Author Archives: Sayantani

Celebrating Stories about America’s National Parks!

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courtesy www.nps.gov

Happy Birthday America!

In honor of July 4th, and family travel season, I thought I would write about one of this country’s greatest treasures: The National Parks System. I’ve come to more deeply appreciate the NPS through my middle-grade reading kids, who are obsessed with the “Junior Ranger Program” – a program available at almost all U.S. National Parks and Monuments. On visiting a park – great or small – our children will ask the ranger if they have a junior ranger program. This is usually a printed booklet that asks the kids to to age appropriate activities relevant to the park — everything from taking a hike, attending a ranger talk on geology or nocturnal creatures, reading about a historical event or figure, and then completing various puzzles, activities and games. On completion of a booklet (which may take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 or 3 hours), the ranger checks their work and viola! They are sworn in to be junior rangers!

5623805_f520My kids are really excited to collect the various junior ranger badges — there are about 400 in this country and my kids have 72 each — but others enjoy collecting patches, or stamping their “national parks passports” with stamps from various parks. It’s a great way to see America, and have the kids be the instigators and navigators of family trips (rather than the ones who dread going places and drag their feet) But you don’t have to go far (usually) to find a great NPS site – there are many smaller sites that you may not know about right around the corner from you! Just visit www.nps.gov to look at the list of wonderful junior ranger program-containing sites. (There is also a web ranger program, and several you can do online!)

There are many TERRIFIC books for kids to learn about national parks: check out some great lists here and here. When we visit a site, we often try to read something that gets us excited about what we are about to see. There’s undoubtedly a biography, nonfiction or fiction for every middle grade reader that would be appropriate to read about almost every park! Here are some thoughts that might make your summer NPS vacation both informative and literary!

 

1. Visiting Boston’s Historic Sites or just stopping by on your way to the Cape? There are several junior ranger programs in the area. And while you’re clocking miles on I-95 why not give your middle grade biography or history buff Who Was Paul Revere?

Who Was Paul Revere?

courtesy barnesandnoble.com

courtesy barnesandnoble.com

2. Heading to Florida for a beach vacation or to visit Disney? Take a day trip to the Everglades or the several other terrific NPS sites in Florida! Maybe your mystery reader will enjoy Nancy Drew 161: Lost in Everglades. 

3. Going to the big parks in Arizona? What about giving your animal-loving reader that old classic Brighty of the Grand Canyon

4. Of a literary or oratorical bent? What about visiting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home in Cambridge or Edgar Allen Poe’s Birthplace in Philadelphia or Fredrick Douglass’ National Historic Site in Maryland?

 

Feel free to add your favorite park/vacation related books below! And enjoy your summer exploring this nation’s beautiful parks!

Here’s an adorable link to get your younger travelers excited about national parks:  Sesame Street Explores National Parks

 

Diversity in Children’s Literature: The Search for the Missing Characters (and Authors!) of Color

courtesy scholastic.com

courtesy scholastic.com

A recent study conducted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin discovered something shocking. Of 3,200 children’s books released in 2013, a mere 223 were by authors of color, and 253 were about people of color.

If you break that down by ethnic group, that amounts to 93 books about African/African American characters (and only 67 by African/African American authors); 57 about Latino/as; and 69 about Asian and Pacific Islanders. And it was an embarrassing 34 books about Native American characters, with only 18 of those books actually written by Native American authors. No matter how you slice it, it’s no where near enough; a mere fraction of the percentages of those communities represented in the U.S. population.

courtesy bookriot.com

courtesy bookriot.com

At least it has generated some serious conversations. In last month’s New York Times Sunday Review, Walter Dean Meyers asked: Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books? In Meyer’s words, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

In the same issue, Meyers’ son, Christopher Meyers wrote of The Apartheid of Children’s Literature, suggesting that a dearth of characters of colors in children’s literature results not only in children being unable to see themselves in the stories they read (what we might call the ‘mirror’ function of literature), but also in children being unable to chart their future possibilities (what we might call the ‘map’ function of literature, in other words ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’). He argued,

[Children] create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations…We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.

