{eliminating the “only” : another note to my writing group}

(I curate these here, so that I will remember what I’ve said. These notes are an attempt to articulate, not necessarily to instruct, and you can bet they kick off discussion. ☺)

Unless you have the type of filters which allow you to utterly avoid pop culture entirely, you may have heard about the NYT tv critic’s misstep this past week in talking about television producer Shonda Rhimes.

Aside from all of the hoopla about using a stereotype to allegedly describe Rhimes and her career in glowing terms (“getting away with” being damned with faint praise), I found this NPR piece interesting because it talked about how she writes – and how she avoids Only One syndrome.

People often talk, when we talk about diversity, or writing diversity, about how fake it is to have a UN list of characters in a novel. “A black.” “A Jew.” “A Latino/a.” “An Asian.” People have bandied around the term “writing a novel like a Benetton ad.” [NB: I don’t mean people in my writing group.] Well, thing is, nobody asked you to do that.

At the very end, I read her an audience question that said something like, “How do you think your shows have changed the position of African-Americans on television?” After a little pause, she said one of the things she’d learned was that on shows with Only One (only one woman, only one black character, only one Asian person, only one gay character), that’s when the Only One is required to be about nothing except that characteristic. She said her hope was in part that just by having more than Only One on her shows, she gave those characters room to develop and to have other things about them be important. She hopes that — and here’s the rub — by consciously increasing diversity overall she makes the race of each character less limiting, less defining. – “The Only One” from NPR’s “Monkey See” with Linda Holmes, 22 September 2014

When we have a character who is an “only one,” in our work, we make them do the work of relating the entire “other” experience. It’s like growing up the only African American kid in your class… and then having a new kid come who happens to be black, and having your teacher lead that kid to you and say, “Lindsay here will show you around, and I’m just positive you two will be soon be best friends.” Um… based on what? A single element, like skin color, isn’t enough to bridge gaps of culture, class, gender, or even mutual interest. (The new-best-friend thing has happened to me and plenty other minority kids in classes full of majority kids, like, twentymillionhundred times. Some teachers in my past have been clueless. This is also not to say that a shared color is not enough to create association, but that’s the equivalent of nodding to another woman at the sink in a public restroom – yeah, you’re both washing your hands after using the bathroom. Well done both. You’re still not friends..) Just as that teacher’s expectation is ridiculous — and limiting — so is the “only one” school of writing.

Additionally, the problem with “only one” is that “only” bearing the burden of “the gay/black/Latino/poor/trans/rich” experience in a more literal way. Like we’ve discussed with the Bechdel Test, where a rule of thumb for a fully fleshed out female character is if a.) there’s more than one, b.) and, they talk to other females about c.) something about something other than the male characters — writers must realize that diverse people don’t sit around, thinking how they’re so diverse – so cheering for people who “don’t talk about race,” or mention it with their characters is a little silly. (And, I’m speaking for/to myself here; I’ve told you I’ve had people upset with HAPPY FAMILIES because they didn’t realize the twins were African American, when, to my mind, their concern that their father might be choosing a different gender made their race a little less relevant that week.) Relevance is important, but our “only one” can’t stand in for all the gay/disabled/black/German/Polish/left-handed/able-bodied/Jewish/fat/anorexic/Latinos in the world. They just can’t.

It is often in the imagination we do or do not apply to the lives of others that we screw up, no matter what conscious judgments we do or do not apply to what we imagine. It’s usually not your up or down vote that matters, but the entire way you frame other people’s lives. (You can see the same thing when people praise women as gentler, softer, morally superior versions of men. It’s nice that it’s meant as praise; it’s still stereotyping and limiting.) –“The Only One” from NPR’s “Monkey See” with Linda Holmes, 22 September 2014

We’ve talked a lot about the Bechdel Test, and as a matter of reference, it’s a good rule of thumb to apply to diversity as well. If we have “only one” gay character, concerned with and busy being gay – or “only one” African American character, busily holding up the standard of the “black experience,” we have, at best, limited not only our imaginations, but the imaginations of our readers to that one point of view, and at worst have contented ourselves with dealing in shallow caricature and stereotype. If we cannot imagine that our “only one” cannot be a fully realized character through sketchy, single-dimensional characterization, then we’re failing our characters… and ourselves. We never become better writers while standing safely within our comfort zones.

