Sunday, April 22, 2012

Special interview with Stacy Whitman, Tu Books, and Kimberly Pauley, author of Cat Girl's Day Off

We've got something special for you all today on the Inkpot. First let me tell you about the book.

Cat Girl’s Day Off is the newest release from Tu Books and I’ve gotta be honest, I absolutely adored it! I didn’t want to put it down! I was literally constantly snickering every other page or so and then there were moments where I just cracked up! This is one of the funniest, the funnest, and the most action packed joy ride of a book! Seriously, loved this book! I’m telling you that even if you aren’t a cat person, I’m not – I’m terribly allergic, you will adore this book.

 And today, for the first time, I get to interview both Editor and Author for an inside look into how this great book got to be published. So I’m very happy to present today’s interview with Kimberly Pauley, author of Cat Girl, and Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director of Tu Books.

 Ello – Welcome to the Inkpot, Kimberly and Stacy! So, for those of our readers who may not know about Tu, let’s start with a quick introduction to Tu Books.

Stacy – Tu Books is an imprint of Lee & Low Books. We publish diverse fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for children and young adults. We started because genre fiction for young readers needs more diversity, needs more characters of color starring in their own adventures.

Ello – I love Tu Books and I think Kimberly has been extremely lucky having Stacy as an editor. Kimberly, can you tell us about how Cat Girl came to you and how it ended up in Stacy’s hands?

Kimberly – I’d started with the very basic idea of a character that had a really stupid super power and didn’t want it. My original working title was “Super Freaks” and I’d thought it would be a series, with each book from a different character’s point of view. One of the other “stupid talents,” for instance, was a girl who could change her hair color depending on what she ate. The idea kept morphing and really took off in my head when I incorporated Ferris.

I knew Stacy from my first two books (she had worked for my old publisher) and I’d always liked her so I made sure my agent sent her the book when it was being submitted around. I’m glad I did! I think she made it a lot better.

Stacy – I knew Kim’s work from her first two books, Sucks to Be Me and Still Sucks to Be Me, which were published by the imprint I used to work for. When I started Tu, we had several conversations about diversity issues, and I asked Kim if she had anything starring an Asian character—as I’d just found out (since we’d never met in person and it never came up) that she was half Asian herself. Cat Girl ended up being the perfect fit.

Ello – I have to say that what I loved about Cat Girl was Nat, your main character, and how you just nailed her voice. She was alive in my head as I was reading. She made me snort diet coke out of my nose. I wanted to high five her. I wanted to hang out with her. I loved her especially because she is a strong, grounded, smart character. In other words, a great role model! Kimberly and Stacy, can you both talk about the importance of strong girl main characters?

Kimberly – I know books helped define who I was as a person. They were my escape, my solace, my…well, everything. I read a LOT when I was growing up. And I really searched out books even back then that had strong girl main characters. I needed that in my life. I think all girls do.

Stacy—I think that, just as kids need to see themselves reflected in the pages ethnically/racially (more below on that), girls need to see themselves reflect in the pages of a book. Validation and empowerment come from that. But also, I think that just as importantly, boys need to enjoy reading about girls, and need to know that just because book stars a girl doesn’t make it “not for them.”

Ello – Absolutely! I think boys need to read a lot more books about girls. A lot!
 Ok, let's talk about the cats. Oh my goodness! I am not much of a cat person but you’ve almost convinced me to go and adopt a cat. Almost!

Stacy—I’m all about the cats, if you ask my grandma. I grew up on a farm, and my closest connection to it now is that I have two cats, and my grandma tends to give me cat EVERYTHING. I do love them, though, and have always imagined it would be cool to be able to talk to animals. In fact, the only book I’ve ever started to write (never finished) involved a girl who could talk to cats, so this was most definitely the perfect book for me!

