Thursday, July 28, 2011

Multicultural Kidlit: A Case for Not Explaining Yourself

To 'splain yourself, or not to 'splain yourself.

Ah, that is the question.

For authors of children's literature commonly called "multicultural", the issue is often one that's front and center.

From agents who say "Oh, I'd like to learn more about that custom/ritual/holiday."

From editors who urge, "Draw out the protagonist's cultural conflict."

From fellow writers who say, "But this passage is so esoteric, isn't it?."

And of course, the job of a writer is to draw a reader into a world - whatever that world's culture, history, time and space - certainly not shut readers out or make readers so preoccupied with what they do not know that they cannot go along for the plot's ride along with the protagonist.

Yet, some of the best 'multicultural' books I've ever read don't always explain. In fact, the authors sometimes don't explain on purpose.

Take Salman Rushdie, whose novels first taught me that Indian expressions, inside jokes and cultural nuances could be sprinkled liberally through a novel without remorse. Rushdie even plays fast and loose with cross-cultural grammar. Indian suffixes like an honorific -ji are added wily-nily:  "Auntie-ji" "Uncle-ji"; alternately, Indian words are given Anglicized endings like "chutney-fication." Indian patterns of speech, like repeating and rhyming a word pop up all over the place: "writing-shiting." Film references and 'insider' jokes abound - some of which I, as an Indian American, catch and some of which I don't. But in the end, it doesn't matter. His worlds are so rich and nuanced that I happily enter them, giving in to the atmosphere, the world-building, the linguistic high-jinks, and of course, the plot's ride.

But what about children's novels? Aren't they held to a different standard? Are the same practices that seem erudite and the signifiers of a global sophisticate just downright unfair in a novel for young people? Don't we need to explain more lest middle grade and teen readers get confused, angry, turned off, or worse still, bored?

I'm not so sure. Take my son, an avid reader 8yo, who, a couple of weeks ago, said to me:

Son: "Mom, that was a huge kwi-wee at the airport yesterday, wasn't it?"

Me: "A what?"

Son: "A long kwi-we. You know, Q-U-E-U-E."

Of course, I had to explain that the word, no matter how it looked, was actually pronounced "cue." To which, he said "well, that's silly."

But beyond that moment of cuteness, my actual point here is that, as a huge Harry Potter fan, my son obviously read the word somewhere in one of J.K. Rowling's books. And although he's never heard it in his day to day life, he was able to pick up the meaning from the context. And more importantly, it didn't bother him. Not. One. Whit.

And what I've learned, at least about my son, is this: If the story is good, he will go. Even if he doesn't pick up on every sign post along the way. (I blogged a while ago about him missing, totally, the few pages about menstruation in Lisa Yee's delightful Millicent Min Girl Genius. Did I stress about those pages, unnecessarily? Yes. Did it bother my son not to get what Yee was talking about there? Nope, not at all. It remains one of his all time favorite books.)

I just finished reading Nnedi Okorafor's delightful, imaginative and magical Akata Witch, which is set  firmly in the soil, context and often, language of Nigeria. Yet, Okorafor skillfully makes plenty of room for the non-Nigerian reader by creating characters who are themselves "in between." - one American boy and one Nigerian girl who was raised in the U.S. before returning to Nigeria again. (she's in between in other fascinating ways too, but I'll let you read the book to find out) 

There were pieces of culture and context that I loved learning about - but there were plenty of things I'm sure I didn't catch. Only, I was so occupied following the characters and exciting plot, that I honestly didn't notice. Instead, I felt pulled in - as if I was wading through the river of Okorafor's imagination - and it didn't really matter if I didn't know the river's name, I got the other side (and felt the rush and wet and pull of the water) just the same.

Explaining too little or too much is of course a fine balancing act. I'm sure each reader's tolerance for "not getting something" is a little different. And I'm definitely sure that our cultural tolerance for being "outsiders" to another's cultural nuances has changed drastically over time. But ultimately, good novels aren't anthropological treatises on far away cultures - they are doorways into characters' lives and stories. And like Alice down her rabbit hole, readers don't always have to understand every spectacular sight in a new place to appreciate the journey.

What are your favorite novels that introduced you to new worlds? Did they 'splain, or just let you dive into, as Rushdie would say, their stream of stories?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tiger Mothers and Summer Reading

I realized today I'm a tiger mother. You know, like Amy Chua of "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" infamy.

And it's all the fault of my local summer reading club.

I know, all those adorable graphics draw you in at first, lulling you with their multicultural adorableness. (I mean, it's a cute brown girl sitting on a globe while reading -- three of my favorite things, how could I resist?)

One world, Many Stories. Peace, love, and reading. Hands across the library, and all that.

I didn't realize I was following in the pawprints of maternis tigris.  I mean, there is no forcible playing of the violin in our household. We don't even OWN a violin.

