Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hunger to Learn

As many as 115 million children of primary school age are not enrolled in school.

Millions of children around the world don’t have access to education because their families are too poor to afford to send them to school. In most cases, these children would do anything to learn, for they know it’s the only way to better yourself and climb out of their desperate way of life.
In Bengal, India, one schoolboy is trying to change that. I saw Babar Ali for the first time in BBC's Hunger to Learn series. He is first one in his family to get a formal education -- he travels over an hour each way to school and on his return, presides over a school he put together for children in his economically deprived village. Today, he holds classes for over 800 students who don’t have access to any form of education. His amazing project is transforming their lives.
Read the full BBC story and watch a short video about Babar Ali and his school here: The Youngest Headmaster in the World
Source: BBC

Monday, October 26, 2009

Writer Connections

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. -W. Somerset Maugham

Writing is a lonely pursuit and you can spend years, staring at your computer, creating imaginary worlds in your mind, translating them onto paper. When you’re brave enough, you venture out and meet other writers, the only other souls who understand what it is exactly that you do (and why you aren’t on the NYT best seller list YET) One of the best organizations for connecting and networking with writers is the SCBWI -- the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Our local chapter is headed by the amazing duo of Margaret Speaker Yuan and Colette Weil. I met them at a writer’s retreat they put together four years ago and their support and advice over the years has been incalculable.

This past Saturday a group of 100 plus authors came together at the SCBWI Fall Conference hosted at Mills College in Oakland. The keynote speaker, Stephen Mooser, is President and co-founder of SCBWI. His talk, Getting Young Readers to Laugh, was a practical approach to writing for young readers and he outlined ways to inject humor into your work – which has helped him get the attention of boy readers and kept them reading.
Kelly Sonnack, a literary agent from Andrea Brown Literary Agency, spoke about Capturing a Child’s Voice. She brought great samples of how to get into a child’s head and write from their perspective – voice is one of the toughest things to nail down – it’s like riding a bike, difficult to figure it out, but once you do, it’s like you always knew how. Voice is what gives your writing it authentic fingerprint; it animates your characters with a unique personality that is an extension of your point of view. It grabs the reader’s attention hooks them into your story.
Sarah Shumway, Senior Editor at Harper Collins highlighted the importance of First Pages: Tips and Techniques. She discounted common convention that your book needs to jump right into action, or meat of the story; slower starts are okay as long as they hook the reader in and keep them reading. She read and critiqued a group of pages turned in by conference attendees. Grammatical mistakes are a sure fire way to get Sarah to stop reading – if you can’t use spell check she’s not going to waste time on your manuscript.
Luan Stauss, owner of Laurel Bookstore, provided awesome insight on how to work with local booksellers to promote your books. As writers, our job is to write great books, and in turn a booksellers job is to sell your books, which benefits both. According to Luan, Indies can support authors through hosting author events and handselling your book. Book an appointment with your local bookstore so that they know about you, their local author – it’s a win-win situation!
Barbara Fisch and Sarah Shealy have twenty years experience in the publishing industry and launched Blue Slip Media in March 2009. They gave great tips through their talks -- Niche Publicity and Marketing — How to Tap Unusual Markets and What to expect when you’re expecting . . . a Book: How to Partner with Your Publisher in Marketing Your "Baby". At a time when publishers are stretched thin and have limited resources to spend on marketing campaigns, it falls on authors to get creative – They spoke about effective press releases, targeted mailing lists, niche and local market outreach, and event planning. They stressed the importance of pursuing online media (Facebook, blogs, twitter, etc.) and tapping into personal networks. One of the best pieces of advice they gave was to act professional and Be Nice – it’s easier to catch flies with honey rather than vinegar!
So if you’re a writer, lurking at the back at your local cafĂ©, isolated, alone, I urge you to join a writers group, such as the your local chapter of SCBWI. You’ll meet great people and have the opportunity to attend interesting, informative events.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Eyebrows & Chocolate

The word "chocolate" comes from the Aztec word "xocolatl", which means "bitter water"

I grew up eating Cadburys and it's delectably good chocolate. In order to portray a hipper image (since sales were slacking, dunno why) the company launched a new series of television ads, which are brilliant. These kids remind me of when I was ten... and just as geeky :)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nook n’ Kindle

The first eBook readers, Rocket eBook and Softbook, were launched in 1998

Sounds like a picture book about kittens! But no, it is the latest salvo into the eBook wars!

