Anindita on Writing Diverse Characters

Growing up, I read almost no books in which characters looked like me, and when they did, they were usually trying to reconcile their Indian and American heritages. I didn’t like these books. Sure, they were a necessary step in multicultural literature, but to me, they were irrelevant. The presented a false dichotomy; my identity was much more complicated than two traits. Even worse: these books bored me. I liked adventures and mysteries, fantasy and science fiction. I had more in common with Meg Murry, who tessered to other planets, than with these characters who were supposed to represent me.

via Writing Diverse Characters | anindita.org.

Anindita B Sempere writes advice on how to write characters from diverse backgrounds. This quote really spoke to me because of an article I wrote a few weeks ago where I stated that reading Black books often feel like homework.

Books about different ethnicities and cultures don’t get to be “normal,” “fun” genres like science fiction and fantasy, mystery, or just a wacky tale with PoC characters. They’re often heavy hitting, historical novels or infodumps on cultural traditions–important, but boring to a kid who otherwise reads Harry Potter and, as Anindita mentions, A Wrinkle in Time. Ethnic characters don’t get to be the Meg Murrays or the Sammy Keyes (a personal childhood favorite), they must deal with racism and oppression and sometimes a kid just wants a character who looks like them to have fun, have adventures.

Hopefully, the diversity campaigns going around (#weneeddiversebooks in particular) help make change, make awareness, so that children of different nationalities can pick up a book and find someone like them and also learn about characters who are not like them, without feeling like they’re going to be asked to write a book report afterwards. So that they know that children of color can enjoy life too.

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Ellen Oh on Diversity in KidLit: Try Even Harder

Several months ago, I was at a school event where a very young black girl was standing shyly off to the side as I was chatting with some 6th grade students after my presentation. She gave me her notebook and asked me to sign it, which I was glad to do. It was a book of her own poetry and short stories. I smiled and said “I’m so glad to meet a young writer!” She beamed at me and said “I love writing and I want to be a writer but I didn’t think I could because I’m not white.” I was surprised and asked her if she’d read any books by Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, or Linda Sue Park. She nodded and shrugged her shoulder and said, “But I’ve never seen them in person.” To this young teen, an author of color was a mythical creature, not to be believed, until she’d seen one in person. She couldn’t believe in her dream to become a writer until she saw for herself that a real life POC had done it. This is why we must continue to fight for diversity in children’s literature. For all of our children, so that they can see that we exist and that they can believe that their dreams of becoming whatever they want, can come true.

–Ellen Oh

via We Are Still Not Doing Enough for Diversity in Kid lit.

Ellen Oh talks about how enough isn’t being done to promote diversity in children’s literature. Yes, there are great publishers whose missions are diversity and yes some major publishers have diversity imprints, and yes it’s been in the new recently (the Myers’ Times articles and a recent CNN article) and yes there are PoC authors being published, but it’s still not enough.

We can’t settle. Less than 10% of children’s literature is by People of Color. We shouldn’t aim for 10% and consider it done when we reach it. Recently, admissions statistics for my alma mater were told to me and the percentages for admission for African-American students was 6%, but the school was proud of their 6%. For it to be better than last year is great, but an air of “let’s continue to do even better” was missing. Maybe it’s the idea of celebrating too early. I’m glad representation is increasing, but let’s do more work before popping the champagne at every turn.

The passage above is so real to me, because I fell off of writing for a long time because I wasn’t feeling it, and I think that reason was because I was writing characters who were white, while I was surrounded by people of color. My characters had been white washed and it took me until recently to consciously acknowledge this fact and it’s still taking me effort to stop defaulting my characters to white. But because most of the characters I read are white, my brain has taken to imagining all characters as white. I need to force my own imagination to populate itself with people of color and I’ve been reading instances where others had to do the same. A terrible thing for self-esteem and representation. More authors of color, especially in the children’s book industry would be so beneficial to children seeing themselves positively both in the world and their own imagination.

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Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

–Rudine Sims Bishop

via Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.

