Susan Chaityn Lebovits | People

The insights of outsiders

Email|Print| Text size + By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
January 27, 2008

Surviving middle school is difficult enough for the average kid.

But if you're from India and land in an all-white suburb in California in the 1970s, life can be a lot tougher, Mitali Perkins recalled.

Or try being the only girl in a baseball league in a small Midwestern town 30 years ago, Karen Day observed.

Now well into their 40s, Perkins and Day still feel the sting of those difficult years. The two friends are successful writers of teenage and young adult novels who use variations of their own lives in the characters and situations that they create. They met eight years ago while attending a writer's group in Newton.

Perkins has published seven books, including "Monsoon Summer," which was selected by the New York Public Library for its 2006 list of Books for the Teen Age; "The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen," chosen for Scholastic Book Fairs and Scholastic Book Club; and "First Daughter: White House Rules," which recently garnered attention when Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, posted an entry on the book's blog.

"My stories come out of the things that I experienced when I was in middle school," said Perkins. "About being between cultures."

Perkins was 7 when her family emigrated from Bengal, India, to the Flushing section of Queens, where she felt comfortable since "nearly every nation was represented," she said.

But when they moved to California, Perkins found herself surrounded by whites who had all been born and raised in the United States.

"Not one kid spoke to me for two months," said Perkins. "The principal introduced me as 'a new student from Asia.' "

Perkins recalls an afternoon in seventh grade when her gym glass was choosing teams.

"I can still see the captain's face," said Perkins, describing the popular boy. "When the sides were nearly all picked he looked around and said, 'Ug. I'll take that black ugly thing.'

"Until then it hadn't really dawned on me that I had been perceived as a different race."

Perkins has a following among middle school and teen readers, both American and international. She frequently travels to schools to discuss writing and literature, the life-changing value of stories to navigate uncharted or turbulent waters, and to assure kids that they are not alone.

Perkins said that on a recent visit to a school in Portland, Maine, where there are a large number of Sudanese refugees, a girl told her that every day when she walked home, an old man would drive his car beside her and yell racist taunts, telling her to "go back to your country." With the girl's permission, Perkins told the librarian and the school has since intervened.

"My parents didn't know how to help me succeed in this world," said Perkins. "My older sisters and I had to figure it out ourselves." But along with the pain came experiences that Perkins says have served her well.

"You develop a huge culture-navigation muscle," Perkins said, laughing.

"You can enter into any culture and learn to read the nonverbals, picking up on everything from table manners to handling money. My books are about girls who are doing that."

When Perkins was 15, a drunk driver killed one of her best friends. The trauma, she said, launched her into a spiritual search. While Perkins was studying political science at Stanford University, a friend suggested that she read the Bible.

"I'd never considered Christianity, as I thought it was a white person's religion," said Perkins. But she felt an immediate connection.

She then met her future husband, Robert, also a student at Stanford. Upon graduation they spent seven years working for the Presbyterian Church USA in Southeast Asia. Perkins taught English to seventh- and ninth-graders at Chiang Mai International School in Thailand.

The couple adopted twin sons from India and moved to Newton, where Robert is the senior pastor at Newton Presbyterian Church.

While Perkins was in middle school trying to fit into a society that worshiped Farrah Fawcett, Day was playing baseball with boys and traveling on an elite tennis circuit at a time when the world was taken with Billie Jean King.

Being a much better athlete than all of the boys left her isolated, said Day.

"I really didn't have anyone to talk to," she said. "I kept a journal - writing has always been a part of me that felt really safe and good."

Day described herself as an emotional kid with a lot of interests, but said that she didn't have a close friend until she was older.

"That feeling of being alone is what I continually write about in my books."

She also tackles some tough topics.

In her book "Tall Tales," which has just been selected for the Bluebonnet Award statewide reading list in Texas, the main character has a father who is an alcoholic; in "Cream Puffs," the father has abandoned the family, and there's a suicide in the neighborhood.

"Kids at that age know about pain and the things that happen," said Day. "I like to show situations that can still give a kid hope, and help them learn how to cope."

Day's characters and situations also grow out of personal experience.

"We had a neighbor who had committed suicide in her garage, and my dad's father died when my dad was 6 years old," said Day. "It was something that we never talked about but I grew up feeling my dad's pain and the idea that he never dealt with it."

Day's interest in the psychological development of girls led her to do doctoral work at New York University in psychoanalysis and to research mother-daughter connections. "How girls relate to each other is a really important theme for me, and what I weave into all of my books," said Day. She and her husband have a 12-year-old son and two daughters, 10 and 7.

Perkins said that she and Day share a common approach to writing.

"The bridge between Karen and I is talking about places of pain in our own lives, and trying to give kids courage who may be experiencing that themselves," she said.

For more on Mitali Perkins, visit; for more on Karen Day, go to

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