We Need Diverse Books-Part 2

WNDB_ButtonToday is the last day of the wildly successful We Need Diverse Books campaign. They have surpassed their $100,000 goal and have expanded their vision. I am proud to be a part of what will be a sea change in children’s publishing.

In Part 1, I shared a couple of snapshots about my somewhat sheltered journey understanding diversity. Today, I am writing about the journey I took to understand my job as a writer of books that “provide windows and mirrors for the whole population of readers.” (Jacqueline Woodson)

1989: I’ve written a couple of pretty good plays, which have had successful runs in Austin and I am approached to write a lesbian erotic movie (No theatrical release; straight to video, so to speak). I am not a lesbian. At best, I am bi-sexual. But really, in my twenties, I was bi-curious. After I’m asked, I don’t consider whether I have the card carrying lesbian credentials to write the movie. Instead, I wait and see if I get an idea. When I do, I sketch it out for the producers; they like it and we go forward with the project. I write a love story for women who love women. Before we start shooting, the director and cinematographer tell the producer that the writer should be a lesbian. We have a long (read: heated) discussion about the permission of artists. We finally, agree that as long as we are true to the characters and their identities, we can write outside our gender, sexual preference, race, and physical ability. That’s the privilege and responsibility we have as artists.

1995: I’m working at the Austin American Statesman in the Life/Style section. Each week we’re asked to pitch ideas for the section. At the time, there was a fury going on about the N-Word. Los Angeles Police Officer Mark Fuhrman had made 41 inflammatory references to African Americans. A lot of people were upset. And not surprised. I pitched a story to cover both viewpoints in Austin. You know, a “what does Austin think?” piece. My editor says yes. I interviewed University of Texas faculty and students, high school students and parents. A lot of people (mostly young) said they were claiming the word as their own and removing the stigma of it. Other people (mostly older) said that bringing the word back into currency is forgetting the past. Even though the story was generally praised, my editor gets reprimanded for allowing me (read: a white girl) to write it.

2013: My novel Evidence of Things Not Seen began with a dream. I saw a boy standing in a pull out by the side of the road and I wondered what he was doing there. I wrote into the dream and discovered he was a Mexican boy, a child of migrant workers. After I wrote his story, I expanded the world of the novel and wove other Hispanic characters throughout the book. I was not thinking: If I have migrant workers in the book, I better have other representations of Hispanic people. I was not thinking: Diversity in books is important so I better throw in some diverse characters. Here’s what I was thinking: my novel takes place outside a small west Texas town in and around a pull out by the side of the road so my novel needs to be representative of that area. I better make sure that all the characters I write ring true and are believable and three-dimensional. My job as a writer is to be true to the character’s heart and make sure that no one is two dimensional or superficial. Am I more careful when I write outside my wheelhouse of ethnicity, culture or the myriad of diverse orientations? Yes and no. In the case of the migrant boy, I did my homework. I interviewed migrant workers and farmers. I talked to people in agencies who interact with the migrant farm workers. I would do the same kind of research and reading for every character whose job, belief system, physical challenges, skin color, or culture is different from my own. But when it comes to the human heart, I do not believe that diversity divides us.

A key focus of the WNDB campaign is to address the inequities in the publishing world. See all the goals here. I am taking it as a personal challenge to be a better writer. How? By taking bigger risks in the worlds I create, by doing the research to make those worlds authentic, by working harder to make my stories true to the diversity of the world.

In the final hours of this campaign, click here to contribute. You will be glad you did.


Why We Need Diverse Books-Part 1

WNDB_Button1995: As a journalist at the Austin American Statesman, I am assigned to cover the Texas Representative Gonzalo Barrientos’ annual family reunion at Lake Bastrop State Park. My editor says, “Make it a fun summer piece.”

Reunions were not a tradition in my family. People sort of piled up in the same house over the holidays but we didn’t convene in state parks in the heat of the summer. The only time we did, it had a rather explosive effect with two divorces and one intervention occurring shortly thereafter. (Think: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with an expanded cast.)

Still, I head to Bastrop State Park one Saturday morning in June, uncertain about what a Barrientos family reunion will portend but pretty sure I will stick out like an awkward guerita in a sea of brown faces. Except I am not the only white person there. Not by a long shot. Every race and ethnicity seems to be there and, though I don’t ask, probably the LGBT communities are represented as well. Everyone looks like they are having a good time. No one is glaring or sullen or arguing. They’re swimming and eating and playing games and talking and, well, being family. I wend my way in and amongst the labyrinth of family members trying to find the oldest member. I ask her questions about this seventeen-year tradition and then I wonder what she thinks of this multi-racial clan. She looks around at all of them and says, “We look like the United Nations, don’t we?”

