How Not to Respond to Mistakes

biasFor the third or fourth time over the last year and a half, a children’s or YA title has been the center of a controversial discussion regarding whether or not its publication respects or disregards authentic diverse voices in children’s literature.

The publication of two picture books, A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Scholastic) and A Fine Dessert (Random House) raised serious questions as to how our country’s horrific institutionalized legacy of slavery could be depicted with such lighthearted casualness. (Follow my embedded links for more details on the particular books mentioned.)

Then, less than two weeks after its publication, Scholastic pulled A Birthday Cake from circulation, in a move that was both lauded and questioned. And while A Fine Dessert  is still available on bookstore shelves and in libraries, its author subsequently apologized for her racial insensitivity in a comment post after the blog site “Reading While White” published an essay on the book.

This was followed in July by a frantic internet discussion surrounding the negative tropes evoked by the word “tribe” and illustrations of kids with feathers in their hair playing in trees in There is a Tribe of Kids (Macmillan), a debate well-summarized by Betsy Bird on her Fuse8 blog.

The most recent entry into the fray involves Candlewick Press’s decision to postpone the August release of e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s YA novel, When We Was Fierce. Early reviews of the book generated intense pushback from writers and bloggers of color due to what many deemed stereotypical characterizations and the invented dialect the author created, which for many rang false and raised the question why it was even necessary since the novel’s characters were members of a living community.

All of these books received favorable and in some cases, starred, literary reviews in the mainstream media, and I spent a bit of time reading and trying to understand the depth and breath of the discussions swirling around them. I’ve been interested for some time now in supporting diversity in children’s literature, both as an ally and in my own writing. I live in a diverse world and in my books with multiple protagonists, there are characters from diverse backgrounds. Yet as a White writer, who grew up in a position of privilege, I knew that my own inherent biases always needed to be taken into consideration. As I wrote in a recent essay for the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity blog, good intentions mean nothing because intentions are conscious. Biases are unconscious.

Yet as I read through all the blogs and posted comments, I began to noticed two common responses cropping up repeatedly. Interestingly, the writers tended to qualify their remarks, claiming to be supportive of members of marginalized communities and their general objections to the books mentioned. However, their responses, I believe, are just another way that we who are in positions of privilege try, either consciously or unconsciously, to tilt and reframe the complex discussion around supporting diversity in publishing.

Censorship
The first common refrain was the warning call that pulling books off the market because a particular group found them offensive was a form of censorship, and that the power of free speech needed to be defended at all costs. In fact, the situations noted above are not examples of censorship at all. Censorship is the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts or refusing to make the book, movie, speech etc inaccessible to others because of it. The books discussed in these threads are examples of a very different case, where a business decision was made by the publisher to pull or postpone its own book. To be fair, part of the confusion may have stemmed from the fact that since the books were pre-released for reviews, the content had been read by some but was now inaccessible to others.

Tone-Policing
The second common reaction was tone-policing.This was a more worrisome pattern I saw repeated in response to the legitimate hurt generated for many in communities of color by the privileged. The problem with tone-policing is that it’s the ultimate flipping of an issue. It derails the real argument, and shifts the focus of the conversation away from an ill-conceived decision by someone in a position of power and privilege to the respondent and their reaction. It’s a way of not taking responsibility for your own mistakes while at the same time dismissing another person’s objection by framing it as emotional, angry and therefore irrational. Intentionally or not, it also moves the discussion away from the original oppressive behavior and once again, blames the “other” because they aren’t nice enough or polite enough to voice their protests in a way that can be taken seriously.

But you know what? Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. The mistakes that the publishing industry continues to commit makes people angry. And sometimes, anger is what has to happen in order to bring about real change.

Where’s Your Power?

tumblr_inline_nbagwqCPUh1s70xgvI’m pleased to have been invited to contribute to the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity blog, an initiative of the Children’s Book Council’s commitment to promoting diverse voices in literature for young people. CBC Diversity believes that all children deserve to see their world reflected in the books they read.

You can read my essay, “Where’s Your Power?” on strategies for finding ways to support diversity in children’s lit here.

