecy by Ellen Oh.

But Ellen raised a good question:
I do think that film can take a book to the next level, but it must achieve some widespread market success before moviemakers begin to pay attention. There are two necessities to achieve this kind of success.

First, storytellers — RISE UP! Write a great story that rings with authenticity featuring a protagonist we love who is not of European descent (I know the label stinks, but you get my drift.) It must be a page-turner. It must knock our story-hungry socks off.  By the last page, not only are we are ready to read it again,  we are reaching into our wallets to pre-order the sequel. We are tweeting, texting, status-ing, and insta-ing that book until our friends are convinced they must buy it right now or their quality of life will diminish.

I may complain about the market and choose to blame my lack of breakthrough success on the r-word, but let's get real—I need to write an AMAZING STORY. Once I've achieved this (and the veracity of such a claim has been thoroughly verified by countless words and reviews of readers who don't know me), I might be able to question why it didn't become a blockbuster.

I know that one part of us believes our mothers and thinks our books are beyond incredible, but another part says, "Maybe it was good, but get better, get better." Let's listen to that—time is short.

Second, readers, be on the hunt for such a story. In the old days, we relied solely on publishing houses to put publicity and marketing big bucks behind fiction. These days, social media and virality are increasingly key to launching a novel into bestseller status, which feels like the collective "we" have a bit more power.  How can we use that power to get behind a title? Maybe we can add our small voice of influence to help it sell like crazy.

Who is likely to discover a young adult novel with blockbuster potential featuring culturally marginalized protagonists (gosh, I hate race labels—what do you think of that one)? I trust indie booksellers and librarians. That's why I tune into their voices on twitter (feel free to follow my lists of 197 booksellers and 359 librarians.) If booksellers like Elizabeth Bluemle and librarians like Betsy Bird, champions of "add-your-own-label-here" books for years, don't discover this myth-shattering story, nobody will.

I believe that changing the market can and will happen. And when it does, I promise you I'll say I told you so.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It’s Just Fiction: Reading and Writing about Race, Culture, and Power

At the recent Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI, I had to tweak a presentation I've given over the past several years. A previous version focused on empowering writers with questions related to race, culture, and power to ask of ourselves and our stories. The Festival brings together writers and readers, so I presented "Ten Tips To See
 'Below the Waterline' of Stories," hoping that they might be useful while reading another person's story as well as in the revision of one's own work.

My goal is for us to SEE themes related to race, culture, and power with our conscious minds. Fiction is powerful, as propagandists know, and a "single story" of a group of people (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently argued) transmitted "below the waterline" can be dangerous.


1. Look for an older magical negro or noble savage.

2. Notice a smart/good peer from a marginalized group who serves as a foil for a flawed hero. 

3. Check the cover or illustrations for misrepresentations of exoticization or whitewashing.

4. Ask when and how race is defined, if at all.

5. Notice if the setting, plot, and characters are in charge of the casting (because they must be.)

6. Pay attention to how beauty is defined (i.e, straight, silky hair; big, wide eyes, etc.)

7. Check for a “single story" that identifies a community or person on the margins of power.

8. Notice the presence of bridge characters.

9. Ask who has the power to bring about change and who has the power to be changed.

10. Question the storyteller’s (your) authenticity, privilege, and power, but not for the purposes of setting up an arbitrary apartheid system about who can tell the story.

For me, none of these lead to a deal-breaker when it comes to a book. In fact, I hate censorship.  I want to encourage us to see the powerful act of storytelling through slightly different eyes. It's helpful to consider the perspective from the margins, and to comprehend that the privilege of power (whether derived from class, nationality, education, accent, ethnicity, etc.) often enables us not to see.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Device-Free Day. You In?

I returned from the inspiring Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College yesterday to this tweet from Elizabeth Law, reader and editor extraordinaire:
If I could blush, I would have.

In an age of digital hullabaloo, one of my life goals is to avoid screens and plugs from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. Apparently, I've discoursed about that publicly. The problem was that I was reading the tweet first thing Sunday morning.

At the Festival, I was reminded again that maintaining a 24/7 digital connection can suck the storytelling right out of you. Creative work flourishes with the age-old practice of a weekly day of rest, during which we enjoy a five-senses attentive delight in the present.

That's why I am going to renew my device-free habit from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday.

But this time, I don't want to do it just for me and my stories. I want to invite you into this practice with me (not exactly with my rules and schedule—feel free to make up your own), so that many, many good stories might emerge.

Join me in taking a one-day-a-week break from email, social media, and internet browsing, and/or refraining from screens and plugs altogether. During our digital break, let's rest, play, and be present in our places with our people. Let the stories come!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Hey, Grand Rapids! Is Spring There Yet?
Next week (April 10-14, 2014), I'm delighted to be participating in the Festival of Faith and Writing, "the biennial writing festival at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, celebrating matters of faith."

