Book Spotlight: The People of Sparks

I often recommend The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau as a case study in immigration. I’d like to mention it here, because it’s not an obvious choice, given that it doesn’t have many of the BISAC Codes we look for in diversity-friendly books.
I won’t speak to whether or not you will love the story….In words of the great LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. 

I will, however, say that the book understands the dynamic of immigration in a way that I rarely see in MG or YA literature, and I was exceedingly grateful to Ms. DuPrau for writing it. The story follows Lina and Doon shortly after they defeat Bill Murray and lead the people of Ember out into the daylight. The Emberites have been inside an elaborate bomb shelter until then, and represent—more or less—a roving population of refugees. The plot centers on their discovery of a settlement called Sparks, and the tensions that arise when the settlers reluctantly take the Emberites into their camp.

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Book Spotlight: The Lions of Little Rock

imageAfter working with Kristin Levine on her first novel, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, I knew that Kristin had a true gift for bringing history alive and making it feel both current and relevant. Her stories are vibrant and suspenseful; her writing reverberates with warmth and deep emotion; her characters feel like trusted friends telling you something true, something you know you need to hear, even if hearing it is a hard thing. So I knew when she shared with me the very first pages of her second novel, The Lions of Little Rock, that Kristin was poised to make a very special literary contribution, she was readying remarkable characters to become our friends—ones who would tell us a very important truth about who we were and who we are. I knew these characters and this book would be beloved, but I had no idea just how strong a chord it would strike. Lilly Ghahremani wrote on her blog yesterday,
The Lions of Little Rock is a powerful book for so many reasons. On the surface it is a sweet, thoughtful tale, and one might mistakenly file it away as historical fiction and believe that the lessons end there. But the point is that the story is important to us today, and will be every day until we properly square away our racial issues. One can only hope that a unique book like this contributes to a gentler younger generation, one that approaches each and every member of their classroom with more interest and understanding. Not just the black children- all children who look a little bit different than them, or act a little bit different. It is a tale of acceptance that I guess I wish more adults would read and learn from.
Lilly had an affecting personal connection to the story and she wrote about that connection poignantly and with grace. It was an emotional experience to read her words. Hers is just the kind of connection I’d hoped readers would make and a testament to why books that show us all of who we are as a society is a must like air or water. Read Lilly’s words, be affected and just a little bit changed.

Inside Out & Back Again

In my previous post about how I got into publishing, I mentioned a particular book that I’ve had the pleasure of working on called Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. We often refer to this title as “our little engine that could” as it falls into the category of “off the beaten path” when one considers that it’s a middle-grade historical novel written in verse. I started at Harper right around the on-sale date of Inside Out and though it wasn’t initially reassigned to me (I later requested to take it over), I heard the buzz around the house grow as it collected starred review after starred review (FOUR total), and then whispers of awards talk started trickling in. Most of the time, we in publishing try to stay mum about awards discussions and probabilities lest we put a jinx on it (call us superstitious).  In this case, however, our highly guarded hopes were rewarded when Thanhha received the National Book Award and then a few months later a Newbery Honor. To top it off, her book then hit the New York Times bestseller list—the final feat completing what I like to call the children’s lit version of the “Triple Crown.”

Working with Thanhha has been an absolute joy. She is everything a publicist could dream of: responsive, gracious, kind, funny, and all of those other marvelous traits you’d want in any friend. Perhaps being an Asian-American myself, I felt a certain connection with Thanhha, and though my own history is a far-cry from her experiences, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride in all that Thanhha and her heroine Hà accomplished. I’ve included one of my favorite poems from the book below, because it hits so close to home. For me, even growing up in a place as diverse as Brooklyn, there was always that feeling lingering somewhere just below the surface of being “medium.”

Black and White and Yellow and Red

The bell rings.
Everyone stands.
I stand.

They line up;
so do I.

Down a hall.
Turn left.
Take a tray.
Receive food.

On one side
of the bright, noisy room,
light skin.
Other side,
dark skin.

Both laughing, chewing,
as if it never occurred
to them
someone medium
would show up.

I don’t know where to sit
any more than
I know how to eat
the pink sausage
snuggled inside bread
shaped like a corncob
smeared with sauces
yellow and red.

I think
they are making fun
of the Vietnamese flag
until I remember
no one here likely knows
that flag’s colors.

I put down the tray
and wait
in the hallway.

September 2
11:30 a.m.

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Feeding the Demand for More Diverse Books

An “It’s Complicated!” post by literary agent Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel

While on faculty at the National Latino Writers Conference last Thursday, a timely


headline read:

For the first time in US history, more than half of all newborn babies born last year are minorities. The entire US population is 36% minority, and this milestone shows how swiftly our nation’s youth is diversifying. 

Yet a recent study by the SCBWI found that in 2010 more than 90 percent of children’s/young adult books published in the US featured white protagonists. As a literary agent, I’ve found it’s important to show publishers there is a demand, and in turn help them feel confident to publish even more diverse voices. As an author advocate, I believe it’s critical for writers of color to see their fellow writers succeed. As a mother, I know it’s urgent that we make sure young readers see themselves in the books they read.

The debut middle-grade novel by Diana Lopez, Confetti Girl (Little, Brown), is an example of a book filled with diversity that doesn’t focus on diversity but instead wraps diversity around a wonderful story. Apolina “Lina” Flores is a sock enthusiast, volleyball player and science lover looking for answers about her life. Filled with colorful Mexican-American cultural details such as dichos, confetti-filled cascarones and cumbia dances, the story struck a chord with middle-schoolers nationwide. 

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Book Spotlight: Summer of the Mariposas

It was tough choosing which of my Tu Books fall titles to share with you this week, as they’re both awesome, and they’re both diverse titles that I want all the world to know about. I had to draw straws, in the end, and Summer of the Mariposas won. This time.

Guadalupe Garcia McCall is known best for her debut novel in verse, Under the Mesquite, which was a finalist for a Morris Award—given for a debut novel—and which won the Pura Belpre Award. McCall carries that same poetic voice to prose in her second novel, a retelling of The Odyssey starring five sisters. I sometimes like to call it a Mexican American Weekend at Bernie’s meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants via The Odyssey. Let me tell you why.

imageWhen Odilia and her four sisters discover a dead man floating in their swimming hole on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, their first instinct is to report the dead body to the authorities. But when one of the sisters, Juanita, finds a family photo in the dead man’s wallet, their path is clinched—he was a father with two small children at home. They decide they will return the dead man to his family in Mexico, despite Odilia’s opposition to this plan. Eventually Odilia is overruled and she joins them on the urging of the ghostly legend La Llorona, who tells Odilia that this quest is something the five sisters must undertake. La Llorona will be their guide. They pile into their father’s old car and set off on an adventure to Mexico.

While returning the dead man to his family doesn’t come without its disappointments, the most challenging portion of their trip comes on their attempt to return home to their mother, when they must defeat a witch, a nagual (warlock), a chupacabras, and a coven of lechuzas while navigating the desert of northern Mexico on foot. Can the Cinco Hermanitas truly stay “together forever, no matter what” through these challenges? Can they face the ultimate real-world challenge once they make it home, where La Llorona and other magical means can no longer assist them?

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Book Spotlight: The Savage Fortress

imageOne 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. 

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Book Spotlight: Fifty Cents and a Dream

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:

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