Thursday, February 07, 2013

Guest Post: Maha Addasi & Yvonne Wakim Dennis on The Rest of America: The Importance of Multicultural & Inclusive Children’s Nonfiction

By Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Maha Addasi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Maha Addasi are the co-authors of A Kid's Guide to Arab American History: More Than 50 Activities (Chicago Review Press, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Many Americans, educators included, mistakenly believe all Arabs share the same culture, language, and religion, and have only recently begun immigrating to the United States.

A Kid’s Guide to Arab American History dispels these and other stereotypes and provides a contemporary as well as historical look at the people and experiences that have shaped Arab American culture. Each chapter focuses on a different group of Arab Americans including those of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and Yemeni descent and features more than 50 fun activities that highlight their distinct arts, games, clothing, and food. 

Kids will love dancing the dabke, constructing a derbekke drum, playing a game of senet, making hummus, creating an arabesque design, and crafting an Egyptian-style cuff bracelet. Along the way they will learn to count in Kurdish, pick up a few Syrian words for family members, learn a Yemeni saying, and speak a little Iraqi.

Short biographies of notable Arab Americans, including actor and philanthropist Danny Thomas, singer Paula Abdul, artist Helen Zughaib, and activist Ralph Nader, demonstrate a wide variety of careers and contributions.

Yvonne and her favorite reader, Luca
From Yvonne: Although there have been improvements since when I was a child, the image portrayed in history books and curriculum is basically the Myth of America: this hemisphere didn’t exist until 1492; these lands had no purpose until 1776; this country was built by and with the values of WASP men with a few other Christians thrown in. And women? Apart from fashioning the flag and fending off hordes of evil Indians, they don’t merit much space.

I’ve felt that my duty is to correct that myth and most of my books have either been about American Indians or multicultural.

I respect kids and their ability to understand so I’ve tried to create nonfiction that maintains the integrity of the oral tradition, engages with storyteller magnetism and hopefully effects long lasting and positive change in a way that’s not didactic or preachy.

Truthfully, I am just tired of the ‘hater grown-ups.’ It was time to tell the truth about Arab Americans as I had with Native peoples. I wanted a co-author, a Muslim born in Arabia. I asked the amazing writer Elsa Marston if she had any ideas. Her suggestions led me to the wonderful Maha Addasi! I learned so much from Maha and appreciate her scholarship, optimism and joyfulness.

Photo of Maha Addasi by Jama Kim Rattigan
From Maha: I spent my undergraduate years at Butler University in Indianapolis, where fellow students were interested in knowing more about life in the Middle East where I grew up. The beauty of being on a college campus is that students have this clean slate and open mind of learning about other cultures without being hung up on the baggage that comes from the political atmosphere and how it can be misconstrued. That genuine interest in the true charm of the Arab-American culture is what I hoped to capture in this book.

Working with Yvonne was a fabulous experience. Yvonne had a list of the stereotypes she wanted to combat that matched mine in length! Our discussions over extended telephone conversations were filled with laughter and were so therapeutic to the soul. This is something collaborative authors seek and rarely find. I’m so glad our paths crossed when they did.

From Maha and Yvonne: Both of us are passionate about our writing and liked each other’s style – important in a collaborative work. Maha is a naturalized citizen and speaks fluent Arabic while Yvonne is a second generation Arab American who only knows Arabic curses. Maha is Muslim; Yvonne follows her father’s traditional Native religion. Our varied experiences were never a problem, but a plus. What was a problem, however, was cramming an entire group of people with diverse cultures, histories and religions into one small book!

Luca Lanoix-Deserie making Belgha slippers
We assigned ourselves specific chapters, but had a free hand in editing and enhancing each other’s work. We read everything we could find on Arab Americans. Sadly, we had to buy most of our books as our local libraries had very little. Not only does Amazon love us, but this was yet another validation for the necessity of this book!

