Arab American Book Awards!

Scan 1

I am pleased to announce that my book, The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, has been selected as the 2017 winner for Children/Young Adult for the Arab American Book Awards. 

The award is put out yearly by the Arab American National Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, and “the first and only museum in the United States devoted to Arab American history and culture”. I am greatly honored to be recognized by this esteemed organization, and so excited to travel to Michigan to receive the award this coming October.

Thank you so much!

Michelle Chalfoun

 

When is a White Person Not a White Person? When She’s an Arab.

maxresdefaultA couple days ago I heard a story on NPR. Apparently, according to the next census, I’ll no longer be a white person. I’ll be MENA (Middle Eastern North African).

I mentioned this to my daughter. She said, “I thought you never were white.”

I explained that legally, I was. 22 years before I was born, Arabs were legally recognized as “white” by the United States of American.

“Yeah, but no one thinks of Arabs as white,” she said. (She’s Latina).

When you look at me, you would probably say, “Hey, that lady is white.” That’s because my mom’s parents were German. I got her coloring.

In the US, to be considered a Native American, instead of a generic white American, you have to be 1/16th Native. That’s one great-grandparent.

Historically, to be black you only needed “one drop” of African blood.

I’m half Arabic. A full 50%. My dad was fully Middle Eastern. An immigrant from Lebanon. Speaking Arabic.  Had an Arabic name: Salim. Grew up in Beirut. Was a tank gunner in the Christian Militia. Had Palestinian friends. Summered in Syria.

I inherited my dad’s nose. He said I looked like his mother, the grandmother I never met because she disowned him when he married my Germanic mom.

I said to a friend, “I don’t even know why this is bothering me. Why would I even want to be white? Especially right now, with all the ugly white supremacy stuff going on.”

My friend, a Jewish woman whose ancestors escaped some Nazi-benighted Eastern European country said, “Because white is safe.”

According to the NPR story, it became necessary to designate Middle Eastern North African peoples as MENA because there were just too many “Some Other Race” people in the last census.

But I can’t help wondering why, when the last census was taken in 2010, President Obama’s administration didn’t find it necessary to take care of that “problem” by designating Arabs as MENA then. Maybe he didn’t think an undesignated “Some Other Race” was such a big deal, being mixed race as he was.

I did some reading. The MENA idea has been kicking around for a while, but this is the first administration to seriously consider it. Congress still has to vote on it in 2018 to make it definite. I wonder which way it will go, and what it will mean.

MENA sounds so benign. I can imagine naming a daughter that, maybe with a different spelling—I assume it’s pronounced “Mee-nah”. It even sounds sort of Arabic.

On a related note: I found it a little troubling to hear about my possible MENA designation on the same weekend I heard about the new VOICE initiative.

VOICE (Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement) is the brainchild of Steve Bannon, voiced by DJT. It’s the latest in his white supremacy government propaganda push, inspired by Hitler’s Jewish Crimes List. Interestingly, the Third Reich started reporting Jewish crime separately from non-Jewish crime after putting in place the Nuremburg Race Laws.

Hmmm…

 

Writing the Resistance

20170211_181758

This weekend I had a chance to take a break from politics and attend the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 18th Annual International Conference in New York. It was my first time, and everyone was so warm and welcoming.

On the first day,  Fish in a Tree author Linda Mullaly Hunt spoke with me at the Friday Professional Author’s forum, and  Jodi Kendall (whose book The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City is out October 2017) and Marcie Colleen  (who writes the Super Happy Party Bears chapter books, among others) took me to Grand Central Station’s food court for lunch.

Mathew Winner (of All the Wonders podcast and blog), was so knowledgeable about social media, and so open to meeting new, awkward people like me.  Erica S. Perl (Ferocious Fluffety and many more), said hello on that first day and kept letting me hang around whenever I felt awkward. Ellen Hopkins, of Crank and Traffick fame, chatted with me at the Saturday night get together when it was clear I had no idea who she was, and when I finally realized it and fell all over myself apologizing (I knew her books, but not her face, and she had no name tag), she  graciously let it slide.

But it was’t just about schmoozing and self-promotion. And it wasn’t just about writing craft. As the weekend went on, it was clear that the unstated themes of the conference were Bravery, Diversity, and Empathy. Over and over, the keynote illustrators and writers  were moved to talk about their response to the current political and emotional climate in this country. Bryan Colliers moved us to tears as he talked about the illustrations in Knock Knock, a picture book about a boy separated from his father. He spoke of how each of us saw that child every day, separated from a parent by death, deportation, incarceration, or simply “gone”, and how our empathy for that child’s story changes lives. Cynthia Leitich Smith had us examine how we depicted diversity in our books, and she gave me a lot to think about with regards to identity and the Own Voices movement.