 

Adventures and Misadventures: Q & A with Yi Shun Lai

So glad today to post a few Q&A’s from an interview I did with Yi Shun Lai, a super special writer and fellow alum of the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. Yi Shun is currently on a book tour for her newly released debut fiction title, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, published by Shade Mountain Press. Shade Mountain’s mission is to publish “literature by women, especially women of color, women with disabilities, women from working-class backgrounds, and lesbian/bisexual/queer women.”

A little background: Marty Wu, the book’s protagonist, is a compulsive reader of advice manuals, who dreams of presenting herself as a poised young advertising professional. Instead she trips over her own feet and blurts out inappropriate comments. The bulk of her brain matter, she decides, consists of gerbils “spinning madly in alternating directions.” After a career meltdown that sends her ricocheting between the stress of New York and the warmth of supportive relatives in Taiwan, she faces one domestic drama after another, including a formidable mother who’s impossible to please, an annoyingly successful and well-adjusted brother, and surprising family secrets that pop up just when she doesn’t want to deal with them.

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Here’s our chat:

Sharon: Marty, your book’s protagonist, tells us her story thru diary entries. Perhaps because of the form and the nature of Marty’s misadventures, there have been the inevitable comparisons to Bridget Jones Diary. Can you tell us why you chose that form and how that influenced your writing of the story?

Yi Shun: It happened in the most organic of fashions and it was by no means an easy or quick route. I messed around with a few different forms: from first person to third to first again, until finally settling into epistolary form. In the end, it was the character herself who demanded it. The voice itself is a key part of what I believe, ultimately, is a re-telling of the American success story. While I was writing, I imagined that the voices of the young women who were the stereotypical “good girls” of any culture would be a lot louder than we were told or imagined. That voice had to speak for itself. Therefore, diary.

Sharon: You were born in Taiwan and raised in American, like Marty. Are there elements of Marty’s story that relate to your own life?

Yi Shun: Oh, sure. Certainly the overarching themes and philosophy of the story relate. And when I was a lot younger, I was convinced that my experiences were unique. Oh, was I wrong. So although the book reflects some of my experiences, it also draws from so much of what I have been told, and witnessed. A book that’s ostensibly about one culture also resonates with others. Writing and reading are beautiful things that way: they presents opportunities to connect with other cultures.

Sharon: How much did Marty’s bi-cultural background play into her personality? Are there parts of her make-up that you see as typically Taiwanese or typically American?

Yi Shun:
 At this stage in her life, Marty would say that who she is comprises much of how she was raised. Her quick tongue, I think, is biologically inherited. But her confusion is entirely a product of her bicultural upbringing. The answer to your question though is, a lot. Marty thinks she’s uniquely damaged because of her bicultural background, so we’ll respect that, even if she’s not unique in this regard, or not even particularly damaged in the grand scheme of things. She’d also say that her bounce-back mentality is stereotypically American, and that her need to please her parental unit is stereotypically Taiwanese. But I think we, as readers, can see that the things she’s struggling with are more human than they are any one particular ethnicity.

Sharon: You do a great job of telling a serious story with humor, which I found particularly important in the scenes between Marty and her critical-bordering-on-abusive mother. Was that a challenge, finding a good balance when you were writing?

Yi Shun: Yes. Someone asked me recently what I’m most proud of in this book. I hadn’t ever thought about it earlier, but now that I’ve had a chance to consider, I think it’s exactly what you posit above: Trying to show everyone a glimpse of what this alternate American experience could be like, while preserving Marty’s voice.

Sharon: This one is for all the writers out there. How long was this idea simmering before you felt was ready to start submitting to agents or editors?

Yi Shun: Oh, gosh, a long, long time. I first started thinking about what it means to be American when I was in college, and started thinking more critically about my experiences—what they meant, and whether or not it was worth it to try and tell this story. But it wasn’t until a long time after that when I started thinking that a novel would be the right way to tell this story. Once I started writing the novel, I think it was a long, cool decade before it got published.

Sharon: Can you share what your working on now?

Yi Shun: With pleasure! I’m working on a novel that involves some time travel: and Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers ever. I’m pretty excited about this project…but first, there’s marketing, and book promotion, and so many more other readers and writers to meet.

