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.

We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kid Lit | BOOK RIOT

Click through to read via Book Riot a piece on getting more power players in the kid/YA lit industry to talk more about issues of diversity on behalf of those with not as many followers to their name (yet).

via We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kid Lit | BOOK RIOT.

 

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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Link: Clarissa Explains It All, The Legend of Korra, and Doc McStuffins show that boys will watch girl shows.

Instead, we need to start looking for guidelines: What makes boys watch girls’ shows? I asked several children’s TV executives what their own research has shown, and they pointed to a few common themes:

Find the themes here: Clarissa Explains It All, The Legend of Korra, and Doc McStuffins show that boys will watch girl shows.

This can be applied to Children’s Lit as well. We all remember JK Rowling telling us that she was told not to go by Jo or Joanne but her initials (of which she made up the middle one after grandmother), because publishers thought boys wouldn’t buy a book written by a woman. A lot of media aimed at young people feature a trio, two boys and one girl (usually with a triangle in there at some point).

It works for all media, even adult media: once we realize that, for the most part, men and women enjoy a lot of the same stories, we can get past gender bias in media, which cater to “male” dominated stories as universal, but “female” dominated stories as niche.

Cate Blanchett said it this weekend, women’s stories make money too. “The world is round people!” When we get rid of the deep trenches of the gender bias earlier on, people will make more money and, as the article says, those “kids might just be open to watching whatever happens to interest them.”

Related:

Study finds huge gender imbalance in children’s literature [The Guardian]

 

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8 Racist Children’s Books via Atlantic BlackStar | The Place Children’s Lit Can Take in Shaping Young Opinions

8 Disturbingly Racist Children’s Books Designed to Devalue Black People – Atlanta Black Star.

Hmm, fitting that on the last day of Black History Month, I come across this post of old, racist children’s books that perpetuate hate and stereotypes. My jaw dropped as I looked at these books, but it’s really eye-opening in terms of really looking at our children’s books as media messages. I’m sure (I hope? Unfortunately I can’t say with any accuracy, with the way things have been going in recent media) that these books are, if not burned, tucked away in some vaults where no children can find them. Interestingly enough, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is on this list, a book fraught with controversy in terms of its language regarding black people during slavery–it’s been argued back and forth.

The existence of these books proves our need for the very opposite. These books were meant to teach and inform white children of the “traits” of black people. Now we need books that promote and edify the culture of black people and other cultures. Children reading more and more positive portrayals shows them new worlds, opinions, and points of view. But often in school, as I’ve written in another post, there’s only one book per year that focuses on black literature and culture. We’re lucky if we get other perspectives than that.

Children’s literature does even more of a job of shaping and forming opinions than adult literature does, so we need to be careful what’s being explicitly and implicitly brought forth in their books. If children’s lit showcased more cultures, they will experience more world’s different from their own and be able to connect to people who are different from them both as children and as they grow into adults.

Related:

Children’s Books That Nurture Healthy Self-Esteem in Black Toddlers

Black Children’s Books: Our Favorite Stories For African American Youngsters

Words Have Power {Book Display}

Positive Images of Black Children and Families in Children’s Lit

Let’s Start with Harry Potter

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I won’t get into too much detail on this one, because there is enough Harry Potter on the internet to last a million lifetimes. But I did want to put on paper just some of the reasons why Harry Potter became so close to my heart.

I was a shy, nerdy child. I didn’t spend a lot of time with others or make friends easily–these are stories you’ve heard by other loner children. We came to Harry because we liked reading and felt lonely and longed for a world more magical than our own. But me and Harry had something in common. When I was six months old, my mother died. In order to raise myself and my only slightly older brother, my dad and my grandmother each took one of us. I lived with my grandmother. We mostly kept to ourselves and I was the skinny kid with glasses who didn’t interact too much with the other kids. Sound familiar? And my whole life, everyone has told me I look just like my mother, so when Harry in equal parts revels and groans in the statement “You look just like James,” I commiserated. We all know the story of JK Rowling writing a lot of this series in reaction to her own mother passing away and what that did to the themes of the series, so Harry Potter hit a lot of personal nerves for me in terms of dealing with loss early on, feeling like you’re haunting your loved ones by looking like those who are gone, and feeling like you have to live up to the standards of a parent that everyone misses but you never got to meet. And that’s just how I felt about Harry.