Kimberly – Really? I want to read it! Me, I’ve had a cat around nearly all my life. Strangely enough, this is the first time I haven’t had one (or any pet) in a long, long time. When we moved to London from Chicago we had to leave my cat Gracie with my mom. She was too old to make the trip and has since died from cancer. I do miss her though!  She was a serious Diva of a cat. She shows up in the book as Queenie. Other cats I’ve had show up as well (PD, probably my favorite cat in the book, is patterned after a cat I had named Harley, so named because he purred as loud as a motorcycle).

Ello – My girls are working me over hard for a cat but I haven't given in yet!  For the record, I want to let you both know that I have a Class A Talent. I too have hypersensitive olfactory perception and I would love to get a nose inhibitor also. My talent is both a curse and a blessing. So what are your talents, hmmm? Do either of you have the ability to talk to cats?

Kimberly – I don’t know that cats understand me, but I have been known to talk to them (especially before I had my little boy and was working in the house alone with my cats). As for my talent…hmmm…I’d say it’s probably the wealth of completely random information that my brain stores. Gobs of it.

Stacy—I have that Talent too! Usually spouted at times that get me strange looks. But my best talent is the tech-destroying bubble that surrounds me. This year, I’ve had two phones, one iPod, and a laptop computer die on me mysteriously, and the laptop has been a 3-month saga to finally get it up and running again.

Ello – (wonders how far-reaching Stacy's talent is as she nervously strokes her MacPro).  I also want to take a moment to share my love for Oscar! He really does try and steal the spotlight from Nat at times, but Nat is too strong a character to let him take over! I have to say that I was impressed with how even all your minor characters jumped off the page and became so very real. I think Kimberly must have had a lot of fun creating all these characters. So, any of them based on people you know?

Kimberly – Funny you should mention Oscar as he’s definitely based on a few different guys I was friends with in high school and college. I know some people might call him a bit over the top (he is awesome-squared as far as I’m concerned), but he’s actually pretty tame compared to some of the friends I had. Other than that, Nat is probably a bit like me.

Ello – Thanks for publishing a book with Asian characters that are not stereotypes in any way! It is so refreshing to see that! Even Nat’s family was real (well except for the talents part) and not caricatures. So that takes us to the diversity question, which is always a hot topic. Given Tu’s mission, can you both share with us how important diversity is to the both of you? What does diversity mean to you?

Stacy – To me, it means intercultural connections. I’m white, though of course that could mean a variety of cultures of origin (in my case, Swedish, Irish, Scottish, English, German, Prussian, and a little bit Cherokee and Choctaw), and growing up in the rural Midwest I knew so few people from anything other than a Swedish/German/English background. But throughout my adult life, I’ve met so many people whose experiences/cultural background/faces are different than mine, and I want to them (and the fantastic/science fiction versions of them) reflected in the books I read just as much as I want to see myself. As it’s been said so many times, books should be both windows and mirrors—we all need both.

Kimberly – Growing up, I don’t think I ever thought about how the characters in books didn’t look like me. It just wasn’t something that even occurred to me as I read about girl detectives with titian hair or English school children passing through magical wardrobes. Possibly the first time it really hit me was when I read Justina Chen Headley’s Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies), which wasn’t until 2007! I’ve since made it a point to look for more diverse characters. There aren’t as many as I’d like to see, that’s for sure, though I do think it is getting better. Slowly.

To me, I think we’ll be where we need to be when it’s something we don’t have to talk about anymore. That’s actually something I think I did okay with in this book. Nat’s half-Chinese, but it isn’t important that she is. The story isn’t about her race or ethnicity, just like it isn’t integral to the story that Oscar is gay. He just is. Does that make sense?

Ello – Yes, but that's why I love it and I think it's important. I want to see more books where it doesn't matter what the race of the MC is, just that the story is good. Because then we have true diversity without delineation among racial lines.

Ello – But let’s talk about the cover. I love it! That’s Nat! Stacy can you share with us a little bit about the cover decision process?

