Tuesday, January 27, 2015

GLBTQ characters in YA (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

When I was growing up, I could count on one hand the YA novels I knew about with gay characters: Trying Hard to Hear You, by Sandra Scoppettone. Happy Endings Are All Alike, also by Sandra Scoppettone. I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, by John Donovan.


There were probably a few more out there, but the pickings were slim. These were the ones I found myself. I can’t think of any books with transgender or intersex characters. And the same-sex relationships in these books wrought such havoc: dead dogs, dead lovers. Rejection. Abuse, even rape, by peers. The fact was that being openly GLBTQ was—and sadly, sometimes still is—risky. I don’t fault these books for reflecting that. And in fact, Scoppettone’s books also argued not just for tolerance but acceptance. “As long as people love instead of hate, what difference does it make who they love?” asks one of the characters in Trying Hard to Hear You.

But GLBTQ characters were largely invisible in the literature, especially happy thriving GLBTQ characters. Eventually readers got coming-out stories, an important and necessary step along the road, but coming out is not all that GLBTQ people do in their lives. Readers began to ask: Where were the gay characters in romances, mysteries, thrillers, fantasies, historical fiction?



The past couple of decades have seen real growth in this area. We now have the books of Brent Hartinger, David Levithan, Julie Anne Peters, Alex Sanchez. We have a gay hero (Hero by Perry Moore) and a Cinderella who doesn’t choose the prince (Ash by Malinda Lo). We have a main character in a quirky dystopian novel who is attacted to both sexes (Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith). We have transgender characters (in Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills). We have stories where the gender of the characters isn’t even specified (Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff) and stories with characters who reject labels and check-boxes for sexual orientation (Ask the Passengers by A. S. King) and stories with characters who are questioning (My Invented Life, by Lauren Bjorkman). I. W. Gregorio’s upcoming None of the Above features an intersex character.



Still on the wish list are: more stories where the main character is GLBTQ, not just a secondary character; more stories where sexual orientation and gender identity are incidental or subordinate to other plot issues (that is, “coping with being GLBTQ” isn’t the only storyline); more stories with female lead characters; more stories dealing with the increasing fluidity of labels and identity, and the growing rejection of binary categories.

Readers looking for more books in these areas may enjoy the blogs I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? and Gay YA.

Monday, January 26, 2015

My New Year's Reading Resolutions by Courtney McKinney-Whitaker



I always thought I was pretty supportive of diversity. Do We Need Diverse Books? Of course! Am I all for that? Absolutely! Do I have more than one graduate degree to do with books and children and the relationships between them and how young people need to see themselves reflected in literature? They are on my office wall in pretty frames.

Do I buy diverse books? Are they on my own personal library shelves? Well...not so much. For me, this has been an error of omission rather than something I meant to happen. Like a lot of people (everyone?—yet another reason We Need Diverse Books) I lean toward books about people like me. In my personal backpack of privilege (the link is for a satirical article--click through for the original by Peggy McIntosh), I carry the fact that there are a lot of books about people like me: straight, white, cisgender, overachieving princess-types. (I never thought I had a particularly privileged childhood, but I've recently been assured that if you had three American Girl dolls with accessories, you had a particularly privileged childhood.) So what I'm saying is, I naturally gravitate toward books about characters I relate to. Characters I can imagine being.

I'm all for increased diversity in publishing, but actions speak louder than words, right? Even for writers.

Two things happened last fall that made me really take a look at my own shelves. First, #WNDB started trending on Twitter. Second, if there's one thing I love as much as a book about an overachieving princess-type, it's a holiday anthology. I read MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, the anthology of YA holiday short stories edited by Stephanie Perkins. Reading about so many characters who are not like me (in gender, in sexuality, in faith, in race—in a bunch of ways), made me realize how startlingly NOT diverse my own bookshelves are. I don't even have many books by male writers. I'd been thinking about how to make my writing more diverse, but I realized I'd skipped a major step. First, I need to make my reading more diverse. If I ever want to pay more than lip service to the idea of diversity, I need to check my own privilege, and my own habits.

In true overachieving princess fashion, I like measurable goals with tangible results, so I've set myself two tasks, both of which I'm really looking forward to. First, each month in 2015, I am going to buy and read one YA or MG book whose protagonist is not exactly like me. I may read more, but I'm definitely going to buy at least one because publishing follows our pocketbooks, and if diverse books lose money, publishers will be more reluctant to publish them. I'm also going to keep track of the books I finish in 2015 so I can get a good overall picture of my reading habits.

Second, I signed up for a class taught by author B. A. Binns through the Young Adult chapter of Romance Writers of America. I write about characters who are like me because I'm scared of writing about those who aren't. I'm afraid I'll get it wrong. I'm a perfectionist—I hate getting things wrong. I'm also afraid that in getting it wrong, I might do more harm than good. I'm also a lifelong student, and I'm committed to learning what I don't know.

