Diversity and YA Dreams

If you asked me what my favorite YA book that I read in the last year or so was, I’d take my time answering. I’d think about Lucy and Linh, Sorcerer to the Crown, and The Inexplicable Logic of My Life. But eventually, I’d settle on Not Your Sidekick.

Not Your SidekickIt’s not just that it’s a fun superhero YA read. It’s that it stars an Asian and queer main character and is written by an author of that particular intersection of identity, which is a pretty rare find on your average library shelf. Of course, I am definitely looking forward to the sequel, Not Your Villain. Look, I can’t recommend Not Your Sidekick enough.

For me, the book captures exactly what I hope to see more of in the future of YA lit —
1) Books that depict people with multiple identities. This isn’t Divergent, okay? You can be two things at once!
2) Books written by people from marginalized groups, doesn’t matter what kind of books those are, since marginalized authors shouldn’t be expected to write exactly their identity if they don’t want to.

That’s my dream for YA lit right now. The publishing industry still has a long, long way to go, but I’d like to dream big. What’s on your wishlist for diverse YA lit? What do you hope to see represented, and how?

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Standing Behind Our Young Writers

Within days of the surprising outcome of our election, students around the country left class and took to the streets to protest against the newly elected president. Because I teach at a middle school, our students were not so inclined to protest, but the neighboring high schools did. I participated in discussions with other teachers about the protests (some supported the students, some did not) but the overall consensus was that we  were all proud of these young teens who were standing up for their rights because they felt like their future was in danger. We all agreed that these students should be encouraged to continue to express their hopes and fears about a changing world and their role in it.

Young voices that definitely need to be encouraged over the next four years are those of marginalized youth. Not only must continue to strive for more diverse and #ownvoices novels, we must encourage the next generation of writers of color to be fearless and truthful in their own writing. We must encourage them to find their voices and believe that their stories are just as valid, as important as their white counterparts. We need to help them find their truth and not be afraid of the blank page. We need to be there for them when the writing is hard, gut-wrenching, and celebrate them when they achieve their goals.

Teachers & School Librarians, we are on the front lines and the ones who can make or break a potential writer. Remember that over half of our students are of color, therefore you have the responsibility to assist a young writer in achieving their dreams. What you say, or what you don’t say, can have lasting effects. If you see one of your students has a talent for writing, encourage them to keep writing. Share with them teen publishing sites and/or encourage them to seek out after school or summer writing programs; better yet, create writing clubs of your own.

Parents, & everyone else who interacts with a young person, you have a responsibility too. You have to encourage the young writers in your lives by giving them the space to write. Help them seek out after school or summer writing programs, take them to see their favorite authors speak who, by just being in that author’s presence, will inspire your young writer to create. Most of all, however, is to give them your support. Remind them that their voice is important and needs to be heard.

Lastly, the next four years will definitely be challenging for all, but especially for marginalized peoples. Some of our kids are scared, uncertain of what the future may bring, but it is our job as the adults in the room to provide them with the support they need to overcome any challenges that come our way.

Below are just a few organizations that cater to helping young writers. If you know a young writer, share with them these organizations, become involved and/or donate. These organizations will need your support, as they encourage our youth to create, over the next four years.

WriteGirl is a LA based organization that pairs authors with teen girls.

 

826 is a national organization with with chapters in Los Angeles, New York, Boston & Chicago, to name a few, that works with students and teachers for tutoring and creative writing classes.

National Writing Project is a program that partners collage campuses with K-12 teachers in working together to improve writing. Teachers, look for a site near you.

National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) is a fun writing competition that is held every year in November, with their “summer camp” series in April and July. Nano can be done individually, or as a class (I did it with my Honors classes this year and we had fun). If a student/young writer meets their word count goal, they receive all sorts of goodies including having their book printed by CreateSpace so they have a copy of their novel.

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Publishing’s Bondage and Freedom

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With the announcement of “When We Was Fierce” being pulled just days before publication for revision, the YA twitter sphere has been having some deep, profound, and insightful conversations about positive representations and how meaningful they are to People of Color. E.E. Charlton-Trujillo and her publisher’s decision to pull the book highlights that all the conversations had offline and online, all the conference panels, research done by Lee & Low, and all the good work done by WNDB is having an effect. I applaud Charlton-Trujillo and her publishers willingness to listen to the voices of those who were hurt by the book and decided to take positive action.

All of these conversations were in the back of my mind as I attended a panel about the past, present and future of African-American publishing the other night. The moderator decided to frame the panel conversation around a quote from Fredrick Douglass, which also got me thinking about why the types of conversations we’ve been having, and all the work to diversify YA literature is important, and not a trend.

