Diversity – What does it mean for writers and young readers?

@VS Conference with writing buddies Cheri Williams and Nathalie MVondo

@Ventana Sierra conference in Carson City, NV with writing buddies Cheri Williams and Nathalie MVondo

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, Maine

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, Maine

I’m thrilled to be back blogging after a stellar three-month summer hiatus. I completed the first draft to my contemporary YA, which is my MFA thesis. I attended a superb writer’s craft conference for the benefit of the non-profit Sierra Nevada organization set up by author Ellen Hopkins. I played tennis, hiked and kayaked and finally, I took a two-week vacation visiting friends in New Brunswick (Canada) and Maine.

A young adult and children’s author celebrating the natural and cultural diversity in our world

I grew up in a classic middle class WASP environment and I am so glad my adult life has blown apart that narrow perspective. Since graduating college I have worked in tens of nations and lived on three continents. This nomadic lifestyle and belonging to a minority group (gays) have contributed to my passion for diversity in its widest sense. When I began writing and set up this blog 3.5 years ago, I created the tag line above to reflect what I knew would be the heart of my writing, both on the blog and in my picture book, middle grade and young adult stories. Too often in the recent discussions in the kid lit blogosphere, however, I feel that the term diversity has been limited to meaning multi-cultural, whereas it goes so much deeper than skin pigment, religious affiliation and food.

There are two sides to diversity to which I wish to contribute and about which I want to see more of in children’s literature. Firstly, I would like to see the richness and variety of our local societal makeup reflected. I want: epileptic kids, Vietnamese kids, paraplegic kids, queer kids, biracial kids, bipolar kids, homeless kids, HIV+ kids, Sikh kids etc. to be able to find themselves in stories. I want them to discover themselves as the protagonists, antagonists and/or in supporting roles, as part and parcel of the fabric of their/our worlds. I want them to know they aren’t weird or alone. Secondly, as someone who spent a dozen years working in developing nations and amongst people with different priorities and worldviews to mine, and from whom I learnt so much, I want children to be exposed to these stories (just as we want great historical fiction to bring alive distant times). Books such as SOLD (YA) by Patricia McCormick, A LONG WAY TO WATER (MG) by Linda Sue Park and MARKET BOWL (PB) by Jim Averbeck allow western children and youth to explore issues like child sex slavery, children in warfare, the preciousness of clean water and modernized African folktales.

All children should be able to see themselves in books, but equally as important is the power of books to create empathy in children. Judgment and intolerance so often walk alongside fear of the unknown/fear of difference. Exposing our preschoolers through teens via great stories to characters who may be, or be experiencing what their siblings, friends, classmates are experiencing, can help break down fear barriers. Children’s books should not only provide a mirror for their experiences, but also a window into others’ diverse lives. For kids growing up in mono-cultural neighborhoods or communities with very little diversity, it sets them on the journey toward increased cultural/social competence (the ability to understand diverse perspectives and appropriately interact with members of other cultures etc. in a variety of situations). Sometimes I fear that empathy is as endangered as the black rhino. I am grateful that we the tribe of children’s authors and illustrators can contribute to helping children explore their sense of empathy.

“The notion that people should write what they know is very limiting. Imagination is one of the most powerful tools we have. I use research to guide my imagination, and then I try to find people who can tell me where I’ve imagined wrong. This applies to all of writing, and it’s really no different for writing a diverse character. People fail at this when they abandon research, imagination, and expert assistance for tropes, stereotypes, and ‘what everybody knows’ …”

Diversity proponents Lee n Low tweeted this quote from author Merrie Haskell (Handbook for Dragon Slayers) last week and it embodies so much of my beliefs about writers and diversity. Write from the emotions you know, write characters your target age group will relate to but don’t be scared to write outside your comfort zone if that’s the story of your heart. But when you do, have the humility to do your research in: libraries, museums, archives, interviews, online, in person etc. Then call upon experts to check the details. Remember you are creating fully-rounded characters not trying to represent an entire group. We also need more intersectionality. I’d love to see more characters who check more than one box e.g a Hasidic, bisexual, epileptic teen artist. We humans are complex creatures. No one exists with only one characteristic, and many of us intersect many different communities. My present YA protagonist is a biracial male teen and right on the outer edge of the autism spectrum. The story spans several southern states but focuses especially on New Orleans. I am planning a research trip to NOLA soon and am gathering beta readers with the expertise I lack! I believe with humility, handwork and integrity we can write outside our personal cultural, sexual, gender etc experiences!! Do not let fear of error or backlash prevent this.

YA author I.G. Gregorio, whom I met at the SCBWI NY conference this year, noted these stats. on her blog a few months ago:

“Though 37% of children in America are people of color, only 10% of children’s books contain multicultural content. Of 123 bestselling titles noted by PW, seven titles had gay or bisexual main characters, but there were no lesbian or transgender main characters in the bestseller list.” The characters you create should not be limited by your color, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability etc.! Write stories seeped in diversity, read them, buy them and give them away, this is how we will see more diversity in children’s literature.

