Mitali Perkins is the author of nine children’s books. She has received awards from the New York Public Library, American Library Association and the Junior Library guild for her titles Rickshaw Girl, Bamboo People and her latest, Tiger Boy, respectively.
I met Mitali at the April 2015 NESCBWI conference. Mitali gave the most wonderful presentation on race and culture in children’s writing. Obviously pulling from her experience as a teacher, her program was well prepared and her presentation skills were remarkable. Thank you for that Mitali and welcome to Writers’ Rumpus.
Marti Johnson: You’ve traveled the world, studied Political Science and Public Policy, and taught at primary and secondary levels. When did you decide to write and what inspired you?
Mitali Perkins: I’ve always written for the sheer pleasure of it. I still have stories and poetry that I wrote when I was nine years old. I’ve also always wanted to help the poor and fight for justice. The “aha” moment was realizing the intersection of those two vocations. I knew firsthand from my own childhood about the power of stories to widen hearts and change minds. Why not connect my love of storytelling with my desire to empower the poor and marginalized?
MJ: Mitali, your SCBWI presentation highlighted 12 key points of how to or not to evoke race and/or culture in children’s writing. I do have multi-racial characters in my YA WIP. Their description and life stories are, I hope, respectful of their heritage but I try to present them as everyday American teens. I do not allow their race to influence their role in my story. You, however, caused me to stop and think about how I ‘define beauty’ in my writing. As you suggested, if I define beauty as a girl with long flowing hair and big round eyes, I am probably not describing a girl of African, Asian, or even Swedish decent. It was startling to me that my own predetermined notion of beauty could be, in an innocent and unintentional way, off-putting to others. Could you comment on that?
MP: I have memories of bounding joyfully through a book, relishing the narrative, identifying with the main character, until I’d run smack into a physical description of attractiveness. The details given by the author never matched my own appearance, and rarely matched what my own imagination had drawn for the characters (especially the hot guy love interest.) I’m not sure if this means drawing back from heavy-handed physical description, widening the definition of beauty by diversifying our characters, or both, but I do ask us to pay attention to the messages about physical attractiveness in our fiction. An unexamined manuscript-in-progress is bound to include attitudes and beliefs we don’t even know we had.
MJ: Do you see progress in the diversity of children’s literature? What more can writer’s do?
MP: Yes and no. I do love the new passion and energy in the discussion around diversity and children’s books, and am excited that more people are thinking and talking about it, but I never want to see the wrong means (exclusion) used to justify the right ends (inclusion). I’d also like to see more writers, editors, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, artists and agents who grew up marginalized at the intersections of class and race. Instead of a focus on race, for example, which is such a socially-constructed, fluid way to categorize people, I am hoping for a focus on first-generation college students, or to support storytellers who never started or finished a secondary education. I’d like to see a breakthrough in the U.S. marketplace, so that a story about a young hero from such a background captures the collective cultural imagination. The Hunger Games, with a female protagonist, was devoured by male readers and shattered the myth that “guys don’t read about girl heroes.” I’d also like to see books cross borders, with more non-American books sold here and more American-made books sold overseas. What can writers do? Read, buzz, and share about books that are by and about those who survived or are surviving childhood without our particular set of privileges.
MJ: Your latest story, Tiger Boy, is a fabulous tale of boyhood empowerment without involving sports. Even a big Boston sports fan like myself sees this as an accomplishment. Where did you get the inspiration for the story?
MP: My father grew up in a Bengali village. He was a gifted student, but without the help of a few people who invested in him, would not have had the chance to pursue higher education. He became a civil engineer who helped to build ports and harbors all around the world. (Also, there would be no me around to write books like Tiger Boy.) What if my father’s talents had been overlooked and wasted? What if the talents of many children who don’t have access to opportunities could be stewarded and put to good use, especially in their own communities?
MJ: In the author’s note for Tiger Boy, you highlight the economic and environmental struggle facing the Sunderbans, its people, and the wild Bengal tigers that live there. Was your desire to create social awareness of their plight an impetus for or a result of your research for the story? And, have you seen any positive impact from the book’s release?
MP: I write about the things I care about, but hope that the story stands alone as a darn good yarn, despite my desire to create social awareness about an issue.
MJ: Are any of your other stories written with public awareness messages? Is this a theme for you going forward?
MP: Writing about race, poverty, and power has always been a passion, and I don’t think it will change. I do like humor and fantasy, though, so let’s see.
MJ: You have nine novels from five different publishers. Share with us a little background on your marketing effort. Do you have an agent?
MP: My agent is Laura Rennert of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She is marvelous and we have been together since the dawn of time. Well, not quite, but almost. We moved from publisher to publisher at first mostly because my books were rejected quite a bit. Now I leave a lot to Laura when it comes to matching my stories with the right editors/publishers. She is for me. She knows me. She knows the editors and houses. I trust her with my career.
MJ: Anything you’d like to share with us? What about your next project?
MP: I am signing a two-book contract for picture books with FSG. I wrote one book already and will write the next soon. I’m working on a novel that is personal, arduous, and driving me insane, but Laura seems to think it will find a market. Let’s see.
Thank you so very much for your time and insights Mitali. You’ve certainly raised my awareness of diversity in children’s literature, as well as, provided me with a very enjoyable yarn indeed. I wish you continued success in your writing.
Novels by Mitali Perkins: The Tiger Boy, Charlesbridge; Open Mic: Riffs On Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, Candlewick; Bamboo People, Charlesbridge; Secret Keeper, Random House; Rickshaw Girl, Charlesbridge; First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, Dutton; First Daughter: White House Rules, Dutton; Monsoon Summer, Random House; Sunita Sen, Little Brown.