Stacy – We had a LOT of possibilities to choose from on this one. But given the influence of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I thought it might be nice to echo a movie poster (like this one). We found the perfect model in stock photography, and the designer was able to tweak it to put streaks in Nat’s hair and dye the cat pink (just as Rufus is in the story). The finishing touch that made it all come together was adding the speech bubbles for Nat and Rufus.

One of the reasons we chose to showcase Nat was that we strongly feel, as a publisher whose mission is publishing books about characters of color, that showcasing a character of color is not a detriment to a good cover.

Kimberly – I really like it! I love that Nat is, indeed, half-Chinese and that her hair has purple streaks and that Rufus Brutus the Third is a pink cat. And I love the little speech bubbles, too, and the bold colors.

That said, if I’m completely honest I have to admit that as much as I like it, it’s also a little scary to have a cover that’s different from most of what you see out there. There are bookstores that won’t stock books because they don’t like covers that don’t fit the mold. And readers that (sadly) won’t pick it up for the same reason. I really loved the original cover of Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and even though the new one is really nice too, it’s much more race-neutral. (There’s a good post on this here: from S. Jae-Jones). I do hope that the new cover of Silver Phoenix helps attract new readers, though and that more bookstores will stock Cindy’s book. I’m not yet sure if the cover of CAT GIRL’S DAY OFF is making a difference or not with that, though I was told by a Barnes and Noble representative that they were “not stocking” my book at all (incidentally, if you don’t see CAT GIRL in your local bookstore, please ask—this is one situation where readers can make a huge difference to a book).

Stacy—I’d just add that B&N not stocking CAT GIRL wasn’t the cover (though I’ve experienced them turning books down because they didn’t like covers). In this and any case in which B&N doesn’t pick up a worthy book (in my personal opinion, the rough time B&N is having is affecting how much they order), one thing that really helps is readers walking into stores and ordering the book. Independent booksellers, particularly, will pay attention to a book that they constantly have to order, and will start to keep the book in stock.

Ello – How important do you think it is to have more books not only with diverse characters, but also having them right there on the front cover?

Stacy—As I said, we feel it’s important not to shy away from showcasing a character of color on the cover if it’s a great cover. Sometimes the better cover is a symbolic cover, or one that only shows part of the character and is more ambiguous about race. The cover of WOLF MARK, for example, doesn’t show the character’s face, and the forthcoming SUMMER OF THE MARIPOSAS has a *gorgeous* cover in which the five starring sisters are in silhouette. But I take it on a case-by-case basis depending on what’s best for the book, and to me, for this book, the echoes of Ferris Bueller really made this cover stand out to me.

Kimberly – I do think it is very important. Absolutely. Scary, like I mentioned above, but every book (and character) can make a difference.

Ello – So we come to the most important question… Sequel?

Kimberly – Um…I suppose I need to let Stacy handle that one! I will say that if there is one that I’ve got a rough idea of what the plot would include (a big cat, like a tiger or lion) and what I think the title would be (Don’t Call Me Cat Girl). It’s too soon to say any more than that, I suppose.

Stacy – I sure hope so! But that depends, business-wise, on how well book 1 does, so, um (sorry, here’s the sales pitch) maybe people should go buy it! And ask their libraries to order it! And ask their local bookstore to order it! :D It’s getting great reviews, which means more people are finding it that way, as well. The more people who show us they love book 1, the greater the likelihood of a book 2!
Ello - Absolutely! And we will do our part to spread the word! So guys, go on out and ask your local bookstore to order Cat Girl's Day Off if not for diversity, do it for me because I really really want to read the sequel! No seriously, do it cause it is a great book. And the fabulous people at Lee and Low are offering up two copies of Cat Girl's Day Off to our Inkpot readers. All you have to do is leave a comment and we will enter you in for a chance to win! So let the world know and enter in the drawing. Winner will be announced in next week's Shameless post!

Thanks to Stacy and Kimberly for being here today!


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