Guest Post: Greg Leitich Smith on Hapa Characters: Asian-White Biracial Representation

By Greg Leitich Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As with a lot of aspects of creative media these days, Disney movies have been criticized for their lack of diversity.

While such criticism is necessary, I think it’s important as well to give praise where it’s due and acknowledge things done right.

So I want to hand it to Disney for featuring resonant Asian-white characters in several of its recent animated movies, something you rarely see in any media.

The characters Hiro and Tadashi from “Big Hero Six;” Wilbur Robinson from “Meet the Robinsons;” and Russell from “Up” are all Asian-white (this in a field that’s largely #whitewashedOUT, and note that all of these films were financially successful).

One of the things about these portrayals that I particularly liked, too, was that while the characters are clearly the products of their backgrounds, their ethnicities were not the be all and end all of their existences.

In other words, they are fully developed characters – persons – with individual wants and needs that have nothing to do with their heritage.

Being of German and Japanese descent myself, I tend to notice this sort of thing.

Portraying Asian mixed-race characters as mainstream with idiosyncratic wants and needs is something I’ve striven for in my books.

My first novel, Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo, pokes some fun at the “caught between two worlds” motif: Shohei O’Leary (one of three co-protagonists) is of wholly Japanese descent and has been adopted by parents of Irish descent. Still, he is first and foremost a kid who has to deal with his specific wacky parents.

By Blake Henry from Chronal Engine

In Tofu and T.rex, the protagonist, Hans-Peter Yamada (whose family owns a German delicatessen and butcher shop), has to deal with a vegan cousin who comes to live with them.

Although both Shohei and Hans-Peter are Japanese American, their ethnicity informs their background rather than wholly defines it (like their being Chicagoans informs their backgrounds rather than wholly defining them).

Similarly, the protagonist, Max Pierson-Takahashi, and his siblings in Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time (both Clarion) are, like Hans-Peter, hapa. They’re Asian and white. (Their friend Petra is Mexican-German American.)

Max is focused on surviving encounters with Tyrannosaurus rex and surviving being caught between the contemporary world and the world of dinosaurs (literally),  as opposed to being “caught between two [ethnic] worlds.”

This is all to say, when it comes to animated hapa boys: Good job, Disney.

Now about live-action kids, other identities-intersections, and hapa girls

Cynsational Notes

Check out the educator guides for Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time. See also the Chronal Engine Activity Kit.

Greg is currently booking for fall 2016 and the 2017-2018 school year. Contact The Booking Biz to invite him to your event.

Greg uses the term hapa to refer to someone of biracial (Asian) heritage. He learned it from his mother, who is Japanese-American, originally from Hawaii.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Time Travel & Tracking Dinosaurs

Borrowed Time launch party at BookPeople in Austin

By Greg Leitich Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There’s a line from the first “Jurassic Park” movie to the effect that the place has all the problems of a major theme park and a major zoo.

I sort of feel the same way about writing time travel fiction: You have all the major problems of historical fiction and all the major problems of science fiction/fantasy.

And in writing a dinosaur time travel novel, I found, to my surprise, that of the two, the more problematic one has been the historical – dinosaur — aspect.

We are seeing new discoveries and new interpretations of dinosaur behavior and evolution almost weekly. In publishing, of course, there can be up to a two-year lead time from a sale of a manuscript to its publication. A lot can happen in that time.

For example, there is a dinosaur called Tsintaosaurus – long thought to have had a single horn coming out of its head like a unicorn. In 2013, however, a study was published that concluded that the “horn” was placed in the wrong position and Tsintaosaurus didn’t resemble a unicorn at all. Any manuscript set for publication that featured the unicorn became instantly outdated.

Sometimes, though, the science is less settled, as in the case of Nanotyrannus. Nanotyrannus is a name that was assigned to a specimen of a dinosaur that resembles Tyrannosaurus rex but is somewhat smaller (Hence “nano”). Although some of the evidence is ambiguous, some recent analyses suggest that Nanotyrannus was just a juvenile T.rex.

(That said, there are new specimens that some paleontologists believe may prove the existence of Nanotyrannus that have yet to be fully examined).

So, what’s an author to do?

Do your research until it hurts. For me, this involves getting as many primary sources as possible. In the case of paleontology, this means journals such as PloS One, Cretaceous Research, and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

I tend not to trust media reports of new discoveries but sometimes they link to or you can infer a link to the original article. Most articles on the new discoveries will have a recap of past thinking on an issue.