I encourage every one of us to think in terms of diversity – of all kinds – in our novels. That is all.

{remembering READING THE WORLD}

We have been vewwwy, vewwy quiet in this house lately, because it’s Paper Grading Time for the first paper of the summer semester, and Tech Boy, in his disguise as Dr. Tech Boy, is experiencing his first bout of grading for a class he’s teaching. There’s a lot of muttering. It is Not Good. So, we sidle down to our office in the basement and stay there, while he mutters and writes acerbic margin copy and pretty much makes me glad I’m not his TA…

Have you had a chance to hear what went on at BookExpo America (BEA) this year? This morning I listened to a podcast of the diversity panel at BEA made up of Ellen Oh (PROPHECY Series), Aisha Saeed (Written in the Stars, 2015), Marieke Nijkamp, founder of DiversifYA, Lamar Giles (Fake ID) and Mike Jung (Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities). Special Guests included acclaimed Authors Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon), Matt de la Peña (The Living) and Jacqueline Woodson (Beneath a Meth Moon).

The panel was moderated by I.W. Gregorio (None of the Above, 2015). Each of the authors got a chance to talk about the first diverse book they’d read that had changed how they thought of books (IF IT HADN’T BEEN FOR YOON JUN, by Marie G. Lee, published in 1995 was mine), and they reiterated, for those who didn’t notice, that Lee & Low/TU Books has re-announced their NEW VISIONS AWARD:

“The NEW VISIONS AWARD will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The Award winner receives a cash grant of $1000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash grant of $500.”

WOOT!

This panel was full of great, brilliant people with plenty to say, and really good questions… but it was way, way, way too short. This was my objection to it at the start – BookExpo, America, peopled an entire thousands-of-people NYC conference with only Caucasian presenters, in an effort to represent “America,” and then had a single, hour-long panel on diversity. Granted, it was vital and necessary conversation, but a single, hour-long panel in a tiny corner of BEA – filled to standing room only, with people turned away at the door for fire safety reasons – was simply not enough time to really get into the topic of children’s literature, diversity, or anything. One thing that was said which stood out to me, however, was that there’d be a Diverse Books Festival sometime in 2016, in Washington D.C. Yay, right? It is to be “the first of its kind.”

*needle scratches on record*

Wait, what?

Anybody else remember the University of San Francisco’s Department of Education putting on Reading The World?

What you may not know is that USF chose to get involved in this after a similar Cal State Hayward (CSUH) conference had ended after a nine year run. Beverley Hock, who had started the one day conference as a graduate student, finished it as a doctoral candidate, and her time in the area had ended. Disappointed that there was no other venue to talk about diverse children’s books, from 1998-2009, under the skilled direction of Dr. Alma Flor Ada and her education graduate students, USF started READING THE WORLD.

This two-day event brought education students, librarians, authors, teachers, and the community together to interact with an impressive list of authors including Ashley Bryan, Nikki Giovanni, Yuyi Morales, Peter Sis, Rosemary Wells, Lady Jane Yolen, Arnold Adoff, Virginia Hamilton, Joseph Bruchac, Naomi Shihab Nye, Rita Williams Garcia, Jack Zipes — the list of luminaries goes on and on. READING THE WORLD was utterly fantastic — it was a thrill to attend, and to rub shoulders with all of these amazing authors who were Out There, Doing This Amazing Thing. Especially as there are only one or two children’s literature conferences west of the Mississippi, these gatherings were a little taste of heaven for those who were apprehensive about “multicultural books” as diverse books were called at that time, and how they would work in their classrooms and libraries, how they would sell and be accepted by the community, and what they needed to be. There were presentations on all kinds of things, including cultural identity, folklore, gender identity, social justice, storytelling, and more. It was brilliant, and even without social media, people knew about it and attended and came away with SO MUCH. I wish they could have gone on hosting it forever.

I just want to give props to Dr. Alma Flor Ada, all of those graduate students over the years, and all of the people who threw their backs into this. Before Twitter hashtags made information sharing quick and easy. Before Facebook — in the days of MySpace. Before iPhones. Before social media was a “thing.” THANK YOU, READING THE WORLD. You were amazing.

