SBBT: The Accomplished Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins (on right side of picture) is the talented author of The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, Monsoon Summer, Rickshaw Girl, and First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover. I’ve read all of these books except for First Daughter, and really enjoyed each one. I was pleased that each of these books featured strong girl role models. I’ll have my next list up soon and Mitali’s books will definitely be on it.

Check out all the awards Mitali received for her books: Sunita Sen was honored as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, an ALA Recommended Book for the Reluctant Young Reader, Christian Schools Association’s Lamplighter Award Winner, CBC Notable Children’s Social Studies Book, nominated for the Mark Twain Award, Children’s Book Council Summer 2005 Showcase Title, a California State Eureka! Title, and selected for Scholastic Book Fairs and the Scholastic Book Club.

Monsoon Summer received the distinction of the 2005 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, Bank Street 2005 Best Children’s Books of the Year, nominated for the 2006-2007 Lamplighter Award, Texas Library Association TAYSHAS 2005-2006 Best Books for Young Adults, nominated for the Rhode Island 2007 Teen Book Award, nominated for Maryland’s 2006-2007 Black-Eyed Susan Award, nominated for Nevada’s 2007 Young Reader Award, CBC-NCSS 2005 Notable Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, recommended by Teen People, Guideposts Sweet 16,Cosmo Girl UK, and Justine Magazine.

Rickshaw Girl was chosen as the Cooperative Children’s Books Center Book of the Week.

Mitali has three new books to be released: First Daughter: White House Rules, 2008, Asha Means Hope, 2008 and The Bamboo People, 2009.

And now, here’s Mitali.

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HWM: Your books focus on strong girl characters. I understand from your bio that you have sons. Are they jealous your books are all about the girls? Why is it so important to you that your books feature strong girl characters?

Mitali: While my sons are proud of me, they wouldn’t want to discover a character in my books who resembled them in any way. The good news (for them) is that if a hot girl in their school reads and likes my book, she just might glance their way with a new gleam in her eye.

My books feature strong girls perhaps because I am still the same stubborn, opinionated loud-mouth I was when I was fourteen.

HWM: Do you have any plans to write books on strong boy characters?

Mitali: I have a book coming out in 2009 from Charlesbridge called The Bamboo People which features not one, but two boy protagonists. I had to research guns and land mines to write it. It’s the story of a boy soldier in Burma who’s forced to join the army against his will and a Karenni refugee who’s fighting against that army for the survival of his people hiding in the jungles.

HWM: The title of your book, The Sunita Experiment, was changed to The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen. I actually picked up both books, thinking that one was the sequel to the other. Why did you or your publisher decide the title needed to be changed? What has been the general feedback.

Mitali: Sorry about the confusion — you’re not the first to make that assumption. When Little Brown decided to re-issue the book a decade after it was first published, there was talk that the original title (The Sunita Experiment) made the book sound more like an action-adventure novel (The Bourne Identity, etc.) than a middle school read. Feedback post-title-change has been “way, way too long,” and “why’d you change it?” Nowadays, most people just refer to the novel as “Sunita Sen.” As for the new cover, I still think the the painting on the original is gorgeous, but kids absolutely love the photo on the re-issue, and so do I.

HWM: In Rickshaw Girl, Naima loves to paint beautiful alpana patterns. I understand your mother (see picture) is quite talented in this wonderful art. How are your artistic skills in alpana painting?

Mitali: Funny you should ask — I spent last Sunday afternoon with our 8-year-old houseguest drawing alpana patterns on the sidewalk (with chalk, not the traditional rice paste paint). I’ve definitely improved since the book came out; I watched my Mom intently as she demonstrated the art during our joint appearances.

HWM: You have such an interesting life. You’ve lived in different countries. You’ve taught in Thailand. You’ve been a visiting professor. How has all this shaped your writing?

Mitali: “Interesting” could easily be replaced by “unsettled” if you’re a glass half-empty kind of person. Positively, living in so many places has deepened my understanding of universal human characteristics, like humor and joy and sorrow. Negatively, I know what it is to always feel like a visitor or a stranger and never quite at home. That’s why one vision for my writing and on-line presence is to create safe spaces for other travelers, especially young ones.

HWM: You’ve written non-fiction books on the weighty topic of media and religion: Ambassador Families: Equipping Your Family to Engage Popular Culture and Approaching the Bible: Islam and Christianity. What inspired you to write these books?