2003: I write a picture book called SNUGGLE MOUNTAIN. It is the story of little Emma who climbs Snuggle Mountain to wake the two-headed giant who is caught in a sleeping spell, which causes all living creatures to forget about making pancakes for breakfast. It is a simple story using Snuggle Mountain as a metaphor for a bed and the two-headed giant as Mom and Dad. Even though I am a single mom, I choose to make the two-headed giant a mom and dad. When I go out in the world and read the book to children, I wonder how many children have one headed giants or giants that are grandma and grandpa or giants that are two papas or two mamas in their particular homes. Do I worry that I haven’t represented those alternative homes? Sometimes. So far, no child has raised their hand and said in that inimitable four-year-old fashion, “I have a one headed giant at my house.” If they ever do, I hope I could lead a chaotic conversation about how everyone’s family looks different.

2014: I am at a writers’ retreat and some of us are gathered to talk about the issue of diverse books. All of us are white. We are trying to understand what it means to write diverse characters if we are white. How do we do it? Can we do it? Are we allowed? How can we contribute to the We Need Diverse Books campaign? Then, one writer said, “When the illustrator started working on my alphabet book, I pushed to have kids of color in it. I had to bring it up a couple of times but it worked.”

The We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) campaign is about promoting diversity in books. It is about bringing awareness to the pages of children’s literature and including everyone’s stories because right now the representation is pretty off kilter. In 2013, fifty percent of school kids are people of color while in children’s books, only ten percent of the characters in children’s books were people of color, a percentage which has stayed the same for eighteen years. (For more in depth number crunching, visit the Cooperative Children’s Book Center blog by Kathleen T. Horning.)

If you are white and you’re having that squinchy feeling that this push in diversity means your story is not important any more, I get it. I really do, but you have to think beyond yourself. WNDB doesn’t mean your story is any less valid or less important. It is as important as everyone’s story but the point is: EVERYONE’S STORY IS IMPORTANT. As Jacqueline Woodson says, “Books should provide windows and mirrors for the whole population of readers.” Everyone should be able to pick up a book and find herself in it. Everyone should be excited to read books because they are his stories. If more people are excited about reading books, then guess what? They’re will be more readers who love books. And if more readers love books, then guess what? Books won’t stagnate.

The We Need Diverse Books Campaign’s mission is to promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process. The legacy of literature is to chronicle our culture. Our entire culture. If we leave anyone out, we have done a disservice to our culture, to our future and, most of all, to our readers.


WNDB has met its goal of $100,000 but you can still contribute here until December 10, 2014. Already the campaign has plans to fund: Grants for Writers of Diverse books; Grants to bring diverse books and authors to readers; A special Walter Dean Myers award for the best diverse book and many other efforts to promote diversity. Consider giving to this important effort.

Confessions Of An Edgy YA Writer-Part 3

cliffedgePart 2 ended here: I write edgy YA because it tells a truth about what life is like for a teen.

Part 3 begins here: I write edgy YA because I have complete faith that teens can handle the edge.

There are three basic stages of books for kids: Picture books explain the world to little ones with inventive stories about the basic rituals of life: going to school, going to bed or getting a sibling. Middle grade books thrust kids into their first adventures slightly beyond the reach of adults so that they can begin to figure things out own their own. In young adult books, the characters (and readers) are trying to understand themselves in the world. They are exploring their own lives, trying to figure out who they are and what makes sense. They are reexamining the status quo. They’re asking why and why not?

I wrote EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN specifically for that young adult reader. Why? Because I want the characters in EVIDENCE to shed light on a teen’s exploration of self and the world.

When Leann can’t respond to Marshall’s simple genuine proposal of love because she was molested by her uncle and his son, I hope young adult readers will understand the cost of incest.

When Izzy has a theory about losing her virginity and acts on it with her friend, I think teens will comprehend her thinking. I think they will also appreciate the reaction of her friend Alex who isn’t so cavalier about sex and losing his virginity. This tricky rite of passage is important to teens and they will come to their own conclusions about this portrayal.

When Karla murders someone, I make sure to portray her in such a way that readers will realize how that vicious act grew out of a betrayal by her parent. I think that right or wrong won’t be the conclusion, but a deeper understanding will.

When Dwight runs away from home because he finally sees that his father enjoys beating his mother and him, I think readers will grasp how hard it was for the boy to get to the moment of running away.

Life is tender. Yes, we want to protect our kids. But we also want to help them develop their powers of discernment. I hope that EVIDENCE will sharpen their perception because life isn’t a choice between right and wrong, good and evil. Life isn’t black and white. It’s a bit more subtle. It’s full of grey areas.