Thanks Yi Shun!
You can learn more about Yi Shun’s life and writing at her website The Good Dirt or on Twitter @gooddirt

Building Bridges, not Walls

UnknownThis September will mark 15 years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Not yet a generation, but long enough that children who were just born are only now slipping into adolescence. So it is not surprising that there has been a flurry of books about the attack coming on the market for middle grade readers. I’ve spent the last month reading a good number of them, and one, in particular, stood out for me.

“Towers Falling” by the already accomplished author Jewell Parker Rhodes, has done a brilliant job making a difficult story compelling yet accessible for 10-year-old readers. In her capable hands, one of the most horrific tragedies in recent memory shares space with the numbing everyday tragedies so many souls on our planet endure daily.

Rhodes’ plucky protagonist, Deja, tells her first-person point-of-view narration in the short, clipped sentences you might expect from a kid who’s sharing one room in a homeless shelter with her parents and two younger siblings. Deja is mad—at the world, at her classmates, especially at her dad. His physical and mental troubles keep him unemployed and keep Deja’s family on the edge.

When Deja’s sixth grade teacher begins a month-long lesson meant to introduce the class to the upcoming 9/11 anniversary, Deja is clueless. Why is everyone staring out the window at the downtown New York skyline, looking so stricken? She’s been so busy struggling to get through every day, that she sees no purpose in looking backwards to the past.

But slowly, Deja comes to understand how the “far past” affects the “recent past” as well as the present, interwoven with the stories of her friends Ben and Sabeen, and especially in her family. The pitch-perfect characterizations of these three kids—their compassion, their vulnerabilities, and the realities of their lives in 2016—ring so true. Jewell’s feel for each one, as unique individuals, is deft. No stereotypes or tropes here.

Perhaps it’s because of this fractious election season or maybe it’s because I’m an ex-New Yorker, but in my opinion, “Towers Falling” should be required reading for ALL Americans, not just middle graders. We need its healing now.

Fireflies

fireflies-glowing.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartI miss fireflies. Or lightning bugs, which is what we called them in the New Jersey town where I grew up, just across the river from New York City. The last time I visited there, the houses were selling for almost half a million dollars, but in those days it was a gritty, run-down place, but I was too young to notice. I loved it. My parents shared a rented house with my grandparents—first generation immigrants in a neighborhood filled with mostly Portuguese, Polish, Italian and Irish families. My grandmother was a stern and imposing woman that my sister and I did our best to steer clear of. But my grandfather was a gentle, quiet man who worked as a tailor. He kept a tiny little garden in the back where he grew roses and vegetables and in the summers I loved helping him stake the tomato plants and heap mounds of dirt around the potato seedlings. We did our work early in the morning or at twilight—my favorite, since we could linger, taking our time, doing our work as the fireflies began to emerge.

I loved fireflies, of course. Everyone did, but at eight or nine years old, I couldn’t have articulated why. I’m not sure any of the adults could, either. It wasn’t a time when people talked about the beauty of nature or the importance of taking time for activities that sustained you emotionally. We went to school, my mother cooked, my father worked nights, my grandfather tended his garden, and the fireflies came every night.

I’ve been thinking this week about so many things that seem to be missing lately in our country and our world—peace, civility, tolerance, respect. It’s hard to find relief. Fireflies are in decline too, another casualty of development and light pollution. But even if they weren’t, I live in Seattle. Nobody is sure why, but almost no firefly species are found west of Kansas. So it’s been years since I’ve seen them in the massive numbers that filled my childhood summer nights.

I remember coming downstairs that morning—we lived in the upstairs flat above my grandparents in a railroad-style row house. It was late summer or the very early days of fall. Something was wrong, I could feel a physical difference percolating through the house, even before one word was uttered or I saw the faces of my family. The heavy drapes that separated my grandparents’ front bedroom from the main living area were drawn closed when usually at this time of the day, they would be pulled wide open. But my grandfather had risen even earlier than usual that day, in a wild panic, when he’d been unable to wake my grandmother from sleep. My mother had tried to help, but there was no help to give. The two sat stone-faced, inconsolable from the sudden loss of a wife and mother. In their desperation, my older sister—she would have been no more than eleven or or twelve at the time—had been enlisted to call the police station or maybe the hospital. It was the only way in those days before there was a 911 line, and I watched with a mixture of horror and awe as she struggled to negotiate this new responsibility she’d been given.

