My second middle grade novel, Laugh with the Moon, was published in June, 2012 (Random House). It tells the story of a 13-year-old girl from Boston named Clare Silver who goes to Malawi, Africa for nine weeks, after the recent death of her mother. Though Clare is furious at her father for taking her away from her friends to live in the jungle, she soon discovered the reason behind her father’s motivation—it is healing to be among peers who, for better or worse, are expert at dealing with grief.
The novel is based on my own experience visiting Malawi, and I drew from the friendships I made with the people I met here.
Do you think of yourself as a diverse author?
I’d say yes and no. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, so I look white. But growing up in Massachusetts, I always felt an outsider in a town where there were country clubs, but only token Jewish and black members were allowed to join. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where my father was a civil rights lawyer and a partner in the first integrated law firm in the state since Reconstruction. So while I’m not a person of color, I probably identify with the struggles more than some other people.
Guest post by a literary agent, professional translator, online book reviewer, and Latino children’s book expert
Adriana DominguezEnglish is not my first language, though this statement doesn’t ring quite as true now that I have spent most of my life living in the United States, speaking and working in English. But the fact is, when I arrived in the US at age 12, I did not speak a single word of it. I quickly learned to say the phrase “I don’t speak English” so fluidly, that folks often seemed to question the legitimacy of my assertion. Learning a language anytime after the age of twelve is difficult—as difficult as it is to be twelve in the first place! And so I believe that my fascination with reading and language emanates first from the fact that my mother read to me constantly from a very early age, and secondly, that I mostly developed my English language skills by reading lots and lots of books, often with a dictionary on hand to prevent me from getting “stuck” when I came across a term or phrase I did not understand.
By the time I got to college, the bookworm in me was awestricken by the British Romantics and their masterful use of the language, the American greats, like Willa Cather, who resonated with the “new American” in me, Faulkner, who influenced so much of Latin American writing and challenged my own handle on English, and of course, multicultural literature. I joined every literary endeavor offered at my college, from contributing to the school newspaper, to eventually launching a couple of multicultural literary magazines. By the time I graduated from college with degrees in Comparative Literature and Spanish, I knew I wanted to be in publishing. I sent numerous letters and applications for internships to most major publishers, and never received so much as a response (so, to all of those aspiring editors trying to break into publishing: I’ve been there!). I had all but given up and wondered if I should pursue a career that would enable me to exercise my other love, traveling, when I met someone who facilitated my first opportunity in publishing. She worked in children’s publishing, an area that had not even occurred to me to explore. But I wanted to be in publishing and she was willing to help, and that’s all I needed to know! She knew I was bilingual and offered to introduce me to the head of the bilingual education group at Scholastic.
This December, Little, Brown Young Readers will be publishing Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington by Jabari Asim, illustrated by Bryan Collier. I had the honor of working with these two talented men—Jabari’s text is evocative and lyrical, and Bryan’s collage art is, per usual, stunning. This dynamic pairing already makes Fifty Cents and a Dream a special book. But what makes this book even more special is the story itself—a true and often overlooked piece of history about perseverance and triumph.
Booker T. Washington is a common figure in social studies classes. He’s briefly covered in most schools, particularly during Black History Month, grouped with other influential African American leaders. While growing up in Alabama, I learned and relearned about Washington; we had Alabama History every year, up until freshman year in high school. Here’s what I gleaned from my many years with Mr. Washington:
I got into publishing through the back door, so to speak.
Like just about everybody who works in publishing, books were a huge part of my childhood. It amazes me still that my parents, who were not well-to-do at all and had just moved to the States from Korea, somehow managed to mail-order picture books for me before I was even old enough to talk. Even more amazing, English isn’t their first language, so read-alouds weren’t exactly a part of our daily routine. Instead, when I was old enough, I would sit with these books strewn about the room, thumbing through the pages, making up stories based on the pictures.
Not surprisingly, middle grade was the most formative time in my literary life. More specifically, middle school was when I discovered Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club. This series did everything to ignite in me a passion for writing and reading, as well as a love of grammar!, that has only grown since. I am also amazed in retrospect at the diversity of the BSC cast—Look, minorities! On the jackets! As a reader, it didn’t occur to me to even think twice about this, nor did I appreciate it as much as I do now. I mention all this especially because I got to meet Ann M. Martin this very weekend at a Books of Wonder event, where both she, as well as Bloomsbury author and one of my favorite people in the world, Shannon Hale, were panelists. I didn’t think it was possible to get that emotional upon meeting a writer. I was wrong. And when I asked Ann for an autograph, the Newbery Honor winning author wrote, “BSC 4-ever!” Yes. I could have died.
I come from a family of storytellers. When I was growing up in Asia, the stories that my great-grandfather, my grandparents, and my parents told wove to form a matrix, a context for my life. Through stories I understood who I was and where I’d come from, and also where I could go.
One of those stories became my first picture book, Ruby’s Wish. It’s the tale of a girl in Old China who wants to go to university, even though girls weren’t taught how to read or write. The Umbrella Queen followed, about a girl from a Thai village where everyone paints umbrellas the same way. Of course, our heroine wants to paint hers differently.
So you see, my stories were about girls who found ways to do and be more than expected. Imagine my reaction, then, when I watched my niece disappear into a pink princess haze.
“Do you know there were real princesses who didn’t sit around waiting for a prince?” I asked her. There were princesses who changed their own worlds; ones too busy and too empowered to worry about being pretty or popular.
One of my favorite quotations about children’s literature ever comes from the marvelous R. L. Stine: “I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value.” This doesn’t mean that the books in question aren’t good on an aesthetic level, of course. It just means some books don’t have to be anything more than FUN, delivering the big emotions readers crave at every stage of life, but especially as children and YAs: the adrenaline of the fight scene, the thrill of the kiss, the shiver of terror that Mr. Stine renders so expertly. Quite often they’re genre books—fantasies or romances or horror or mysteries—or published in series, like my long-ago-beloved Babysitters Club books. They don’t teach anything, they don’t require too much work from the reader, they’re all about the pleasure of the experience … and the experience is awesome.
Historically, kids of color who wanted to see themselves in these kinds of books have had a hard time finding such stories. And on the flip side, books about people of color have often been presented under an aura of nothing but socially redeeming value, for the history they teach, the cultural information they impart, or the cross-cultural reader’s virtue in picking them up at all. But all of that has been changing, slowly but steadily, and I am now immensely proud to introduce you to a book with a hero of color, in a world drenched with color, and no socially redeeming value at all: The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda.