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"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.
— 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.
, 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.
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.
TEN TIPS FOR READERS AND WRITERS:
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.
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.
If you want to 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, I invite you to use #devicefreeday to begin your 24-hour hiatus. During your digital break, rest, play, and be present in your place with your people. Let the stories come!
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, 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
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
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.
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 fast—the 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.
|Debbie Rigaud, as pictured in Redbook Magazine|
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
, Cosmo Girl!
, and other magazines. She lives and writes in Bermuda. Find out more about Debbie and her work here
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
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
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."
I'm taking a bit of a break from social media for the purposes of soul care, but I'll return in a few weeks. In the meantime, I'll still be popping out to the Fire Escape every now and then. Thanks, friends.
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). The Horn Book had this to say about our book:
"... In her preface to this nicely compact collection, Perkins suggests that humor can help smooth the way in discussions about race — if it’s used carefully, laughing with, not at ... Naomi Shihab Nye offers an eloquent poem about her Arab American dad, whose open friendliness made him 'Facebook before it existed.' ..."
It is always a delight to share that the brilliant, award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye
is a contributor. Here are a few lines from "Lexicon," an original OPEN MIC poem, that illustrate her ability to "combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight," as the poet William Stafford once said:
... Remembering my father's daily sweetness,
the way some people make you better
just by stepping into a room.
He loved the freshness of anything—
crisp cucumbers, the swell of a new day.
The way skin feels after being washed.
I'm happy to see you!
The day just got happier ...
Naomi's award-winning books for children include Habibi, Sitti's Secrets, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, and the forthcoming The Turtle of Oman (HarperCollins, August 2014). I can't wait to read this newest novel.
Naomi's father was a Palestinian refugee, and she grew up in Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas, where she still lives and works. "Writing is the great friend that never moves away," she says. Find out more about Naomi and her work at the Steven Barclay Agency.
Librarian and blogger Betsy Bird recently issued a call for books featuring "casual diversity," or a list of children’s books in which "diversity is just a part of everyday life." Here's my two cents:
Even (perhaps especially) in such “real world” books featuring characters with different ethnic backgrounds, the author and/or illustrator should think through carefully how that heritage would shape each character. Perhaps none of that background work that has informed the author’s imagination will be obvious to the reader in the final story or art, but our reflection, personal experience, and research will all affect the characters' depictions–and the child reader–in subtle ways.
Throwing in a character of color here or there to make your book more multicultural isn't a shortcut to representing all kinds of children in the real world. As authors and illustrators, the onus is on us to do the unseen work of listening, learning, and understanding, especially
because we write for children. What is "under the waterline" in us is bound to be revealed in our stories, and will inform what is "under the waterline" in our child readers.
I'm grateful to the American Library Association's Booklist and Dr. Amina Chaudhri for featuring me and my books in the January 2014 issue, with Common Core connections.
When challenged by others as to why he focuses on stories about foreigners working in African countries, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof responds with the idea that "bridge" characters are needed to draw readers into a story.
The rules must be different in the world of global children's literature. Kristof makes two assumptions that don't work for me: first, that readers won't be able to connect with stories unless you include an American, and second, that his readers are
I've never included "bridge" foreigners in stories set outside North America. First, I trust young readers to connect with characters of a different culture. Second, since I grew up "between cultures," so I never assume that my reader is staunchly in the majority culture. I always ask how the story would be received by a child within that culture as well as by North American readers, and "outside saviors" seem to discourage rather than empower non-majority children.
Of course, this literary premise of needing "bridge" characters may be the reason why (a) global books don't sell well without a big gatekeeper push, and (b) I got rejected for years and years because I was submitting books without them.
What do you think? Does a "bridge" character in fiction draw you into a story? If books by authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Khaled Hosseini didn't have anything or anybody "American" in them, would they have won such wide cultural favor?
Today in my "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Stories" class at Saint Mary's College of California, we took a look at the winners of the 2014 ALA Youth Media Award, announced early this morning. We explored four questions:
- Do any of the winning books or honorees feature a main character belonging to a group that has endured oppression in North America due to race or culture?
- Are any of the winning books or honorees set in a non-Western country?
- Are any of the main characters from an economically powerless family or subculture?
- Did any of the winning authors/illustrators grow up on the margins of power when it comes to race, culture, and/or class?