The Golden Hour by Maiya Williams

The Golden Hour was a great page-turner. I started it one night and was halfway through by about 2/3am. I really like time travel and, while the French Revolution isn’t an era of history that I love exploring, Maiya Williams made me able to enjoy it. There was something a bit old school in the style of adventure, very Edward Eager, whose Magic series books I read as a child, involving magic and time.

In the book, Rowan Popplewell and his sister visit their great aunts in a small (fictional) town in Maine. Their mother died a year ago and it’s been rough going. Nina, the sister, doesn’t speak and no longer plays the piano. While there, they meet up with twins, Xavier and Xanthe, who are black (!!!) and the four of them adventure to the local creepy hotel, where Xavier swears he saw ghosts. The aunts, the mysterious characters they are—with their shining new “antiques”—slyly encourage Rowan to visit the hotel, despite his reservations. The hotel turns out to be a portal. Otto, the concierge, doesn’t book stays, he books trips to anywhere in the past, as long as it’s the same day you’re traveling. But you can only travel twice a day, at Golden Hour, the time when the sun is setting and everything is cloaked in golden light, or the sunrise equivalent, Silver Hour. What fun! Rowan is hesitant to go, but Nina, missing her mother and finally breaking out of her shell of depression a little bit, skips off to the hotel in the middle of the night. Rowan thinks he knows where she went, the Enlightenment. Except he got the years wrong and he and Xanthe and Xavier head off to The French Revolution!

They meet a whole host of fictional and historical characters, including Marie Antoinette and Louse XVI. They search all over Paris looking for Nina, getting involved in the Revolution along the way. They realize she’s not even there, but not before making lots of very important people very angry. They skip a few years in the future (too many people trying to visit the French Revolution causes a ripple in time) to their execution. The aunts come to save the day, allowing Rowan, Xanthe and Xavier to escape and land back in the present, only for Rowan to realize where in the past Nina went. NYC 1990. Right before Rowan was born and her parents were happy and alive. She intended to stay with them, to get an extra 14 years with her mother, but Rowan convinces her that it’s not good to live in the past. Together, they can overcome their grief and live in the future.

It’s a sweet story with fun time travel antics. I am, of course, glad that there are two black sidekicks (though I must admit, when I first started the story, I knew there were black characters, but didn’t know they were sidekicks and so I thought Rowan and Nina were black. But slowly the description told me otherwise. And then we met the twins and I realized what was happening). They’re super smart, charismatic and funny, and Rowan has a crush on Xanthe.

Cover of

Cover of The Hour of the Cobra

In the preview for the next book, The Hour of the Cobra, it seems to follow Xanthe’s POV. This makes me happy, as it doesn’t just assume that Rowan is the hero and the twins are his sidekicks. They each get a chance at being the hero. The next book looks like it’s going to ancient Egypt, which is a period I enjoy learning about.

I immediately looked up Maiya Williams and saw that she not only writes children’s books, but also wrote for television! So basically she has my career. I emailed her and she sent me a brief response back that same night, which is really nice of her. One day, maybe I’ll email her again with more specific questions. But I mean, seriously? How crazy is it that she’s a black woman who writes TV and MG SFF books, when that’s what I’m thinking I want to do? Very serendipitous and cool.

This book was great and I am looking forward to borrowing the sequel. I do have a few questions or comments about the book.

  • How do the aunts get stuff back from the past? I thought Otto said that things weren’t allowed to be brought forward, or did he just mean people? The next book seems like it will cover more about the aunts Curio business.
  • I wish Nina had more of slow turn around. She went from not having spoken in a year, to speaking and playing the piano all in one night. I wish we’d gotten more steps before that. It seems like she’s not quite herself still in Rowan’s eyes, but it’s still a bit fast for me.
  • Are the aunts coming to save the day a bit deus ex machina? There are pieces of their involvement mentioned throughout the story, but they suddenly come in to pull the cart leading the kids to their execution away at the very last moment. But I suppose Rowan does do some of the work in saving himself.
Welcome to my first book post! I hope to do more!