#WeNeedDivserseBooks

Also, a quick shout out for a great blog about  disability in kid lit: http://disabilityinkidlit.wordpress.com

Gay Pride Month PB, MG and YA Book Recommendations

GayPrideBannerjpg-2129472_p9It is June, which means it’s Gay Pride Month, The French Open at Roland Garros and the beginning of my annual summer blog hiatus (to write a novel, just in case ya think it’s all about pina coladas, beaches and hammocks). As a big fan of diversity in all its forms in children’s literature and having read a number of superb LGBTQ books over the last couple of years, I wanted to give you a few of Miss Marple’s favorites to celebrate this month or as great summer reads. Where I have already written a review, clicking on the title in red will take you to that, otherwise links are to Goodreads.

Picture Books:

tangoAnd Tango Makes Three                                                          by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, Henry Cole (Illustrator)

 

 

one dad

                                                One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad                             by Johnny Valentine, Melody Sarecky (Illustrations)

 

 

papHow my Family came to be: Dad, Papa and Me                   by Andrew R. Aldrich

 

 

 

In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polaccomothrs house

 

 

 

 

1000010,000 Dresses

 

 

 

 

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson ferdninand

 

Middle Grade:

daysDays that end in Y by Vikki VanSickle                                                                                          

 

 

 

 

See you at Harry’s by Jo Knowles see you

                                                                                                        

 

 

pearlPearl by Jo Knowles                                                                                                                                       

 

 

 

 

The Misfits  by James Howe  misfits                                                                                                                          

 

 

 

nateBetter Nate than Ever by Tim Federle                                                                                                                        

 

 

 

Marco Impossible  by Hannah Moscowitz          marco-Bomb-mock-1P                                                                                                   

 

 

 

Young Adult:

miseducThe Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

 

 

 

 

October Mourning by Leslea Newman october

 

 

 

aristAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

 

 

 

freak

Freakboy  by Kristin Clark

 

 

 

 

willWill Grayson, Will Grayson  by David Levithan and John Green

 

 

 

shine

Shine by Lauren Myracle

 

 

 

 

deadBy the Time you Read this I’ll be Dead by Julie Anne Peters

 

 

 

tricks

 

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

 

 

 

 

Thank you for your faithful blog reading and have a great summer!

My Great-Aunt Arizona – Perfect Picture Book Friday

auntTitle: My Great-Aunt Arizona

Written by Gloria Houston

Illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb

Published by Harper Collins, 1992

Ages: 5-8

Themes: teaching, Appalachian region, biography, generations

Opening Lines:

My great-aunt Arizona                                                                                                         was born in a log cabin                                                                                                        her papa built                                                                                                                          in the meadow                                                                                                                       on Henson Creek                                                                                                                                    in the Blue Ridge Mountains.                                                                                           When she was born,                                                                                                            the mailman rode                                                                                                            across the bridge                                                                                                                     on his big bay horse                                                                                                               with a letter.

Synopsis:

Gloria Houston has written an enchanting picture book tribute to her great-aunt and teacher, Arizona. She grows up linked in every way to her Blue Ridge community, enjoying the creek, making maple syrup,  square dances, but most of all she is a reader. When she outgrows the books of the one room school house (think Laura Ingalls Wilder) she takes her father’s mule through the snow to the slightly larger school in the next village. She dreams of faraway places transported through her books. She goes away to college but returns to Henson Creek to become a 4th grade teacher, where she passes these dreams and curiosity onto her students. There are many themes woven into this story, including Arizona’s love of flowers/plants. The entire school yard became filled with living Christmas trees planted each year by Arizona’s students. For fifty seven years she hugged her students whether their work was good or bad! She taught them, “words, and numbers, and about faraway places they would visit some day.” Gloria concludes the book with the death of Arizona on her 93rd birthday and her ongoing influence in the minds of her many students.

Why I like this book:

This biography is narrated with rhythm, repetition, joy and respect for her great-aunt, whom one ascertains has been a great life model to her, and many others, as a woman and teacher. Both Gloria and her aunt grew up in The Appalachian mountains of N Carolina and the rural mountain setting has a beautiful voice in this story. Gloria Houston has said that she had tried to write the story about her great-aunt as a biography and as a novel but was not pleased with the effect. When she read Miss Rumphius she realized that Arizona’s story would be better as a picture book and rewrote it in this format, which works superbly. There is a beautiful simplicity and tenacity of rural life in the rhythm of the text and the themes of learning, mentoring, location are woven beautifully into the story.

Lamb’s watercolor artwork,  filled with light and color, is the perfect backdrop for the aging and yet ageless depiction of Arizona, reflecting the enduring impact of a good teacher. The continuity of her life seems to flow through the images, and her connection to the future is beautifully expressed in the painting of the road curving out of sight into the misty forest.  This is a story brimming optimism and determination.

Activities/Resources:

  • Use this book in a classroom as part of a family tree lesson plan.
  • A few different generations of children are mentioned so it would be relevant to talk about families and how each generation came from the one before them and what they did.
  • What makes a good teacher discussion.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book.  To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with teaching resources and activities, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.