The editors and agents and authors repeatedly revisited the idea that when we bravely and empathetically tell stories about diverse children, we make space for them in a troubling and sometimes hostile world, and that in times like these, that is more important than ever. Diversity means all kinds of things–nearly every one in this country has some hyphen, whether it’s based on religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, regional or socio-economic factors. Sara Pennypacker summed it up in the closing keynote, when she spoke of each of our efforts as “positive acts of creation” that remove one drop of evil from the world.

In times of crisis, writing and reading children’s books can seem frivolous,  chatting about our art can seem self-indulgent. But we need to dream better versions of the world before we can realize better versions of the world,  and art for children is the first step. Children grown on diverse voices get used to diversity, and are far less likely to vote for hate in the future. By bravely writing about diverse people with empathy, we write the resistance.

 

 

 

 

Why Lebanese?

americna_leb_flag

 

I just finished up a couple of author appearances for my new kids’ book, The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, and a question that came up at both readings was, “Why did you chose to make your main character Lebanese-American?”

The glib answer would be because I am Lebanese-American, and in all writing workshops you’re taught to “write what you know”. But honestly, in earlier drafts of the book, Maria wasn’t obviously Lebanese-American, and her mother Celeste wasn’t obviously a Lebanese immigrant. I was advised, after the first go-round with my agent, to go ahead and make it obvious.

This advice surprised me, and it went against the grain of my upbringing. As I have shared in another blog Coming out as an Arab American, I was raised to hide my identity. In fact, I had mistakenly thought that it was “better” if my main character wasn’t identifiably anything—so she could be read however the reader wanted to read her.

But at some point between the many drafts, something happened in the writing world, and there began to be an outcry against all-white, all-male author panels. Publishers Weekly has written a number of articles about the monoculture of the publishing world, all across the industry. In their article, Why is Publishing So White (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69653-why-publishing-is-so-white.html), a pie chart shows that only 1% of the overall industry identifies as Middle Eastern.

Luckily, it seems the industry wants to change this situation.

Suddenly it was not such a bad thing to be me, or to let my main character be like me.

So now Maria, like me, was born in the Bronx, baptized at Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn Heights, and then never set foot in another Maronite church again. Her mother makes the same English mistakes my dad made. She eats hummus, and loves pistachio nougat candies, and has a Tante Farida. She speaks more French than Arabic, and more English than both. Like me, she knows how to ululate, but rarely does it, because of its association with terrorism. And she has all the “first generation in the US” values: education is important, you must always work hard, and it is better to own your home than to rent.

Recently my daughter asked me why in so many of the books she loves, the main characters are always white? She specifically mentioned the Harry Potter and Hunger Game series. I said that white people wrote those books, and people tend to write characters like themselves.

So then she asked why, if the main character is a POC (person of color), is that often made into the whole point of the book? As if a POC can only have adventures related to their status—such as a story with a Mexican protagonist is all about crossing the border or all about fitting in with mainstream white America. Why can’t a POC character just be whoever they are and have “regular” adventures, like magic or treasure hunts or solving mysteries?

That was a good question. I struggled to explain without excusing, and then I realized I needed to get more involved in that question myself. Because here I am, a writer, a daughter of a Lebanese immigrant, with Latinx children. There are some really good conversations going on all over the web, social media, and within the industry. I’ve been struggling to catch up, but as a mother and writer, I realize I need to.

 

 

Why Most Popular Children’s Book Characters Don’t Own Smartphones

tumblr_nwlli2txma1uhugw9o1_500

 

My kids are having a great summer. They bounce from Y camp, to farm camp, to sail camp, to sleep-away camp. In between, there are trips to the beach or skate park or library. They spend their days outside, come home exhausted, ransack Yaya’s refrigerator and then go back out for ice cream or Back Door Donuts. Then they’re off again on their bikes, down the safe bike paths and ancient ways* of the Vineyard, coming home only when it’s dark.

Basically, when they’re on Martha’s Vineyard, they live a 1970’s style, pre-smartphone, independent childhood.

Now, honestly, given a choice between electronic entertainment and just about anything else, my kids, like most kids of their generation, would choose the screens. Luckily, their summer makes choices for them. (Yaya’s Internet connection is spotty at best, and their camps don’t allow handheld devices.) So they develop new skills and take pride in doing something other than making small movements with their thumbs.

Now, I don’t want to wade into the “is technology ruining childhood/society/our brains/the ability to enjoy anything else” debate. There are plenty of people who have written on this. There have been many scientific studies. And there are more than enough arguments on both sides. So go ahead and read other blogs or articles if you want that back and forth—I won’t even bother to provide links, there are so many.

But I have been thinking about what this has to do with children’s literature, and what this means for me as a writer.

I recently emailed another writer-friend that so many books were about a post-apocalyptic future because adventures couldn’t happen if all the characters were sitting on their butts with smartphones and gaming devices in their hands. So the authors blew up that world, in order to move their characters into the great outdoors.

I was kidding, kind of.