Competition has heated up with Barnes and Nobles Nookish entry! (The business side of me wonders if they whether the folks cooked up the name internally or hired a naming firm). More the better I say; the publishing industry is changing by starts, leaps, fits and bounds and eBooks are not only an environmentally friendly option (less dead trees), but they allow a new channel for book delivery (the author in me likes that).
My husband got me a Kindle, from Amazon, for my last birthday – I was sucked in by its aesthetics, ease of use and the fact that I could download a book in less than sixty seconds… like getting your reading fix instantaneously. (I will say that holding a real, dead tree utilized book is psychologically comforting, reminiscent of childhood and good reads.) The new Nook has similar features to the Kindle with a couple of additions – it has a color LCD mini touch screen (Kindle is black and white) and a unique feature called LendMe which allows the purchaser of a BN eBook to share that file with someone else. There’s no limit on how many times an eBook can be lent--only that you can lend an eBook to one person at a time, and just for up to 14 days. It's priced to match Kindle at $259, but unfortunately will not ship until November 30, cutting it close to the holidays.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Thousand Words

The word photography derives from the Greek words ‘photos’ - meaning light and ‘graphien’ - to draw

Source: Steve McCurry
I remember seeing this cover of National Geographic in 1985, while visiting Pakistan. As I read the story, I realized that the Pukhtun girl with the haunting green eyes, was just north of me on the Afghan border, in a refugee camp. Afghanistan had been invaded by the Soviet Union and the country was a war zone. Her face wasn’t the only thing that troubled me – it was the fact that she was the same age as me, and she had lost everything. A picture does truly paint a thousand words, and with a glance she told us the story of war, death, fear, hunger and loss. It was this picture, taken by the talented photo journalist Steve McCurry, which got me interested in photography. Steve is widely recognized as one of the best photographers of our time, known for his ability to capture the human spirit on camera, and his evocative, color photography -- this picture was chosen as National Geographic’s 100 Best. When I got back to school I joined Mr. Yurkovich’s Photo Club and immersed myself in the world of cameras, lenses, film and the darkroom.
I, along with thousands of others rejoiced when Steve McCurry found Sharbat again, 17 years later – they verified it was truly her by obtaining verification through iris-scanning technology and face-recognition techniques used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Over the years thousands of people wanted to adopt her, send her money or help her in some way. Although I was glad she’d been found, I was saddened. She was my age, yet she looked a decade older. When Steve saw her again, he showed her the picture for the first time. She had never seen the picture, nor know that her face had become an icon. Sharbat and her family where given financial assistance, and she returned to a remote region of Afghanistan with her husband and three daughters. She used part of the money to educate her daughters, so that they have a better future.

Although I did not pursue photography professionally, I still love taking pictures and photography plays a key role in my novel, SHOOTING KABUL.

Friday, October 16, 2009


The ancestry of all 44 presidents is limited to the following heritages, or some combination thereof: Dutch, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swiss, German, and Africian
I had the opportunity to hear Barack Hussein Obama speak last night, while he was in San Francisco. It was a chance to see a man who’s beaten many odds to become President, and it was too good to pass up. President Obama is a lot of firsts - the first African-American President, first from the state of Hawaii, the first with a Muslim middle name, and a Nobel Prize winner to boot. Regardless of his politics, whether you agree or disagree, he is an impressive orator. Plus we got to hear Tracy Chapman, whose soulful voice and lone, throbbing guitar got everyone going.
Although I follow politics pretty closely (hey I have a husband who teaches the subject), I’m pretty much a voyeur and not that politically active (though I did run as my class vice president in high school, and won). Usually, when it comes to voting, I on focus on issues that are important to me and don’t tow a party or representative line - I’ve voted for both republicans and democrats at a national and local level (I voted for one of the Bushes… guess which one?)
I’ve always thought the best leaders, of any party, were those who could empathize with others– politicians who’ve seen their parents use food stamps are more likely to address poverty; those who’ve struggled for an education know its importance for changing a child’s future; those who’ve travelled know that people around the world want the same things for themselves and their children as we do at home.
Although I enjoyed President Obama’s twenty five minute speech, it was his last sentence that struck me the most – like most politicians he stated that he wanted to leave this world a better place for children in America, but where he differed was when he added that he wanted to leave a world a better place for children around the globe. It really struck me how his unique upbringing (having lived in other countries and having a diverse extended family) allows him to expand his vision of America’s place in the global sphere – we are a superpower, and our actions affect not only Main Street and Wall Street but Any Street around the world. Although I may not agree with all of President Obama’s initiatives, as our Commander in Chief, I have the hope he will leave us, and the world, a better place than how he found it.
PS. This is an excerpt from the Nobel Prize Committee as to why he was chosen:
…through his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples ... Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position ... Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts ... Obama [has] captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Two Ms. Pierces'