Know your point of view. Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012) and Borrowed Time (Clarion 2015) both feature a small tyrannosaur the point-of-view protagonist Max calls Nanotyrannus. Max does mention the ambiguity in the naming (because he’s slightly pedantic), but nevertheless continues to call it Nanotyrannus throughout.

Why? Well, first, “Nanotyrannus” is kind of a cool name and continually referring to the animal as “the juvenile T.rex” would’ve been clunky. Also, he didn’t have the wherewithal to perform an analysis of the creature to determine what species it actually was…

Don’t be afraid to make an informed judgment call – in fiction, at least, there’s room for poetic license. And, besides, the science might catch up to you. Both Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time feature a variety of dinosaurs of differing sizes in the dromaeosaur family (These are the “raptor” dinosaurs made familiar by “Jurassic Park”).

In the location and era the book is set, however, the bones of only small raptors have been recovered, although there are some ambiguous teeth believed to be from larger raptors. Consequently, in the books, I feature different-sized species of raptor. And recently, paleontologists announced the discovery of Dakotaraptor, a giant-sized “raptor” dinosaur – somewhat larger than the raptors from “Jurassic Park” — from the same era in which my books are set.

What’s a reader to do?

I tend to be the type of reader who gets annoyed by factual errors. They trip me up and make me less trusting of the author and less willing to suspend disbelief. So here’s my strategy:

Whenever I pick up a book for the first time, I always look at the first publication date (often the copyright date). I had assumed that everyone did this or learned to do this, and was surprised when I was informed this was not so.

But the original date of publication will give you a heads up on the mindset of the author, the era in which he is writing, and what facts are known (or should have been known) to him or her at the time.

For example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s portrayal of sluggish and scaly dinosaurs in The Lost World (published 1912) is very different from the active and intelligent predators in Michael Crichton’s Lost World (1995). But I’m willing to accept Conan Doyle’s portrayal because of the era in which he was writing. (I’m also willing to accept Crichton’s featherless raptors because his book was published prior to the discovery that raptors had feathers).

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win signed copies of Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time by Greg Leitich Smith (both Clarion). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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Giveaway: Four Middle Grade Novels by Greg Leitich Smith & Pterodactyl Puppet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a set of four signed copies of middle grade novels by Greg Leitich Smith and a pterodactyl puppet!

Today he makes his home in Austin, but Greg grew up on the north side of Chicago.

He is of German and Japanese heritage, and many of his characters are similarly mixed-race.

Greg holds degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, he holds a degree in law from The University of Michigan Law School, Ann Arbor. His interest in science and law has influenced his writing.

Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook)

Beach culture and UFOs collide in this lighthearted adventure story about an alien encounter at an aging Cocoa Beach motel.

Twelve-year-old Aidan lives and works at his parents’ motel on the Space Coast in Florida, so he’s seen a lot of weird stuff. Even his best friend, Louis, is a little bit crazy—he’s obsessed with UFOs and swears he saw one two years ago. But things at the Mercury Inn are about to get a whole lot weirder.

When an actual unidentified flying object suddenly appears in the sky over the motel, Aidan begins to realize that some of the residents of the Mercury Inn may be much more unusual than he thought. And Louis might not be so crazy after all.

Filled with quirky characters and atmosphere, this beachy alien caper, like the aging motel where it takes place, is anything but ordinary.

“In this gleefully absurd tale, Smith (Chronal Engine) unfurls a series of alien-inspired hijinks at a space-themed motel on Florida’s Space Coast…Arnold’s skillfully drafted spot cartoons give this offbeat story a lively layout and match Smith’s light and breezy tone, grounded by the occasional serious moment. The result is an engaging, humorous look at humans learning that they’re not alone in the universe.” –Publishers Weekly

Chronal Engine (Clarion)

Activity Kit

When Max, Emma, and Kyle are sent to live with their reclusive grandfather for the summer, they’re dismayed to learn he thinks there’s a time machine in the basement.

But when Grandpa Pierson predicts the exact time of his own heart attack, and when Emma is kidnapped by what can only be a time traveler, they realize he was telling the truth about the Chronal Engine. And if they want their sister back, they’ll have to do it themselves.

So Max and Kyle, together with their new friend Petra, pack up their grandpa’s VW and follow Emma and the kidnapper back in time, to Late Cretaceous Texas, where the sauropods and tyrannosaurs roam. Can the trio find Emma and survive the hazards of the Age of Dinosaurs, or are they, too, destined to become part of the fossil record?

