Monday, February 08, 2016

RICKSHAW GIRL on Stage: Order Tickets Now!

My novel for elementary-aged readers, RICKSHAW GIRL (chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the best books for children over the past 100 years), is pedaling to the stage in a wonderful musical adaptation! The Bay Area Children's Theatre will put on shows at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday from April 12 to May 22, first in San Ramon's Front Row Theater, next at the San Francisco's Children's Creativity Museum, and last but not least in Berkeley at The Osher Studio.

Here's the ticket purchase information: If you want to say hello and get a signed book, I plan to be there at the opening shows in San Francisco (Saturday, April 16 at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.) and the closing shows in Berkeley (Sunday, May 22 at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.).

Sunday, January 17, 2016

WARNING: This Book Might Be Recalled. Read it Fast. Decry it Even Faster.

I'm all for truth and justice, but I question Scholastic's recent decision to recall a book.

First, the slope is too slippery when it comes to removing published books from our schools and libraries. What about books published last year? Ten years ago? A century ago? Should they be recalled also? Should we protect today's children from the positive depictions of colonialism in TINTIN IN THE CONGO and BABAR by recalling them? What about black Asia and Silas standing in the back of the room in LITTLE MEN and JO'S BOYS? I'm not defending the contents of A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, but it was published. Shouldn't it stay in the pantheon of our shared intellectual content? I suppose this raises another question in an age of fuzzy publishing boundaries: is preventing a published book from being read different than stopping a pre-published book from being read? Librarians, defenders of intellectual content, please weigh in.

Second, instead of recalling, the publisher could move us forward in the representation of African-Americans in children's literature. For example, why doesn't Scholastic invite their wonderful editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, long-time champion of books representing the African-American experience and one of the few African American editors in the industry, to call for great submissions telling Hercules' WHOLE story? Then the company can publish two more top-notch picture books about Hercules and Delia and encourage teachers and parents to read all three with children. This way, the next generation can learn to discern the differences themselves. Scholastic can underline the danger of a single story, support a great editor, encourage other authors and illustrators who care about telling the stories of African Americans, keep the memory of Hercules and Delia alive, and continue to remind all of us that our first President owned slaves.

But I fear this won't happen. It's too late. The shouts have been heard. The book is recalled. I hope we aren't veering towards recalls steered by social media because outcry can go many ways. But the outcry itself is all right by me. It's thrilling that depictions of kids on the margins, past and present, are now questioned and debated with passion and fury. That's the real victory, and the best modeling for the next generation. ‪


Here's how I might adapt Hercules' and Delia's story, for example. My suggestions are rough and dumb, but I'll throw them out there. Maybe they'll get someone's juices flowing.

Scene one: Holding a big cat in her arms, Delia sneaks into the kitchen before sunrise.  She sees her father hurriedly handing a letter to someone who disappears into the pre-dawn darkness. "Who was that, Daddy?" Hercules takes her in his arms. She wipes away a flour smudge on his cheek. "Someone who might help us escape, sugar." Delia knows how much Daddy wants to be free. Three hundred slaves live on this estate with George Washington and his family, but nobody has managed to escape yet. Freedom! What would that be like? "I'll work hard, earn money, buy us a small house," Daddy says. "We'll get a kitten of our own to keep the mice away," adds Delia.

Scene two: The door bursts open. Delia scurries to hide behind her father. A kitchen slave overseer storms in. "It's Mr. Washington's birthday! Mrs. Washington wants the best cake you have ever baked for his party." "But there is no sugar," Hercules protests. "I don't care! That's your problem! Make that cake! And make it tasty!" The overseer slams the door on his way out.

Now tell the cake story, showing how Hercules met this challenge with strength and grace.

Scene somewhere in the middle: The same man we saw in the first panel is sneaking out of the kitchen again. Delia walks in to find her Daddy on his knees, praying. "Are we going to escape, Daddy?" Once again, she sees a flour smudge on his cheeks and wipes it away. The artist makes it clear that there's a tear there, too. "He has a plan for me, sugar, but not for you. So I said no." "But, Daddy—!" "No. I'm not leaving without you."