Time moves on, funding gets cut, faculty and students move on. Dr. Alma Flor is a professor emeritus now; the torch has been passed. Though hardly the first to dip a toe in serious celebrations of diversity, #WeNeedDiverseBooks is nevertheless taking the challenge East of the Mississippi. But, things are awfully quiet around these parts. Maybe the West Coast doesn’t think we need to really talk about diversity – because we’re pretty diverse out here, and more comfortable with it? Not gonna lie: there’s a need still, and I’m disappointed that my graduate school hasn’t taken my – a JCity, Aquafortis and a few others’ good advice – and get a program going at Mills College. But, there’s still time. And, there’s considerable excitement surrounding the KidlitCon’s plan to have diversity be our central theme this October. I think we’ve got plenty to talk about, and a little more time in which to do so. Hope to see you there.

{grab bag, this & that}

So, you may have heard the Outrage of the Day, about a Weight Watchers success story, Brooke Birmingham, who, when taking part in Shape Magazine‘s success stories about weight loss successes was dismayed when they rejected her bikini photograph – requiring that for publication she put on a shirt. It was, she was told, a new editorial policy for Shape. Yeah. So very new it didn’t exist. What happened next is that Shape was backhanded by the internet as Lottie, Dottie and EVERYBODY called them out for being sizeist. Suddenly, on a Good Morning, America segment, the editor in chief is eagerly nodding as the host asks if there was just a “big miscommunication,” she’s claiming that the freelance writer they used – “who is no longer associated with Shape Magazine” – was at fault, and they’re announcing that they’re taking Brooke Birmingham and five other women on, to do a photo shoot and talk about what bodies look like after a “significant weight loss.” So, call in the unicorns and the rainbows, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

If you’re not on the bus with the rainbows, that’s okay. I’m cynical, too. I think Shape just threw a freelance writer under the bus and hurried away from the scene of the accident, as if they’d had nothing to do with it. I think this is an example of “legal” truth, not ACTUAL truth; the editor-in-chief said, said that the writer had referenced an editorial policy that “simply does not exist.” I have no doubt that the alleged editorial policy doesn’t exist. I equally don’t doubt that the freelance writer was told to step up and get a “better” picture of the weight loss success story in question… and now she’s been fired for it.

Also, I’m a grump. If I were Brooke, I’d have been knocking at the door of SELF or Women’s Fitness the next day. I would not have gone back to Shape, even if they’d given me gingerbread and new shoes. But, that’s just me: grumpy, cynical me.

That Outrage reminded me a lot of the ReedPOP/BookCon story – which was Outrage of Last Week, and which you’d no doubt heard about. To recap, the BookExpo folks this year managed to organize a panel on the alleged world’s brightest stars in kidlit, and they all managed to be Caucasian and male. Efforts to diversify were to add… John Green? (Also white and male, last we checked) and then made the statement that they were “curating the content that fans wanted to see.” Meanwhile, the internets checked through the rest of the line-up for BookExpo, realized they were ALL CAUCASIAN PEOPLE, AND A CAT, and revved up their Outrage machine. Since then, the convention has added a single, hour-long panel on children’s lit, featuring seven young adult authors of color, the DiversifYA founder, and a moderator, who will be a debut novelist in 2015.

Success, right? An hour-long panel on diverse books, put together by people of color! Yay!

Remember me? Grumpy and cynical? Yeah. Still here. And, while I feel like this is part of what one needs to do, to start the conversation, part of me is gruuuummmmmmpy and wants to take my toys and go home. It’s tempting to think, “Yeah, they should ALL boycott BookExpo!” No. This – what they’re doing by convening a panel – is right. It’s just really, really, really, really, REALLY, REALLY tiresome… that it seems that progress in parity is only gained after screeching and pushing. Nobody wants to be seen as a screecher and a pusher. Wouldn’t it be nice if people could think, instead, of themselves as observers and listeners, so no one would have to scream at them and push them?? Sigh. Moot point.

Keep the discussion going, even if you’re a cynical, cranky nerd like me. Save the date, October 10-11, Sacramento.

2014 Con 3

{suddenly we’re not just talking to ourselves}

We preach to the choir too often as writers, talking about our concerns about diversity in publishing. I’m glad Mitali Perkins exists, and while I know it was a wrench for she and her family, I’m glad that she moved last year to the SF Bay Area from Boston. Now we have an outspoken, kindhearted and energetic person in the house, talking to the public.