I'll be presenting a solo talk called "It's Just Fiction: Reading and Writing about Race, Culture, and Power," and am participating in a panel discussion on YA fiction with Swathi Avasti and Pam Muñoz Ryan. I'm also sitting on a panel focusing on writing and social justice with Uwem Akpan, a writer of fiction and Jesuit priest serving in Nigeria, and playwright Ashley Lucas. The framing question will be something like this: "To what extent can—or should—art serve to shine a light on injustice?"

Other Kid/YA book folks will be presenting at the Festival, including Gene Luen Yang (keynoting), Ron Koertge, Michele Wood, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Cowdrey, and Deborah Heiligman. Literary luminaries who write for adults, including Anne Lamott, James McBride, Miroslav Wolf, will also be there. Follow the Festival on twitter with this hashtag: #ffwgr, and here's the schedule of events and full list of speakers.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Introducing OPEN MIC contributor Francisco X. Stork

YA Author Francisco X. Stork
I'm delighted to continue to showcase the nine authors who collaborated with me on OPEN MIC: RIFFS ON LIFE BETWEEN CULTURES IN TEN VOICES (published by Candlewick Press). Today I'm featuring the brilliant Francisco X. Stork, author of the piece called "Brotherly Love," a fictional look at the limits of traditional Latino masculinity.

VOYA had this to say about our book and, more specifically, about Francisco's piece:
"... Perkins organizes the stories wisely in this collection that hopes to put a humorous spin on a topical, deeply uncomfortable subject: Race. ... In Francisco X. Stork's "Brotherly Love," siblings Luis and Rosalinda have a revealing conversation about their brother Bernie. These tales in particular dance between humor and heartache, ending on notes of triumph as we look toward a hopeful future. ..."
Here are the opening paragraphs from his short story in OPEN MIC, which tell so much about the close bonds Luis has with his siblings and his relationship with their father:
The day I talked to my sister started out as an ordinary Sunday. Papá‎ began yellign at us to get ready two hours before we needed to leave for church. I know Rosalinda would be staying home because I had heard her battle with Papá‎ earlier that morning. Once a month, Papá‎ reluctantly agreed to let Rosalinda stay home on account of "problemas de mujer."
"Luis, let's go!" I heard Papá‎ yell all the way from his room. I covered my face with my pillow.
"You all right?" Bernie was standing over my bed. He had a worried look on his face. He and I had shared a room since forever. "You haven't been yourself lately. Is everything okay?"
Francisco's award-winning books include The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, Marcelo in the Real World, Behind the Eyes, Way of the Jaguar, and Irises. He works in Boston as a lawyer for a state agency that develops affordable housing. Francisco was born in Monterrey, Mexico, to Ruth Arguelles, a single mother from a middle-class family in Tampico, a city on the Gulf of Mexico. Find out more about this critically-acclaimed author and his work here.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Wisconsin, Here I Come

On Tuesday, April 8, I'm honored to offer the keynote at this year's conference on multicultural literature at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Come and join us if you're nearby.

Tuesday April 8, 2014
- at -
the Collaborative Learning Studio,
UW-La Crosse Murphy Library, second floor.
- Presentations at -
12:30 - 2:00 pm and 4:00 - 5:30 pm
The program is free of charge, and participants may attend either of two presentations.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

KQED Hosts a Panel on Children's Literature and People of Color

On Monday, I was honored to be part of a group invited by KQED Forum to speak on the radio about the Cooperative Children's Book Center's (CCBC) 2013 findings on diversity in children's literature. I joined host Mina Kim, Nina Lindsay, children's librarian at Oakland Public Library, and illustrator LeUyen Pham in the studio. K.T. Horning of the CCBC provided a pre-recorded introduction, and Christopher Myers, whose recent New York Times article, "The Apartheid of Children's Literature," precipitated the public interest, joined us live from Brooklyn.

Let me offer some thoughts on live radio. First, it moves fastthe hour barreled by. Second, a good host must be excellent at multi-tasking; it was fascinating to watch Mina's brain and body move in marvelous synchronicity as she steered the conversation. Three, you can't edit your words.

I said things with which I generally agree but left wishing I could have tweaked a sentence or two. For example, I wish I could clarify that I encourage authors to hold back from writing main characters from historically marginalized communities if we didn't grow up in those communities. And that I invite us to hold back only to ask tough, self-reflective questions about the reasons to write that story—as all powerful storytellers must when writing about less powerful children—but that I see no hard and fast rule about who can write for whom.

Afterwards, to celebrate that it was all done, LeUyen and I partied with Big Bird, and I schmoozed with the aristocrats of Downton Abbey.