What has inspired you to check your privilege lately? What steps are you taking toward greater diversity in your reading, writing, and life?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Forward Motion -- by Natalie D. Richards

Forward MotionBy Natalie D. Richards
Diversity is a hot topic in the young adult writing world, and for good reason.  Does anyone like the idea of a teen struggling to find a book he or she can identify with?  At school visits, I look out at a sea of young faces.  There’s not much on earth I want more than to find a book for each one of those teens, one that is relevant and relatable to their unique life experience. 

But wanting something is very different than being a part of making it happen, isn’t it?  This new movement for diversity has taught me so much about ways we can all “make it happen.”

I’ve learned that like many other writers, I fell back on the comfortable and “known” in my debut novel, writing the blue-collar to middle-class predominantly white town where I was raised.

I’ve learned that in my opinion, there are many ways to be other, from differences in ethnicity to living with a disability or chronic mental illness. 

I’ve learned that it’s not enough to have the strength to write an unfamiliar life experience.  I need the courage to seek out relationships and encounters that will deepen my understanding.  

I’ve learned that I messed up in the beginning.

I’ve learned that I’m scared to death of messing it up again.

I’ve learned that being scared proves I’ve still got a long way to walk.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the full staircase.”  I think I’ll follow his advice, planting one foot in front of the other right up to the edge of the places that scare me.  Because forward progress is the only option I can accept.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Characters Who Don't Read



So, I'm a lady who loves reading and always has. I grew up in a house full of books, with parents who read and a mother who toted me to the library often. I played the school game well and do well with learning from printed text. I have a degree in Spanish & Creative Writing, a teaching license for grades 7-12, and a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. I read everyday. I visit my library 2-3 times a week. I always have a book in my handbag. And I can't fall asleep at night without nipping into a few chapters of something.

Also, recently I've started publishing my own books. And yet?

I want to see more books with characters who aren't themselves readers. Who are indifferent or failing students. Who don't see themselves as college material. Who struggle to complete high school. Who don't have interests that include academic clubs or varsity sports.

You might be wondering why someone who wants to earn a living selling her books would try to sell books to people who aren't readers?

Well, I suppose empathy is always a nice thing, right? Why not show kids who are readers what it's like to NOT be one?

Being a reader in itself is a kind of privilege: such people represent an incredible convergence of effort, investment and time on the part of parents and teachers and many others. Being a reader who reads for pleasure, for leisure, is still more privileged: having access to books as well as time and space to read them.

I know so many teachers who work their asses off to build readers! They search for the right titles, they buy classroom sets with their own money, they organize read-ins with snacks and comfy clothes and slippers, they build sustained silent reading time into their daily class plans. These teachers know that a good book is the most perfect self-contained curriculum, a dense capsule of information integrating psychology and history and politics and science and sociology and ethics and every other single damn discipline imaginable, in a coherent and holistic little tome. What a perfect package a story in a book can be for teaching and learning! Teachers know that if you make kids into readers, then kids can pretty much do anything else thrown at them academically.

So, I'm motivated to help these teachers, in any way I can. This is why I think we need more characters who don't fit the profile of the reader. In order for more kids to "see themselves" in the pages of books - the mirrors part of the mirrors and windows model - then we need them to see that not all stories are about middle class kids who have their own cars and parents who prize good grades and college application-padding activities.

I'm not saying I don't think kids who lead those college-bound, privileged lives aren't worthy of books. Of course they are! And I'm thankful they exist! What I'm saying, however, is that those kids already have the entire Western Canon available to them, not to speak of loads of YA titles that mirror their values and experiences.

Where do reluctant readers get to see themselves?

I dream of living in a world where everyone, everyone, EVERYONE reads. Not just academics. Not just people who teach school or work at libraries or have jobs in the intellectual service economy. Everyone! The idea that "books" are an elite activity makes me want to lay down and die. I want more books that can appeal to more people because I think a society that reads is one that is more imaginative and more empathetic and much much stronger. Also, just way cooler.

I want to write books about kids who don't take ACT-test prep classes.
I want to write books about kids who hate school and can't wait for it to end.
I want to write books about kids who choose paths that don't include college.

I want to write books about kids who might not see their own salvation in a book...until they maybe see themselves in one, first.






Friday, January 23, 2015

On the Rez with MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH







Half native. Half white.
One hundred percent nothing. 


"My mom doesn't want me. My dad just got out of jail. They want me to go live with him on the reservation in the Everglades. Trouble is, everybody there just ignores me.

At least I get to work with Pippa on my film project at school. We used to be friends when we were like twelve. Now that we're hanging out again it's like old times--except she's way cuter.

The thing is, I don't belong anywhere. I don't fit in on the Rez, and I suck at school. My dad thinks I'm an idiot, but Pippa thinks I'm all good.

I don't know what to think. Am I bad news or am I more than good enough?"


MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH, Flux 2014



When I began researching my third young adult novel, MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH (Flux, 1/2014), the key to finding Trent's voice carried me to the Miccosukee reservation in the South Florida Everglades.