Studies have shown that American children who learn to read by the third grade are less likely to end up in prison, drop out of school, or take drugs

There’s an open secret in the publishing world that to get boys to read, the protagonist should be a boy. Historically, children's books abound with male protagonists who have adventures, save the world and accomplish mighty feats and reap the glories, whether they are Peter Pan, Charlie Bucket, Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Although I this is a blanket statement and I don’t agree with if fully (I’ve met lots of boys, and grown men, who love Ramona and Laura Ingalls Wilder) there is a tinge of truth to the sentiment. In WordHustler’s interview with Ben Barnhart, Young Readers Editor at Milkweed Editions, he states --
“Girls make up, by a wide margin, the larger audience of readers, and there’s a lot of debate about whether boys simply don’t read or whether they don’t read because publishers are only publishing books for girls. There’s also a rule of thumb that says girls will read books about both boy and girl protagonists, whereas boys will only read books about boy protagonists.”
Although girls are omnivores of the reading world, they need to have access to books that have nuanced female protagonists. These characters should reflect a host of personality types, face adversity, succeed and fail at whatever they strive for. At the end of the day, the key for an author is to create characters who resonate with the reader – readers, whether they are boys or girls, need to believe in the protagonists journey and take away something from having read the book.
I encountered Alanna when I was elementary school, and I was hooked. Here was a girl after my own heart – a girl who defies convention and becomes a knight. She has successes and failures, yet prevails through it all. Tamora Pierce wrote ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE in 1983 and it was a ground breaking series of novels. Within a year I stumbled across Meredith Ann Pierce's DARK ANGEL trilogy, about a young slave girl, Aeriel, who defeats vampires and saves the world. These are books both boys and girls should read – the character of the protagonists transcends sex, and their accomplishments are universal.
The two Ms. Pierces’ introduced readers to tough minded, multi dimentional characters who went for what they wanted, stumbled, failed and succeeded, but perhaps not in ways they thought they would, or should. They got me love reading and planted the seeds to write – so thank you!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Indian to Indian

One in every 130 people living in the United States today is Native American.

Last night, my nieces reminded me that today was Columbus Day. I got to thinking about Christopher -- a monumental, yet controversial figure. After five centuries, he has been variously described as one of the greatest maritime navigators, a visionary genius, a mystic, a national hero, a failed administrator, a naive entrepreneur, and a ruthless and greedy imperialist.
Soon it triggered a memory of when I was a twelve. While visiting my sister, who was a college student, we hopped on a bus and headed across Oakland towards UC Berkeley. One of the regulars on the bus, a dapper old lady – a social butterfly and self proclaimed bus monitor, looked at us and asked where we were from. We said we were Indian. She paused a moment, analyzed our appearance and asked, “From which tribe?” My sister and I looked at each other and it dawned on us that she thought we were Native American. “No,” replied my sister. “We’re not that kind of Indian,” we’re from India. “Oh,” she said, and wandered off.

Photo 1: White Shield, an Indian Chief, 1908 by Edward S. Curtis. Photo 2: Maharaja of Patiala’, Bhupinder Singh, source unknown.
So, I’m the kind of Indian Columbus was actually looking for when he set sail from Spain, hoping to hit the Indies. His charter was to establish a foothold for Spain in the lucrative spice trade, which at the time was controlled by the Arabs and the Italians. And he would have found us if he’d followed common convention and gone east, over land, instead of west, across the sea. But instead, he had the idea that crossing the Atlantic was faster – he believed that earth's circumference was smaller than commonly agreed upon, thus the route would be quicker. I wonder what would have happened if he’d found us, instead of the Americas, and not set forth the domino effect of exploration, imperialism, colonization, exploitation and the eradication of native peoples.
I just reread Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. When I read it, years ago, they were simply words on a page – powerful and impactful for sure, but it wasn’t’ till I saw him speak at SCBWI LA, that the words transformed into a living reality of what the repercussions of Columbus travel plans were – so here was the other Indian that Columbus had mistakenly found. The reality sank into my bones and hit me viscerally. So we are connected, the two Indians, in an odd tenuous way -- and for what is worth, I’m very, truly sorry Columbus didn’t go east instead of west.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Saudi Sojourn

Camels have a reputation for spitting but they don't, it would be a waste of water. What they are actually doing is vomiting on you.