Do these questions matter in children's stories? Setting aside the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré awards for a moment, how would you answer these questions?Note
: In my author hat, I'm thrilled for all of the winners and so proud to see children's books making headlines. Congratulations, one and all! But in teacher mode, I am encouraging a focus on marginalized and powerless children and so invite you to join the discussion.
Today I'm thrilled to host Gene Yang, one of the contributors to Open Mic Antholog
y (Candlewick), via skype in my Jan Term class at Saint Mary's College of California. My students have prepared questions to ask him, and here are a few:
- Do you find that because of your background as a Chinese-American, you have integrated your own characteristics into some of the characters? Especially because of your ancestry, do you feel a connection with the characters you have created?
- Have you ever been criticized for not having an authentic-enough experience to write your stories, considering you are Chinese-American? If yes, what is your response to critics?
- What made you write about the Boxer Rebellion? What is more special about this event than others in Chinese history that made you spend precious time on this subject?
- What kind of research did you have to do to make the story more authentic since you were originally born in California? Was your upbringing more American or Chinese and how did this contribute?
- How does your faith play a role when writing your stories?
Can't wait to hear Gene's answers. If you haven't read BOXERS AND SAINTS, I couldn't put it down. Historical fiction in graphic novel format is going to be my preference from this day forward. Here's some of what I wrote Gene after I finished it: "I love how Vidiana was able to protect her enemy with the Lord’s prayer. In the middle of such chaos and despair, you showed—with finesse and restraint—how one girl’s faith can make a difference. Thank you."
Once again, my Jan Term course at Saint Mary's College of California called "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Stories" is underway. Here's the first part of my syllabus:
Why are children’s stories so powerful? Who has the right to tell stories about marginalized communities? This course will explore the question of authenticity in storytelling and unmask explicit and implicit messages about race, power, and culture communicated through books for young readers. A secondary course goal is to help students improve their analytical writing.
- Part One: The Subversive Power of Children’s Stories
- Part Two: Race in Children’s Stories
- Part Three: Culture in Children’s Stories
- Part Four: Power in Children’s Books
Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature
makes this argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:
The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.
On the flip side, children’s literature has also been a key part of state propaganda used by totalitarian and oppressive governments to impose certain social and moral codes on child readers. As Bruno Bettelheim argued in The Uses of Enchantment
, stories told to children powerfully shape their moral world. Children with a well-developed sense of justice and compassionate hearts widened by stories can significantly serve the common good. Storytelling is a powerful act, especially when it involves young hearts and minds. From Uncle Tom's Cabin
to Harry Potter
, books can either repudiate or encourage stereotypes and injustice.
Students will explore and debate five questions:
(1) BOOK COVERS
: Should young adult and middle grade novels depict faces on covers?
(2) BOOK AWARDS
: Should ethnic book awards be based on the race/ethnicity of the author/illustrator?
: Should certain children’s books be banned in homes and classrooms because of racism or cultural stereotyping?
: Should we “bowdlerize” children’s classics that—seen with today’s eyes—are racist, or let them stand and be read as is?
: Should a story be told only by a cultural “insider” to guarantee authenticity?
This year I'm privileged to introduce my 23 students via Skype to Gene Yuen Yang, award-winning author of BOXERS AND SAINTS, Stacy L. Whitman, editor at TU Books
, and Yolanda Leroy, editorial director of Charlesbridge
, via Skype. Since the theme of Jan Term 2014 is "metamorphoses
," students will be comparing the "hero's journeys" in two novels for middle grade or young adult readers, and analyze themes of race, culture, and power in each story.
Students debated the question of book covers yesterday, and here are the presentations for your consideration.THE CASE FOR NO FACES ON COVERS:
THE CASE FOR FACES ON COVERS:
You're invited to two discussions, one virtual and one in real life. First, please read and comment on my guest post at the Children's Books Council Diversity Blog: "Is the Race Card Old School?" Here's an excerpt:
... Why does race trump in North America when it comes to a discussion about authenticity and fiction? My best guess is that we adults are stuck in that particular paradigm of identity. Race takes primacy when it comes to how we see others and how we see ourselves. In our minds, it still parallels the deeper question of power at the heart of this conversation, because the appropriation of story is a powerful act. And perhaps we’re (sort of) right ...