My good friend and former student, Houston Cypress (otter clan) smiling under the palms on his family's tree island. MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH would not exist without his generous spirit. He welcomed me onto the Miccosukee Rez and answered all my questions with tremendous patience. We took an airboat over the "River of Grass" and met his friends on the Rez.


This jagged chickee roof inspired a scene in MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH. When you look up, you'll see ribbons of clouds. The thick wooden posts are carved from cypress trees.




Boardwalk to the chickee huts on the tree islands in the Everglades--not a "swamp" as many people assume, but a vast expanse of sawgrass prairies studded with live oaks. As a little girl, I used to climb the same trees in my backyard in Miami.


Chickee chobee ("big houses") thatched with palm fronds on the tree islands in the Everglades. The homes seem to float between the sky and sawgrass.


Houston took this picture of me learning how to grind corn for sofkee (cornmeal porridge) at his father's chickee on the Rez. Cooking pots are on the shelf nearby.



 
"Indian Boy Wrestling Alligators at Musa Isle Indian Village, Miami, Fla."
 State Library and Archives of Florida.

The Miccosukee and Seminole style of wrestling allows you to keep your hands free (and ready to bind the gator's jaw with rope).



A pointy gator tooth that I carried in my pocket--a gift from Houston's father. He found it in a cooler on his front porch! I keep it on my bookshelf at home.



Another gift from Houston's father, who discovered a pair of Stickball rackets (traditional game that is similar to lacrosse) hidden in the tall grass near the road. I carried them back to New York in my suitcase. Now they're on my wall and they're the first thing I see when I wake up.


 
Bookmarks inspired by the patchwork design, Everlasting Fire. Each morning, Houston's father lights the cook fires in his yard and keeps the flames burning throughout the day.




 "Miccosukee Boys Reading at the Mission"
State Library and Archives of Florida. 

The boys in this archival photo remind me of the book's protagonist, Trent Osceola, who loves to read.




I'm thrilled that the cover for MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH was modeled by a Native American face. Here I'm smiling with the advanced reader copies.


Launch party for MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH at Books and Books, in my hometown, Miami.
Can you spot Houston in the second row?


Water lilies (spatterdock) threading the sky-blue water in Everglades during my airboat ride with the Miccosukee tribe through the tree islands on the Rez.



 Miccosukee patchwork jacket tangled in the post of a chickee on a tree island that belongs to the Cypress family. The air was sharp with woodsmoke that day and speared with sunlight.



Sewing machines in the chickee at Houston's father's house on the Rez. No doubt, their needles have stitched many intricate patchwork "Big Shirts".



 A wide-eyed baby alligator--my new friend on the rehabilitation island on the Rez. The opening chapter of MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH was inspired by my meeting with Quasi, a pet gator abandoned in the Everglades. He is in safe hands with the Miccosukee tribe, who look after the South Florida animals in need of special care.





The amazing teens rocking out in The Osceola Brothers Band. Just like Trent in MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH, they find solace in music.

I am so thankful for my experiences on the Rez and for the kindness of Houston, his family and friends.

Discover more on the book's Tumblr page:

http://more-than-good-enough.tumblr.com/



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Through What Lens? by Patty Blount

This was a hard post to write.

I'm an Italian-American. My family ate pasta dinners every Sunday with our salad after. After dinner, we played Italian card games like scopola and briscola. Our holiday traditions have Italian roots. I grew up happy and never suspected this was anything to be ashamed about until I met my future husband's family.

My husband's family is not Italian. The Blount name can be traced all the way back to three-digit years and a Blount ancestor signed the U.S. Constitution. This name has roots in England, Ireland, Scotland, even some Native American. There had been little digs toward my Italian heritage like jokes about plastic-covered furniture and a preference for marble and granite and feigned fear of my mob connections, but I overlooked them with uncomfortable half-laughs. But when my son was born, and I proudly held him up to his grandparents and said, "This is the first Italian Blount" -- their faces fell, the smiles evaporated. If you'd seen it, you would have sworn I'd just told them the truth about Santa Claus. This is the closest I've come to experiencing racism.

I used this experience to build a character named Davis in a story called THE SKY WAS SCARLET. Davis is the hero's best friend and is struggling with not one but two identity crises. He's black living in an upscale town, where people follow him through store aisles as he shops, or cross the street because they assume he'll rob them. He's also gay and hasn't come out to anyone about that yet, because he assumes he'll lose his family and his friends when they find out. I'm not a guy. I'm not black. I'm not gay. How do I write this story? How do I write HIS story?

I think that whole 'write what you know' mantra has become a paralytic for a lot of authors. I may not know what it's like to grow up black or gay but I can imagine, using experiences in my own life as the foundation on which to build and supplement by research. As writers, that's our super-power -- our imaginations.

We have to start somewhere. We may not get it perfect. But the point is, we're getting it.




Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Writing Without Fear (Cyn Balog/Nichola Reilly)


I’ve always been frightened to write diverse characters. This weekend I had a reminder why.

I grew up in a very ethnically diverse town in New Jersey.  My school consisted of mostly Asian and Jewish people, so I was one of very few white, Roman Catholic kids. Growing up, they had their cliques, but I got along with them fine and never encountered any hate or racism. It’s a thing that’s probably worked TOO well, in my case… we lived in such harmony that maybe I’ve forgotten that certain things can offend certain people.

Last weekend I sent a chapter of my new book to an editor who I was thinking of hiring before self-publishing it. I was shocked when she came back with, “I’m sorry, but if this is a book about how the good white man saves the dark-skinned savages, I will not be able to continue reading.”

I was shocked.  Yes, my book contains two races of people.  It is set in the far-off future.  One group of people lives above-ground, and their race has gradually regressed.  The other group consists of people who live underground, and their race is very technologically advanced. In my mind, the first group was dark-skinned simply because they’d lacked protection from the sun, and so the ones with the ability to withstand the sun’s unforgiving rays are the ones who survived, and some of them have blue eyes.   They were “savage” because they didn’t have the technology. The second group was not made up of all-white people; in fact most of them are, at least in part, of Asian descent.  Each race is an amalgam of other races that once existed—they blended and what remains are those with a natural ability to survive in such different circumstances.

But this is a great reminder to me of how easy it is to offend, and why I sometimes feel nervous and resigned to my comfort zone of writing people “like me”.  They say great writing is fearless and free, but I’ve never quite been able to get there. The fear of offending someone has always been in my mind.

While writing DROWNED, it never occurred to me that people would see it as a “diverse” book because the main character, Coe, has a physical disability.  She is missing part of her arm. The setting was harsh and unforgiving, many people die horrible deaths, so it was only fitting that I give some of the characters afflictions to further illustrate that.  But many people have said how great it is to show a strong female character that is disabled but doesn’t let her disability deter her.

I’ve also written a character who was overweight, even though I have never had an issue with my weight. I was able to write characters like these because, well, I have my own issues, both external and internal, that often make me feel inadequate. I channeled those feelings of inadequacy into the character and then had her do what I wished I would be strong enough to do to overcome them.

But there’s always the fear of stereotyping, of being untrue, the fear that someone will say, “Well, you aren’t ____.  How do you know how we feel?” 

I’m more inclined to stay in my comfort zone because I haven’t been able to tune out the critics just yet. But I guess writing in a fearless way is all about finding the common thread, about seeing the parts that make us similar despite our differences.  Incidentally, from what I learned in my hometown, that is also how diverse communities thrive.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Most Ethnically Diverse Campus in the Nation (Alissa Grosso)

I suppose I don't have the typical college experience. I'm not exactly sure what the typical college experience is, but in my mind it's the sort of thing one sees in movies and television shows: dormitories and fraternities and preppy style clothing. I'm not sure if this is a real thing or not, but I suspect it might be.

I did go to a four-year college, though being the weirdo that I am, I only went there for three and a half years. Tip: summer classes are a great way of cramming four years of school into three and a half years, and can be especially helpful if you're the sort of person, who like me, starts college in January instead of September.

I, like most of the students at my college, commuted to school. Thrifty kids (and parents) take note: this is a great way to save money on your college education. Room and board is not cheap, but my parents were nice enough to let me live at home rent-free while I was in school, and as long as I paid for my tuition, they would buy me a car, which seemed like a really good deal, since I needed a new one of those. It meant I worked part time while going to school full time, but this probably wasn't such a bad thing since it kept me out of trouble, and probably made me take my education a little more seriously since I knew how hard I worked to afford it.

Each year, U.S. News and World Report puts out a ranking of all the colleges in the country. While I was in college, my school, the Newark campus of Rutgers University made the list, though not for top school or best value or anything ordinary like that. According to the magazine, at least back in the mid-1990s and perhaps still today, Rutgers Newark was the most ethnically diverse campus in the nation. I'm going to assume this was an accurate assessment, though I should point out that at the same time the school directly across the street from us (NJIT) was declared the Most Wired campus in the nation, and I know for a fact that those NJIT students were always coming over to Rutgers and hogging the machines in our computer labs so I'm not sure what U.S. News and World Report based their findings on.

What was interesting about Rutgers was that it was the sort of place where when someone asked where you were from they usually didn't mean where in New Jersey or where in the country but what country. (Once when talking with a fellow student the fact that I'm part Scottish came up, upon which he noted my accent. For the record, I was born in Hackensack, New Jersey to American-born parents. My dad pronounces the word "idea" like it has an "r" at the end of it, and the word "souvenir" as if it's made out of a precious metal, but you'd have to go back a couple of generations to find any trace of a Scottish accent.)

