American author Mitali Perkins has written ten novels for young readers, including You Bring the Distant Near (nominated for the National Book Award, Walter Award honor book), Richshaw Girl (chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the top 100 books for children in the past 100 years), Bamboo People (American Library Association’s Top Ten Novels for Young Adults), and Tiger Boy (winner of the Charlotte Huck Honor Award, the South Asian Book Award 2016 and the Neev Book Award 2018).
Mitali was born in Kolkata, and has lived in Bangladesh, India, England, Thailand, Mexico, Cameroon and Ghana. She studied at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
On November 10, 2018, Perkins will be at Kolkata’s Oxford Bookstore discussing her book, Tiger Boy (published by Duckbill) – a book that creates “a vivid narrative exploring important themes of environment and more…”
Excerpts from an interview with Mitali Perkins:
What is the most difficult part of writing for children?
Dealing with adults! Children are the best part about writing — their notes and questions, their joy and empathy when I meet them in person, their connections with all kinds of characters. The real question is why would anyone want to write for adults? I am so grateful that writing for children is my calling.
Tell us about your inspirations and influences as an author.
I read widely and furiously and freely as a child. Because I moved around so often and lived in so many countries, I developed a hunger for a place that felt like home. Through fiction, I found many homes, whether it be Lothlorien (Lord of the Rings), 19th century Concord, Massachusetts (Little Women), Prince Edward Island (Anne of Green Gables), or Narnia.
Tiger Boy is story which is beautifully told. It is moving, with tight plot developments and realistic characters. But the setting is perhaps the most important character in the book. How did you create that character and why did you choose the Sundarbans?
Thank you so much! My parents both grew up in the villages of Bengal and I heard stories about the region’s rural beauty. When I visited firsthand, I was struck by the mystery and splendor of the terrain, flora, and fauna in the Sundarbans. Muddy, misty deltas and tributaries, roots that grow upwards for oxygen, tigers that adapt to drink salt water — it is a spellbinding ecosystem unique to Bengal. It is also at risk due to climate change.
This book brings in so many important issues like poaching, climate change, gender discrimination, access to education and so on. Do you think books for children should have such inherent messages that will teach our children to be better citizens of tomorrow?
I can’t help writing about issues of justice — they are what is on my heart and mind. I’m not sure if children “should” have books with such content, but I do remember that I as a child began to care deeply about fighting hunger, exploitation, and injustice mostly due to the books I was reading. I can still remember a gripping scene about a hungry child and bread in THE LITTLE PRINCESS that changed my heart and mind forever.
Which part of the Tiger Boy was most difficult to write? Why?
I had no idea how a boy and a girl would be able to to lure a tiger cub out of hiding. Here’s where speaking Bangla came in handy — I was able to interview the rangers in the Sundarbans and ask them specific questions about those scenes. I’m so grateful for their input.
Neel goes outside the Sundarbans to study and we hope he will come back to change the situation in the island. But Headmaster too had come back years ago and not much had changed earlier. Do you look at Neel’s journey with hope, or somewhere at the back of your mind was there a negative feeling that nothing much changes?
Whether or not what we do makes a difference isn’t the question. We all have to use our gifts to steward the places we call home. That’s our obligation to this planet. The hope comes from trying.
Do you think Neel’s sister will be able to go to school again some day?
Yes. I see organisations in Bengal fighting hard for the education and empowerment of girls in rural areas. My first cousin, for example, Anindita Majumdar, is a leader in this effort through the Equidiversity Foundation, and I am so proud of her.
Were you lucky enough to spot a tiger in the Sundarbans?
In the wild, we saw only the pugmarks on the muddy riverbanks. But we did see an injured tiger being cared for by the rangers.
Have you gone back to the Sundarbans after the book was published? Did you notice any change?
I would love to return. Want to join me?
Yes! Would you like to see the dream that you dream in the Tiger Boy turn into reality before your eyes? How would that feel? Give an idea of what that future would look like…
The dream of saving this ecosystem and the tigers while empowering the poor communities who dwell in the region belongs to the children of West Bengal. I am optimistic!
Your books Rickshaw Girl and Bamboo People have also been praised a lot. Tell us something about the response.
It is thrilling to see the myth dispelled that readers in the west need a western “bridge character” in a story in order to enjoy a novel that is set fully in Asia. These three books — Rickshaw Girl, Bamboo People, and Tiger Boy — feature no western characters at all and yet I get letters and notes from all over the U.S.A. from kids who connect deeply with characters like Naima, Chiko, Tu Reh, Neel, and Rupa.
You are coming to Kolkata from Bangladesh where Rickshaw Girl is being made into a movie. Tell us about your experience of watching your book being transformed into a film.
My jaw is still in the dropped position. I literally cannot share anything but nonverbals — picture big eyes and an open mouth. I am shocked and delighted.
Your favourite book?
I re-read the Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, and the Harry Potter series on an annual, seasonal basis.
Tell us about your next book…
FORWARD ME BACK TO YOU is a novel for teens set in Boston and Kolkata coming 4/2/19. Here’s the official description from Macmillan:
The award-winning author of You Bring the Distant Near explores identity, homecoming, and the legacy of assault in this personal and ambitious new novel.
Katina King is the reigning teen jujitsu champion of Northern California, but she’s having trouble fighting off the secrets in her past.
Robin Thornton was adopted from an orphanage in India and is reluctant to take on his future. If he can’t find his roots, how can he possibly plan ahead?
Robin and Kat meet in the most unlikely of places—a summer service trip to Kolkata to work with survivors of human trafficking. As bonds build between the travelmates, Robin and Kat discover that justice and healing are tangled, like the pain of their pasts and the hope for their futures. You can’t rewind life; sometimes you just have to push play.
In turns heart wrenching, beautiful, and buoyant, Mitali Perkins’s new novel focuses its lens on the ripple effects of violence—across borders and generations—and how small acts of heroism can break the cycle.