What’s the old saying? Last but not least!
Recently, Sherri L. Smith was the guest blogger over at Finding Wonderland and after reading these words “But, let’s get one thing straight—multicultural is a made-up word. The proverbial “Great American Novel” by its very name is a multicultural novel—America is made up of too many different peoples for it to be otherwise” I knew we’d have a fun interview. I’m drawn to people who speak their mind and shake things up. Sherri meets both those criteria.
On a hot streak since her debut, Lucy the Giant, about a tall girl who finds solace in the wild, Sherri followed her first book with Sparrow, the story of family and its many forms. And just in time for our spotlights, her third YA, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, a humorous look at the life of Ana Shen, a bi-racial eighth-grader, was released.
It seems fitting that we wrap up this wonderful month of spotlights with an author whose latest book celebrates multi-culturalism, while also reminding us the term has less to do with race than it is the very fabric our country is built on.
BBS: Playing the devil’s advocate here. You’ve said“The multi-ethnic audience is nothing new. It is a shame that the industry pretends otherwise. If I’m a publisher my answer to that is going to be, “Well a book has to have a market. We’ve got to be specific who we target the book to or else it becomes generic ‘this book is great for everybody’.” What’s your response?
SLS: The publishing industry has been marketing books generically, or else there wouldn’t be this recent push for multicultural titles. Now they are getting more specific and saying “these books are for black kids, these are for Spanish kids, etc.”
But it’s foolish to think that a Latina girl can’t relate to a white girl or an Asian girl, and therefore would not want to read the same books. Writers have the opportunity to cross cultural lines, introduce us all to each other, share the day with someone we are different from on the outside, and discover our common ground.
BBS: Why did you decide to make Ana Asian and African American? Why that particular racial make up?
SLS: Ana was inspired by my own marriage, as an African American woman, to a Chinese American man. I was exploring my own future, in a way, when I decided to play out the life of a child we might have together. How would our individual experiences combine in someone who shared them both?
BBS: I’ve had very mixed feelings about the focus of race when promoting my books. I know they’ll appeal beyond African Americans, but I always feel if I don’t focus on the fact that my MC is Black, I’ll lose those readers. If given a choice, would you prefer your publisher to mention the race of your characters in summaries/depict them on the cover or not? And why?
SLS:I’m not a big fan of depicting characters on the cover. I think that should be left to the imagination of the reader.
Richard Peck, the hugely successful children’s author, tells a story about a book he wrote called The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. He took tremendous care to never describe the girl by her physical traits. Her beauty was interpreted through how the other characters reacted to her.
He never gave a race, hair color, or eye color. The reader got to fill in the blanks with their own ideals—until the publisher put out a cover with a blonde Caucasian girl’s photograph front and center.
Whose judgment call was that?
Peck says he was furious, but the author has little power over what the publisher chooses to do in those situations. Having said that, ultimately I think the depiction of race should depend on the thrust of the story.
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet is, in part, about race and culture; therefore I think it’s totally appropriate to put that out there on the cover, in the summary, wherever.
If the story was about something else, and the character’s race was incidental, then no, I see no reason to highlight it. Would it matter if Nancy Drew, for instance, was black or Japanese, rather than white?
In terms of solving the Mystery of the 99 Steps, or what have you, probably not.
BBS: Let’s talk books! In fifteen words or less tell me exactly why you love each of your babies (books):
SLS: Lucy The Giant, is my first book; I love the adventure, the setting, and Lucy’s emotional journey.
Sparrow, let me delve into my mother’s hometown, New Orleans, and the meaning of family.
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, let me write about food, which I love, and family histories, which fascinate me.
BBS: Lucy The Giant was reprinted in Dutch. Getting sales overseas is not something you hear much about when talking about books by African American children’s writers. I’m not sure if it’s because it doesn’t happen often or…I’m not sure. How did having it reprinted in another language change how you looked at the books you write? Were foreign rights picked up for Sparrow?
SLS: The biggest change was in getting to know my Dutch publishers, who are absolutely wonderful people, and getting their perspective on the book world.
Lucy made the leap to Dutch because my translator saw similarities in the fishing lifestyles of Alaska and the Netherlands. It was a commonality that allowed the story to translate well.
Sparrow, on the other hand, was seen as too American for the European market. Apparently, certain American experiences don’t translate easily to the rest of the world—race relations, specific locales, and some social issues don’t play well overseas.
I’m not sure if I agree with that belief—Europe has ethnic and religious issues similar to the ones we have in the United States, but the Dutch teens and adults I spoke with seemed to have an “us and them” feeling about the U.S.
Life is seen as more violent, more media-centric in America. This despite the fact that, at the time, practically every square inch of Amsterdam was plastered with Vodafone internet cell phone ads, and ethnic tensions were running high after the assassination of a controversial Dutch filmmaker for his work on violence against women in Islam.