Last scene: (Hercules is sitting in candlelight in front of a huge platter with a only few cake crumbs on it. His posture and face are discouraged.) Delia takes his face in her hands. "You go, Daddy." He shakes his head. "What's a cake without sugar?" he asks sadly. "It's still a cake," Delia says. They look at each other for a long time, in silence, holding hands over the empty platter (one whole full panel illustration, wordless, sad.)

End notes: Hercules did escape, but Delia never found her way to freedom. She lived with Martha Washington as a slave her whole life, like .... (more information here.) End the book with a photograph of President Obama and a Delia-aged Sasha or Malia in the White House kitchen, tasting while a white chef looks on. Insert appropriate caption.

What do you think? How might you tell Hercules' and Delia's story?

When You're Interviewed By A VERY Smart Fifth-Grader

Thanks, Girls Leadership, for selecting RICKSHAW GIRL as a Parent / Daughter Book Club Pick, and for inviting me in to your offices to be interviewed by the brilliant Daliya.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Hunger in Fiction

"Eat it," said Sara,
"And you will not be so hungry.
My Saint Mary's College of California Jan Term students are beginning to consider the consequences of growing up with food insecurity and poor nutrition in our neighboring City of Oakland. This class is a community engagement course, one of Saint Mary's core curriculum requirements, and a distinctive for the school. 

When it comes to hunger, I plan to fill their minds with statistics, research, and facts, and they're using hands and hearts to work with children in the Oakland schools, but I still think there's nothing better than fiction to inform the imagination. I remember hating fictional hunger in the pit of my nine-year-old stomach when reading about the Pepper family in THE FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS, Sara Crewe in A LITTLE PRINCESS, the Hummel family in LITTLE WOMEN, the Brinker family in HANS BRINKER AND THE SILVER SKATES, and the Ingalls family in THE LONG WINTER. 

What other children's books inform the imagination when it comes to the experience of hunger?

Monday, November 23, 2015

I Love You, Charlotte Huck

Why do I love Dr. Huck? First, because of her commitment to children's literature. Here are excerpts from her 2005 obituary in the L.A. Times:
The educator's 33-year effort to develop and enhance an academic program in children's literature at Ohio State University established her as a national authority on the subject. 
Huck's reputation grew with the 1961 publication of her textbook, "Children's Literature in the Classroom," now in its seventh edition, and with her 1976 creation of the quarterly review Wonderfully Exciting Books, covering classroom use of children's books. 
"Reading was part of my life, and I wanted children to have the same opportunity," Huck said in a 1981 appearance on television's "Good Morning America."

A native of Evanston, Ill., Huck studied at Wellesley College and earned her bachelor's degree from Northwestern University. After teaching briefly in Midwestern elementary schools, she completed her master's and doctorate at Ohio State University and joined its faculty in 1955. 
While she was teaching teachers how to boost children's reading, Huck earned Ohio State's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1972 and the Landau Award for Distinguished Service in teaching children's literature in 1979. 
Huck also served on the American Library Association committees for the Newbery and Caldecott medals, awarded to outstanding writers of children's literature. 
Huck retired from Ohio State in 1988. But she wasn't finished. 
Relocating to Redlands, she wrote five children's books herself: "Princess Furball," "Secret Places," "Toads and Diamonds," "The Black Bull of Norroway" and "A Creepy Countdown." 
Huck helped create an annual children's literature festival at the University of Redlands, similar to one she had developed at Ohio State. The Redlands festival was named for her in 2000. 
"We must keep reading aloud to children," she advised teachers at the 1998 festival. "If you're not reading aloud to them, you're not teaching reading. The story is what motivates children to want to read."
Now that's a children's literature champion.

The second reason I love her is because of this award established in her honor by the National Council of Teachers of English. The award recognizes "fiction that has the potential to transform children’s lives by inviting compassion, imagination, and wonder." What a glorious statement! And to my extreme delight, Tiger Boy has been selected as a 2016 NTCE Charlotte Huck Outstanding Fiction for Children Honor Book (in excellent company)!

I've changed my vocational statement thanks to Dr. Huck. From now on it is to "invite compassion, imagination, and wonder" through my fiction. Congratulations to all the winners!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Girls Leadership November Read: RICKSHAW GIRL

I'm thrilled that parents and kids are reading Rickshaw Girl together this month, thanks to a recommendation from Girls' Leadership, a wonderful organization with this mission:

Girls Leadership teaches girls the skills to know who they are, what they believe, and how to express it, empowering them to create change in their world.