… I am not good with talking to, er, people… *cough* Anyone who knows me knows I’d prefer to stand on the edge of the room rather than be in the middle, or, maybe even in a room where no one else is, but Mitali isn’t like that, and she was on the radio the other day, our local public radio station, KQED, San Francisco, along with a local Oakland librarian, and Christopher Myers on the phone from New York. I missed the original broadcast yesterday, but listened over breakfast. This is well worth hearing.


Meanwhile, hat tip, Tu Books, Teh Awesomesauce has a message for us all: Writers, be better than you are. DON’T be lazy. No, seriously, much of what she brings up stems from lazy writing:

“See, the problem with writing the other is you aren’t them. So you may not know the hurt your words inflict, the way you casually toss around stereotypes like they are culture, like they are the truth, instead of the tools of social control that they are.”

{“i’ve got no strings to hold me down…”}

So, I get up fairly early, for someone whose work does not usually take them anywhere but into the basement. As many people do, I get up early for other people – namely, Tech Boy. If I didn’t, we’d not really see each other much longer than a quick bite at breakfast, and I like to have Actual Conversations. We have made him fairly late for work before with our conversations, so it’s worthwhile for me to sleep thirty minutes less so we can really get into whatever topic comes up.

Our usual roving conversation this morning landed on Macklemore – that Guy With the Batman Jammies. I was mentioning the post-Grammy episode SorryWatch covered the other day, and discussing the phenomenon of a Caucasian rapper in a field started and generally dominated by African American artists. (Macklemore, in case you did not know, is a Caucasian artist who won everything at the Grammys [Grammies? Grammyies? You know what? I’m going to call them THE GRAMOPHONE AWARDS. That’s the original name, and has much appeal in making me sound even less hip with it than I already am], including Best Album, about which he was weirded out and shocked.)

In discussing rappers, rap as a genre and the business of the music industry, Tech Boy mentioned a 2006 radio interview he heard with rapper and UC educated economist Paris, talk about the music industry from the inside, and how African American rappers are subtly – and not-so-subtly – directed to keep their rapping to the stereotypical view of “the Black Experience,” with plenty of “ho’s” and disrespecting the police and drugs and guns and liquor thrown in, because that is THE ONLY THING producers have convinced these artists that will sell. The ONLY thing. (Which, of course, brings up the irony of a guy in a Batman onesie selling a smash hit about thrift shopping…) We spoke briefly about the case of Sarah Jones, the feminist rapper whose indecency fines by the FCC came because she was quoting other rappers’ misogyny. (She sued, and, when it became apparent that the case would indeed go to trial, the FCC dropped the whole thing.) We remarked on how broken the whole music industry is, as a whole, in many respects. And then, Tech Boy went to work.

…And I went down to the basement, and opened an article I’d set aside to read this morning, which brought me riiiiight back to the constant push-pull between the publishing world and young adult fiction. Christopher Myers spoke in the New York Times this past weekend about exactly what we’d just been saying:

“AT a public school in Southeast Washington, D.C., I ask a fifth grader what he wants to do with his life, what the map is that he has drawn for himself. He is talkative and smart, and his high-top fade adds a few extra inches to his height, so that he is almost as tall as his classmates, and far more stylish. He tells me that he will join the N.B.A., and use that money to buy a recording studio and record his first rap album. Looking at him, I think that these are not necessarily his dreams; they are just the dreams that have been offered him, the places he can go in the narrow geography that has been delineated for him, strung along in a surreal and improbable sequence.” ~ Christopher Meyers

“…they are just the dreams that have been offered him, the places he can go in the NARROW GEOGRAPHY THAT HAS BEEN DELINEATED FOR HIM.”

As I told the Store the other day: nothing exists in a vacuum. Images count. The things we portray as cultural COUNT. The areas on the map of the world which we highlight and label have too many blank spaces that say HERE THERE BE DRAGONS, giving kids a “no fly” zone that takes up large parts of the world. To paraphrase Kadir Nelson at the 2010 Coretta Scott King breakfast, we want to have sparkly Black vampires out there, too. (Not that we really need too many more sparkly vampires, but you get the point.) As soon as we say “no” to a black Rapunzel, Wonder Woman, Hunger Games participant, medieval princess, Hobbits, Arthurian knight… we’ve blocked out part of the world of imagination, leaving a poorly shaped lump from what used to be — and still is, for other children — an entire and illuminated globe.