I blame the librarians (for everything, actually, but that's a longer blog entry) They drew me in, those book loaners, with their disarming, narrative ways. They lured my children too, with their promises of plastic compasses and adorable graphic-ed buttons (a purple elephant reading a book! With his front legs crossed! Halloo! Hallay! Oh Happy Day!)

We were so drunk on their storied seductions, we actually signed up for not one but two local reading clubs this year. That was SOO the librarian's fault too! "Oh, you can do more than one reading club," says she, all beaming and friendly-like. "Ours is on-line this year!" And then she pointed out to my 8yo the celebratory Harry Potter book event she was hosting the following week - in which kids would get round glasses made from pipe cleaners and she would be serving every flavor jelly beans.  She even hinted she might make some butterbeer. Butter beer! I tell you, there was no resisting. Those librarians are merciless.

And so my kids have been reading, and recording what they've been reading. On-line at aforementioned butter-beer maker's library, and in person at another other den of bookish inequities -- there, the kids have to actually talk about their books to teen volunteers with pusher-like names such as "Miss Emma" and "Miss Monique."

On line they've been dictating "reviews" to me that go something like this:

The 8yo on R.L. LaFever's The Forging of the Blade: "5/5 stars. I would recommend this book for anyone who likes almost dying moments. I loved it!"

The 6yo on Anne Barrow's Ivy and Bean and the Ghost that Had to Go: "5/5 stars. There's a hole in the bathroom where the ghosts live - and they come out each night! Ivy and Bean don't want to go there but they have to use the bathroom!"

(New York Review of books, watch out.)

Just today, a dear (and very thoughtful) friend asked me if I thought that all this summer reading club stuff was bad -  encouraging kids to focus on the number of books or the silly plastic prizes (not just plastic, my kid won a WAY too big "one world, many stories" yellow cotton T shirt last week, people!). And my first reaction came out not like a whimper, or even a meow. It came out with a tiger-ish roar.

"So what?"

I honestly don't care that my kids are competing with each other ("Does my brother have 2 to report already? Oh, I better pick up the next Cam Jansen...") or diggin' the possibility of winning the library raffle each week. I don't even care if their motivation is the club first and the book second (which, by the way, I don't think it is.) And I certainly don't care that when faced with a possibility of bugging their sibling, or even picking up some Legos, the summer reading club helps them chose to pick up a book instead.

Today, author Hillary Homzie posted an interesting blog on reluctant readers.  And although, by her categorizations, I have two avid readers at home, I do recognize something: Like anything in life, reading takes a lot of practice. Kids often don't practice something that's at first hard. But if you make them practice, they will gain mastery. With mastery, comes confidence. And with both those things, comes inner desire, love, and passion, even.

I know, that sounds SOO tiger-momish, right? Like I'm looming above them in a tree - waiting to pounce - while they innocently read away below? (Oh, look, that's what IS going on in this graphic!)

I love books. I love that my children love books. And I love the structure that summer reading programs give me to help my children gain confidence in their reading of newer and more challenging material. I love the structure it gives us as a family to talk about books, visit the library every day (if not more than that) to report what we've read, or search for that next elusive book in a particular series.

The way my mom remembers it, back in my day, they didn't have all the plastic chachkies at the summer reading club. When I was five, I became an avid reader because our local library was giving out gift certificates to McDonald's and I apparently loved me some Macky-D's fries. So I plowed through a stack of Dick, Jane and Spot books and then, gorged myself.

I'm grateful our librarians are our local pushers. And I don't care if my children's love of books comes along with a plastic glow in the dark keychain compass or two. They'll need 'em to guide them home, after all their storied adventures.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Disability in Middle Grade Novels

Besides being classic tales, what else do Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have in common? Well, to varying degrees of success, they each portray a child with disabilities. There is Mary Ingalls, Laura’s elder sister, who becomes blind as a result of scarlet fever; there is Colin, the ill tempered and bedridden cousin in The Secret Garden; and of course who can forget the trope of the crutch-using, impoverished but uncomplaining Tiny Tim in the Dickens classic?

Disability studies, a thriving academic field, can be used as a lens to understand portrayals of children with different embodied/cognitive conditions in middle grade literature. One way is to understand the different ways that disability itself is defined. Scholars have suggested there may be at least three historical models/theories of disability:

1. The Metaphysical/Spiritual Model: This is the predominantly historical idea that disability is caused by, or represents, some sort of spiritual failing. Consider, for instance, that in The Secret Garden, the character Colin becomes able to walk once he is befriended by Mary. As soon as his emotional failings (some serious bad attitude) are overcome, so too are his physical disabilities.

2. The Medical Model: This is the notion that disabilities can be primarily understood as physical impairments, and therefore, necessarily have medical solutions. This would be the perspective that all Tiny Tim needs is a visit to an orthopedic surgeon, or a physical therapist.