We interviewed dozens of people we knew about or sleuthed down while trolling the internet. Magically, art projects and fabulous people appeared, like New York City’s only remaining sidewalk artist, Hani Shihada, who has decorated the pavement in Yvonne’s very neighborhood!

We took bits and snippets and put it together with activities that would reinforce the text and make Arab American kids proud of their heritage while debunking Arab American stereotypes for all youngsters. We designed projects that are not only fun and cultural, but useful.

We did not trivialize religion by including sacred objects. The esteemed Dr. Jack Shaheen was our professional reader and gave us valuable guidance every step of the way. He is the ‘go to’ expert on Arab Americans and we were thrilled that he offered to help us.

Maha's Inspiration -- children in Petra
We highlighted notable Arab Americans we could connect to a specific activity or if they had an angle of interest or benefit to kids.

We were truthful and confronted stereotypes, racism and hard times.

It was very tough when we had to cut bios of some of our heroes. In many ways, nonfiction is easier to write as we are retelling and sometimes re-framing the truth. However, history can be challenging as we do not want to misinterpret incidents or actions as those people are not around to defend themselves.

The support from everyone, both Arab and non-Arab has been truly amazing. Our efforts and determination have filled a gap and we would like to think that the results of our labors will help publishers and booksellers want to continue to create diverse books that represent all who live in our very diverse nation. Our dedication in the book is how we truly hope this book will be perceived.

Cynsational Notes

A Kid's Guide to Arab American History from the Arab American Institute. Peek: "A Kid’s Guide to Arab American History makes us look forward to a greater Arab American presence in American literature for all ages."

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Book Trailer & Giveaway: Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made and a signed doodle by Stephan Pastis (Candlewick, 2013)(sample chapter)(activity kit). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

 From the promotional copy:

Meet "detective" Timmy Failure, star of the kids' comedy of the year. Created by New York Times best-selling cartoonist Stephan Pastis.

Take eleven-year-old Timmy Failure -- the clueless, comically self-confident CEO of the best detective agency in town, perhaps even the nation. Add his impressively lazy business partner, a very large polar bear named Total. Throw in the Failuremobile -- Timmy's mom's Segway -- and what you have is Total Failure, Inc., a global enterprise destined to make Timmy so rich his mother won't have to stress out about the bills anymore.

Of course, Timmy's plan does not include the four-foot-tall female whose name shall not be uttered. And it doesn't include Rollo Tookus, who is so obsessed with getting into "Stanfurd" that he can't carry out a no-brainer spy mission.

From the offbeat creator of Pearls Before Swine comes an endearingly bumbling hero in a caper whose peerless hilarity is accompanied by a whodunit twist. With perfectly paced visual humor, Stephan Pastis gets you snorting with laughter, then slyly carries the joke a beat further -- or sweetens it with an unexpected poignant moment -- making this a comics-inspired story (the first in a new series) that truly stands apart from the pack.

Cynsational Notes

Attention Central Texans! Stephan Pastis will launch Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made at 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at BookPeople in Austin. Note: there will be cake.

Check out the book trailer for Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis (Candlewick, 2013)(sample chapter)(activity kit).

Cynsational Giveaway

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

New Voice: Miriam Forster on City of a Thousand Dolls

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Miriam Forster is the first-time author of City of a Thousand Dolls (HarperTeen, 2013)(Pinterest inspiration board). From the promotional copy:

Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a child. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. 

Nisha makes her way as Matron’s assistant, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. 

Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city’s handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.

Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls’ deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but her own life.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

Nisha came about after I had the original idea for City of a Thousand Dolls. I had imagined this place where girls would be trained in all kinds of different things, where everyone had a place and a purpose. Then I asked myself what would happen if you had someone in this place who didn't have much of a purpose or place at all. What kind of person would they become?

