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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White-Default Mentality Makes Our Brains Lazier

Rosse • Writing Characters of Color (Erasing White-Default Mentality).

Rosse writes regarding explaining cultural terms in her writing. Terms like “mami” or “papi” and the idea that constantly explaining them makes them “other” while things in British jargon, for example, are just quirks of being British–they don’t need to be explained. The reader will either figure it out or look it up.

I am currently reading Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. It’s cool so far, a mixture of technology, romance, and Middle Eastern culture. There might be a jinni soon! In the novel, Wilson uses Middle Eastern terminology regarding clothing, food, and even insults or praises between characters. Because I am reading the hardcopy and not an e-book, looking up things takes more effort (just saying that my vocab skyrockets when I can press and hold a word and the definition comes up–a point in favor of e-books from my hardcopy loving self). I have looked up a few things, but either you can figure them out or it’s there to lend authenticity but not knowing precisely what it is doesn’t hinder from the reading experience. If it comes up twice and you still don’t know, look it up.

I think some of the problem we have to day is that we are lazy. I know I can be. I will move on rather than look something up. But if Wilson had replaced or explained the cultural terms she uses, I would be even lazier and it would bog own the narrative of the story. I wouldn’t use context clues to figure out a definition or an insult. And I wouldn’t learn something new about a culture that isn’t my own. In America, where so many people are different, we sure do want to homogenize everything. We accept different European cultures and traditions as being the norm (Halloween but not Dia de Meurtos, Christmas but not Kwanzaa), but don’t even want to learn about the traditions of other cultures.

It’s a common argument that diversity in children’s literature will make them more aware of the larger world and knowledge of how to accept and interact with people of different backgrounds, but it also will help them be smarter. Learn from context clues, research definitions, learn about cultural traditions, and/or delve into new histories and world facts. Get those gears working.

[R]ight now, we are so underrepresented that we have to announce our presence, so we are no longer invisible. When enough of us do so, and seeing a Person of Color in a book, or movie, or TV show is no longer an event, but just normal, completely ordinary, then our ultra-visibility will become another kind of invisibility, but a good kind of invisibility, born of equality instead of otherness.

–Rosse Raith

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!

#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! 

African American speculative fiction for kids | Fledgling

African American speculative fiction for kids | Fledgling.

I am currently reading The Golden Hour and have Zetta Elliot’s A Wish Before Midnight checked out from the library. I made it about halfway through Book of Wonders (it’s not bad, just something about it isn’t holding me the way The Golden Hour is). This is a great go to list when looking for new MG/YA SFF books to read.

Click through to check them out!

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10 Great Women of Color Whose Stories You Should Know

10 Great Women of Color Whose Stories You Should Know via Lee and Low book blog

All of these books are presented as children’s books and they look fun and fantastic. Two I’d love to check out are

10 Great Women of Color Whose Stories You Should Know

Pura Belpré, The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos – New York City’s first Latina librarian

and

10 Great Women of Color Whose Stories You Should Know

Zora Neale Hurston, Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree – renowned African American writer

You know, when I finally finish the 4 books I’m reading now and the 2 others I have from the libraries. #raremomentofoveracheiving

Also check out: 25 Empowering Books for Little Black Girls.

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