But I have noticed that most books for children don’t include smartphones. With a few notable exceptions, children’s books eliminate handheld devices altogether by either being historical, magical, or set in some future time when civilization is so altered that phones become a non-issue. Even ones that happen in the present or near present largely avoid mention or use of smartphones.

This isn’t surprising. Because really, as a writer, you need your character to DO THINGS. And tapping on a tiny screen isn’t really doing anything at all. Maybe the texts a character sends and receives could be interesting in a “let’s replace dialogue” sort of way—but I don’t see a lot of authors choosing this—especially not in the books my kids and I read.

Try this: imagine a book you loved as a child, or a children’s book you currently love, and put cellphones in the characters’ hands. Does the plot still function? Are the characters the same? How about the action scenes? Would texting alter these in some way you wouldn’t like? Could the kids in that book have the same adventures if some adult could reach them, or rescue them, or find them by phone?

I think about Lynn Jonell’s Emmy and Ratty series (If you haven’t read them, and you know a girl between the age of 8 and 12, you should). So much action would have been lost with cellphones—all the secrets, misunderstandings, hiding, sneaking around, getting lost, captured —none of that would have occurred if any of the characters could have simply called each other. And Ratty’s charm would have been lost if he was sending out texts instead of speaking (squeaking) his sarcastic witticisms.

In The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, I got rid of the cell phone issue by placing my characters in a part of the Vineyard where reception is poor—and that’s a lot of the island. There’s no way Maria would have searched for pirate treasure on a stolen boat if her mom had been able to call and check on her. And I am so tired of characters having to become orphans to have adventures.

All characters need freedom. And cellphones are the antithesis of freedom.

My kids love their tech-free summer. Yes, if you asked them, they would complain that they miss the PlayStation, the IPhone, and the computer. But in reality, my daughter loves all the attention her brother now pays her. And he seems to enjoy their time together, too. Instead of bickering over computer time, they tear off down Yaya’s ancient way for the hidden terrain park in the forest behind the golf course. And though they may not admit it, they both enjoy the freedom, independence, and anonymity of their phone-less existence.

 

*(“Ancient ways” are dirt footpaths originated by the Wampanoag, still in use all over the island; see www.samlow.com/vineyard/ancientways.htm).

 

When Worlds Collide

In my day job, I’m a private duty pediatric nurse for medically fragile children. That’s a fancy way of saying I go to school with kids who need a nurse with them at all times. Kids with special needs get to go to school in the summer, so I work in New York while my own kids stay with grandma Yaya on Martha’s Vineyard.

On a typical day, I drive to my client’s house, load up their equipment, and make sure they are healthy and ready for school. Then we travel on the bus, spend the day at school, and finally travel back to their house. During the day I perform whatever medical care they require; basically, I am cross between a Sherpa and a mobile Intensive Care Unit.

The other day, I had a weird experience. My client’s class took a field trip to the library and while we were there I saw The Treasure of Maria Mamoun on a rolling cart, waiting to be shelved. It was the first time I’d seen the book anywhere out in the world. I couldn’t help myself. I blurted, “I wrote that book.”

The librarian stared at me, dumbfounded. “You’re kidding,” she said.

“No, really, I did. That’s me. I’m that person.” I pointed to my name on the cover, and showed her my nurse ID hanging around my neck.

The librarian got excited. She took my picture, she made me sign the book, she asked if I would come and do an author visit. Meanwhile, I got more and more nervous. My client was fine, never more than three feet from me, within view at all times, reading a book in a soft chair. But I was starting to shake. My separate worlds were colliding. None of the people I was working with knew I’d written a book. I felt shaky the rest of the day.

I like the anonymity of my nursing job. Most of the people I see through the course of the day don’t even know my last name. I am really just an extension of my clients’ equipment. When a client is in respiratory distress, I disconnect the circuit from the trach, apply the ambu bag, suction secretions, and reconnect the patient to the ventilator. I have to perform these functions quickly and calmly, before the oxygen in their blood drops too low. If a piece of equipment fails, I must repair or replace it with whatever is at hand, wherever I am. With my non-verbal client, I read the micro-expressions of their nearly immobile face, and use our binary decision tree to figure out and translate their needs. I enjoy working with these kids, in part because I like the way it enables me to disappear into my role. It’s the ultimate service. I exist for them, I communicate for them, not for me.

I wasn’t always this way. Over a decade ago, I had a very different, very public life. I was comfortable standing in front of a large crowd and speaking. Then through a series of strange events, I gave all that up and became a nurse. And I got very used to being a silent servant.

But I am not Emily Dickinson. I have not toiled in obscurity only to have my work discovered after my death. I wrote a book, and then sent it to an agent, and got it published. Here I am writing a blog. So obviously I don’t have (much of) a problem with sharing words I’ve written. I just seem to have a problem with sharing that I’ve written with people who know me in other capacities. Still, I am grateful to finally see my book out in the real world. Now, I just need to get over the shock.