Originally Nisha was much too passive. She reacted a lot instead of taking initiative. I had to make her more proactive without losing the emotional vulnerability and honest human frailty that I felt was so key to her character. It was a hard balance for me to find, but it was important to me that she not be "strong" in the traditional female fantasy heroine way. I wanted her to make mistakes and stumble around and need help sometimes because we all do.

There is immense strength in not giving up, there is strength in fixing your mistakes and accepting your past. And that strength isn't related to whether or not you can kick ass.

With Kona AKA "Sneaky Weasel Cat"
Also, sometimes character development can sneak up on you. The original ending was riddled with problems and I had to rewrite it quite a bit, but one thing that it had was a scene where Nisha does the classic, detective-analyzes-the-clues bit, and figures out the killer. But in the rewritten ending, she ends up more stumbling into the solution than anything else. I didn’t do that on purpose, in fact I didn’t even realize I’d done it until people started commenting on it. But I think it fits with who Nisha is in the book. She doesn’t fix things by being smarter or better than anyone else. She fixes them by refusing to give up until she does.

And then there are the cats. My favorite comment about the book so far is that it can turn anyone into a cat person. I’ve heard that quite a bit, and it makes me happy.

Cats are in my blood. I grew up with them, there were always at least two or three around when I was a kid. As much as I like dogs, there’s something about cats that just appeals to me. I like their independence, and how they ask for what they want. How they can go from cuddly and affectionate to ferocious hunters in the blink of an eye. They seemed like the perfect companions for Nisha, who is also independent and determined, and far fiercer than she realizes.

(As for the antagonist, I can't tell you anything. It's a secret.)

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

A bit of both. Originally I’d envisioned the book as being about expectations and how they shape people, but in the course of writing the first draft, I realized it was much more about different kinds of love and how they react when faced with human frailty. That part never really changed during rewrites.

Miriam's work station
But the secondary themes and the real world things, those sneaked up on me.

(Other authors have muses that come and whisper to them. My muse likes to hide behind doors and jump out at me and yell "boo!".)

The most obvious one was the idea that girls in this society were considered less valuable than boys. And that happened because I had to answer the question “Why is there a city dedicated to training orphaned and abandoned girls?”

I wish I could say that answer was hard to find, or that I had to think a lot about how to make it believable. But I didn’t.

I’d already figured out that the Bhinian Empire had been isolated by a magic catastrophe, so it made sense that there would be a restriction on the number of children people could have. And sadly, there is ample evidence in the world today that when you have to choose between having boys and having girls, girls lose out. The effects of China’s one-child policy is the most obvious example, but there are others, and I found them in my path wherever I turned.

The Bhinian Empire is a South Asian-inspired world. Specifically, I took a lot of cultural cues from the ancient Indus River valley civilization and from pre-colonization India. And unfortunately, the value of girls in India is falling. In 2006, my husband went to India and visited several orphanages. He was surprised by the overwhelming number of girls there, and was told that many of them were not orphans, but simply abandoned by parents who could not afford their dowries.

In 2011, USA today ran an article about over two hundred girls who changed their names. These girls had all been named some variation of “unwanted” by family members who’d been hoping for a boy. The New York Times ran an article in October about gender politics in India, and said that even though literacy and education for girls is getting better, the ratio of girls to boys continues to fall.

Miriam's favorite food: soup!
So it was all too believable that in a world with a two-child limit, there would be a city dedicated to orphaned and abandoned girls. There are some problematic things about the City of a Thousand Dolls that are revealed in the book, but one constant is that most of the people who work there really believe that they’re doing what they have to in order to protect the girls in their care. Because no one else will.

Honestly, my favorite secondary characters are the girls in the City. I love how they’re all different and that's okay. They have all kinds of skills and talents. Some of them love to learn and some of them love to dance. Some of them are shy and some of them are confident. Some of them match the standards of physically beauty in the society and some of them don't, but that's okay.

All of them are different, and all of them are beautiful.

I didn’t start out to write a book about a bunch of female characters who are full of secrets and brokenness and mistakes but still manage to be strong in different ways. But that was kind of what I ended up with. And I’m okay with that.

