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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Library Overload

Library Overload I want to read all these books all at once! I’ve overwhelmed myself and don’t want to return any of them, I want to read them all right now! #thatwouldbeoneofmysuperpowers #andinstanttransportation I hope to report on these books soon, but I also have work for a science fiction/fantasy class I am taking. See? Overwhelmed! Currently reading, Alif the Unseen.

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Sometimes Reading Black Books Feels Like Homework

Publishers need to tap into the reservoir of talented children’s book authors and illustrators of color for all children’s sake. Diversity in children’s literature doesn’t just benefit little Black and Brown kids. It’s important for all children to understand that other cultures are much more than a few historical figures or ethic traditions. Publishers must be committed to publishing books depicting non-white characters doing all sorts of things in all sorts of places. Equally important, educators must be committed to reading these books and promoting an appreciation and love of good children’s literature in all its varied forms.

via No, I don’t want your African American children’s book list!.

Alvin Irby of Reading Holiday Project wrote this in an article about how children’s book lists, when they feature diverse books, usually feature works about the big historical events. These kinds of books, while important, can seem boring to a kid. Irby says,

It is important for children to learn about their history, but representations of non-white characters should be more diverse and not sacrifice the cultivation of wonderment that characterizes great children’s books or neglect the mission of children’s literature, which I believe is to help children better understand themselves and the world around them.

This is definitely a major reason why a lot of kids don’t want to read. The books that feature characters that look like them are always going through something rough or it’s a historical figure that they’re learning about in school. These stories are important, but can make a kid feel like reading is homework.

Young black girls and boys need stories that are about their everyday lives too. And stories that are about them going on grand adventures with aliens and time travel and talking animals. The same kinds of stories that feature white children. That way, reading is more fun for them and they feel they are being represented in the world. They feel like they can go on adventures and investigate new worlds, opening up their curiosity.

We must make sure that children are engaged in the books that we’re trying to get them to read. Appeal to their personalities and do the research to make sure that they read the historical books but also those that activate the imagination.

Irby’s Reading Holiday Project aims to provide black boys books at barbershops (say that 10 times fast!) and sounds like a really cool endeavor. Check it out!

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The Studio Museum in Harlem

Yesterday, I got to hang out at the Studio Museum in Harlem for a bit. I didn’t get to look at the new exhibit (I had to rush out to head to work), but I did get a peek at the books in their Museum Store, and I totally need to read them!

 

wpid-20140410_155939.jpgI love fairy tales, so I need to read Rapunzel, with that long beautiful braided hair of hers. Neighborhood Mother Goose looks interesting for similar fairy tale-esque reasons. Anansi the Spider is probably the most well known African myth (for as little as Americans, myself included, know about different African folklore and myth tales). But really, I just want to read them all and I want to see more books like this in mainstream bookstores. Where’s the shelf for these books, Barnes and Noble (outside of Black History Month)?

I just started volunteering at the Studio Museum, hopefully I get to do more things there. The employees seem really fun and cool, and most of the people who walked in the building yesterday were ridiculously stylish. I can’t stop thinking about this woman’s flowered skirt with pockets (!!) and contrasted teal tulle underneath that you can’t buy anywhere because she had her friend make it for her. But that’s off the point of the post and the blog in general. I can’t wait to go back and I hope I can read (and afford to buy) some of those books.

Here are some pictures from their quarterly magazine:

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Books for Kids

Activity examples for educators and parents

Activity examples for educators and parents

Reading is, of course, very important to nurture as a child, but so is art. They often go hand in hand. Kids will often want to create art based on books they’ve read and characters they love. More diverse children’s books creates more diverse art. We need more of that in the world.

Visit the Studio Museum in Harlem, on 125th Street between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Ave (7th Avenue for any locals). $7 Suggested Admission for Adults, $3 for Students and Seniors, Free for children under 12. http://www.studiomuseum.org/ 

 

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.

Diversity 101: The Multiracial Experience | CBC Diversity

Similarly, Karen Katz’s young protagonist gets ready to paint her friends, and focuses on color: “I think about all the wonderful colors I will make and I say their names out loud. Cinnamon, chocolate, and honey. Coffee, toffee, and butterscotch. They sound so delicious.”

–The Colors of Us by Karen Katz

via Diversity 101: The Multiracial Experience | CBC Diversity.

I love this. I am trying to piece together my thoughts on being a young reader and defaulting the characters in my head to white, but in reading more books with characters of color in my adulthood, I am loving finding new ways writers are able to describe characters with darker skin. Usually characters are “fair” or “pale” or “creamy” when reading white characters, but it can be more fun to think of ways to describe darker skin tones.

It’s often a joke (that treads a fine line) to figure out what shade I am. I’m not really brown, I’m one of the lightest non-mixed black people I know. I’ve recently turned to “honey” as the color of my skin tone, but I’ve gone with “peanut”/”peanut butter” in the past. Somewhere around there. Introducing characters of color to books can add more flavor to your descriptions (or illustrations if you handle it correctly in a children’s picture book).

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!