Please join us on December 2nd (8 p.m. EDT, 5 p.m. PDT) for a live video chat about the book.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Danger of a Single Story, Once Again

Flashback to me as young parent: I'm taking our two brown boys to the library on a weekly outing that never fails to delight. They tug me into the children's section, drop my hands, and race off to wander freely through aisles of beautiful picture books. (I browse, too, but keep an eye on them and the public bathrooms. I've heard my mother's stern warnings about her grandchildren's safety even though I roll my eyes when she issues them.)

Tim picks his usual fairy tales and adventures. Jim finds the scary stories and funny books. I look for good historical fiction to add to the pile. I also am on a constant hunt for brown faces in all kinds of stories. Ezra Jack Keats (A SNOWY DAY) comes home with us, along with Vera Williams (MORE, MORE, MORE SAID THE BABY). Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations of brown princesses and Chinese princes catch my eye.

There weren't any picture books I could find back then about the Indian-American experience and/or our colonial heritage, but today, I could have added CHACHAJI'S CUP by Uma Krishnaswami, for example, and GRANDFATHER GANDHI by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus to our pile.

But what if the ONE BOOK I could find featuring an Indian child was a sweetly-told tale about food? In one panel, a sari-clad mother and her brown child are standing around a table of feasting Brits, serving them during the Raj period. The Indian mother and daughter are smiling and looked safe, but later they subversively and courageously claim part of the meal while hiding in a closet.

Our boys were four; they colored self-portraits at school with dark brown crayon. They knew they were Indian. Their grandmother wore a sari. They knew who they resembled physically and ethnically on big and small screens, as well as on the pages of books. If the story I described in the preceding paragraph had been the ONLY BOOK—the single story—reflecting their emerging ethnic identity, I might have hesitated to take it home. How could I use this ONE BOOK to explain to the boys why Indians had been forced to serve the British for so many years? How would I underline the suffering of colonial oppression that our ancestors had endured? What would that ONE illustration convey to them about power, culture, race, and privilege?

But what if I'd also had access to both of the picture books I listed earlier, and more? What if there were multiple stories around which we could gather as a family that represented the uniqueness (windows) and normalcy (mirrors) of Indian people, both past and present? Then my decision about that ONE BOOK would have changed. I would have loved to take it home, because we had a wide collection of stories and images in which to place it. I could have said, "Remember in CHACHAJI'S CUP when we read about how Britain ruled India? This story takes place in that time. This is before GRANDFATHER GANDHI led the Indian people to freedom."

Given the current discussion about the representation of slavery in picture books, I'm posting my favorite TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie below. My hope is that even during this racially-charged season of history as a nation, we remember not to outsource the entirety of the black experience to a single story. Let's take stock of the emerging and existing collection of stories we offer children around the storytelling fire. Are we creating, publishing, sharing, compiling, buying, featuring, and promoting MANY stories all year around about black lives, past and present, offering a plethora of windows and mirrors?

And then, writers and illustrators, get to work! Let's hone our craft, pursue excellence, and tell a whole bunch of thoughtful stories in creative freedom. We're going to make even more mistakes than we already do if our books are forced to bear the burden of serving as that ONE STORY. If you relied on me and my books alone to represent the South Asian experience, I'd crumble under the pressure. I've made too many mistakes already. On the other hand, I welcome critique from other eyes and ears, and I hope you will also. I am grateful for perspectives that have been traditionally silenced, like the one belonging to my friend Debbie Reese, who consistently and passionately champions Native children. She sent me to read this report, for example, where I found young voices like this one:
“At school there is not much covered on Native Americans. Our teachers only talk about Natives sometimes, usually in November around Thanksgiving. That’s not really the right time because Native people are here all the time. They teach us about friendly pilgrims and Indians—that white people and Indians have been friends all along, but we know another story. … I would like our teachers to change the way they teach so Indians are not just about [the] past, but in the present, and we learn more than one story.” — Kiki Shawnee, Student Oklahoma City Listening Session
I'm glad Debbie and Edi Campbell and others keep asking the questions. They call us to be thoughtful, tread carefully, and unpack the intersections of our own privilege—as we must, given our collective and individual inescapable histories. It's no use whining, "I wanted to include a fill-in-the-blank character but I was scared of what 'they' might say, so I didn't." That's the laziness of privilege. What we need to ask as a non-fill-in-the-blank writer is: "I want to create a fill-in-the-blank character because it's needed in my story, so how can I listen, learn, hold babies, and do as much good, important work as possible before writing a fill-in-the-blank character who has fill-in-the-blank power and privilege compared to me?" And then we might still make mistakes that make us and others cringe. Welcome to the powerful vocation of storytelling for children. Good thing we're not in this alone, writing a single story, right?