"Enough books! Pet me!"

Monday, February 04, 2013

Event Report: Montgomery County (TX) Book Festival

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Last week's highlight was the Montgomery County Book Festival in The Woodlands, Texas.

Thank you to Natasha, Tabatha, their fellow planners, volunteers, the author faculty and reader-participants for making the event such a success!

Please note that a handful of signed copies of Feral Nights are now available (on a sneak preview basis) at Murder By the Book in Houston.

Thanks also to fellow Austinite Cory Putnam Oakes for driving me to the fest!

Authors gather before the reception: Mari Mancusi, Bettina Restrepo, E. Kristin Anderson, Cory Putnam Oakes.
Bettina, Bethany Hegedus & E. Kristin
E. Kristin & Anna Myers at the Friday night reception
Mari & Suzanne Crowley
Krissi Dallas & Cory
Mary Lindsey & Diana Lopez
Lisa McMann & David Macinnis Gill
Tracy Deebs
Me with Kimberley Griffiths Little & Carolee Dean
Dom Testa & Kimberley
Jill S. Alexander & Bethany
Best shoes: Cari Soto
Victoria Scott & Cory
Jo Whittemore in the author green room
David & Kathi Appelt
Sophie Jordan & Mari
Janni Lee Simner & origami triceratops
Krissi in the teen room
Montgomery County goddesses Natasha & Tabatha at Louie's Bar, after the festival
Jo & Nikki Loftin
Me with fellow Walker Books Australia author Brian Falkner
Victoria Scott & Cory
Suzanne, Janet S. Fox & Greg Leitich Smith

Friday, February 01, 2013

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to all the winners, honorees and list makers of the current awards season!

Cheers to the hardworking committee members, and the entire children's-YA literature and publishing community, including young readers, for making 2012 such a success!

A few personal shout outs:

Hooray to my fellow former VCFA faculty member Leda Schubert, whose Monsieur Marceau: Artist Without Words (Roaring Brook, 2012) won the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children!

See Leda Schubert on Monsieur Marceau: Artist Without Words from Cynsations.

Congratulations to fellow Austinite Cynthia Levinson on the recognition for YALSA Nonfiction Award finalist We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March (Peachtree, 2012)!

See a new voice interview with Cynthia and guest post with Cynthia about the book!

Likewise, huge cheers to Toni Buzzeo on the Caldecott Honor for One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small (Dial, 2012)! Toni and I were critique partners early in our careers. I absolutely love this picture book (my favorite of the year!), and I couldn't be more thrilled by her success.

See From Urban Legend to the Boy in the Tuxedo by Toni Buzzeo from Hunger Mountain: A VCFA Journal of the Arts.

Brava, Kelly Starling Lyons, whose Ellen’s Broom, snagged a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Daniel Minter (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012)! Kelly is one of the terrific people behind The Brown Bookshelf: United in Story, highlighting African American children's-YA authors and illustrators.

See also Kelly Starling Lyon's on Ellen's Broom from Cynsations.

Way to go, fellow Texan Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the Belpré Author Award winner for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2012)! The book also was the Stonewall Book Award - Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award winner ("given annually to English-language children’s and young adult books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience") and--wait for it--a Printz Honor Book! Learn more about this novel from NPR books! Note: Ben had me at Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood (Cinco Puntos, 2004) one of my all-time favorite YA books.

More Award News

More Links

Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Paul Schmid from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: "Finding myself unemployed with no clear direction, one day my lovely, brilliant wife suggested I call Steven Malk, a literary agent whom I had made contact with a number of years before. Steve took me on, and we floated out a postcard."

Laura Ellen on Using Criticism from Adventures in YA & Children's Literature. Peek: "Writing is extremely personal. Often we see it as an extension of ourselves and so anything said against it seems like a personal attack. It’s hard to do, but try to take ‘you’ out of the book."