“[T]his is exactly the book young dino fans would write themselves, crammed with sandbox-style action and positively packed with words like Nanotyrannus and Parasaurolophus. Great back matter clarifies fact from speculation, while Henry’s manga-inspired illustrations provide a good sense of the monsters’ scary scale.” – Booklist

Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo (IntoPrint, originally Little, Brown)

Elias, Shohei, and Honoria have always been a trio united against That Which Is The Peshtigo School. But suddenly it seems that understanding and sticking up for a best friend isn’t as easy as it used to be.

Elias, reluctant science fair participant, finds himself defying the authority of Mr. Ethan Eden, teacher king of chem lab.

Shohei, all-around slacker, is approaching a showdown with his adoptive parents, who have decided that he needs to start “hearing” his ancestors.

And Honoria, legal counsel extraordinaire, discovers that telling a best friend you like him, without actually telling him, is a lot harder than battling Goliath Reed or getting a piranha to become vegetarian.

What three best friends find out about the Land of the Rising Sun, Pygocentrus nattereri, and Galileo’s choice, among other things, makes for a hilarious and intelligent read filled with wit, wisdom, and a little bit of science.

“Smith’s sparkling debut offers three seventh grade narrators, each of them precocious, intelligent, and wickedly funny…Readers will identify with these smart characters and enjoy the vicarious attendance at their idiosyncratic school.” -Publishers Weekly

  • Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner 2003
  • Writers’ League of Texas Teddy Award, 2004
  • A Junior Library Guild Selection
  • An ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adult Readers, 2006 

Tofu and T. rex (IntoPrint, originally Little, Brown)

Vegan Frederika Murchison-Kowalski returns to the Peshtigo School after a brief “hiatus.”

But she then discovers that she has to live with her grandfather, who just happens to own a butcher shop and sausage deli.

Not only that, Freddie’s cousin, Hans-Peter, is a diehard carnivore but needs Freddie’s insider knowledge to get accepted into the Peshtigo School himself.

Throw in a flaming dinosaur, a recipe for vegan kielbasa, and an accidental amputation, and this battle of generations, wills, and diets will have readers laughing out loud.

“This book will make kids laugh out loud.” –School Library Journal

“Tofu and T. rex captures the quirky eccentricities of small private schools, especially in the way they seem to foster and nurture quirky and eccentric (and highly intelligent if quixotic) personalities. This book is a fun read and a fitting continuance of the earlier work, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo.” –Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy

  • Finalist, Texas State Reading Association Golden Spur Award
  • Finalist, Writers’ League of Texas Book Award

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Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith: The Japanese Edition

Congratulations to my husband and sometimes co-author Greg Leitich Smith on the publication of the Japanese edition of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Poplar Sha, 2007)!

The book was originally published in hardcover by Little Brown in 2003, then in audio by Recorded Books in 2004 and in paperback by Little Brown in 2005. A Korean edition also is forthcoming. Read author interviews about the novel from Cynsations, Downhome Books, Debbi Michiko Florence and YABC.

From the flap copy: “Elias, Shohei, and Honoria have always been a trio united against That Which Is The Peshtigo School. But suddenly it seems that understanding and sticking up for a best friend isn’t as easy as it used to be.

Elias, reluctant science fair participant, finds himself defying the authority of Mr. Ethan Eden, teacher king of chem lab. Shohei, all-around slacker, is approaching a showdown with his adoptive parents, who have decided that he needs to start ‘hearing’ his ancestors. And Honoria, legal counsel extraordinaire, discovers that telling a best friend you like him, without actually telling him, is a lot harder than battling Goliath Reed or getting a piranha to become vegetarian.

What three best friends find out about the Land of the Rising Sun, Pygocentrus nattereri, and Galileo’s choice, among other things, makes for a hilarious and intelligent read filled with wit, wisdom, and a little bit of science.”

Honors and Awards

  • Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner 2003
  • Writers’ League of Texas Teddy Award, 2004
  • A Junior Library Guild Selection
  • An ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adult Readers, 2006
  • Nominee, Georgia Children’s Book Award, 2005-2006
  • Featured, Texas Book Festival

“A fresh, unusual story of friendship and honesty, riddled with wit, intelligence, and more than a few chuckles.” –School Library Journal”[A] fast-paced send up of school life. Smith achieves just the right balance of intelligent wit and drama in his first novel.” –Booklist “Smith’s sparkling debut offers three seventh grade narrators, each of them precocious, intelligent, and wickedly funny… Readers will identify with these smart characters and enjoy the vicarious attendance at their idiosyncratic school.” –Publishers WeeklyMore News & Links

In the Coop with David Lubar from Three Silly Chicks. David’s latest book is True Talents (Starscape, 2007)(excerpt)(promo video).