Editors, publishers, booksellers, prize committees, and reviewers, I appreciate that you are producing and celebrating MANY STORIES about MANY CHILDREN! Keep it up! MORE, MORE, MORE, say the babies!

Teachers, parents, librarians, booksellers, as you display, handsell, promote, and read MANY STORIES aloud, maybe we won't need this heated and difficult discussion about ONE BOOK. Although to tell you the truth, I'm delighted that we're talking about it so widely. Because back when our boys were four and I was leading them through a library, it felt like I was one of the few keeping an eye out for brown and black faces in books. Now I have you guys, thanks be to God.

All My World's a Stage: RICKSHAW GIRL Pedals to the Theater

Last night I had a magical experience. I was invited to attend a workshopping of RICKSHAW GIRL, the stage version, by the Bay Area Children's Theater (BACT). Playwright Aditi Kapil was in town from Minnesota to work with director Vidhu Singh, and our evening started with dinner at Toast in Oakland.

From L to R: Me, Vidhu Singh, Water Bottle, BACT's Ben Hanna, and Aditi Kapil
After dinner, we headed to BACT headquarters in Montclair, Oakland, and the talented team of actors, director, producer, and playwright began to work through the script. When you create a story in your head and people it with characters who exist only in your imagination, it is otherworldly to see them come to life. As I listened in wonder, I found myself moved by the plight of a young Bangladeshi girl who wants so desperately to help her family. I had written the darn thing, but last night Naima's story was presented to me in a fresh and sweet form. It was the same; it was completely different. It was magic.

Aditi's amazing script adds song, dance, staging, character depth, pacing, and emotional resonance to the story.
The actors who play the main characters, Naima and Saleem, are as adorable in real life as they are in this picture.
"What is scansion?" wondered the theatrical neophyte. In silence, of course.
Here's the first read-through of the rickshaw crash scene.
The RICKSHAW GIRL team: actors, director, author, and playwright. 
Order your tickets now!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Exciting News About BORDERLINES, My Next YA Novel

From Publishers Weekly Nov. 2, 2015 issue:

FSG Crosses the ‘Borderline’ With Perkins
After winning a multiple-round auction, Grace Kendall at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers took world rights, for six figures, to Mitali Perkins’s YA novel Borderlines. The book, which is set for a fall 2017 release, was sold by Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Agency. Perkins has written nine books for children and won multiple literary awards, including the E.B. White Young Adult Honor. Rennert said Borderlines, which links 15 stories about a Bengali family in Queens, features “the literary charm of The House on Mango Street and the bittersweet poignancy of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.” Perkins was born in Kolkata, India, and the novel, Rennert noted, is “inspired by [the author’s] own experience as the youngest of three sisters who arrived in America with a wave of immigrants in the 1970s.”

Monday, October 05, 2015

Reviews in India for TIGER BOY

"Tiger Boy is a story of hope; it’s about the splendour of the mangrove forests and islands, the magnificence of the tiger and its vulnerability, and human resilience in the face of adversity." — National Geographic Traveller India

"Read the book to find out who finds the cub — and how. It will be time well-spent. The language is easy, the tale, gripping. Young (and adult) readers are bound to get caught in the suspense and the action that surrounds the siblings’ quest for the cub. I found myself racing toward the end in one satisfying read. On the surface, the story is simple. But what I liked about the book is the multiplicity and complexity of issues that the author weaves in, effortlessly, in the narrative: climate change, gender discrimination, the press of poverty and how it compels you to work against your conscience. — Indian Express

"It’s only once a while that you get a book that manages to create a lump in your throat and at the same time makes you read as fast as you can because you want to know what happens next. Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins, published by Duckbill Books, is one such book." — Indian Moms Connect

For more on the book, visit