Subsequently, there’s been a lot of buzz about ‘diversity’ in children’s literature. Interestingly, most of that ‘buzz’ has been about YA books, including this CNN post which asks, “Where’s the African American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?” (Ok, never mind that Katniss was described as olive-skinned in the books, I won’t even go there..)  Author Heather Tomlinson has done a terrific round-up of some of the recent ‘diversity’ conversations taking place here on her blog, including this comprehensive post from bookriot (with even more links) which urges “We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kidlit.” In the post, author Kelly Jensen asks,

In a world where John Green takes up nearly half of the New York Times YA Bestsellers list… why aren’t more people like him, with enormous social platforms, giving a little time to these conversations? What does he — or any other of a number of well-positioned, socially-connected YA authors (white men and some white women) — stand to lose from addressing these concerns? Would a reblog or a retweet of one of the first of a series of stories kill their career? Or would it help the voices of those who deserve to be heard get that attention? Would they reach members of their fan bases eager to discover more stories that they have been craving?

Diversity talk seems to be all around the industry right now. When, in mid-March, an attendee at the the New York City Teen Author Book Festival asked why she had only seen  one author of color speak all weekend, no one had a good answer for her. Agent Jim McCarthy, who had an author speaking on one of those all-white panels, subsequently wrote about the experience, asking the following interesting questions: “…where is the root of the problem? Is it in the largely white make-up of the publishing industry? Are we weeding out material by and about experiences we simply don’t understand? Is there an institutional racism that hasn’t been broached yet?”

The issue of institutional racism is a huge one, and it’s one that negates the claim that maybe authors of color don’t write, or at least, don’t write as well as white authors. In a powerful essay called “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power and Publishing,”  called the children’s publishing industry to task. The Market, he argues, is not a mysterious and ineffable thing (Who knows! It’s just The Market!), but rather, something constructed by people — people who chose which books to publish, which books to write about/share/review, and which books to economically support regarding promotion and marketing. Blaming authors of color for not knowing ‘their craft’ is simply “the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of a mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being at the bottom. If it’s not the intangible Market that’s to blame, it’s the writers of color, who maybe don’t have what it takes and don’t submit enough anyway. Read the subtextual coding here – the agent first places the onus of change on the folks with the least institutional power to effect it, then suggests we probably won’t be able to find the time (i.e., lazy) to master the craft.”

Older quotes from this Vanity Fair interview with actress Anika Noni Rose, in which she says, “There are so many writers of color out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’ Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the color of what they are?”

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courtesy juliedillonart.com, courtesy buzzfeed.com

The issue is one that is as central to Middle Grade novels and Middle Grade authors as YA novels and authors. Is there an apartheid in MG literature? The numbers surely suggest yes. Rather than blaming The Market or, worse still, middle grade authors of color, perhaps we as a community need to come up with some solutions. These solutions might include:

1. As the CNN article suggests, BIGGER MEGAPHONES. Who are the biggest middle grade names and voices out there? Kate DiCamillo, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, WE NEED YOU (and people like you) to not only support books by and about people of color, but lend your voice and considerable authority to the conversation.

2. Agents and Editors willing to believe in, invest in, and market authors of color (and stories about characters of color). But agents and editors need support too – so we need agencies and publishing houses committed to issues of diversity. (While recognizing that some are already so, I’m looking at you, Tu Books)

How can you help your organization put diversity on the agenda? Maybe your agency/publishing house needs to regularly read and share blogs addressing diversity like that of the  CBC diversity committee. Maybe your agency/publishing house needs to have a book club, google hang out, or twitter chat where you read, discuss and recommend to each other stories by and about people of color (even from among books you don’t represent!). Maybe your agency/publishing house needs to hire more agents or editors of color! Maybe your agency/publishing house could publicly pledge to increase the number of authors of color they represent, or books they publish by and about people of color! (And become an industry leader and role model for doing so!)

3. Librarians, teachers, parents, and readers to promote and embrace stories by and about characters of color – and not just during African- or Asian American history months! Stories that represent our diverse world are needed by all children all year round – not once a month, and not simply trotting out special ‘ethnic’ books for ‘ethnic’ children. And think about genre, too — are all the stories about African American characters historical fiction addressing segregation and slavery? Does your science fiction and fantasy collection feature any Native American, Asian American or Latino/a authors?

4. Authors Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo established the Diversity in YA blog (and reading series!), perhaps there needs to be a similar blog set up called Diversity in MG!

5. Established authors paying attention to ‘who else is at the table’ (or on the panel, as the case may be). Is there a wonderful author of color or book about a character of color you love? Pass it on to your editor or agent! Talk it up on your blog! Tweet, Instagram or shout from the rooftops about it! Someone helped you get where you are, why not pay it forward? (while this is related to point #1 above about bigger megaphones, I also don’t think you need to be a ‘major name’ to support diversity.)

