Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Thoughts from a scared, white author on diversity in Kid Lit

There have been many discussions on social media lately around diversity.

I think THIS POST by Kelly Jensen is a great one to read if you want to get caught up in what's been happening. And it's this post that caused me to open up my blog and write something about the topic, because I've been thinking about it a lot lately, but have said very little.

I will start with an admission: as a white female, I feel most comfortable writing about white females. Early in my career, this was not an area I wanted to "stretch myself" as I set off trying to make a career for myself writing books for kids and teens. Mostly because writing a good, publishable novel is hard, and I didn't feel like I was ready to risk one more thing I might get wrong. I was still worrying about whether I knew how to get the plot right, the pacing right, the setting right, etc. etc.

There are a lot of things to get right, you know? I'm not saying this made my decisions good ones or "right" - I'm just telling you how I came to the decisions I did about the kinds of characters I wrote. I mean, if I'm honest, even writing white males scares me, and most of my books have at least one of those in there as well. I constantly question myself - is this how boys talk? Think? Act? I live with three of them, and still, they often feel like aliens to me (no offense, male humans).

However, once I had a half a dozen novels under my belt, I knew it was time to get really uncomfortable.

When I agreed to write a series for Scholastic about four girls who meet at summer camp, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to go where I had never gone before.

And so, I did. The CHARMED LIFE series features four girls - Caitlin, Mia, Libby and Hannah. In the first two chapters of the first book, the four girls meet and find the charm bracelet that they believe to be lucky. But then, from there, we follow Caitlin and her family home to Connecticut. The second book features Mia in southern California, the third book, Libby, who is from England, and the fourth book, Hannah from Tennessee.

Four girls. Here was my opportunity to let non-white kids find themselves within the pages of a book.

So Caitlin in book #1 is African American and Mia in book #2 is Latina.

I'm not gonna lie, I was scared I'd get something wrong. Actually, I'm still scared, since the books aren't out yet. With Mia, especially, I had to do some extra work to make sure I got the short Spanish phrases correct that her mother uses at home. I had to think long and hard about her heritage, where did her mom come from, where did her dad come from, etc. etc. Before I sent the draft off to my editor, a very kind Spanish teacher at a local private school helped me, and I'm extremely grateful for that assistance. That's the thing though - there is lots of help out there, we just have to seek it out. Yes, it's work, but in the end, worth it, I think.

But even more than any of that, I was afraid of being stereotypical without realizing it. Afraid someone would take issue with something I wrote and call me racist. Still, I didn't back down, and did the best I could, because ultimately, I believe diversity in fiction is something we all need to work on. And I truly believe trying is better than not trying. If I got something wrong, and I most likely did, I will learn from my mistakes and work hard to do better in the future.

I love THIS POST that Sarah Ockler wrote about white authors writing diverse characters a couple of years ago. In it she writes, "Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories." 

The last thing I want to do is send the message to some of my readers that they aren't important. I mean, come on - just the thought breaks my heart. Want a picture of what our readers look like? Here's one a Missouri teacher tweeted to me back in January.

Spend a moment, and take this in. You know I have, again and again.

Recently, I participated in a PJ reading night at a local elementary school. I took along IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES and the first CHARMED LIFE book. This school has a very diverse population. And let me tell you something - I will never forget how many of the kid's eyes lit up when I showed them the cover of CAITLIN'S LUCKY CHARM before I read a couple of pages. After I finished reading, some of them even came over to look at the cover close up. To touch it. It was almost like they couldn't believe what they were seeing. (Mad props, by the way, to Scholastic for doing a photo shoot for these books and doing their best to find models that fit the characters I created).

I wanted to write this post because I know there are lots of white authors out there like me who are afraid. As Sarah Ockler said in her post - "Race is a sticky thing." But I love what she said following a short discussion about that. "We all need to take a collective drink of Let’s Get The Hell Over Ourselves (and chase it down with a swig of We’re All Human, Remember?).

Yes, yes, yes. *empties my glass*

Change happens when we each do what we can. Authors, agents, editors, cover designers, sales reps, festival organizers, etc. It's not up to authors alone. Still, a big part of it is what we choose to do with the stories we write.

I think the most important thing to remember is: it's okay to be afraid. Do it anyway.

“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear; The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.” ~ Meg Cabot, The Princess Diaries

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My favorite verse novel

We are halfway through National Poetry month. Have you been checking in on the progressive poem?

Today it's over at Tamera Will Wissinger's blog. I still have a while before it's my turn, but I'm getting a wee bit nervous. I love what they've done so far, I have to say.

Anyway, today I thought I'd share my all-time favorite verse novel. Most of you know I have four young adult verse novels published. In July, a new one hits the shelves, though it's half in verse and half in prose, so does that bring me up to four-and-a-half? I'm not sure...