Rutgers wasn't my first college experience. I did initially plan on doing the typical college thing and enrolled in a rich kid school in upstate New York. I didn't feel comfortable at the private school, was completely perplexed by the weird obsession with Laura Ashley bedspreads (Who was this Laura Ashley person, and why did she make such hideous linens?) but mostly was unable to get my head around the fact that in 1994 a reputable national school was still promoting a form of segregation by having a diversity dorm where the students there on scholarship - in general non-white students that had been accepted under the college's affirmative action policy - were encouraged to reside.

So, I went home, took a job in an outlet store, where all sorts of funky clothing that Laura Ashley wouldn't be caught dead in could be had ridiculously cheap, and began the process of enrolling in a school that from the start seemed more like a place that I belonged.

Maybe because of my college experience, maybe because I didn't grow up in some isolated all-white town, maybe because I'm just some weirdo, but I continue to feel uncomfortable when I find myself at a place or in a situation that lacks any kind of diversity. I feel like I don't belong, and if for some reason I find myself in a group of people all professing their love of all things Laura Ashley, I run away screaming.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Walk a Few Hundred Pages in Someone Else's Shoes (Natasha Sinel)

Some people view the phrase “check your privilege” as an accusation. But it really isn’t.

Just ask yourself this one simple question: “What do I have that I didn’t earn?” That’s checking your privilege. See? That wasn’t so bad, was it? (see this New Yorker article).

By becoming aware of our privileges, we learn and accept what makes us who we are—the opportunities we've been given versus what we've earned—and we begin to understand challenges others face that are different from our own.

Privilege (and diversity) covers everything—race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, body type, native language, religion, socioeconomics, level of education, physical disability, neurological disability, mental illness, learning disability, victimization. The list goes on.

I was fascinated by this article about a teacher who used a simple way to explain privilege (in this case, economic privilege) to his students. A bin at the front of the room represented the chance to become wealthy. In order to move to the upper class, the students had to throw a crumpled piece of paper into the bin. Of course, the students in the front row had no problem getting their shots in, but the back row was far away, and only a few made it in. The teacher concluded: “The closer you were to the recycling bin, the better your odds. This is what privilege looks like. Did you notice how the only ones who complained about fairness were in the back of the room?”


Who's got the advantage?


This is the thing: The people in the front row have to advocate for the people in the back row. Or nothing will change. And here's the first step: Care. Be aware and respectful. Start by reading.

Walk a few hundred pages in someone else's shoes.

Read BROWN GIRL DREAMING. Read PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY. Read GIRLS LIKE US. Read NICKEL AND DIMED. Read TO THE END OF JUNE. Read ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL and MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD. Read TWO BOYS KISSING. Read ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. Read TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE. Read A BLUE SO DARK. Read FAULT LINE and SPEAK. Read WONDER and SAY WHAT YOU WILL. (For more suggestions, go to http://weneeddiversebooks.org.)

I want my kids to check their privilege, too. They’re young still, and media messages are chock full of stereotypes, but I’m confident they’ll get it if we are consistent in teaching them to be aware and respectful, and if we keep giving them diverse books. And, who knows, maybe they’ll figure out the solutions someday.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Breaking out of Bubbles by Jody Casella

I live in a place jokingly referred to by some residents as "The Bubble."

Seven years ago my family moved to this sweet little suburb, a town we chose because it has stellar schools and lovely parks and an awesome library system. The first time I set eyes on the place, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

I'd been living in a suburban-sprawled, nightmarish commuting city for ten years and basically spent three hours a day driving my weary kids around in our minivan. I was also tired of fighting a losing battle on a school board where the majority of dingdongs thought schools didn't need librarians, so when my husband's job was transferred and I discovered this gem of a place only fifteen miles from his new office, we pounced on it.

People who live here have lived here for generations. The elementary school kids still walk home for lunch. Our neighborhood has block parties. The high school marching band practices marching by marching down our street. There is no traffic. I've gone weeks without driving my car. I can walk ten minutes and depending on which direction I go, I can arrive at a French bakery, a bookstore, a coffee shop, a Whole Foods, a library, a park, or a wine bistro.

It's a nice bubble. It has everything you could possibly want. Everyone here is just like you.

If You are upper middle class. And white.

People joke about the bubbly aspect but sometimes it doesn't feel funny to me.

I know what it's like to be outside a bubble. I grew up poor-ish. My mom was a single parent for a brief time and then she remarried. I was the only person I knew who had a stepfather.

Books were a way out of that bubble. And a way to peek inside other bubbles.

What's it like to live in a little house on the prairie? What's it like to be a Jewish girl at the turn of the last century? What's it like to spend the night in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? What's it like to be a kid in a happy, safe, and stable family?

I was a lower middle class student at an upper middle class private high school. A Northerner at a Southern college, where I majored in English and read lots of books and wondered:

What's it like to be a white man? What's it like to be an African American woman?  What's it like to live in Dublin? Denmark? Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi?