Authors, how’s this for an easily achievable step: When invited to speak somewhere, take the responsibility to ask who else is coming. I learned this trick from several white male academics I know who, when asked to speak somewhere, always ask who else is going to be there. If they realize it will be yet another all  white panel/speaker series/conference, they suggest other names. I actually know of one man who has bowed out of several panels to make room for other voices. Now I’m not advocating for tokenism (stick that one person of color on the panel!) but for us as colleagues to think how even small everyday actions can help us be a part of the solution, rather than  part of perpetuating the problem.

6. All authors paying attention to the diversity present in their stories. Now, like my comment on panels above, this doesn’t mean ‘stick in a token kid of color/disabled kid/LGBTQ kid’ into your story, but rather, that we all write stories that reflect the world around us (and most of us live in a pretty diverse world). There are plenty of good resources on writing cross culturally out there – but I recommend this post on the “12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other (and the Self)”  by , and this one by Cynthia Leitich Smith called “Writing, Tonto and the Wise Cracking Minority Sidekick who is the First to Die.” 

N.B. Although obviously important, I put this point about writing across cultures purposefully last. This is because I think it problematic that conversations about diversity in children’s literature so often become only about non-POC authors being ‘brave’ enough to write racially diverse stories. Now, I’m not endorsing any type of essentialism – ie. suggesting something ridiculous and limiting like authors should only write about characters whose ethnicities, sexualities, genders, etc. are exactly like theirs. Of course not. But I still want to borrow here a slogan from the disability activism movement: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us.’ In other words, I think that any conversation about racial diversity in kidlit has to be first about encouraging, nurturing, publishing, promoting and celebrating authors of color. (Right? Right.)

What other solutions do you as a readership suggest? Let’s use the comments section to  brainstorm – and of course celebrate your favorite middle grade stories by and about people of color!

Beyond Bollywood: South Asian American Middle Grade Fiction

In honor of the new exhibit I’m longing to see at the Smithsonian Museum, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the NationI thought I would explore some South Asian American Middle Grade Fiction in today’s post. The last time I did such a round up was in 2011 on my blog (See South Asian Kidlit, and Desi Kidlit Part 2) so I thought it was high time to do another, this time focusing on fantastic middle grade reads!

For better or worse, the glitzy costumes, colorful dance numbers, and over the top romantic storylines of Bollywood movies have come to represent the South Asian subcontinent in the collective imagination of the U.S. Yet, our stories are clearly so much more than that: they are stories of struggle, activism, family, community, political change, cultural tenacity and so much more. Our stories are funny, tragic, brave, silly, and, most importantly, varied. As the writer Chimamanda Adichie has argued in her captivating TED talk, there is a danger in telling a “singular story” about any community.

So here’s an incomplete list of some great South Asian American Middle Grade Books we have read in my household in the last couple years. Please use the comments section to add your favorites!

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courtesy www.sheelachari.com

Vanished by Sheela Chari: (APALA 2012 Children’s Literature Honor Book and Edgar Award Nominee for Best Juvenile Mystery). 11 year old Neela must solve the mystery when her Veena vanishes!

 

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courtesy www.umakrishnaswami.com

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courtesy www.umakrishnaswami.com

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything and its sequel, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami. 11 year old Dini loves Bollywood movies, but when she moves with her family from America to India, even she could not imagine meeting her favorite movie star Dolly! 

courtesy www.marinabudhos.com

courtesy www.marinabudhos.com

Tell Us We’re Home by Marina Budhos. Officially, Marina calls this a YA, but since it’s about 8th graders, I thought I’d include it anyway! 3 immigrant daughters of maids and nannies in a New Jersey suburb deal with friendship, family, and the definition of ‘home.’

 

Subgenre Alert!: The Indian-Jewish Canon of Middle Grade Fiction! (There’s even this interesting New York Times article about two of them!)

 

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courtesy www.veerahiranandani.com

The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera HiranandaniAfter her father loses his job, Sonia is yanked out of private school and thrown into a public school, where for the first time, her classmates question her mixed heritage. 

my basmati

courtesy paulafreedman.com

My Basmati Bat Mitvah by Paula J. Freedman: In the Fall Leading to her Bat Mitvah, Tara has a lot of her mind, including wonders what it means to grow up with two cultures

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courtesy goodreads.com

Mira in the Present Tense by Sita Brahmachari (published as Artichoke Hearts in the U.K.): 12 year old Mira helps her beloved Nana Josie grapple with her impending death, including saying goodbye to her favorite places, painting her casket and eventually moving into a hospice.