Here's the show, or you may listen below if you'd like.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Introducing OPEN MIC Contributor Debbie Rigaud

Debbie Rigaud, as pictured in Redbook Magazine
I'm delighted to showcase the nine authors who collaborated with me on OPEN MIC: RIFFS ON LIFE BETWEEN CULTURES IN TEN VOICES (published by Candlewick Press). Today I'm featuring the winner of an open call for contributors, where we sought entries far and wide for the anthology. Debbie Rigaud's "Voilà" won that contest. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer had this to say about our book and, more specifically, about Debbie's piece:
"... Open Mic is not a collection of spoken-word poetry, as you might expect, but it is every bit as spirited as a live performance. Ten YA authors contributed fiction and nonfiction pieces that depict slices of life as a racial minority in America, and their stories are funny, touching, and inventive by turns ... 'Voilà,' Debbie Rigaud's short story about a Haitian American girl taking her grandmother to the "ghetto doctor" (and the tiresome white teenagers who are there as volunteers) is rendered in beautiful language and tender sentiment..."
Here are the opening paragraphs from her short story in OPEN MIC, which make us fall in love with both Ma Tante and the main character:
...When I was little, my great-aunt Ma Tante used to feed me breakfast. That was when she had a straight back—so long ago, I wasn't wearing glasses yet, if you can imagine. I must have been about three. My parents were at work, my big sister at school, so it was just Ma Tante and me. 
As she dipped my bread in coffee, I got distracted by tiny particles floating in the beam of light entering the window above the kitchen sink. Ma Tante, ever vigilant of my feelings, asked what I was staring at. The peanut-butter-lathered bread I had been chewing stalled in the crook of my cheek. I pointed to the snowfall of particles. It seemed like the most magical thing I'd ever seen. 
Ma Tante smiled. "Magical, non?" she asked, echoing my thoughts. "Things are always floating around us. But just like that sunbeam, ti takes the light in our hearts to see magic that is invisible to most people." 
From then on, wherever I went, I searched for magic around me...

Debbie's books include Perfect Shot and Hallway Diaries, and she has written for Entertainment Weekly, Seventeen, Vibe, Cosmo Girl!, Essence, and other magazines. She lives and writes in Bermuda. Find out more about Debbie and her work here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

KQED Panel on People of Color in Children's Literature

Excited to be a part of this program tomorrow morning on public radio in the Bay Area. Tune in via the web if you're not local—East Coast time 1 o'clock in the afternoon.

People of Color Underrepresented
in Children's Books

Mon, Mar 24, 2014 -- 10:00 AM

Getty Images
Ethnic diversity is on the rise in the U.S. So why are children's books still so white? Only about 6 percent of kids' books published in 2013 feature characters that are African-American, Latino, Asian or Native American. We take up the discussion with authors, illustrators and librarians. Does the ethnicity of characters in children's books matter to you?
Host: Mina Kim
  • Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education
  • LeUyen Pham, illustrator of children's books including "Grace for President," "Freckleface Strawberry" and "Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters"
  • Mitali Perkins, children's book author of "Rickshaw Girl," "Monsoon Summer" and "The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen"
  • Nina Lindsay, supervising librarian for children's services at the Oakland Public Library, former judge on the Newbery Award selection committee and co-author of the mock Newbery Award blog, "Heavy Medal"

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Introducing OPEN MIC Contributor Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

I'm proud to showcase the nine authors who collaborated with me on OPEN MIC: RIFFS ON LIFE BETWEEN CULTURES IN TEN VOICES (an anthology published by Candlewick Press). Today's spotlight is on writer Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (sometimes known as Gbemi.) Publishers Weekly had this to say about our book and, more specifically, about Gbemi's contribution:
"... Ten writers and artists, including Varian Johnson, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Francisco X. Stork, offer brief works of fiction and nonfiction “about the between-cultures life.” As Perkins notes, “Humor has the power to break down barriers and draw us together across borders,” and the stories within bear that out... Most offer a subtler, uncomfortable brand of situational humor: Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich calls her high school 'an oasis of suburban racial integration'; when the drama club performed The Crucible, 'the drama coach was sensitive enough to ask the black members of the troupe if we’d be uncomfortable playing the role of slave Tituba.' ..."
Here are the opening lines from "Confessions of a Black Geek," her memoir in OPEN MIC.

... In high school, my friends and I owned two words—we were Black, and we were geeks. We had the soundtrack to prove the first: classic Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin renditions of "Young, Gifted, and Black." That song was as much a part of my regular diet as the lumpy and not-sweet-enough porridge I had for breakfast many mornings. My mom was an Excellence for Black Children mother, which meant that she battled for Parent-of-a-High-Achiever supremacy at monthly meetings and was quick to whip out the dashiki and boom box so that I could dance interpretively alongside my equally gifted and well-mothered friends at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfasts ...

Don't you want to keep reading? Find out more about Gbemi's award-winning novel 8th Grade Superzero, which was named a Notable Children’s Book for a Global Society and a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. You may also eavesdrop on a chat between the two of us here on the Fire Escape. "I was the new kid at school many times over, in more than one country," says Gbemi. "I now live with my family in Brooklyn, where I write, make things, and need more sleep."