Whenever people find out that I grew up in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, they ask if I went to school on a camel. And sometimes… they’re serious. So for the record – we did not travel via camel to school. We actually had a school bus, the same bright orange one with the green seats that bounced when you went over a speed bump. The next question people ask is what I was doing in Saudi Arabia, camel, or no camel. Well, I moved to Jubail when my father, a civil engineer, was transferred there for work, when I was four. So, in the mid 1970’s, my family packed up our house in San Francisco bay area and moved to the Arabian peninsula, a newly industrializing country, flush with oil wealth.
Overall, there were pros and cons growing up in the Middle East, but the pros heavily outweighed the cons, and my memories are of an idyllic childhood -- we lived on compounds next to a long stretch of turquoise beach, where my girl-scout troop camped out. For kids it was wonderful – we had our own commissaries (with local and imported goods), swimming pools, tennis courts and dozens of playgrounds. We kids ran around like banshees from sun up to sun down, with school slotted in the middle. Our school, Jubail Academy, which I attended from Kindergarten to ninth grade, had the latest equipment (we were programming on an Apple IIe in the sixth grade), bright, motivated teachers and a library full of books (something I’ll have to talk about some other time). It was a very safe place, no one ever locked their doors – so it was kind of like Mayfield, USA – Leave it to Beaver right the middle of the desert. My best friend from the first grade is still my best friend, and we recently had an elementary school reunion, her in San Francisco, which over 130 students and faculty in attendance.
There were cons, of course – the ruling family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ran the country with a firm hand – especially since it was undergoing modernization and changing at supersonic speed. The Saudis have a culturally rich, and proud history and the rapid development of the 60’s onward was advantageous and traumatic at the same time. Taking a largely Bedouin society into the 21st century overnight was fraught with complications – we used to see Bedouin tents decked out with satellite dishes and range rovers parked next to them. Gas was 50cents a gallon and the highways were littered with broken down, luxury cars. Sadly, the expat community was segregated from the local population, though we did get to make friends with some locals who lived in our compounds. There were many rules and regulations, especially pertaining to women – you heard true, women could (and still cannot) drive. But in the end, it was an experience I would never trade in.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


The Hawaiian alphabet has only 12 letters

There really is one universal rule for writing that all writers agree to: BIC = Butt In Chair. At the end of the day, in order to produce your literary work of genius, you must actually sit and DO it.

Now, how you DO it, according to standard writerly belief, falls into two camps – either you are a Panster or a Plotter. The first group, the Pansters, sit down, crack their knuckles, and let it rip -- they allow their creative juices to roar forth, spilling onto the page. The characters in their head come alive and lead them down a merry path, unfolding the story as they go along. The second group, the Plotters, sit down and well, plot. They make outlines, bar graphs, charts, do character studies and perform extensive research.
Personally, I don’t think it’s that black and white – successful author are shades of gray in-between, lying either towards the Panster or Plotter part of the bell curve. You kind of need to have both in some degree - allow yourself to think freely, come up with amazing ideas… then create some form of structure that allows you get from beginning to end without falling off the deep end. Let me tell you, many a book has begun then wandered off into the dark woods, never to be heard of again.
I fall on Plotter end of the spectrum. Ideas percolate in my head all the time, and I take notes. I have random interest in various topics and I find that these ideas sneak into a story or character idea. But then, okay, so I’m a bit anal (it’s the accountant in me) I make dozens of spreadsheets outline chapters, develop character types, generate subplots and jot down critical elements. One of my favorite things to do is research. I love finding out the history, back-story and details of what I’m writing about, and although I may only use 5% of it in my book, the journey of discovering new information is immensely satisfying. BUT I’m always open to change, so if my character decides he is now a girl instead of a boy, or the plot needs a radical twist, I accommodate it into my outlines.