I agree with Myers’ surmise that “The Market” is the faceless, nameless villain to which so much is attributed. But, I think we need to stop lying to ourselves. The Market is only an imaginary puppeteer; we’re tied up in strings by something else… It’s probably time to put a name to it, and stop dancing to its tune.

PinocchioPuppet

(Don’t miss Walter Dean Myers’ words on the same topic, from a different angle.)

{make a wish, blow the candles…}

“[The students] asked me dozens of questions, as young folks do, and as usual they were astonished to hear how different things were in those days before integration…. I couldn’t help thinking that there are now whole generations who have grown up since those days and know very little about how things really were. That’s when I made up my mind that it was time to begin writing, and this book is the result.” (29)

~ quoting Idella Parker, in “Neither Friends nor Peers,” by Rebecca Sharpless, printed in the May, 2012 The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 78, No. 2

According to today’s THE WRITER’S ALMANAC: “It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings born in Washington, D.C., on this day in 1896. She’s best known for her book The Yearling (1938), which was the best-selling novel in America in 1938 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

The Yearling is about an adolescent boy in rural Florida who adopts an orphaned baby deer named Flag, becomes really close to the deer, and then, in the end, has to shoot Flag because it’s eating all the family’s crops.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings also loved to cook. She once said, “I get as much satisfaction from preparing a perfect dinner for a few good friends as from turning out a perfect paragraph in my writing.” She even published her own cookbook, called Cross Creek Cookery (1942), a few years after she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

What Billy Collins – filling in for Garrison Keillor – fails to mention in today’s write up is that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings did not, in fact, prepare perfect dinners for her guests, she had her maid, Idella, do it. And she took her maid, Idella’s recipes and printed them in Cross Creek Cookery in 1942, and because of the tenor of the times, she did not give credit where credit was due.

I have been thinking about that, today of all days. I have been thinking about the relationship of African American, Southern women with their Caucasian, Southern sisters, and feeling ambivalent. I have wasted little ink and less time on the whole Paula Deen thing – wasted little outrage, and very little shock. I think more shock has been spent on the people who were surprised by her language. Much like I often point out that Martha Stewart had a tribe of workers making her immaculate grounds look so good for Martha Stewart, Living, and that Oprah has leagues of foot-soldiers polishing the armor in her little kingdom, much less stylists and chefs and who-knows-what-all-else to ensure that she remains the unsullied Queen of Everything, I knew very well that someone as expansive and entertaining and sassy as Paula Deen certainly wasn’t working her butter-loving fingers to the bone alone. It was her staff – and, being a Southern woman creating Southern food, they were very probably people of color.

Actually, what was a little worrying to me, personally, was my knee-jerk “of course” about the whole thing. Of course Paula Deen has racist leanings. Of course she used the n-word. Of course she didn’t see anything wrong with it, which is why she apologized so ineptly. She’s a sixty-six year old Southerner. Aren’t all Southerners of that era racists?

Unequivocally, NO. It’s actually very, very wrong of me to believe so.

But, like racism in all its forms, my knee-jerk response is kind of a …reflexive, what-you’ve-been-steeped-in, how-you-grew-up kind of thought. This offers no excuse, but an explanation, of sorts. To wit, my parents were in middle school around the time of school desegregation. One of my father’s childhood stories is of pulling up to a stop light each morning in his South Florida town next to a school bus from the other side of town (Yes! Their town was big enough for a light! And two lanes going the same direction at that light! I know!), and lobbing spitballs, food, and other small missiles at each other, until the light changed. This went on, unchallenged by any adult, apparently, and the skirmishes continued when they were bussed to their schools, and their racial populations were mixed. It was war, from the moment they hit the front porch to the moment they opened the classroom door.

An Army man, my father entered the military young, as so many young men of color did in the sixties. He served under sadistic sergeants of whatever race, and they were, as always, universally hated. As an Army chef, and later as a hospital cook, he saw people “gob” (by which he means “spit,” my fellow Yankees. Yes. \ˈgȯb, ˈgäb\. It is a verb.) in the food of those they hated – usually across distinct racial lines, though I daresay anyone who raised their ire even slightly would get spit in their grits. He refused to let us go out to eat, when I was a child, because he was certain it happened still, and would happen to us. Because we were African Americans.

A lot of times, it’s what you grow up with.