Mitali: Both books were about building bridges between groups who could benefit from a better understanding of each other’s cultures — Muslims and Christians, parents and teenagers. That’s not a new theme in my writing. Many geezers are terrified of the fast-paced techno-glitz our kids encounter and look back with longing to the days of our youth — or some idealized version of that time period. My take is that every culture, including youth culture, demonstrates beautiful, life-giving aspects of the human experience as well as some ugly, soul-killing stuff. Do we really want to go back to
the day when you and I couldn’t drink from the same water fountain, or when children everywhere were dying of diseases that are now history? No way! I prefer to dive into the deep end of youth culture and celebrate the grace I find there.

HWM: What made you decide to leave the world of academia to write children’s books? What do you enjoy about being a children’s book author? What do you enjoy about writing non-fiction?

Mitali: Monsoon Summer came out ELEVEN years after The Sunita Experiment (which I wrote as a hobby/cheap therapy while teaching at Pepperdine University). After that, I remember debating and thinking hard about whether I wanted to pursue a doctorate in political science. I loved teaching so much. But I was starting to love being a mother, too, and hating those difficult choices about how to spend a daily quota of 24 hours. Some people can do many things at once, but I’m a terrible multi-tasker — I figured I’d end up failing at both vocations. So for me, it wasn’t a choice between academia and children’s books — I took a hiatus between the two vocations to raise the boys while they were small.

The good news is that through author visits I get to teach without having to grade papers or exams — one thing I love about being a children’s book author. Here’s my series on why I write for kids, if you want to see some of the other reasons the vocation rocks. As for non-fiction, I doubt I’ll write a book, but I try and keep the aging left brain in good working order by writing articles every now and then, like this one for School Library Journal’s Curriculum Connections.

HWM: Your books have been published quite steadily over the past few years. When you first started writing, was it difficult to find an agent or publisher who was interested in publishing multicultural books? Do you think the marketing process is different for multicultural books?

Mitali: Part of the reason Monsoon Summer was rejected by so many publishers was because “kids in America won’t want to read a book set mostly in India.” Good thing Random House didn’t feel that way — it’s been my bestselling book to date. My agent, Laura Rennert, agreed to represent me years ago after reading The Bamboo People, which is set along the Thai-Burma border and has also traveled the Rounds of Rejection. Laura has a heart and eye for great international reads, and so does Charlesbridge’s Judy O’Malley, who finally acquired Bamboo.

One thing that’s tough about the word “multicultural” is that you’re never sure if the book is rejected/ignored or praised/celebrated mainly because of that label. I have low moments of self-doubt, wondering if I’m not as good of a writer as white folk but have gotten published or reviewed favorably because I’m brown. I also have depressing episodes of industry-doubt, wondering if my book is being overlooked because it features brown characters. The only remedy is to tell the voices to shut up, stop second-guessing myself and others, and concentrate with all my might on telling a story well. (See Hazel Rochman’s fantastic Horn Book article, “Against Borders,” if you want insight into how apartheid can come creeping into the world of children’s literature).

HWM: Which character do you think is most like you and why?

Mitali: None of them. All of them. The only character I’ve EVER written who is true to life is the grandfather in Sunita’s story — he is exactly like my beloved Dadu in Calcutta who died when he was 98 years old. I miss him every day.

HWM: What has been the biggest challenge of your writing career and how did you tackle it?

Mitali: Failure. So many rejections. I just kept plodding on and never giving up. I also learned how to revise. Also, success (or what feels like success after years of rejection). I’m back to making those difficult decisions about twenty-four hours that I still hate. Of course, in this business, failure and success tend to play “tag, you’re it,” so I could be back to the more relaxed lifestyle of rejections in a heartbeat.

HWM: What has been the biggest surprise of your writing career?

Mitali: How much I enjoy using the internet to my benefit as a writer and what a techie geek I’m turning out to be.

HWM: If you could share any unique writing tip to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Mitali: I’d shout out Winston Churchill’s timeless rallying cry in perfect imitation of his gravelly upper-crust voice: “Nevah give in! Nevah give in! Nevah, nevah, nevah!”

Thank you for hosting me, HWM.

Thank you Mitali for sharing your thoughts with us!

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More places to find Mitali:

Mitali’s website
Mitali’s blog
Paper Tigers Outreach
Sameera Righton’s blog: First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, 2007)
Read Chapter One of First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover
YouTube of Sameera Righton
Kelly’s SBBT interview with Mitali
7 Imp’s SBBT interview with Mitali

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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