All writers have their strengths and weaknesses. Some create haunting, beautiful scenes – ones you literally fall into when you open their book. Others create passionate, multifaceted characters you love, hate, admire, love and related to. Some can’t plot to save their lives, others can plot but can’t find their voice (oh that mysterious thing that I still can’t figure out either.) My strength may be organization and plot development, but my greatest weakness, alas, is my grammar. I was an Accounting and Business major in college and took, like, one comparative writing class. I still don’t know what a dangling participle is. But the good news is that I have an excellent critique group with two English majors who sort me out. Plus my amazing editor of course (poor her). So the trick is to know what your good at, work hard at what you aren’t, and find a great critique group, or partner, who can point out your genius as well as your inadequacies.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Geographically Challenged

Antarctica is actually a desert, receiving the same amount of rain as the Sahara Desert

My husband teaches political science and one of his classes covers the politics of a particular region of the world. So, on the first day of class he hands out a map to his class – a group of accomplished college coeds. For the most part, they are a smart bunch, having worked hard to get into this esteemed institution. The map is blank, besides the outlines of a series of countries, and the students have fifteen minutes to fill out the country names. At the end he collects them, and that night we sit at home, having tea, looking them over. 

Approximately 10% of the kids do pretty well, the remainder either sends us into gales of laughter (no, Spain is not in South America…) or into horrified silence. It reinforces the fact that we Americans are woefully geographically challenged – it’s a sad fact that Jay Leno got away with doing a hilarious segment where he asked people on the street answer simple geography questions, and lord I was embarrassed for the contestants. Most didn’t know which states bordered their own. But it’s not JUST embarrassing – it’s a national crisis – kids are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Fewer than 3 in 10 think it important to know the locations of countries that appear in the news, and just 14% believe speaking another language is a necessary skill. The National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study, done a few years ago, paints a dismal picture of the geographic knowledge of the most recent graduates of the U.S. education system.

-- Even through Hurricane Katrina had recently swept through the south, causing death and destruction, 33% of respondents couldn't pinpoint Louisiana on a map.
-- Two-thirds didn't know that the earthquake that killed 70,000 people in October 2005 occurred in Pakistan.
-- 6 in 10 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East – and HOW long have we been at war there?
-- 47% could not find the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia (It’s the most prominent bit, sticking out)
-- 75% were unable to locate Israel on a map of the Middle East. (Okay, granted it’s pretty tiny, while flying over it George W. Bush stated that his driveway in Texas was bigger…)
Do we not care because most of the world lies at the end of two huge oceans – the Atlantic and the Pacific? Maybe the rest of the world doesn’t seem that relevant - the nightly news no longer covers the rest of the world since Brittany’s latest meltdown and Farmer Buford's ginormous pumpkin are far more important. But, how are we to understand, work and play with others if we don’t know where they are and what language they speak? It really is something to ponder… As the world shrinks before us, how will we continue to grow and prosper when we lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events? Time to open an atlas...

Friday, October 2, 2009

One Girl at a Time

There are more than 2700 languages in the world

I’ve taken the ability to read and write for granted -- the benefits it affords me are immeasurable… but in the back of my mind lurks a number – 33%. Nearly one out of every three girls and women in the world cannot read and write. After hearing Tererai Trent’s phenomenal story, I was again reminded of the number. As a girl living in Zimbabwe, Tererai was denied an education and married off at 11 – sadly not an uncommon fate. But Terarai had a passionate desire to pursue an education, and she wrote her dreams of attaining a PhD on a piece of paper and buried it in a tin box. And in the end she did. Her story has been told in the book HALF THE SKY: TURNING OPPRESSION INTO OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN WORLDWIDE by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

I’ve always know that when you educate girls, you improve the prospects of an entire community – fertility rates drop and women have fewer, healthier children; infant mortality rates decline as knowledgeable women have better healthcare practices; maternal mortality rates are reduced as women have fewer children and pursue pre and post natal care; increased participation in the labor force yields benefits for the society at large; educated women are more likely to send their children to school; education is also protection against HIV/AIDS infection. So education is not only the key to a brighter future, it is also a key to survival.

Sadly, we have a lot to do to increase educational opportunities for boys, and especially girls. Although the worldwide number of children not in school has declined from about 100 million to 75 million, girls still constitute 55% of all out-of-school children. Worldwide, for every 100 boys out-of-school there are 122 girls. In some countries the gender gap is much wider. For example, for every 100 boys out of school in Yemen there are 270 girls, in Iraq 316 girls, in India 426 girls, and in Benin 257 girls (UNESCO GMR, 2007).

So, when you educate a girl, the benefits are passed forward and multiplied to the nth degree – let us all hope for millions of Terarais in the future. Check out Half the Sky Movement.