And, when I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child, I understood, as a child – and then I grew up, and put away childish things, including things I had been taught to accept without thinking. Including inherited beliefs about other groups. Including an assumption that “all” people of any stripe are anything.

Avenue Q is a musical I have never seen – I actually usually hate musicals (Shh! I know!) – but I have had the song quoted to me, line for line: “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.” It’s kind of a funny song – an ironic song, of course, full of the edgy humor Avenue Q is known for — and I hate it. I hate the idea of it. I hate the thought that everyone really is a “little bit” racist, and that we are, in this country today, in many cases, more than “a little bit.” I hate the idea as a “Yankee” who is deeply uneasy in the South, I have bought into the so-many-years-past post Civil War self-righteousness of the North, to hold up the South as The Big Meanies Who Wanted Slavery, when as an entire country we practice institutionalized racism, including and not limited to how districts fund and teachers teach in various schools, how policemen decide to patrol and pull people over, and who they let pass by, how shopkeepers and restauranteurs react and respond to people in turbans, dashikis, kurtas, hijabs and burqas. We substitute a subtle classism for our racism, and call ourselves acceptable.

To be self-actualized, I must do better. I must remind myself that the Mason-Dixon line is an imaginary, permeable barrier. It did not keep racists on one side, and the rest of us on the other.

Christopher Meyers’ piece in the Horn Book this past week solidified some things for me. Often, as a writer, I feel like I am just here, lost in the dark. I have written before about what I felt was my “entertainment” value in a world which contains constant situations like the Trayvon Martin tragedy, and how flippin’ useless I felt as a human being, that my entire job was to make up lies about times in worlds that didn’t exist, when what exists in this world, worlds containing people like me, is sometimes violent and ugly. And yet, my friend Anne saved me from myself, reminded me of what I am doing – what I try to do, anyway. Why I keep trying to open my veins and write. Meyers seconded that. As he said,

“Images matter. They linger in our hearts, vast “image libraries” that color our actions and ideas, even if we don’t recognize them on a conscious level. The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects. But if people can see us as young dreamers, boys with hopes and doubts and playfulness, instead of potential threats or icons of societal ills, perhaps they will feel less inclined to kill us.”

“…making a dent in the majority culture’s collective sense of What Black People Are Like.” That is what Anne said we writers have the power to do. If we change who people see – who they believe can exist, maybe I, maybe Mr. Meyers – maybe any of us – can save a life.

It’s worth thinking about. It’s worth trying for. It’s worth everything, that striving. It’s worth being truly grateful for, as we sit around our metaphorical table, various races and ethnic backgrounds, orientations and classes. It’s worth holding hands and bowing heads – or lifting them up – and counting the blessings that we still have time to try – to keep trying – to get this right.

Set the table, light the candles – and wish a Happy Birthday to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who dreamed of a kid who bucked the trend of hardnosed farmers and took a chance on an innocent life. It didn’t work out as he expected, but like Jody, we can dream bigger than we are – and perhaps change the future.

{it all comes down to this}

LEE AND LOW who, for years, have been publishing multicultural children’s books, even before it because a “thing” in the late nineties and the early-oughts, recently brought a simple – but complex – question into the blogosphere. WHAT is UP with the lack of diversity in children’s books?

Childrens Books Infographic 18 24 V3

Way back in the Clinton era, First Book came with that question. They began to answer it by appealing for more books for younger readers – starting the little kids out right. Malorie Blackman, the black British children’s laureate said unequivocally that she’s going to be banging the drum for diversity, because for too long, Britain’s literature has ignored that Britain is no longer one color. So, this is relevant. It’s out there.

Yes, that question’s been asked before, but Lee & Low asked because they’ve now been in the business for eighteen years. Eighteen! And, as you can see, though they’ve worked hard and published more, and added Tu Books in as a SFF arm of their publishing house, they’re still but a little bump in the road, in comparison to what else is put out yearly by The Big Six (or, five, with Random/Penguin(s)). Overwhelmingly, fantasy stories, science fiction tales, spy adventures, mysteries, romances, historicals, easy reader, middle-grade, chapter books, and YA are plain, plain, plain, plain, white. Not Asian. Not Latin American. Not Hispanic. Not Native American. Not African American. Just the most culture-expunged, dominant culture, homogenous output.