The Definitive Ranking Of All Roald Dahl’s Books | Buzzfeed

Cover of "MATILDA"

Cover of MATILDA

I love Roald Dahl. He’s one of my favorite authors, he’s got some really great quotes that I love. I read his autobiography (Boy, I didn’t finish Going Solo), which is written and illustrated in the same style as his other books, which I thought was cool.

Here are some Dahl quotes to brighten your day.

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” 

“If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” 

“I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.” 

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” 

“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.” 

“A little magic can take you a long way.” 

And here’s Buzzfeed’s ranking of the top 15 Dahl stories. (Though I’m not sure why “believability” is a factor in a children’s fantasy novelist’s work…)

The Definitive Ranking Of All Roald Dahl’s Books.

My favorites are: Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remembered reading Danny Champion of the World, without having read the BFG, and I was confused? Because it’s sort of a companion/sequel?

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#colormyshelf

There’s a twitter trend going around today called #colormyshelf and it’s totally overwhelming me with books I want to read! I have the tab open and will probably have it open for days until I get to full investigate some of the names mentioned. But here’s a link to check it out: #colormyshelf. Lots of titles with children form diverse backgrounds in different types of children’s literature. I love that this is going around! 

WSJ Article on the Trend of Adults Reading “Kids” Books

 ‘Wonder’ and ‘Dork Diaries’ Are Hits Because of Mom and Dad – WSJ.com

The Wall Street Journal back in December posted this article on adults reading children’s lit. This blog is for all those people. The article discusses “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, a book about a child with a deformity that shapes his life as he enters school and encounters bullies. The thing about books like this is that they speak to children now, but also to adults who didn’t have an outlet for issues like this when they were children. It is just as important to intellectually feed your inner child as to feed your child.

A lot of adults are secretly reading children’s novels.

Middle-grade books have become a booming publishing category, fueled in part by adult fans who read “Harry Potter” and fell in love with the genre. J.K. Rowling’s books, which sold more than 450 million copies, reintroduced millions of adults to the addictive pleasures of children’s literature and created a new class of genre-agnostic reader who will pick up anything that’s buzzy and compelling, even if it’s written for 8 year olds. Far from being an anomaly, “Harry Potter” paved the way for a new crop of blockbuster children’s books that are appealing to readers of all ages. […]

Loving the term genre-agnostic, I certainly am becoming this way in terms of reading books for all ages, but specifically within “genre-fiction,” so fantasy, sci-fi, and mystery. 

“People don’t think of it as reading down anymore,” says Seira Wilson, children’s and teen-books editor at Amazon. “There’s less of a stigma.”

The article cites Neil Gaiman as having said he was surprised at the number of adults at readings for his children’s novels, which surprises me. Often, Gaiman is a strong believer in “reading when you’re ready,” but this often is applied to children and teens wondering when they can start reading “adult” novels. The reverse can also be similarly true, when you were little, they didn’t have so-and-so book that you specifically related to, but now it exists, so why not read it? A lot of this blog is me looking for and beginning to read fantasy and science fiction children’s/YA books by black authors, because my inner child didn’t get those as a kid.

Blockbuster novelists like John Grisham and James Patterson have launched children’s books series in recent years to extend their reach, often bringing their adult fans along with them. (Mr. Grisham jokingly said that he created his “Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer” character after Harry Potter knocked him off his usual No. 1 spot on the best-seller list.) Commercial juggernaut Mr. Patterson recently launched a new middle-grade series, “Treasure Hunters,” and will add another, “House of Robots,” next year, further expanding his line of books for young readers, which have sold 27 million copies and now include seven series. Mr. Patterson says he prefers writing kids books to “murdering people on my pages.”

Certainly books to look into!

Many children’s book covers have gotten more muted and mature looking—better for the self-conscious adult reader to pull out on the bus or subway. 

E-readers have certainly helped with the stigma as well,–the book I am reading now “Book of Wonders” is an NYPL e-loan–but I encourage everyone, myself included, to drop the stigma and read what you want to read. And some of the best children’s books are written for children so that they appeal to the parents and teachers reading them ahead of or with their children.

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