When I was twenty-three, I did a semester of student-teaching at a high performing magnet school in Memphis, Tennessee. My AP English students were reading about the Civil War and I was talking about slavery and it suddenly struck me that I was saying "we," and we meant a white we. There was one African American student in the class and I kept looking over at the girl and stumbling over how to phrase things and wondering how she felt and hating if I was making her feel uncomfortable.

Later I asked my mentor teacher how I could've handled the lesson better, and she said: "Oh! Don't worry about it. She's used to it."

I guess she meant that the girl was used to being in the minority? Used to being different in that particular bubble?

I will never know because I didn't ask the teacher to clarify, and no one in that classroom ever discussed race and all of the stories the students were reading that semester were stories written by dead white men with a sprinkling of dead white women thrown in to brighten things up.

The next year I was teaching in a racially integrated school, and when I taught the same lesson, I worried all over again. I wanted to be inclusive but I wasn't sure how to go about it. I didn't want anyone in my class to feel uncomfortable. To feel left out of the bubble.

I don't know if I succeeded. We read the same Dead White guy books for the most part--those were all pre-decided by the veteran teachers at the school and by the county curriculum. I tried to spend more time on the Harlem Renaissance poetry unit. Langston Hughes and Countee Culleen and Zora Neale Hurston. I assigned free choice reading and handed out a list with books by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

We read A Raisin in the Sun out loud together and the kids acted out scenes, and I burst into tears when one quiet girl played the mother character and disappeared into the role, shaking her fist and raging, and another boy in the class transformed himself into the son character, asking in a trembling voice:

Somebody tell me – tell me, who decides which women is suppose to wear pearls in this world. I tell you I am a man – and I think my wife should wear some pearls in this world!

It's easy to live in a bubble. Race. Class. Gender. Sexual orientation. Sticking to your own group and seeing others as... Other.

Sometimes books are the only way out, to break down barriers, to walk around in other people's shoes.

What's it like to kiss a girl?


What's it like to kiss a boy?


What's it like to be poor and live in Nebraska and love a boy named Park?


What's it like to be a brown girl dreaming?


It's important--essential, really-- for us to see ourselves in stories. Our faces on book covers. Our lives told on the pages.

But it's just as important, if not equally essential, for us to see others--other faces, other lives. Especially when we live in a bubble.

Especially when we don't even know we live inside one. And we're floating along, unaware, that an entire world is being lived on the other side of the filmy surface.










Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Point of Writing Books (Amy K. Nichols)

Do we need diverse books? Absolutely.

Do I feel wholly unqualified to write them? Absolutely.

Back when I started writing, I wrote a POC into a short story. When I workshopped it with a couple of other writers, I pretty much got the smack down. Can't recall now what feedback I got on my writing or the story itself. All I heard was, You can't write this character. You're white. 

That pretty much scared me off writing diverse stories. Since then, my M.O. has been to focus on the emotional heart of my characters, keeping physical descriptions vague, and to leave the writing of diverse characters up to those with the authority to write them.

I'll just say it: I'm afraid. I don't want to offend anyone. I don't want to do it wrong.

Which makes it all the more...ironic? interesting? that there's a new voice whispering in my ear. A voice I can't shake. I know I have to pursue this story, though. And I know without a doubt it will plant me firmly into diverse books territory.

Did I mention I'm afraid?

But I love this character so much. I need to see where the story goes.

With risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, is it possible the answer is love? Love your characters and stories so much you write them true to their nature, even if it takes you into places that scare you? Steve Almond once said, "Love your characters at all times." I figured that meant don't judge them when they make decisions you don't agree with, or have compassion for them when they're caught in difficult situations. Maybe it also means love them for all the ways they're different than you.

So I'm going to listen to this voice, and I'm going to tell the story that needs to be told. Will I offend people? Probably. Seems inevitable, to be honest. Will I do it wrong? Yeah, I'll probably do that, too. But maybe I'll also capture the emotional truth of this character and write a story that resonates with someone out there who reads it. Someone who needs it. Which is the point of writing books, isn't it? Diverse books in particular.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On Kung Fu Masters, Hookers, and Internalized Racism (by Nancy Ohlin)


Growing up, I didn’t know about internalized racism.  What I knew was this: As a half-Japanese kid in a mostly white Midwestern town, I desperately wanted to be all-Caucasian so people would stop calling me “Jap” and “chink.”  When some blond girl came up to me in the park and accused me of causing Pearl Harbor, I believed her.

Those years, I tried really hard to erase the Japanese half of me.  I refused to speak Japanese at home.  I threw away the Japanese lunches my mom made and ate cafeteria food instead.  When the kids at my school shouted “ah-so!” or made “slanty eyes,” I laughed to show I was a good sport.  

So it seemed perfectly natural to me that the American books I read back then had mostly white main characters.  Ditto the TV shows and movies I watched.  White was not only the norm and the default; it was the superior color.  I mean, an Asian MC?  Really?  Maybe a minor character like a kung fu master or a hooker, sure, but the protagonist?  No one would ever go for that! 

