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.


Writing Diversity

scbwiHere in the Western Washington, we’re lucky to have a vibrant local chapter of SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators). The topic of last week’s meeting—diversity on children’s books—was right up my alley. The assembled panelists, that included Philip Lee, co-founder of Lee & Lowe Publishing and current publisher of Readers to Eaters; King County Children’s Librarian Ann Crewdson, and authors Liz Wong and Kelly Jones, contributed some great perspectives. Here’s a link to a great recap of the panel.

This topic is of particular interest to me for a couple of reasons. I experienced a teachable moment in the process of including characters and traditions that represented Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest in my debut middle grade novel “Chasing at the Surface” which will be out from WestWinds Press in October of this year (that’s a whole other blog post). But I’ve also been trying to interest agents and editors in another story I’ve written, told from two characters’ perspectives—both 12 year old girls, one black, the other white—whose lives and fates intersect across the span of 35 years.

I’ve lost count of how many times the story has been rejected. No one has ever said to me, “You shouldn’t be writing this,” but its hard to push that away in the space of my own head. Beyond whether or not the plot or the actual writing is appealing, is my race a factor? Am I distracting more than actually doing any good? These are questions that pop up for me with each new rejection.

But the fact is, this story won’t go away. It wants to be told. The theme and message it carries is, I believe, important, and I truly believe there are children out there, beyond the publishing gatekeepers, who need to hear it, read it, and find something to value in it. After much reading, thinking and meditating, and bolstered by last week’s panel discussion, I believe that, yes, I can write this story, carefully and with respect.

At the end of the day, I’m trying to contribute to the conversation by utilizing the tiny platform I may have as a writer, to engage the next generation. It’s uncomfortable, and it comes with a lot of fear of not wanting to mess up, of not wanting to say the wrong thing. But in the end, isn’t that the same that can be said of most things worth doing?

Writing Real

Illustration by Suzana Apelbaum

Booksellers continue to tell us that girls will read books where the protagonist is a boy but it doesn’t work the other way around. The concept is controversial and debatable whether this is yet another self-inflicted bias perpetuated by how our society divides and compartmentalizes according to race, class, gender and ability. As author Shannon Hale notes, “I’ve heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: “Boys, even though this is about a girl, you’ll like it!” Even though. I never heard a single time, “Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you’ll like it!” Read Shannon’s excellent post on her experiences being stamped as a writer of books intended for girls only.

So when I stumbled on Mary Hershey’s novel, The One Where the Kid Nearly Jumps to His Death and Lands in California, (Razorbill) I was pleased on multiple fronts. The book has an unwieldy title, a complicated plot with too many subplots, creepy characters, difficult father-son relationships, rough language…hey, wait a minute…this is starting to sound pretty appealing!

It also had something else to recommend it. The story centers on thirteen-year-old Alastair, who calls himself ‘Stump,’ who is shipped out to spend the summer with his estranged father in California. When Alastair was eight, he lost one of his legs after a too-soon jump from a ski lift. Guess who was supposed to be supervising him at the time? Now Stump is ready to confront his father for ruining his life. Except he didn’t count on a host of new discoveries he makes, not least of which is the unrelenting optimism of Skyla, his father’s new wife who also happens to be a double amputee.

Hershey has woven macabre humor and irreverence into Alastair’s life that I suspect young readers will find satisfying. The jump in the title is both literal and metaphoric, as the best jumps should be. Both Stump and his father are on the brink of looking at each other in new ways. Hershey lets us see their journey with wicked humor and underlying affection.

But the real star of this story is Stump and his voice. Hersey skillfully writes Stump’s disability as just one facet of his personality, not the story’s focus. Stump is the first one out of the gate to crack jokes about his own disability, such as when he takes off his leg at school, puts it in his locker, then ties a rag with fake blood around it. It is worth noting that the author is a former juvenile probation officer who says she has had ‘the great privilege of working with some very funny, smart, and resilient kids.’ In her wonderful depiction of Stump, it shows.

Black Boots

997544457_251Guest post by Marie Hartung

“Can I have these?” my 9-yr old son says, holding up a pair of my black dress boots that I have just placed in a bag to give away to Goodwill.

He zips them on, struts up and down the hall making a clack-clack sound as his heels hit our hardwoods, and in an apparent silent decision that they both fit and are stylish, unzips them and carts them off to his room. I hear them land in his closet – into a giant bucket. Right now, the bucket includes Pinkie Pie slippers, a tiara, and chef’s shirt and apron. If he was a toddler, no one would blink at his desire to have and wear feminine things. But at 9, he’s past what most consider an “acceptable” age for gender-bending fantasies.

He shouts from his room, “Can I wear them to school?”

And we aren’t sure what to say.

On one hand, we really want him to be himself. On the other, while we fully support him being whatever way in the world that feels right to him, we know that some people he might run into—at school, on the street, in a job, might be less accepting and forgiving. How do we prepare him for this?

At home, he recently had friends he has known since birth tell him they will not be friends with him any longer because he told them once, “Inside I feel like a girl.” When I spoke to these boys’ parents, they said “We honor our son’s discomfort with your son. We won’t ask them to think or feel differently.” How do we deal with the parents, kids, and others my son encounters?

My spouse and I decided after much and frequent conversation, that we have no other important job than to support him 100% in whatever and whoever he is or wants to be. This sometimes flies in the face of our own fears and discontent. Sometimes we don’t know what to say. But say we must because our son is relying on us more than anyone else, to say words that he yet cannot. Parents are models for everything, some things matter more than others.

This matters.

We told our son that dress boots aren’t appropriate for school for boys, girls or anyone. But that we would be fine if he chose to wear them to the store or a restaurant, for example. And when he does, we are ready to be proud of our son. If we aren’t afraid, then perhaps some of the people he encounters aren’t either. This is truly what matters.

What can you do if you have a son or daughter that feels, acts,
or believes they are another gender or feels gender fluid?

  1. No matter what, always tell them you love and support them, even if you feel unsure of what to say. Did you know that According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, more than 50% of Transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday? Your support and love, even if you feel unsure and afraid, will go a long way toward mitigating this statistic.
  2. Be honest with your child. Different ages present different challenges with school, peers, society than others. Help them see and weigh for themselves the pros and cons of actions like wearing black women’s boots to school. Even though you want to protect your child, you must let them decide, you job is to help them make their own decisions.
  3. Talk to the school and the teachers. You can be honest with administrators and school personnel too to say you don’ know all the answers, but the school has raised more kids that you. More often than not, there is someone at the school who has experienced children like yours or who have specialized training.
  4. Make yourself smart. Don’t let your own lack of information, use of resources, get in the way of supporting your child.
  5. Last, remember Gender is a construct. And so are clothing and hair and the like. What really matters is who your child is inside – their values, their character, what makes them shine. Whatever you do as a parent, don’t lose sight of this. Your child relies on you to see them for who they truly are.
Marie Hartung lives in Monroe, WA and is a poet/memoirist and mom of two boys, ages 9 and 11.  She has served on the Bisexuality Advisory Board of Out and Equal for the past six years.