If you'd like this kind of dialogue in real life, as well as some intimate, face-to-face time with editors Cheryl Klein (Scholastic) and Stacy Whitman (Tu Books | Lee and Low), agent Regina Griffin, and authors Sundee Frazier (BRENDAN BUCKLEY'S SIXTH-GRADE EXPERIMENT) and Eliot Shrefer (ENDANGERED), please join us at the Highlights Foundation workshop, "Writing Across Boundaries
," this October 27-30. Scholarships are available!
For any writer it’s a challenge to write across gender, culture, or race. You worry that you won’t know the subtleties of the language or the mannerisms of the characters. You wonder if it’s even your story to tell. This workshop will help you identify and address the difficulties and joys of writing across boundaries.
Join our award-winning faculty as they give you tips on research, tell you how to put yourself in the characters’ shoes, and discuss the issues to consider in language and milieu. Our special guest editor will give you insight into editorial questions considered with a novel written across boundaries. You’ll leave with a richer understanding of how to write an authentic voice that resounds for readers.
During the class, you’ll workshop the first ten pages, so please submit those pages two weeks prior to the workshop. Additionally, bring a summary and up to fifty pages of your novel to the workshop for reference and to use in workshop exercises.
Begins with dinner on Sunday, October 27, and ends with lunch on Wednesday, October 30, followed by an optional tour of Highlights for Children and Boyds Mills Press at 1:30 p.m.
I'm continuing to showcase the nine authors who collaborated with me on OPEN MIC: RIFFS ON LIFE BETWEEN CULTURES IN TEN VOICES
(an anthology published 9.10.13 by Candlewick Press). The Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books recently had this to say about our book:
often said that good literature for young people can act as a mirror to
one’s own experiences and a window into others’—this anthology fills
the bill, providing an accessible assessment of contemporary race
relations, while also being as honest, refreshing, and frank as the
titular open mic suggests.
Today I'm delighted to introduce you to my friend Varian Johnson, author of "Like Me," a short story that's sixth in the OPEN MIC lineup and is especially "honest, refreshing, and frank." Here are the first few paragraphs to lure you:
"Griff, snap out of it," Evan says, jabbing his elbow into my rib cage. "You're missing the newbies."
I glance at Evan—trying to ignore the scraggly reddish-brown "soul patch" on this chin—then turn to follow his gaze. A mob of girls, huddled together like starry-eyed lambs heading to the slaughter, make their way across the quad with Principal Greer herding them along. With their blinding-white blouses and heavily starched skirts, they look like rejects from an episode of Gossip Girl.
Of course, my blazer and slacks would fit in the show just fine. As Principal Greer says, we're all cut from the same cloth here.
Varian's award-winning books include Saving Maddie
(Delacorte / Random House, 2010), My Life as a Rhombus
(Flux / Llewellyn, 2008) and A Red Polka Dot in a World Full of Plaid
(Genesis Press, 2005). He was born and raised in Florence, South
Carolina, and attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received a
BS in Civil Engineering.
Varian later attended the Vermont College of
Fine Arts, where he received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young
Adults. He's also the co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf
one of my favorite sites that highlights established and
up-and-coming African-American authors of children’s and young adult
literature. Today he lives and writes in Austin, Texas.
"I was the typical high-school geek," he says. "I played the baritone in the marching band, was a member of the Academic Challenge Team, and counted my Hewlett-Packard 48G as one of my most prized possessions."
Find out more about Varian and his work by following him on twitter
(highly recommended — his engaging and delightful voice is showcased sweetly on social media).
I'm delighted to announce the winner of the 11th annual Mitali's Fire Escape Teens Between Cultures Poetry Contest. In the past, I've award three prizes (first, second, third), but last year I decided to pick only one and I'm doing the same this year. This made judging the contest harder than ever. After a long decision-making process, please enjoy the 2013 Fire Escape Teens Between Cultures Poetry Contest winner.
by Alice L.
I grew up in the Midwest
Where oceans of gold-streaked cornfields
Swayed under the sun
And skies stretched like weary skin,
Wrinkled with seasons.
The Midwest grew recessive eyes
Almost as easily as it grew corn.
Among the fair-haired, blue-eyed children,
I was always a stranger, an alien –
A creature of far-away origins.
I could never be one of them.
We were separated by something
I could not quite understand then.
It was not so much that strangers questioned
My dark hair and epicanthic folds
And the slight lilt of my tongue.