Likewise, it seemed perfectly natural that when I became a writer, my main characters would be mostly white.  I frequently toyed with the idea of an Asian MC—not in the context of writing about the “Asian experience,” but an MC who happened to be Asian and did regular-people stuff like falling in love and having best friend problems and encountering peril.  But I couldn’t wrap my brain around an Asian Katniss Everdeen or Bella Swan.  I also told myself that the publishing world and Hollywood would never be interested in an Asian Katniss or Bella. 

I’m not proud of having bought into the whiteness paradigm at an early age. But I don’t beat myself up about it, either.  It’s not easy for anyone, especially a child, to recognize and stand up to bigotry singlehandedly.  And now that I’m older and wiser, I get how societal hatred of other-ness can lead to self-hatred, which can perpetuate the cycle.  Asians are no good, therefore I am no good, therefore I will exclude Asian characters from my books … and so on.

Changing this mindset was/is not easy work.  I couldn't just knee-jerk add Asians (and other people of color) to my books.  I was taught that stories have to be organic and natural, not forced and contrived.  Which meant that I had to clear my intellectual, psychological, and sociological slate and learn to believe, innately and unequivocally, that “white” was not synonymous with “better.”  

Have you ever experienced internalized racism in your life?  If so, how did it affect your attitude about YA and other novels, consciously or unconsciously, as a writer or reader?

For more about internalized racism, read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.  Watch Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair.  Check out this excellent short monologue by Margaret Cho:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESSI8AGH8Vk



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Working to Create More Mirrors and Windows (Stephanie Kuehnert)**

**All the credit to Mitali Perkins for the inspiration for my title and the way I've been thinking about this in general.

I am another white, heterosexual, cis woman who writes YA and most of my characters share the same background as me. I could make excuses for it (my first book is set in a small town in Wisconsin; my second book has mixed race characters), but the truth is I cling to “write what you know” as a safety net, to avoid getting anything wrong or offending anyone. But this in and of itself IS wrong and offensive. So many of my fellow bloggers here have talked about how important it is for every reader to see themselves in books—that was so essential for me as a teen and is what led me to become a writer. It’s also essential to have diverse books so that we can learn about and experience what other people live through and experience—to develop empathy, understanding, and build a better world for all. Back in 2010, Mitali Perkins (author of the stellar Bamboo People) gave an incredible talk at the BEA Children’s Breakfast about how books function as mirrors as well as windows. This talk stuck with me so much that it inspired me to write a personal essay for Rookie about why art is important and why I became a writer. There need to be more mirrors and more windows. And as a writer, I am responsible for helping to create them.

So how do I tackle that?

Well, I’ve started by doing what I do best: reading. Devouring books diverse books like Ash  by Malinda Lo, Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Pull by B.A. Binns, Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia, and the list can, will, and should go on and on. (These are some of the ones I’ve loved best, so if you have recs based on that, please comment.)

By talking openly about what concerns I have (namely getting it wrong). My next book is a memoir, so obviously the main character is a white girl in this one because she’s me. However, I’m still writing about the people of color in my life and I admitted straight out to a group of writer friends that I didn’t want to describe these people by their skin tone or other features that I wasn’t using to describe white people, but I didn’t want not acknowledge race either. I asked for input from the women of color in the group and was pointed to this great illustrated guide to writing people of color. They also suggested that I have people of those backgrounds read my work. In this case since one of the people I’m writing about is my best friend, that is going to be easy. My illustrator for this book is a woman of color, Suzy X, and I’ve asked her to be critical and let me know where my failings might be. I will definitely be doing this and following in Delilah Dawson’s footsteps as I get back into fiction.

By listening. To the feedback I get from Suzy and other beta readers that I enlist. To people of different backgrounds than me in general. I’ve always believed that the best way to be an ally is to listen and then help to amplify those voices (rather than talk over them from my place of privilege, something we saw happen on a wide scale when #BlackLivesMatter was changed to #AllLivesMatter or when #CrimingWhileWhite took over the conversation). As a writer, I learn from listening. And speaking of that, I’ve also signed up for a class about writing diverse characters for YA, which is taught by B.A. Binns, a YA author I greatly admire. It’s taught through the Young Adult RWA chapter so it’s discounted for members, but if you aren’t a member, it is still quite affordable and worth checking out.


Let’s keep reading, keep talking, and above all keep listening and learning from each other. We’ll write better books, read better books, and build a better world.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Who owns a story?


by Tracy Barrett

There’s a lot of debate these days about whether authors should write only about the culture that they’re from, or whether the need for diverse books is more important than the need for diverse authors, which would leave members of any group free to write about anything important to them, regardless of ethnicity, religion, socio-economic class, gender orientation, etc. I once got caught up in that debate.

