A conversation with Mitali Perkins, author and writing mentor

Do you have a middle grade manuscript–and some spare time during the summer? Are you looking for a mentor to provide editorial feedback and guidance? Check out the summer programs at The Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. In addition to a middle grade whole novel workshop taught by M. T. Anderson and N. Griffin in August (and now accepting applications), they’re running other classes, including Summer Camp at the Barn: A Week of Creative Mentorship 2016 (July 17-July 23 2016).

One of the faculty mentors participating in the Highlights Foundation’s Summer Camp will be Mitali Perkins, celebrated author of middle grade and YA fiction (Monsoon Summer, Secret Keeper, among other titles). As she looks ahead to her “camp week”, she graciously took some time for an interview with Barbara Dee.

How did you become involved with the Highlights Foundation Summer Camp?

I taught there a few years ago and fell in love with the place. It’s a five-senses experience (the taste of organic, fresh food, lovingly prepared, the sound of laughter around meals, and birdcalls in the woods and a rushing creek, the sight of quiet trees and kind faces, the smell of good coffee, and the feel of your keyboard tapping under your fingers as you write, and write, and write). Highlights Summer Camp is saturated in a deep love for children’s books, which makes it the perfect venue to recharge our creativity and commitment to a unique and important vocation.

What do you hope to accomplish in the one-on-one sessions with your mentees?

My goal is to bring out the best in my mentees, give them the courage to champion their own voices, and challenge them to go deeper and wider in craft. Recently I found myself tagged in a Facebook post by one of my former Highlights mentees, so I’ll excerpt her words as my hope for this summer’s relationships:

“It was my time with Mitali that made me think ‘Maybe I *could* do this….’ She helped guide and hone the story and she said, “Writing a story requires certain things, not just good writing, but characters, and conflict.” Now I had known all this, but not really known it. I didn’t really pay much attention to the craft of telling a story–the method, if you will–of writing an interesting narrative. Our conferences did, in fact, change my life, and helped me clarify what keeps me sane–and that’s writing. Mitali entered my life precisely when I needed her, and in reading my work she gave me a bit of confidence no one else could. When the demons show up to criticize and shout: “What does this matter?”, “This is crap!”, or my least favorite, “Who cares????” I am reminded of Mitali’s words: “You write well…. and you have just as much right to speak as everyone else.” These words don’t slay the demon, but they do shut him up for a bit. I can think of no greater gift to a writer than those words: You have the right to speak.”

What topics will you cover in breakout sessions?

I plan to offer a session on crafting good dialogue as well as one on creating a sense of place. I will also offer tips on using social media as a pre- or post- published writer.

Did you ever have a writing mentor? How did he/she help you with your work?

Not really, but I wish I had. I’m still looking for one! Maybe I’ll find one this summer at Highlights! Essentially, my wonderful agent Laura Rennert has served as my mentor, as have my brilliant editors, like Yolanda Leroy of Charlesbridge.

What’s one thing about being a professional author you think writing students should know?

It takes grit. You have to take risks and make mistakes. Also, if you’re full-time, like I am, it’s like running your own business with you and your work as the product.

What’s the hardest thing about writing MG?

You have to forget about the gatekeepers (parents, teachers, librarians) who have purchasing power and keep writing for the child reader, but that’s hard given that you’re also trying to butter some bread in this profession.

In your view, are there some plots that are overrepresented in MG? Underrepresented?

No, because voice matters. A fresh, unique voice can breathe new life into that same old hero’s journey, making it a page-turner.

Do you feel white authors should avoid writing from the POV of a character of color?

No. I’m alarmed that this question is increasingly asked. As adults who write for and about children, ALL of us have to confront the intersections of our privilege before telling a story. As we honestly explore how we are crossing different kinds of power borders to tell a story, it should become more clear to us whether or not we should proceed with that story. For example, take my RICKSHAW GIRL. Naima, my main character, and I do share the same cultural origin, skin color, and gender — we are both brown-skinned Bengali girls. But she is an uneducated daughter of a Muslim rickshaw puller while I was and am the overeducated daughter of a Hindu engineer. Do Naima and I REALLY have the same POV, as some readers might reverentially gush? It’s tricky, though, as some power differentials shriek with pain in our culture thanks to the realities of American history while others are more muted. Tread carefully, friends, as all of us must in this powerful, mind-shaping vocation, but don’t set up some crazy apartheid system in the realm of stories. Last but not least, ethnicity is a social construct: in a world where we are mixing and melding more than ever, are you going to decide who is a Muggle and who is Pureblood enough to tell a story?

When you read MG, what do you respond to?

Unforgettable characters and a strong sense of place. I want to slip into the skin of my hero and be there, with all five senses (can you tell this is a motif for me?), in his or her life.

Which MGs of the last few years have stood out for you, and why?

I’ve recently read and enjoyed CRENSHAW by Katherine Applegate, ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia, A TIME TO DANCE by Padma Venkatraman, A LONG WALK TO WATER by Linda Sue Park, and THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander. I like heroes who must overcome obstacles that aren’t typical “first world problems.”

Barbara Dee’s sixth novel for tweens, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published by Aladdin/S&S in September 2016.

Barbara Dee