This matters. Not because I am a person of color. Not because I don’t feel “comfortable” reading books that don’t feature people of color. But because the longer we tell young adults and children that they are invisible from their own imagination, the more we’re allowing them to disappear from the world’s stories. The more we’re encouraging them to be audience instead of actor, observer instead of participant. The more we’re saying, “Yeah, just sit back and plug in, and let the reality TV track of the world scroll past your eyes. There’s no room on the stage for you – just watch how others live.”

And, a big, fat, NO to that.

The piece itself (and please, please, PLEASE read it) has a lot of information from people I consider to be knowledgeable and savvy folk – librarians, professors, authors; people of color, taste, and education. And corporately and separately, they have a lot of reasons, but hardly a definitive answer. They do touch on a couple of points that ring true to me, though – one, we keep telling people of color that their books don’t sell – and don’t stock them? Well. You can’t sell what isn’t stocked. Two, there’s this idea that books by people of color are, like, homework and vitamins – things you’re supposed to have to have a well-rounded meal. Nobody wants the food they’re “supposed” to have. Everyone just wants good food. Until we can get over the “people of color as cod liver oil” idea that seems to have permeated American society, and the idea of “tolerance” – man, I hate that word, because all it means is “putting up with crap we don’t like,” instead of actually being loving and inclusive – this is where we’ll be.

And the point that hit me most of all: nowadays, just selling a book is harder. People are all about the new – you’re only as good as your next book, new authors are better than old, next big thing is better than what you loved last year, and readalikes to THE HUNGER GAMES or HARRY POTTER or whatever are all the rage. Writers of color, however new, are expected to produce …what? Not the next HUNGER GAMES, that’s for sure. The expectation seems still so weirdly strictured: poverty, slavery, history.

It’s actually hard, perhaps harder after winning a nod from the ALA, to write a book that feels “worthy.” That’s the word I’ve heard repeated: “worthy.” Roger Sutton kind of hit the nail on the head for me, when responding to this – that there’s an awful lot of earnest, good-for-you type of literature accepted from writers of color, and “we need more rubbish.” I’d say “rubbish” is his little joke, but the intent is serious. I LOVE MARE’S WAR. I will always love it, and the story that should have been commonly known about those women just trying to take part in what was supposed to be all of the country’s struggle. I’ll always love the process, the wonder, the discovery of those pages – for myself. But, I don’t love how long it took me to publish a book afterward, how my editor repeatedly told me that she wanted something more like MW, that I got the feeling that if I would only produce another work of historical fiction that doors would be opened to me. I actually felt like I was being stubborn for hoping to write science fiction, for dabbling in contemporary YA fiction – like I had to have a greater hook than other writers just to get in the game.

This isn’t me getting out my tiny violin and wailing sad songs – no, way. Getting published was a dream come true. Being published three times is the stuff of giddiness. But, in between those three publications were four or five novels which were shopped around and to which people said, “Well, they’re fine, but…” and could give me no concrete descriptions of that “but” meant.

My editor tells me that the time of the Contemporary has swung round again at last. Novels about real people with real lives and normal families with no fangs or fey blood in their family trees are on the rise. I will keep writing. I will also, however, hope for a couple of things:

*** One, that we remember that publishing is a business. They’re in it to make money. They are not in publishing for social reform. We cannot look to publishing companies to lead the revolution. People’s attitude about race and ethnicity in this country are as fractured as ever, and are reflected in the production of multicultural books. We don’t truly believe we’re all alike and sisters under the skin. We really do think – and it shows – that there are stories of “us” and then there are “others.” We need to stop othering, as a world, before we expect to see that from publishing. We need to get to know people from other cultures and skin colors, and truly accept that there is a commonality in the human experience. We all were embarrassed and horrified dorks during adolescence. We all had a rough “first love.” We all have had heartbreak. We’ve all had besties and worst enemies. We really are all alike.

*** Secondly, I hope we keep passing along good stories – stuff we’ve read that isn’t perfect, but is worth buzzing about. I’m not just talking about something as simple as choosing a book by a writer from another culture for your next book club or summer reading list selection, though that is a fab step. I’m also talking about talking up books to your local bookseller, and making some noise when they don’t have a book. “I’m surprised you’re not carrying _____. We have a really diverse community, and could use books like this.” We have to all be advocates for multicultural children’s literature.

*** Finally, I still hope someday to be a published SF author, and a mystery writer, and a heart-thumping romance novelist. I think we, as writers, simply have to keep trying.