Again and again, I've picked up this book, Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, to inspire me as I'm writing verse. Tracie has such a beautiful way with words. This book inspires me to reach (in a poetic sort of way) when I'm writing.

It's recommended for kids ages 10 and up, and I feel like many of my middle school readers would like this one. Honestly, I feel like there's a little something for everyone here. It was the winner of the Schneider Family Book Award in 2008.

From goodreads:

"Josie Wyatt knows what it means to be different. Her family's small farmhouse seems to shrink each time another mansion grows up behind it. She lives with her career-obsessed mom and opinionated Gran, but has never known her father. Then there's her cerebral palsy: even if Josie wants to forget that she was born with a disability, her mom can't seem to let it go. Yet when a strange new boy--Jordan--moves into one of the houses nearby, he seems oblivious to all the things that make Josie different. Before long, Josie finds herself reaching out for something she's never really known: a friend… and possibly more. Interlinked free verse poems tell the beautiful, heartfelt story of a girl, a family farm reduced to a garden, and a year of unforgettable growth."

A few of my favorite passages:

"Crickets sing their lullabies
to us,
and before dawn stretches
her arms into a new day
sleep tucks me in."

"Granny braced by the screen door,
fists on her wide hips,
surveying the sky,
daring the rain to

mist her face
with each gust.
Gran always says,
'This tantrum can't last --
but we Wyatt women will."

"I find Jordan stretched out
in the hammock.
Last summer, I tried it once;
tangled for hours,
frightened and helpless,
like a spider's dinner."

Do you have a favorite verse novel? Would love to hear about it! And I hope if you love verse novels, you'll check out this little gem. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

My trip to Texas and the TLA conference

On Monday I woke up very early. As in, 3:00 am early, in order to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Dallas, Texas. I made it to Dallas just fine, it was the trip to San Antonio from there that got totally messed up and caused me to miss the bookseller event that night, with about 100 independent booksellers in attendance. It was SO disappointing. I could have been stuck at the Austin airport for hours and hours, if not for the kindness of a stranger, so thanks Steve from Omaha for at least getting me out of the airport!

After that frustrating snafu, however, things went well.

The weather was beautiful and I spent most of Tuesday morning walking along the Riverwalk.

Tuesday afternoon I did a panel with Ed. Tech Specialist Michelle Leggett and Librarian Seantele Forman. We talked about connecting students and authors via Skype and I think it went really, really well. Here we are before the talk.

Afterwards, we found a lovely spot along the river and had cool drinks and chips with guacamole. Mmmmm.... I even wore my new cowboy hat.

That evening, I signed Advanced Review Copies of The Bridge from Me to You. During our session, I had mentioned that this book was perfect for Texas, since I call it my small town, big sky, football is king book. I told them I had to do something with all of that love for "Friday Night Lights" that's in my heart. While I signed books, I had quite a few tell me once I mentioned "Friday Night Lights," they just had to come and get my book.

Y'all, clearly, these are my people!!!

I signed alongside Jennifer Ziegler who has an adorable-looking middle grade novel coming out next month (5/27) called Revenge of the Flower Girls. We had a line of enthusiastic librarians and they were all so nice and so many of them said really kind things about me and my books.

As a mid-list author, I think it's easy to feel like there aren't a lot of people who know who you are. These kind, excited librarians reminded me that there are people who know who I am, and to some kids, my books *do* matter. Their comments meant so much to me, and this kindness is one of the main reasons I love the Texas Librarian Conference. They are a great, great group of people.

So here I am in the Scholastic booth, talking and signing:

Here's a picture I snagged off twitter. Author Jennifer Ziegler is on the left, and Sandra Carswell, a librarian who has had me Skype with her school, is between us. It was fun to meet Sandra in person.

Tuesday night, the Scholastic group took us out to dinner along with some fantastic librarians we got to meet and chat with. We went to a place called Biga on the Banks, and the food was SO GOOD. I took a picture of my dessert (because, you know me, it's all about the dessert) but alas, instagram is down and I can't get to it.

On Wednesday, I had an uneventful flight home, thank goodness!!

All in all, a great trip. Thank you, Texas librarians, for being so awesome. Let me tell you something - y'all know how to make an author feel special.

Hope to see you again real soon.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Signing event this Sunday, April 13th

I am back from the Texas Library Association and have some fun pictures and stories to share, but I keep forgetting to mention an event that is coming up SOON and want to make sure I tell y'all about it before it's too late. Do you like how I used y'all there? Obviously, Texas wore off on me.

