Building Community through Reading and Art

IMG_2483.jpgLast weekend, I had the privilege of receiving the FOCAL award for my middle grade historical novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh. The award is given by the Friends of Children and Literature, a group that was founded in 1979. Its founding was a radical act. LA Public Library was considering doing away with the children’s section and the group was formed to raise awareness of children’s books in the community and to bring families from all over the area to the library for reading related programs, including puppet shows. Membership has grown from a dedicated group of twenty volunteers to hundreds of participants. Their energy and vision was evident at the award luncheon.

Maria puppet.jpgFor starters, the award is a puppet. Yes, that is correct. This puppet, my main character, Maria. I got to meet the puppet-makers, Jesse Kingsley and Moira Lael Macdonald.  For each year’s award, the organizers commission two puppets. One goes to the author of the winning book, the other resides in the library in a special cabinet dedicated to the nearly four decades that the award has been given to exemplary books with California content. Susan Patron, David Klass, Beverly Cleary–my book was in the best company!

Then there were the essays. I sat at a table with the young writers of three winning essays about my book. They got to read their essays out loud. Each one was touching, genuine, personal, and keenly voiced in the way that only children’s writing can be. So that’s two art forms–puppetry and nonfiction writing–threaded into the afternoon.

A third artistic creation was on each table–a centerpiece lovingly designed and crafted by students from  L1090031.jpgNobel Middle School. Each depicted the same scene from the book, all the details drawn from a careful reading. I got to meet the readers–Dylan, Enna, Allison, Miranda, Yume, and Eliana– who created the center pieces, along with Ray Moszkowicz, the art teacher who has adopted this project.

So thank you, FOCAL President Caroline Gill and the award committee. I learned so much by being a part of this year’s luncheon. This wasn’t just about one book. It was about weaving creative thinking into a year-long process. It was about the building of community.


Thank you, APALA and Amelia Bloomer List Committees


StepUpToThePlate_final_coverStep Up to the Plate, Maria Singh took me thirteen years to write. It was a process of slow, repeated revisions, lots of tossed pages and plenty of feedback from many informed readers. So now that it’s out in the world, it’s very nice to see the book getting a little recognition, thanks to to the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association and the Amelia Bloomer Project. Why does a story come bubbling into the mind and demanding a writer’s attention repeatedly? I don’t know, but it’s rewarding now to look back at the notes, the edited versions, the comments from readers, the questions from my writing group, my scribbled asides, the research material–to look at all that and know that others find meaning in what I have managed to make of it.  Time can sometimes be a writer’s friend.

The Legacy of a Newbery Winner from 1928

gayneckI’m grateful to Pooja Makhijani for including my comments in her terrific article in The Atlantic on 1928 Newbery winner Dhan Gopal Mukerji. It made me think about how politics, the laws of nations, and the upheavals of history can disrupt the narratives of people’s lives. We are restless beings, humans. Always have been, ever since the days we streamed out of Africa and ended up in the remotest corners of the planet.  Religion and politics, tyranny and dictatorships have tried to contain us, sometimes successfully. Sometimes we have managed to burst out from behind the restraints they’ve tried to impose. Sometimes only poets, artists, and novelists have the courage to speak the truth.

In 1928, when Dhan Gopal Mukerji went to receive his Newbery medal, he had to hide behind a stand of trees. The award had to be kept secret until the announcement. In a crowd of white librarians, his presence would have given away his status as the winner.

In our time, you’ll find a good number of brown-skinned attendees at the Newbery awards announcements. Yet surprisingly, few of the well-informed, highly educated people at those gatherings today will have even heard of Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Makhijani writes:

…90 years on, this once-celebrated book, which has remained in print since its publication, is rarely mentioned in discussions of racial and ethnic diversity in books for kids, as if Mukerji were some sort of aberration rather than an early chapter of what could have been.

Had the immigration laws not clamped down upon Asians after 1917, Pooja asks, what would books for children look like in the United States today? We may as well ask, what would society look like? Might it be kinder, more inclusive? The story of the bicultural Yuba City families, too, (of which my novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh is a fictional rendering), is largely forgotten. We seem to want to erase the complications of the past, instead of learning from them.

Children’s books constitute an important layer of self for every literate adult. The fuses they light burn long into the future. The rise of xenophobia in American society suggests that we desperately need the adults of tomorrow to be endowed with rich imaginations, empathy for others, and the will to overcome petty differences. Acknowledging and honoring the history of our own field can only help us give tomorrow’s adults the gifts that writers are uniquely able to offer–foresight, intuition, the long view, compassion.

An Untold History, A Working Title

There are many stories that never get included in history textbooks and many others that should be part of the contemporary discourse but get overlooked. Political mayhem regardless, books for children have begun to take such stories on in fiction, nonfiction, and innovative combinations. Here are just a few:


Ticktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller, illus. by David C. Gardner


No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illus. by R. Gregory Christie


Viva, Rose! by Susan Krawitz


Calling the Water Drum by LaTisha Redding, illus. by Aaron Bond


Cover art by Nidhi Chanani

Now, with the release of Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, I’m honored to have been able to bring one of these untold narratives to the page. More on the book on Kitaab World, The Book Smugglers, Teen Vogue Ms. Yingling Reads, and Cynsations. Thank you all!

Lee and Low, the diversity source for anyone who reads, is absolutely the perfect publisher for this book. They have staked out that very space in the children’s publishing market, after all, over so many years–the space of stories that don’t usually get told. Thanks as well to writer and educator Tami Charles who offers ways that teachers can use my book in the classroom.

At one time this book had a different title. It was only a working title, the sort you know won’t last, but it holds the story ahead of you in some mirage you keep on following. In that way, the working title keeps you working. At the outset, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh was called “Summer’s Promise.”

At this moment, with this book out, summer promises to be a season of gratitude.