Poetry Month Begins

T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland begins with this line: April is the cruelest month. The next few lines yearn for winter’s return so that we can remain wrapped in snow’s forgetful cover, safe from memory and desire stirring in the spring rain.

Perversely, as a New Englander, I concocted my own meaning for his line when spring was just beginning to peek through, a snow storm in April would cruelly yank us back to winter. Yeah, I know his version has more heft. Mine is but an argument with the weather.

When I moved to Austin, I learned that April is a much different month. The air is deeply fragrant. Flowers drip from trees and vines. One tree in particular always startles me with its scent. Why startle? Because the Acacia tree is quite tall and the blooms are way up high so you don’t notice the little yellow puffs until their scent drifts down conjuring up so many images. Like this:

The Acacia blooms
sweet and soft like a boy’s hope
on Saturday night.

So begins poetry month. Thirty days to notice the precious and profane world around us. Join me.

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I’m Going to Blue Willow Books

Next Saturday, March 21, 2015, I’m going to be on a panel at 1pm at the amazing Houston independent bookstore Blue Willow. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop in as children’s and young adult author Varsha Bajaj (Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood) leads a conversation between young adult author Jennifer Mathieu and myself.

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I’m excited to sit down and chat with these ladies about characters and craft. Hope to see you there!

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.

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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.

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