check out our video conversation, then comment here and there to enter for this week's prizes! (Speaking of which, author Stephanie Kuehnert is also giving away a copy of TMAS right here!)
It's Book Party Day for one of the writers I admire most in the world, Mitali Perkins! Not only is this woman a deep and thoughtful writer, but she actively promotes discussion about culture and race in teen literature. All this, besides being a wonderful person to know!
Mitali's seventh book, BAMBOO PEOPLE , is born today, and already it's a Junior Library Guild Selection, an Indie Next Pick, and it received a Publisher's Weekly *starred review*. Stop by Mitali's blog today to help her celebrate, and comment here for a chance to win the book!
Bamboo People takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. It’s narrated by a fifteen-year-old teen forced to fight in the Army and a sixteen-year-old teen on the run. They’re on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma. Chiko, the Burmese boy, isn’t a fighter by nature. He’s a book-loving boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family's home and bamboo fields. When they meet in the jungle, their lives are changed forever.
Holly: Why this book, why now?
Mitali: I wanted to write a guy book before my teens got too old to enjoy it :)
For three years my husband, children, and I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand. While we were there we visited the Karenni refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. I was astounded at how the Karenni kept their hopes up despite incredible loss, still dreaming and talking of the day when they would once again become a free people. I was impressed, too, by how creatively they used bamboo. Homes, bridges, transportation, weapons, food, storage, irrigation—all these and more depended on the resilient, lavish, and ecologically efficient bamboo plant. I began to think about that plant as an excellent symbol for the peoples of that region.
During that time I also began to understand how tough life is for Burmese teenagers. Only about a third are enrolled in school, and most can’t find jobs. According to international human rights organizations, Burma has the largest number of child soldiers in the world, and that number is growing. These young soldiers are taught that the Karenni and other ethnic groups are the cause of the problems in their country and are rewarded with money and food if they burn, destroy, torture, and kill ethnic minorities.
How did you get into the distinct voices of Chiko and Tu Reh?
What would I do if my mother were hungry and my only option to feed her was to fight in the army? What about if I saw soldiers burning my home and farm while I ran for my life? Wouldn’t I be terrified, like Chiko? Wouldn’t I be angry, like Tu Reh? As I wrote the book, I had to enter into strong emotions with my characters and imagine what I might do under such terrible circumstances.
Your biggest inspiration?
My faith, and crossing borders in life to meet and love people very different than myself.
What kind of process did this novel go through to become a finished book?
The book has been in one form or another for ten years. It started as a picture book, morphed into a novel told only from Tu Reh’s perspective, and then I added Chiko’s half of the book. Finally, I rewrote all of Tu Reh’s half completely to keep the action going chronologically—initially both halves of the book happened at the same time. What a challenge! But I think it made the book stronger.
What do you most hope your readers will take away?
I hope every book I write serves as a window and a mirror. I’d like readers to see what life is like in Burma, as well as measure the compassion and courage in their own lives.
I’m interested in the power of forgiveness as well as the nature of heroism. Both strike me as the result of many “small” choices in life’s journey instead of one huge moment.
What’s up next?
Surviving a busy speaking schedule this spring, and heading back to Thailand this summer to visit the camps and hand-carry copies of Bamboo People as gifts.
Thank you, Mitali!
BAMBOO PEOPLE GIVEAWAY!
Mitali has generously provided one copy of BAMBOO PEOPLE to one lucky commenter on this post* - just leave a comment below to tell us a) why you'd like to read BAMBOO PEOPLE, b) if you've ever had to make a sacrifice for family, or c) whether you think compassion and courage are valuable qualities in our present world. Contest is open until Monday at 5pm PST. Comment away!
(*Contest open to U.S. mailing addresses only)