Mitali Perkins (www.mitaliperkins.com) was born in Kolkata, India and immigrated at age seven to the States with her family.
She studied political science at Stanford University and public policy at U.C. Berkeley, surviving academia thanks to a steady diet of children’s and YA books from public libraries.
It’s my first week in this new suburban born-in-the-USA middle school and I’m in P.E. class, waiting to be picked for a team. I’ve been feeling invisible as the only brown-skinned seventh-grader ever since we moved here from Flushing, Queens. Until now.
"Oh, fine, then. I’ll take the black ugly thing," says one of the captains.
Every head swivels. Every eye focuses on me. I’m stunned for a moment. Immobilized. Then, fighting back tears (stupid tears), I shuffle over to my team and we start playing.
At home, I don’t tell my immigrant parents what happened. In their old world, the darkness of a girl’s skin affects her chances of finding a good husband. I’m constantly fending off my mother’s attempts to lighten my cheeks with "Fair and Lovely" cream. How can I admit that my peers in this new world have also linked the words "black" and "ugly" when describing me?
A combination of those words could echo inside my head for years to come, especially in an all-white context. But they don’t, because they’re silenced by stories. I read voraciously, endlessly, devouring stories of people like me — rejected outsiders, orphans without the help of elders, misfits, eccentrics, wistful wannabes — all heroes who survived and triumphed on their journeys.
Maybe I will, too. In any case, I prefer their company.
Some of the stories prove that the new world and the whole world are both wrong when it comes to associating dark skin with the word "ugly." I toss the Fair and Lovely cream in the trash and hold my head high at school.
Now I write from that outsider’s place, knowing that stories can silence lies in the heads of young people and replace them with joy, love, and truth.
Mitali’s award-winning books for young readers include Monsoon Summer, The Sunita Experiment, Rickshaw Girl, Secret Keeper, and the First Daughter books. She also posts at Mitali’s Fire Escape, a popular blog where she invites discussion about books and life between cultures, twitters aboout children’s books, and speaks frequently at schools, conferences, and libraries. Mitali lives in Newtonabout, Massachusetts with her husband, teenagers, Labrador retrievers, and ferret.