When I was offered the chance to write a nonfiction book on the Indian Removal Act (the Trail of Tears), the forcible and brutal removal of Native Americans from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma under orders of President Andrew Jackson, I leaped on it. My interest in this shameful episode started long ago, when I learned that an ancestor of mine named Elizur Butler had been imprisoned at hard labor along with the better known Samuel Worcester, for defending the Cherokees’ rights. They refused their pardons in order to force the case to the United States Supreme Court, which declared their imprisonment illegal. Butler then accompanied the Cherokees on foot to Oklahoma, where he settled. The pardons finally became effective in 1992.

My editor liked my manuscript—except, she said, that I had been too hard on Andrew Jackson. She said that the Indian Removal Act wasn’t out of line with the standards of the day, and that Jackson had merely been a man of his times. I sent her documentation making it obvious that this was untrue; the American public in general and Congress in particular were horrified by it. The editor still told me to soften my portrayal of Jackson. I refused, saying “genocide is genocide.” I canceled the contract and returned the advance.

That was very, very hard. That publisher produces beautiful books that win awards and sell well, and this was a story I was eager to tell. But I knew I couldn’t do what she asked.

I was lucky enough to find another home for the book. The manuscript was sent to a publicist at the Cherokee Nation for fact-checking. The publicist was complimentary about my research and how I had told the story, but then she said that I had portrayed the Cherokees too negatively.

Déjà vu all over again!

I reminded my editor that when describing pre-conquest Cherokee culture, I had to present the bad with the good (“bad” and “good” being defined in modern terms). The pre-conquest Cherokees were, to our eyes, brutal in warfare, burning captives alive and having their children pour water on the flames if the victim was dying too quickly. In at least one case, members of another tribe committed mass suicide rather than face these fearsome enemies.

Apparently the reader wanted me to cut out everything that looked bad to modern eyes and leave the impression that the Cherokees inhabited a kind of Garden of Eden, living in peace and harmony with nature and with their neighbors.

I refused to perpetuate this patronizing, “noble savage” view of the Cherokees and told my editor I wouldn’t make those cuts. To her credit, she agreed, saying that she had merely wanted me to be aware of the concerns of the outside reader and that as long as I had good documentation, I was free to present this view.

Then she told the person who had criticized my handling of the Cherokees that I was descended from Elizur Butler, and the objection vanished.

I was thrilled to have the book published, but a part of me was uneasy about the reason for the dropping of the objection. As far as I know, I’m 100% European-American. Of course, I’m proud of Butler, but I don’t think that courage and standing up for the right thing is inherited through the genes. In any case, he was a small part of the story I told. Does something my ancestor did almost two hundred years ago give me the right to tell the Cherokees’ story? Does this story belong to me, who grew up in comfort in the majority culture, as much as it does to the Cherokees (and other Native tribes) who continue to suffer discrimination?

I stifled the interior critic and went ahead.

Most nonfiction books for young readers go out of print quickly. The Trail of Tears: An American Tragedy has been in print with Perfection Learning since 2000. I’ve never heard from any reader, Cherokee or Andrew Jackson fan, that one side or the other was presented unfairly, and no Native American has taken me to task for telling this story.

But I still feel conflicted.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

If I Can Imagine It, Can't I Write About It? by Sydney Salter

Admittedly, much of what I say to my 15-year-old irritates her, but there's one phrase which never fails to drive her especially crazy: I can't imagine…crazy teen antic, horrible news event, dumb decision, bizarre life event, yet another freaking teen pregnancy at our local high school.

"Oh, you can't imagine that? I think you can imagine that," my daughter chides.

And she's right.

I can imagine almost anything. I've been blessed (cursed?) with a vivid and active imagination. Just last night I imagined approximately 9,000 horrible things that could potentially happen to my-home-for-the-holidays college-aged daughter who spent the night out with friends.

Naturally, it's more calming to focus my imagination on my fictional characters (my daughters prefer this too!). I love creating people who've lived all manner of diverse lives: male and female, gay and straight, a variety of ethnicities, past and present and future. The only thing that keeps me from majoring in every college subject is my ability to learn about anything and everything--and write about it.

Before taking my daughters to Mexico, a country I fell in love with as a young child, I dove into research and wrote Jungle Crossing, a book that explores ideas about tourism, ugly stereotypes, as well as past and present culture and history. I loved putting myself into the minds of a cast of diverse characters.

Early travels planted the seed for a lifelong interest in Mayan culture and history.

And then came the horrible review. At the time I read it as "how dare a white woman write about Mexico and ancient Mayans!" The anonymous reviewer seemed to be accusing me of all kinds of cultural crimes. I've never felt so misunderstood and maligned.

That painful review scared me away from writing about diversity for a few manuscripts. I hate to admit that. But six years later, I still ask myself: is it okay for me, a middle-aged white woman, living in the Western United States, to write about someone who isn't anything like me?

I keep learning and imagining and traveling and imagining--so many stories about all the diverse people who live in our world. If I can imagine it, can't I write about it?

I know what my 15-year-old would say!