So anyway - local peeps:

Kim Derting and I will be at the Bridgeport Barnes and Noble in Tualatin, Oregon from 3:00 to 5:00 on Sunday, April 13th. We're there supporting a book fair for Sherwood Middle School, but anyone can come by and see us to buy books and have them signed. I got a B&N coupon in my inbox today that is good through Sunday, so check yours and come and spend it!!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Some poetry by Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d banish us — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!
(c. 1861) 

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.
(c. 1872)

To see her is a Picture --
To hear her is a Tune --
To know her an Intemperance
As innocent as June --
To know her not -- Affliction --
To own her for a Friend
A warmth as near as if the Sun
Were shining in your Hand.
(c. 1883)

To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a book it lie --
True Poems flee --
(c. 1879)

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Happy National Poetry Month

It's April, and you know what that means, right?

Well, yes, pretty flowers, but that's not the correct answer. April is the month we celebrate poetry all month long! Yay!! I will probably post some favorite poems throughout the month, maybe even a few snippets from my own books.

For now, though, a couple of things I want to bring to your attention.

One of my favorite blogs, Full Eyes, Clear Shelves, is getting ready for their third annual verse novel week at the end of April. Are you a teen who has read and loved a verse novel? Or maybe a teacher or librarian who has seen the difference verse novels can make in some students' lives? Or maybe you are an author of verse novels like I am. If any of those things are true, they are looking for people to share thoughts, reviews, love, whatever, to help them celebrate. All you have to do is go HERE and fill out the short form, letting them know you are interested in participating. Don't be shy - I think it'd be so awesome to hear from a teen reader, especially, since not everyone understands the appeal of verse novels.

Next, there's this!

What is a progressive poem, you ask? Well, it's a poem that 30 of us are going to create during the month of April. Today the first line of the poem was created by Charles Waters over at his blog. Every day, another person will add a line until the poem is finished on April 30th.

I'm scheduled for April 26th.

Here is the list of contributors, if you want to follow along each day to see how the poem is progressing. Fun, right?

2014 Kidlitosphere
Progressive Poem

1 Charles at Poetry Time
2 Joy at Joy Acey
3 Donna at Mainely Write
4 Anastasia at Poet! Poet!
5 Carrie at Story Patch
6 Sheila at Sheila Renfro
7 Pat at Writer on a Horse
8 Matt at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme
9 Diane at Random Noodling
10 Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference
11 Linda at Write Time
12 Mary Lee at A Year of Reading
13 Janet at Live Your Poem
14 Deborah at Show--Not Tell
15 Tamera at The Writer's Whimsy
16 Robyn at Life on the Deckle Edge
17 Margaret at Reflections on the Teche
18 Irene at Live Your Poem
19 Julie at The Drift Record
20 Buffy at Buffy Silverman
21 Renee at No Water River
22 Laura at Author Amok
23 Amy at The Poem Farm
24 Linda at TeacherDance
25 Michelle at Today's Little Ditty
26 Lisa at Lisa Schroeder Books
27 Kate at Live Your Poem
28 Caroline at Caroline Starr Rose
29 Ruth at There is No Such Thing as a Godforsaken Town
30 Tara at A Teaching Life

Happy poetry month one and all!!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Recommendations

First - how do you like the new design? She still has to add the social media buttons, but other than that, it's done and I have to say -  I LOVE IT! When Lauren, the person I hired to do a custom blogger design, sent me the pink typewriter image as an idea, I freaked out a little bit. I had mentioned the idea of a pen or pencil or maybe some typewriter keys as ideas for the header, and from that, she suggested the pink typewriter. How did she know that's so ME??? I'm not kidding when I say every time a pink typewriter shows up on tumblr, I reblog it. If you would like to give your blogger site a makeover, I highly recommend Lauren. You can find out more by visiting her etsy shop HERE.

Anyway, I haven't done a book recommendation post for a long time. I sometimes worry that people will have their feelings hurt if I don't mention one of their books. But, I can only read so much. I mean, I wish I could read ALL the books that everyone I know writes, but alas, I cannot. And until a week ago, I've been on deadline after deadline, and I didn't even have much time to read. So, right or wrong, here are some books I've read recently that I recommend.

Middle Grade:
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
Beautiful language along with lots of fun and unique characters make this one a winner:

Doll Bones by Holly Black
A little creepy but a delightful adventure story that highlights the difficulties of growing up:

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
A fun mystery with cool art history facts:

How to Outrun a Crocodile when your Shoes are Untied by Jess Keating
This is such a fun novel for tweens, filled with humor and heart (out June 1st):

Young Adult:

Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg
Really cute - if you enjoy light and fun contemporaries, definitely check this one out:

Also Known As by Robin Benway
This one is so smart and funny - I LOVE Maggie and Roux. I need to get the sequel:

Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick
Beautiful writing and a riveting story make this historical fantasy a gem:

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Tough subject matter, but wow, so gripping and well written.

I hope to read a lot in April, so will have more recs in a month or two, I'm sure. Would love to hear what you've been reading and loving!