Edgy YA writers take kids to dark places and turn on the lights because those readers are smart and they are trying to figure stuff out.

Why do I write edgy YA?

Because I have complete faith in my readers. They know the view is more expansive out here on the edge.






Confessions of an Edgy YA writer: Part 2

Here’s where I ended my last postSo yes, I write edgy YA. Because I think teens want to look over the edge but they don’t necessarily want to jump.

Here is where I am beginning this post: I write edgy YA because I think teens live on the edge all the time.

I went to see the film BOYHOOD (trailer below) last night. It is a masterwork by Rick Linklater. Filmed over a twelve-year period, it follows a boy Mason and his sister as they grow up in a family, which is not a very unusual family by today’s standards. The kids are the product of young love, two people who fit well together in bed but had a harder time growing up and being parents together. So they split up and the kids watch as their loving mother careens from school to jobs to bad marriages trying to make a life for them. Their father tries to be meaningful in their lives but it’s hard to get meaning out of two overnights a month. Nothing horrible happens. No one gets murdered, raped or beaten but here’s the deal, Linklater takes us so close to what it’s like to be a kid witnessing the vagaries of the adults in his life that every scene has a sense of danger. The little betrayals, vicissitudes, and inattention of adults jerk kids around. Adults don’t mean to do it. They just do. They are human.

In a bit of a cultural zeitgeist, I saw a very similar film a few weeks earlier: HELLION by Kat Candler (trailer below). Again, two siblings are left to fend for themselves as their father goes off on a three-week bender following the tragic and unexpected death of his wife/their mom. Nothing horrific happens but the audience has the sense that life could go terribly off the rails at any moment. As the father careens, so do the boys. As others adults try to help, they inadvertently pull the rug out from under the boys. It is all well meaning and full of love but oh so painful to watch.

Edgy books give teens a glimpse of protagonists figuring the uncertainty of life. Because that’s what the edge is: uncertainty. As far as I know, no one has been able to predict the future so we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Not knowing is exciting and scary. For a teen, that uncertainty is even more extreme because they’ve already fallen off the cliff of childhood. Now they are climbing up some weird precipice called adulthood. In a way, teens live on the razor’s edge between childhood and adulthood.

So yes, I write edgy YA because it tells a truth about what life is like for a teen.

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Confessions of an Edgy YA Writer-Part 1

I write edgy young adult novels. There I’ve said it. On September 16, 2014, when Evidence of Things Not Seen is published, I will join peers like Ellen Hopkins, Laurie Halse Anderson, David Levithan and Coe Booth to name but a few who push the envelope in contemporary realistic fiction.

My goal is not to write edgy YA. My goal is not to titillate readers or incite controversy. My goal is to write honest and true characters.  My goal is to show how those characters grapple with tough moments. My goal is to write a book for teens that is cleared eyed and doesn’t wrap life up in a bow.  My goal is to write books that hold grit and dirt right next to faith and mystery.

Recently at the Texas Library Association, I got to hear Laurie Halse Anderson. She noted that it has been 15 years since SPEAK was published and she continues to write challenging books. Why? Because she learned from her minister father that Jesus was a storyteller and the reason he was a storyteller was because stories helped people learn, understand and prepare them for the world. She thinks that it’s important for kids to read books that allow them to tackle tough subjects safely. She thinks we do a disservice to kids if we protect them so much they are vulnerable when they go out in the world.

I agree.

In a May 6 Publisher Weekly article about the 2014 PEN World Voices Festival, Krystyna Poray Goddu reported about the panel, On the Edge. Moderated by Viking editor Sharyn November, panelists British novelist Sarwat Chadda, Canadian writer Niki Walker, author and photographer Susan Kuklin, and writer Robie Harris discussed sex and violence in children’s literature

While all the panelists were against censorship, they respected parents who chose not to buy their books. Robie Harris said, “There’s a difference between saying ‘I don’t want my child to read this,’ and saying ‘I don’t want any child to read this.’ I have had librarians tell me they would never have my books in their home, but that it’s their job to have them in the library. Those librarians are heroes, in my view.”

Panelists agreed that the concern about children reading inappropriate material for their age can be unjustified because young readers self-censor. “Kids who can’t handle something in a book don’t read it,” said Harris. “November added, “Often you read so you don’t have to experience. Parents need to trust their own child-raising skills and their own children more.”

In my view, what’s lovely about books is the time readers can take to reflect and reread. As much as I love movies, they can be a bit of a barrage. Books, though, give the reader time to revel, contemplate, even think about what they might have done in a similar situation.

So yes, I write edgy YA. Because I think teens want to look over the edge but they don’t necessarily want to jump.