Award-winning author Mitali Perkins recently visited Greenwich Academy and delivered three entertaining assemblies, addressing students in Groups III through XII. Ms. Perkins arrived at GA fresh from the 2018 National Book Awards ceremony in Manhattan, where she served as a judge for the Young People's Literature category. Mitali Perkins was herself a 2017 National Book Award nominee for her young adult novel You Bring the Distant Near, a multi-generational family story. Her books' many accolades also include the South Asia Book Award, a Walter Dean Myers Honor Award, and a New York Public Library "100 Great Children's Books of the Past 100 Years" honor.
"I was supposed to be a jute farmer's daughter," she opened, explaining that her parents grew up on jute farms in Bangladesh. Then war brought danger, forcing her parents to abandon their land and belongings and move to Kolkata, India, where she and her two older sisters were born: Sonali ("gold"), Rupali ("silver"), and Mitali (in a departure from precious metals, Mitali means "friendship" in Bangla). By age seven, she had moved to Flushing, Queens. Her family later moved to California when she was in the middle of seventh grade, where her new principal thought it would be a good idea to bring her up on stage during an all-school assembly and say, "We have a new student...from Asia!"
"No one talked to me for two months," she remarked. "So I read a lot."
"By the end of middle school, find your stories," she advised the Group V-VIII assembly. She explained that this might take the form of a "comfort story"—a book you read again and again (hers include the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings), a favorite song, or a movie watched time after time. "You'll find the stories you love through the stories you live. Your story will not be the same as those of your friends because your lives are different." Ms. Perkins went on to explain why she prefers books to movies. "Movies are a little bossy," she said. "There is more room for you in a book; you can meet the writer halfway to envision the story."
Ms. Perkins has had to live up to the "friendly" name her parents chose for her. As the "new girl" many times over, she quickly learned to live in two cultures, something the characters in her novels often experience as well. She became adept at code-switching: the art of moving between languages and cultures, of negotiating differing customs and norms—typically easier for the young. "If you moved to Paris right now," she told the students, "you'd learn the language, the culture, more easily than your parents. You have a superpower."
Ms. Perkins's own superpowers of public speaking and meaningful connection were in evidence during her day at GA. She gave assemblies to the Upper School, the Middle School, and Groups III and IV—including visiting students from Stamford's Waterside School. GA's and Waterside's fourth graders readied for her visit by coming together twice before Ms. Perkins' visit—once at each school—for activities related to her novel Rickshaw Girl, set in Bangladesh. The students learned and performed Bangladeshi dances and also created traditional Alpana (symmetrical patterned drawings), which were then scanned, laser cut on thick paper, and mounted on colorful cardstock in GA's Engineering & Design Lab. Upon seeing a framed display of the Alpana cards, Ms. Perkins stood in front of it for a picture. "I need to send this to my mom," she remarked.
Although Mitali Perkins discussed differences among cultures ranging from food to clothing to sports to language, she left the GA community feeling unified—and hopeful—by way of her own inclusive, optimistic example. "Every culture has its good and bad aspects. There's always something you can change." After a beat, she added, "This group will make those changes."