Exciting news!! Neesha Meminger, author of Shine, Coconut Moon, will be releasing her second YA novel—Jazz in Love—under her own imprint, Ignite Books, at the start of the new year! I love it when talented writers take their future into their own hands…if YOU would like a review copy of Jazz in Love, simply visit Neesha’s blog and leave a comment. Here’s the summary from the back of the book:
Jasbir, a.k.a. Jazz, has always been a stellar student and an obedient, albeit wise-cracking, daughter. Everything has gone along just fine–she has good friends in the “genius” program she’s been in since kindergarten, her teachers and principal adore her, and her parents dote on her. But now, in her junior year of high school, her mother hears that Jazz was seen hugging a boy on the street and goes ballistic. Mom immediately implements the Guided Dating Plan, which includes setting up blind dates with “suitable,” pre-screened Indian candidates. The boy her mother sets her up with, however, is not at all what anyone expects; and the new boy at school, the very UNsuitable hottie, is the one who sets Jazz’s blood boiling. When Jazz makes a few out-of-the-ordinary decisions, everything explodes, and she realizes she’ll need a lot more than her genius education to get out of the huge mess she’s in. Can Jazz find a way to follow her own heart, and still stay in the good graces of her parents?
During the Q&A part of our NCTE/ALAN panel in Orlando last month, Michael Cart of Booklist asked which of the panelists were Canadian and how did our Canadian-ness impact our writing about race? (that’s how I remember his question, at any rate). Neesha and I were sitting next to one another, and I glanced at her before launching into a tirade about the lack of black-authored books available to young readers in Canada and how this contradicts Canada’s image as a multicultural society. Neesha talked about growing up in a place where you can buy samosas at the corner store and then living in the US where very little is known about Asian cultures. And, of course, I urged her to tell how the temple bombing in Shine was based on her personal experience living next to a Sikh temple in Toronto that was also fire-bombed. Canada’s full of immigrants who left former British colonies, and so there’s often a shared colonial culture as well—in some ways it connects us, and in other ways it keeps us passive, I think. When I got back from my trip to Canada last month, I sat down and wrote an article for a literary journal that wasn’t due for another two weeks; the theme was past/present/future, and not surprisingly I found myself writing about the books I read as a child in Toronto. I went OFF about the racist, elitist, imperialist clap trap that is The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit, even though I couldn’t quite remember whether or not we actually read the book in class. All I remember is the BBC adaptation of the book that we watched on a TV that was rolled into our 5th-grade classroom on a cart, but could it be much better than the book with its appalling illustrations of grass-skirt wearing “savages”? Maybe they cut that scene out of the film—or maybe I just blocked that viewing experience out of my memory. This website suggests that the scene in question, “Queen of the Island,” was left in—but what did the savages look like? In fairness to Ms. Nesbit, she doesn’t describe them as African in the book, though her illustrator depicts them as such. I guess that’s who came to mind at mention of nearly naked, “coppery brown” islanders living in huts in a tropical part of the world. The “queen” in question is actually their cranky Irish cook who accidentally accompanies the four white children (and the talking phoenix) on one of their adventures with the magic flying carpet. When the “savages” see the cook, they believe her to be their appointed queen and so she decides to stay with them rather than return to a position of servitude in London. She may be Irish but she’s still a white woman, and so she can’t reasonably be left alone on an island with a bunch of half-naked brown men…so before the novel ends, the children return with a kind-hearted white burglar and he instantly marries the cook, saving her from “a fate worse than death.” I re-read the book today and had no desire whatsoever to read the rest of the trilogy. I don’t think I could endure Mitali Perkins’ experiment of viewing classic children’s books with “fresh eyes.” Could this book somehow be salvaged and made useful to today’s kids? Well, if the objectionable scenes are removed, then we’re left with an equally unacceptable option: erasure of PoC altogether. The choice shouldn’t be between erasure or distortion.
Why was this story even selected for a 5th grade class in Canada in 1981? I was the only black student, but there were three Asian boys in the class and the Indians in the novel don’t fare much better than the “savages.” For three years now I’ve visited JHS 13 up in East Harlem; the sixth-grade class is led by Sheryl Mayers, a fellow Canadian who grew up in the same part of the city (Scarberia). During my last visit, when I reached the point in my presentation where I talk about Ezra Jack Keats, Sheryl raised her hand and shared with her students that as a child, Snowy Day was the only book she read that had a black character as the star of the story. So I know my experience isn’t some kind of aberration; I strongly suspect it was (and is) the rule. I wonder whether her experiences as a student in Canada impact the way she teaches today…somebody ought to make a film about all the black folks who leave Canada and make a life for themselves in the US. We’re a special branch of the diaspora…