A lot of thinking to do, yes, about this, and other things. But, more than that, a lot of writing to do. And, I’d best get back to it.

{hipster colorist: knows fifty-one shades}

As I set up my computer the other day, my eldest sister was looking over my shoulder, and just about fell over herself snickering snidely at the title of a file in my writing folder. It’s simply titled, “100 Shades of Brown.”

Lest you think I had visions of gray, I did not – that’s a VERY old file indeed into which I toss descriptors I read of brown skin which are not food related, negligibly clichéd or otherwise inaccurate, ridiculous, or insulting. (Random links: Why writers really should lose the phrase “almond-shaped eyes” and another writer’s shared resource list of their own descriptors.) My brown file I jokingly titled after Nick Earls’s hilarious 2004 novel, FORTY-EIGHT SHADES OF BROWN, which had nothing to do with skin tone descriptors, and everything to do with… brown. (Just read it, don’t ask.)

Yeah, we’re hipsters, Nick and me. Into shades long before it became a Thing.

Sometimes, When You're Not Paying Attention…

…everything changes.

This picture of Coretta Scott King (with Jesse Jackson, incidentally — didn’t notice that at first) was taken before I was born, in the year that the first Coretta Scott King Award was won. It was for Lillie Patterson’s biography, Martin Luther King, Jr. Man of Peace, and I imagine the woman herself was present to applaud the winner.

The Coretta Scott King Award is for the most distinguished portrayal of African American experience in literature for children, and without a doubt, it would be an honor to receive such an award — and to know that you had done your best to shine a light on a piece of the American experience which reflects the same light that Mrs. King did, the light of justice and rightness and peace.

MARE’S WAR has won a Coretta Scott King Honor, and I’m really grateful for all the people — including my MFA thesis team, my writing group, my SAM, and my editor — who were so supportive and amazing in what was a long process. Thank-you, sincerely, my dears.

And WOW, am I shocked. It sort of grew… quietly. I had NO CLUE, and finally turned on my email/Facebook about noon, to check in with the world at large. My Google Reader came up, and I zipped over to my Poetry Princess buddy, Tricia, who… was congratulating me. I decided I should really read my email — immediately. And there was a note from my editor with the word YOU! in the subject line.

OH.

I was trying for nonchalant. And now, with the growing number of authors “friending” me on Facebook and the notes from my editor, still in Boston, and calls from my SAM — still no call from The Committee, but they only call the winners, I’m sure, not the Honors — I’m going from nonchalant to sort of …weirdly giddy.

Wow.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Thank you, ALA and Coretta Scott King Award team.


Photo courtesy Academy of Achievement, Museum of Living History, Washington, D.C.

Sometimes, When You’re Not Paying Attention…

…everything changes.

This picture of Coretta Scott King (with Jesse Jackson, incidentally — didn’t notice that at first) was taken before I was born, in the year that the first Coretta Scott King Award was won. It was for Lillie Patterson’s biography, Martin Luther King, Jr. Man of Peace, and I imagine the woman herself was present to applaud the winner.

The Coretta Scott King Award is for the most distinguished portrayal of African American experience in literature for children, and without a doubt, it would be an honor to receive such an award — and to know that you had done your best to shine a light on a piece of the American experience which reflects the same light that Mrs. King did, the light of justice and rightness and peace.

MARE’S WAR has won a Coretta Scott King Honor, and I’m really grateful for all the people — including my MFA thesis team, my writing group, my SAM, and my editor — who were so supportive and amazing in what was a long process. Thank-you, sincerely, my dears.

And WOW, am I shocked. It sort of grew… quietly. I had NO CLUE, and finally turned on my email/Facebook about noon, to check in with the world at large. My Google Reader came up, and I zipped over to my Poetry Princess buddy, Tricia, who… was congratulating me. I decided I should really read my email — immediately. And there was a note from my editor with the word YOU! in the subject line.

OH.

I was trying for nonchalant. And now, with the growing number of authors “friending” me on Facebook and the notes from my editor, still in Boston, and calls from my SAM — still no call from The Committee, but they only call the winners, I’m sure, not the Honors — I’m going from nonchalant to sort of …weirdly giddy.

Wow.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Thank you, ALA and Coretta Scott King Award team.


Photo courtesy Academy of Achievement, Museum of Living History, Washington, D.C.