It was more because
My parents carried a thousand years of forgotten names:
Ancestors from ancient Asia’s silk scrolls and dust cities
Came to haunt me in our common memory,
Lingering traces in the wirings of our thoughts,
Burdens, maybe, both curses and gifts.
Inevitably, burdens became my legacy:
Beautiful histories no one could remember,
A language of four thousand dusty characters
Whose limbs changed every five centuries or so,
Wars and kingdoms and Confucius –
One summer I grew an invisible third eye
And I sat in the dark,
Sipping otherworldly memories like jasmine tea.
I carried English words like they were my own –
But in the dark,
Strange emotions danced footprints across my heart.
I tangled two languages together trying to explain them.
But I could not.
On growing up between cultures
The hardest thing about balancing two cultures is figuring out how to incorporate both cultures into part of my identity. I'm very proud of my Chinese-American identity, but I constantly ask myself what I can do to better become both halves of my identity. I want to be as authentically American as possible, and I also want to be as authentically Chinese as possible. I want to feel like I really am a part of both cultures. How does one be completely two cultures? The best thing about balancing two cultures is the ability to flow between the two and understand the culture of both. I'm an example of the "tossed salad" (not "melting pot") American kid.
"Chinese Barbie" courtesy of FreddyCat1, via Creative Commons. Stay tuned for the prose contest winner!
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 9.10.13 by Candlewick Press). Publishers Weekly had this to say about our book:
... As Perkins notes, “Humor has the power to break down barriers and draw us together across borders,” and the stories within bear that out ... In “Under Berlin,” written in verse, G. Neri describes a “game” that a biracial American family plays on the German subway: seeing how quickly two elderly white women will change seats after the black father sits between them ...
Today I'm delighted to introduce you to my friend Greg Neri, author of "Under Berlin," a story in verse that's eighth in the OPEN MIC lineup. Here are a few paragraphs from the middle of the piece that showcase Greg's mastery of voice:
"Why can't we take a taxi?" I ask.
"You all gonna pay for it, Reina? asks Daddy,
his southern twang
more out of place
than we are.
We move slowly across the platform,
pushing into the overcrowded train car.
"Sure, I'll pay,
just as soon as I start my own
I can still smell it from here.
My brother, Oscar laughs. "Yeah, right."
I stare at his pudgy face,
trying not to get squished
by the rush-hour stampede.
"What's so funny?" I say.
Oscar laughs again.
"A black American girl
servin' up German sausage?
Sure, that's not funny
"I'm not black," I say.
Greg's award-winning books range from graphic novels to novellas in free verse, including Chess Rumble
, Ghetto Boy
, Surf Mules
, and Yummy
"Some people are curious about my ethnic background," says Greg. "Well, I'm Mexican, Filipino and Creole (French, African, Spanish, Native American) or as we say Crefilican-American or more accurately Nafranishafripinocan (go figure). Actually, I feel I am a great example of globalization. The Mexican side covers the Hispanic countries, Filipino represents Asia, Creole covers Europe, Africa and North America."
Find out more about Greg and his work by following him on twitter
or by visiting his site.
I'm delighted to announce the winner of the 11th annual Mitali's Fire Escape Teens Between Cultures Prose Contest. In the past, I've award three prizes (first, second, third), but this year I decided to pick only one. Here it is—enjoy.
Bridging the Gap
by Tran D., Age 16
If your kids are complaining about school, don't lecture them about the gift of an education. Instead, read them Razia's Ray of Hope: One Girl's Dream of an Education
by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Suana Verelst (Kids Can Press, 9/13).
This inspiring story is about a brave girl in Afghanistan who must convince the men in her family to allow her to attend school. The author, Elizabeth Suneby
, was inspired by Razia Jan, one of CNN’s 2012 Top 10 Heroes of the Year
. Jan founded the Zabuli Education Center
outside Kabul, near villages where there had never been a school for girls.
Instead of telling us information about the school from an insider's perspective, Suneby introduces us to another Razia, a girl who gazes longingly at the school from the outside. Details about life in Afghanistan are seamlessly woven into the story. As they cheer for Razia on her brave quest, American children might begin to understand the value of an education and why so many of their counterparts in other countries desperately desire it.
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It's not as cold out on the fire escape during the winter now that I live in California, but it's still a busy season with little time to read, write, or reflect. Sigh. Don't those three verbs sound lovely? I'll resume blogging in the New Year, but you may also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, where I post more succinctly and frequently. Have a wonderful holiday season, friends.