To my mind, books should teach you about worlds you don’t know. That said, while I don’t let dreams of the global markets get in the way of the story I want to tell, now I try to give my work a second look and think about how the rest of the world might see it.
BBS: Lately, race has become such a factor in literature that often we overlook the cultural factors. Asian cultures are more homogenous than American culture. Does Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet acknowledge that at all? What are some of the cultural issues Ana faces that make ordinary teen things like dating and making friends challenging?
SLS: I’m not sure I understand. I think that Asian cultures are wildly diverse, but it might not seem apparent from an American point of view. The differences can be subtle and often deeply tied to historical events, conflicts that delineate strong lines of prejudice and dissonance between Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures, to name a few.
While Ana’s experience is 100% big city American kid, her grandparents bring their own opinions, colored by time and experience. Her Chinese grandparents are less than thrilled to hear she’s interested in Japanese boy, since the Japanese went to war with China and committed atrocities long before either Ana or her crush, Jamie Tabata, were born.
Ana holds the basic values of both sides of her heritage—namely, the importance of family, of education, etc. Where she butts heads is when the adults are too old-fashioned or conventional for her tastes. You’ll see throughout the book that any ethnicity-based conflict is inspired or perpetrated by the adults. The kids have the same schoolyard rivalries and alliances any kid would have.
BBS: What is your day job with Bongo entail? How challenging is it to switch gears from animation/comic books to novel writing?
SLS: I am the office manager of a small publishing company. We do comic books, calendars and trade paperbacks. My days are usually spent at a computer placing orders, paying bills and digging my way out of paperwork.
In my down time, I get to talk to my co-workers, mostly artists, and debate the merits of Superman over Batman or exactly what it was that Homer Simpson said in that episode. It’s a lot of fun.
Novel writing, on the other hand, is very solitary work. It’s great to be completely independent, starting and stopping when you want, not needing to run ideas by someone else, but it can also be lonely. Doing both is a good balance for me. I’m a homebody, but not a complete shut in. And hey, comic books are awesome!
BBS: Not sure if it’s the cover or what, but Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet seems like it would make a cool cartoon. Do you see any of your books taking form as a movie, TV show or animated series?
SLS: So far, I can’t picture any of them as animated, but certainly a live action version of any of my books makes sense and there has been some interest in that area—two of my books have been optioned. We’ll have to see where it leads.
I come from a film and animation background, and I write very visually. Lucy the Giant, for instance, would be amazing on the big screen—sweeping images of the Bering Sea, storms, the Alaskan landscape. It would be great.
Sparrow is a quieter story, but still has some great visuals, since it’s set in New Orleans. And with this latest book, I think you could have a lot of fun with the comedy of Ana’s situation. I guess I could see it as animated, after all!
BBS: Beyond the Cheetah Girls, YA books with multi-cultural protags have yet truly penetrated movies and television. You’re based in LA – so you’re as close a thing to an insider we have, what do you think it will take for these types of books to get a little big or small screen love?
SLS: First and foremost, they have to get love from the publishing industry. The only way a producer finds out about a book before it’s published is from their connections in the industry, or if their kid brings it home and foists it on them.
It’s hard to get publishers to really push a story. Likewise, bookstores have to show interest.
As the world continues to blend together, there will be more demand for and acceptance of multicultural protagonists. When the market is big enough, as long as the material is compelling, the movies and TV shows will follow.
BBS: I can’t help myself. You’re in an elevator with a bigwig from Nickelodeon. Quick, what’s the elevator pitch of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet?
SLS: That’s not fair. I don’t jump people in elevators and pitch my ideas to them. However if someone, say my mother, was there pushing me to say something, it would probably be this:
It’s a family comedy about a girl who is half-Chinese, half-black and totally in love with a Japanese kid, trying her best to wrangle her family into helpful, non-embarrassing mode long enough for her to survive her eighth grade graduation and a dinner party in honor of her crush. There.
Thanks, Mom. And no, I won’t tell the man I speak a little French. Because I don’t, Mom. Not really. And it doesn’t matter. What? Oh, well, oui. Un petit peu. * mortified sigh*
Sherri, you’re hilarious and frank. We need to hang out if you’re ever on my side of the U.S.
The Buzz on Sherri L. Smith’s books
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet
“…Smith serves up a funny, entertaining gumbo of cultural collisions and discoveries.” – Kirkus
“This is a touching novel of a teen left behind by circumstance and a relative who fails her.” – School Library Journal
“…the warm characters redefine what family means.” – Booklist
New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age 2006
Lucy, The Giant
“A tantalizing prologue introduces us to a narrator reflecting on her life while drowning in the Bering Sea. Mixed with riveting descriptions of the extreme cold and harrowing storms at sea are warming human interactions.” – The Horn Book Magazine, Starred
American Library Association Best Books for Young People 2003
American Library Association Amelia Bloomer Selection