Time Saving Tips When Writing Series by Elizabeth S. Craig from Mystery Writing is Murder. Peek: "The style sheets are emailed in a separate attachment from my edits, and sometimes include the email address of the copyeditor on them, in case I want to make changes to the document."

What We've Learned about Writing Fantasy by Anna Staniszewski from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: "The characters, plot, world, etc. might feel flimsy at first, but every round of revisions will make them stronger."

So You Want to Read Your Reviews by Elizabeth S. Craig from Writing Mystery is Murder. Peek: "In general, we should probably stay away. Your time is better spent writing the next book."

Malín Alegría: A Road Map for Bicultural Youth from CBC Diversity. Peek: "Latinos have lived in the United States for over 500 years. However, mainstream literature rarely portrays strong brown characters as the protagonists. It’s liberating to have the opportunity to write a teen drama that teens across the world can relate to because they speak to typical experiences."

Success: Is It Happening to You, Only You Don't Realize It? by Angela Ackerman from The Bookstore Muse. Peek: "The truth is, there are many indicators of emerging success, not just these biggies. They are smaller, more subtle. Many of us don’t realize what they mean when they happen."

No Crystal Stair: An Interview with Vaundra Nelson by J.L. Powers from The Pirate Tree: Social Justice & Children's Literature. Peek: "I’m no expert on the Pan-African movement. I’m just a storyteller who enjoys history. My understanding is that Lewis (like his father) found inspiration in Garvey’s commitment to blacks building their own businesses, creating their own communities, becoming self-sufficient."

Three Simple Ways to Engage on Your Author Facebook Page by Caitlin Muir from Author Media.  Peek: "Think of each photo as a digital ambassador. Choose them carefully."

Help! Unromantic Me Can't Write Romantic Scenes from Peek: " This isn’t about you, it’s about the characters. A great romantic scene grows out of the characters’ emotional connection with each other across all preceding scenes."

Cynsational Giveaways
Enter to win a paperback copy of Diabolical by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Jean's Book Nerd.

Don't miss New YA Releases & Eight Giveaways (Including Homeland by Cory Doctorow) from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Highlights of the week included Liz Garton Scanlon's launch of Happy Birthday, Bunny! (Beach Lane, 2013) at BookPeople in Austin! See photo report.

Just as jazzy! The release of Janet Fox's Sirens (Speak/Penguin, 2012), likewise at BookPeople. See photo report.
With Bethany Hegedus, agent Alexandra Penfold & Greg Leitich Smith at The Driskill Hotel.

Coming soon in paperback!
Cynthia Leitich Smith Author Interview, Review & Diabolical Giveaway from In-depth, at times quite personal, conversation, celebrating the upcoming paperback release of Diabolical.

Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls from Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature. Peek: "Joe (Joseph Bruchac) and Cyn are two of my favorite writers. I recognize the places they write about, and as a Native kid/teen who grew up at Nambe Pueblo, I recognize the characters they developed for their stories in Girl Meets BoyI know/knew guys like Bobby Wildcat and girls like Nancy Whitepath..."

Thanks to readergirlz for the shout outs for my upcoming releases, Feral Nights and Eternal: Zachary's Story (both Candlewick, Feb. 2013)!

As for new books, a Feral Nights sighting at ALA (photo by Stephanie Light Eames)
Personal Links:
From Greg Leitich Smith:
Cynsational Events

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith (and many more!) Feb. 2 at Montgomery County Book Festival. Check out the art contest; deadline: Jan. 18.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith, Jennifer Ziegler and more at Library Palooza 2013: That Author Thing! will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Brandeis High School in San Antonio.

2013 Novel Writing Retreat for Middle Grade and Young Adult Writers will be March 15 to March 17 at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Peek: "This year's retreat will feature faculty Cynthia Leitich Smith, Lauren Myracle, and Candlewick editor Andrea Tompa."
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