What young, nerdy girl with curly hair didn’t feel like Hermione?! Girls all over the world identified with Hermione, that doesn’t really need documenting, but I must say that when I first read her character descriptions (and pronounced her name wrong), I thought she might have been black. As a young brown girl (in the tan range, but African-American nonetheless) with curly hair, freckles, and teeth problems, some of Hermione’s early descriptions felt like a girl who looked, if only a litle bit, like me (me and Emma Watson look nothing alike).

And then there’s Ron. Who suffers constantly with insecurities because he’s surrounded by people who he deems better and more talented than himself. Been there, done that. Again, it’s rare that no one has. But you can’t help but be struck by his loyalty and his commitment to being the friend of the hero. I was constantly seen as the tag-along, the friend of the social butterfly. So Ron’s role was one I knew well.

These are some deep connections to the characters, and that’s just the Trio! This doesn’t even delve into my enjoyment of magical worlds and mysteries and Jo’s twisty-turny storytelling, or that fact that I could hardly escape Pottermania even if I’d tried. So I delved right in and never looked back. Midnight releases and online forums. I’ve seen all the movies, despite being a staunch book purist– many of the book-to-movie changes still irk me to this day. But I’ve still seen them all, haven’t I? I’ve been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I bought a wand. I tried and gave up on Pottermore like most of you probably also did. And I stuck with my love of this one “children’s” book series, even when I shunned other children’s literature (at least in public).

Harry Potter proved it wasn’t just for kids and it made me realize that the best children’s literature isn’t just for kids. It should speak to adults as well, and the child that lives within adults. Children’s literature helps us recapture the wonder and joy and magic that we often lose in adulthood–and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

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Put Away the Fear of Childish Things

From whence the blog title came.

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A portion of my children’s books. They’re hidden away in the closet. Not for shame but for lack of room.

I enjoyed fantasy literature as a child: I put on the Sorting Hat and came out a Hufflepuff, I walked through the Wardrobe, I found the Six Signs with Will, and I fought the Doldrums with Milo. Then high school came along and demanded all my time and I fell out of reading like I once did. When I did pick up a non-school book, I soon discovered that I didn’t want to read the very grown up books that everyone else was reading, I wanted to read stories with magic and mystery and fairy tale creatures, but it didn’t seem like that was allowed. I had to “grow up.” I let my love for Harry Potter shine bright, but rather than read other “children’s” books, I hardly read outside of school at all. I’ve discovered that fantasy books indeed do exist in “adult” literature and enjoy reading those, but why did I have to stop reading children’s books? Because I was an “adult” now?

Then I discovered the essays of C. S. Lewis. Besides the world of Narnia, Lewis grabbed my interest in his discussion of fairy tales. I began to “allow” myself to (more publicly) enjoy fairy tales, with the visage of “studying” them for their interesting histories and the way they’ve transformed from dark and Grimm, to pure and Disney, back to gritty and modernized. So Lewis led me to a famous quote of his in which he explains that he himself went through a long period where he didn’t read fairy tales (in public) because others would have mocked him for it. Once he was older, however, he stopped caring.

 When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. [x]

Though I’m only nearly half Lewis’ age when he said the quote, it still resonated. Why shouldn’t I read whatever I want to read? If I want to read “children’s” books, I should! (I’ll probably get into the age division of literature–a topic Lewis also discusses–later.) I want to be a writer, and I’m still figuring out exactly to what medium the stories within me belong. I have a love of television and have a blog about that, but I also like reading. I like reading fantasy and mystery and certain types of science fiction–and a lot of children’s literature exist in those genres. So why not also pursue that passion as well?

This blog will contain discussions on children’s/YA books (both new and older), articles, and issues of diversity in children’s literature in general, as well as children’s sci-fi-fantasy books specifically. I’ll post links and share pictures of Fairy Tales found on tumblr. It’ll grow and develop as I read more. And maybe I’ll work on some original fiction too!

Thanks for hanging out. Let’s talk about some books!

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