Authors Jill Esbaum and Linda Skeers are leading an intensive picture book writing workshop-retreat from June 1 to June 3, 2007, in eastern Iowa. For more information, visit http://www.linda-skeers.com/ and click Whispering Woods Picture Book Workshop. Read a Cynsations interview with Jill.

Children’s Literature Network: This site receives more than one million hits per month. It draws a national community of people from diverse backgrounds who are passionate about children’s literature and want to learn more about the industry. The site’s popular Author and Illustrator section offers helpful information about children’s book authors and illustrators in any given geographical area. To be listed on one of these pages through a CLN Professional Membership, visit their site.

Deborah Lynn Jacobs: official author site. Deborah’s books include The Same Difference (Royal Fireworks, 2000), Powers (Roaring Brook, 2006), and Choices (Roaring Brook, 2007). See bio and a Cynsations interview with Deborah.

Carmen Oliver: new official site of an Austin-based children’s writer.

Attention Austinites: Diane Gonzales Bertrand will be signing The Ruiz Street Kids/Los muchachos de la Calle Ruiz (Arte Publico, 2006) and Upside Down and Backwards/De cabeza y al reves (Arte Publico, 2004) at 2 p.m. March 24 at the Barnes & Noble Arboretum. Read a Cynsations interview with Diane.

More Personally

I’m honored that my recent YA novel, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) is one of two featured “Books of the Week” at Genrefluent: The World of Genre Fiction. The recommendation reads “Tantalize is a seductive read, perfect to savor with it myriad twists and turns…” and continues “This delectable novel is already creating quite a buzz among teen readers with good reason.” Read the whole review.

The other featured book this week is Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins, 2007)(author interview); read the review.

The mastermind behind Genrefluent is Diana Tixier Herald, author of Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests (Sixth Edition)(Libraries Unlimited, 2005).

Thanks to Tracie Vaughn Zimmer for her take on Tantalize: “…this is a no-holds-bar gothic, titilating scintillating tale with a hot werewolf boyfriend and murder mystery with bloody fangs. Fans of Libba Bray’s Beauty series take note: this is where to wait. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!” Read the whole recommendation. Don’t miss Tracie’s Reaching for the Sun (Bloomsbury, 2007).

Tantalize Giveaway Contest at YABC

Young Adult (& Kids) Book Central is sponsoring a giveaway contest that features 20 available copies of Tantalize. The challenge is: “Make up a favorite recipe/dish for either a vampire or a werewolf. Be Creative! And remember, answers DO count!” See the entry form. The event is co-sponsored by YABC and Candlewick Press. Please help spread the word!

In review news, Publishers Weekly cheers “…horror fans will be hooked by Kieren’s quiet, hirsute hunkiness…” I love the alliteration “hirsuit hunkiness.” How fun is that?

Thanks to BookPeople of Austin, Texas for featuring the book in its March newsletter! This is my local independent bookstore. Yay, Austin!

Thanks also to Cat for her kind and enthusiastic welcome to MySpace. I’m honored.

And last, I’d also like to note that I’ve signed a contract for a new picture book (“Holler Loudly”) with Dutton. I’ll keep you posted on illustrator and pub-date news.

More News & Links

Congratulations to my pal and fellow Austinite Chris Barton of Bartography on the sale of his SECOND book! Wahoo!

“How Bleak Thou Art:” my comedic writer (and very cute) husband and sometimes co-author, Greg Leitich Smith, blogs about the dearth of YA/tween comedies at Blogger. See also comments on his LJ syndication.

Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature blogs about Less Than Half, More Than Whole by Michael and Kathleen Lacapa (Northland, 1999). See my bibliographies on books with interracial family themes and Native themes.

How To Throw A Book Launch Party

Learn “How to Throw a Book Launch Party” via an article I’ve written that has been posted to Anastasia Suen’s blog, Create/Relate: News from the Children’s Book Biz.

Speaking of which, the lovely Elizabeth Garton Scanlon at Liz In Ink is the latest blogger to chime in about my Tantalize launch party. Liz is the author of A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes: A Pocket Book, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins, 2004). Visit her author site and read her recent interview at Cynsations.

Don’t miss the other party reports from Cynsations, GregLSBlog, Don Tate’s Devas T. Rants and Raves, Camille’s Book Moot, Jo Whittemore’s LJ (great pics!), and Alison Dellenbaugh’s Alison Wonderland. Read Cynsations interviews with Greg, Don, and Jo.