That day felt like it passed in a minute, and it felt like 100 hours until night finally came again. My parents and a dozen aunts and uncles were still downstairs, tending to my grandfather. I was supposed to already be upstairs in bed, in the room I shared with my sister. She sat in the half-dark, in no mood to answer my questions, a book open on her lap, still stunned from the events of the day. So I tiptoed across the hall into my parents’ bedroom—at the back of the house overlooking the garden—where it was harder to hear the outbursts of grief still rising up from downstairs.

I needed something solid. Something safe and permanent. There in the dark, I examined my favorite, familiar treasures on my mother’s dresser: the row of Avon cologne bottles, each one a crazier shape than the next, the pale blue opaque glass jewelry box that sits in my bedroom still today, the oval green and gold hand-held mirror. I loved each one of these objects. Some meaning of what had happened must be hidden here, I was certain. So I kept picking them up, one by one, twisting the top off a perfume bottle, holding the mirror up towards the dim light. I wasn’t supposed to open the window in the room, but I couldn’t help it. Maybe it was too many sniffs of cologne, or maybe because we hadn’t really eaten a real dinner that day, but the air felt so thick I was suddenly afraid what would happen next, so I pushed up the window and stuck my head out.

And there they were—the fireflies. Circling around and around the dark garden, flying in wide swaths, steady and strong, their spots of lights blinking on and off, on and off, the whole picture merging into a vision of what, to this day, I’m certain consolation must look like.

Review: It Came In The Mail

it-came-in-the-mail-9781481403603_lgOf all the delightful picture books out there, I keep a special place reserved for those that are author-illustrated. Maybe it’s because I’m a graphic designer as well as a writer. Most people just naturally assume that means I can draw. I cannot. Designing an exhibit or a publication, or even a book is a totally different animal than being able to draw and illustrate—anything. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to see what my drawing sketches look like—they’re frightening. 
 
So author-illustrated picture books always fascinate me. Not only for the twin sets of technical prowess they showcase, but also because I often wonder about the process. As a writer, I’m always revising and sometimes second guessing decisions I’ve made in an earlier draft. When you’re the one creating both the pictures and the story, those lines must inevitably cross over and blur. Are there internal battles that rage between words and images? Do you wake up in the morning, knowing n your heart that one of them has to sacrifice itself for the good of good of the whole?
 
I’ve been musing on this recently after reading a great new author-illustrator picture book, “It Came In the Mail” by Ben Clanton just out from Simon & Schuster. Ben’s story and images work together seamlessly. The result is a quirky, funny book that will entertain young readers and also satisfy parents who will be enlisted to re-read the story nightly with witty little asides. 
 
“It Came In The Mail” is the story of Liam, a boy who really, really, really, REALLY wants some mail. No spoiler alert-needed. As the title suggests, Liam gets his wish—in more wild and crazy ways than he could have imagined, and of course with surprising results. Bonus points awarded to Ben for the additional life lessons Liam learns along the way, including a new understanding of the joys of giving as well as receiving and how sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
 
What’s exciting about the marriage of Ben’s pictures and words in this book is how he builds his world little by little, layer upon layer. The image spreads deepen in complexity along with the story as the book progresses. Empty to full. Scarcity to overabundance. Adding meaning are the postcard, paper and stamp ephemera that Clanton skillfully incorporates into his drawings that add a tactile feel and richness to the pages. 
 
It’s hard to say whether, by the time Clanton’s intended audience grows up, there will even be anything sent by snail mail. But at least for now, kids can enjoy running out to their own mailbox to see what’s arrived. Kudos Ben, for giving parents extra work.  
Ben will be holding a book signing on Sunday, July 10 at Queen Anne Books in Seattle, WA 

My Book Cover—Unveiled!

So thrilled to share a sneak peak at the beautiful book cover for my forthcoming middle grade debut “Chasing at the Surface” coming in October from Westwinds Press. Could it be more beautiful? A huge thank you to Vicki Knapton at Westwards not just for the gorgeous design but for capturing perfectly the themes of the book.

Chasing at the Surface_fc