3. The Social Model: This perspective suggests that we all may have differing physical, emotional, cognitive, etc. abilities, but that environmental and social obstacles – from a lack of wheelchair ramps to prejudicial attitudes – are how disabilities are socially constructed. While Little House is by no means a perfect example of portraying disability, the fact that Mary’s visual impairment is considered in the context of her family, that Laura is often written describing their visual environment to her sister, and Mary, in turn, is an active agent – correcting Laura when she exaggerates, suggests a more social understanding of Mary’s disability.

So where does that leave middle grade novels portraying disability today?

To read the rest of this post please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Finding Your Novel's Aesthetic Point of View

This week, I was inspired to read this post at the Enchanted Inkpot on Writing Totems. In particular, the link from site to the blog of R.L. LaFevers, author of the "Theodosia" and "Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist" books reminded me of something I had read a long time ago - that Robin LaFevers often makes collages and other visual art (including, for instance, a journal in a character's voice) to help her articulate what I can only describe as a novel's aesthetic point of view.

In my mind, a novel's aesthetic point of view is related to authorial voice in that it includes all the history, cultural touchstones, literary references, inspirations, dreams and imaginings that help to inform your voice as a writer. However, it is also specific to the novel itself - and includes as well setting, time period, genre, tone, plot, character, and the like. There are multiple ways to go about articulating this point of view - both for yourself during the writing process, and hopefully, later, for the champions of your book, including agents and editors. Some I've been playing around with this week are collaging, mock-casting my novel's characters, and of course, coming up with my novel's mock-soundtrack. 

So this week, as I've been doing some final tweaks and edits on my Bengali folktale based MG novel for my (drumroll please) brand new, lovely, amazing literary agent, I've also been leafing through old books of Indian pop art and scrolling around websites for images that 'fit' the light hearted, colorful, adventurous Indian-American sensibility I'm going for in my novel.

I've come up with images like the silly one above of "Diwali Barbie." Now, this choice is far from literal. I'm not writing a novel about Barbies (although, I do write occasionally for a great website called Adios, Barbie), nor about anyone who looks particularly like this doll, and what this image does is evoke for me the color scheme, the flair, and yes, even the pop cultural fun of my novel's aesthetic point of view. In addition, the image reminds me of my character's process. In the beginning of my novel, my protagonist struggles against a sensibility that is probably pretty much like the one in this image - she doesn't want to be "dolled up" and must over the course of the plot find an Indian sense femininity that is not plastic, or commercial, or stereotyped - but real, and active and all her own. 

Besides thinking about still images, I've tried to think of films that capture my novel's aesthetic sensibility. In many ways, Gurinder Chadha's "Bend it Like Bekham" hits the mark. Particularly a scene Chadha runs during the credits in which a bunch of dressed up Indian ladies - one young woman in a wedding sari - play soccer on a pitch. (In it, she has the whole cast singing the Hindi lyrics to Hot Hot Hot, you must watch it, it's hilarious)

I've also come up with this great Bollywood cricket film "Dil Bole Hadippa" starring Rani Mukherjee and Shahid Kapoor. (Hm, that makes two Indian sports films, not sure what that's about...) This movie's got the fun, wholesome, joyous, raucous quality that I'm going for in the novel. Now, am I writing a Bollywood novel? No, not at all. But again, we're going for feeling level connections, not literal ones.

Similarly, I've been trying to come up with a mock soundtrack for my novel, and the best I can think of is the same music I was listening to (not on purpose, my kids love this CD) when I initially wrote the novel. It's a CD called "JuJu" by the Bengali group (Bangla Band) "Chondrobindoo."  Check out a silly video I just found of their title song.

 I'm sure there are many more ways to try and capture the aesthetic point of view of a novel, but these are the three that have brought me much joy this week.

How do you explore your novel's aesthetics sensibility?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Honoring Asian/Asian American Themed Middle Grade Novels

From From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

After the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the world’s eyes have been on Japan recently.

So we at the Mixed-Up Files thought we would show our solidarity with the entire region by and spotlighting ten terrific novels about Asia and Asian America… and one bonus forthcoming novel!

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that two of these fantastic Asian/Asian American themed MG novels are from within our own ranks! (Hey, we figure shameless self promotion is always OK if it’s to get some great new books to kids!)

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Amulet)

Although Manjiro, the young fisherman protagonist of Preus’ 2011 Newberry Honor book is 14, and so not technically a middle-grader, we had to start this list with a nod to this splendid adventure on the high seas. In fact, according to Publisher’s Weekly, Japanese television audiences can’t get enough of Preus and her book either!

Tofu and T. Rex by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown)

Companion book to the also fabulously titled Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo, this novel is the story of militant vegan Frederika Mulchison-Kowalski, and her travails with her Japanese-Polish-German-American (and carnivorous) cousin Hans Peter, and their grandfather, who happens to own a butcher shop and sausage deli. Oh, and where is the T. Rex of the title? In the basement, of course…

For nine more fantastic titles, hope on over to the post on From the Mixed Up Files...