From his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, the quote essentially states (and I’m paraphrasing*), “Reading and writing can move Black folk from bondage to freedom.” Douglass’s quote is powerful and stepped in truth because slaves were purposefully prevented from learning to read and write in order for the slave masters to control them, because an educated slave is a dangerous slave.

As that quote rolled around in my brain, I thought of the very fight that is happening in our industry right now. Authors of color are literally fighting their bondage (lack of representation) to their freedom (inclusiveness in the publishing industry). Reading and writing does not only move Black folk out of bondage but it moves us all. When we have accurate portrayals of the different voices of our world, we all become enlightened to the lives of people who are not like us and become more empathetic people. Our imaginations are powerful and literature is the door that can literally open new worlds.

That can only happen if our literature reflects the wide and diverse experiences of the people living in our beautiful world. That is why #ownvoices is important, why #DVpit is important, and why we need to continue to push the publishing industry to not just say it’s going to make change, but hold publishing houses accountable. It is also why teachers and librarians need to continue to teach and push diverse texts in the classroom.

Those members of the publishing industry who have privilege need to stop putting their heads in the sand and listen to People of Color when we say a book hurts us, when we say that bad representation is worse than no representation, and not claim that we are “censoring” them. They need to stop making it all about themselves and their writing, and actually think about who their audience is. Understand that their audience includes children of color who are learning to fight the mental bondage of living in an oppressed society and are desiring to see positive, accurate representation of themselves. Those of us adults who are fighting for the kids know firsthand what that bondage feels like, and while we have survived it, that hurt child that still lives in our hearts is why we fight so hard. Why we fight for our children’s freedom.

One of the speakers on the panel, Adilifu Nama, one of the members behind the Afrofuturism movement, said, “One of the ways we are able to dismantle ill conceived notions of ourselves is through literature, through the power of our imagination.” This exact reason is why children of color need to see positive representations of themselves in their literature and the way to do that is to make sure that the books that are released do not have demeaning and racists depictions. It is why the publishing industry needs to be as sensitive as Charlton-Trujillo and her publishers were and take the steps to correct their mistakes. There is nothing wrong with admitting you made a mistake as long as you take the proper steps to correct it.

Institutional racism has held us all in bondage for a long time that fighting for our freedom is hard and hurtful, but it is a fight that we must take in order for all of us to truly be free. And if we continue on the path we are walking, correcting our mistakes, putting action behind our words, then we’ll get there.

*I paraphrased because I couldn’t find my book, and what I wrote in my notes from the panel. No shade to Mr. Douglass.

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Common Core in Action: Finale

photo-1At the beginning of the year, I wrote a lengthy essay about how I intended to incorporate diverse texts into the Common Core curriculum and laid out my first semester plan. At our semester break, I gave an update with my success and my challenges. Well, the school year is about to come to a close, with finals being next week (yay!), so I thought I’d reflect on how the first year of full implementation of the Common Core standards went.

Well, to be blunt, this year was a tough one and I’m glad it’s just about over. As I stated in an earlier Common Core post, my students are low-skilled therefore they struggled with much of what the standards asked of them. In order to help them attempt to even come close to meeting the standards, I had to slow down my pace which resulted in me having to make a tough decision. I usually teach Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in combination with Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio which meets Literary Standard 8.9,  “Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.” This year I had planned to really dig into poetry by reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and then having the students write a memoir of their own lives using verse. I was really excited about the prospect of digging into poetry before Shakespeare, but alas, that dream was not meant to be. My students struggled with writing arguments (which I know is tested), so I chose to forgo my exciting poetry unit and allow the students to spend more time analyzing and writing about the issues presented in All American Boys. It was a tough decision, but in the end a good one.

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I didn’t end up skipping poetry entirely, but made it a shorter unit where the students just learned to analyze poetry by looking at a poem’s different elements and by writing a lot of poetry. We read Nikki Grimes’s classic Bronx Masquerade, and the students really got into the book. They, again, connected with a number of the characters and found their own voices by seeing how open the characters were with their words. In addition, we were studying Bronx Masquerade during National Poetry Month, so the students were writing poems almost every day. I was astounded by the creativeness and the depths my students were willing to go to in expressing themselves with their poetry. We all had a lot of fun, while meeting more Common Core standards.

At the beginning of this month, my students took the SBAC (Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium) test. While I have not received the results of the test back yet, I am cautiously optimistic because I know that my students were prepared for the test. By slowing down my pace, I allowed my students to really think about what they were reading, analyze it, and then write about it. I gave them the tools to craft good arguments, and I saw these strategies come to fruition during the test. While I was not over their shoulders reading (or even giving feedback because that is against the law), my students took their time during both sections of the test, and were using all the tools the SBAC test provides. I was very pleased to see that my students were displaying the knowledge that they learned over the past school year.

So, what did I do with my students to wrap up the school year? Well, they are currently preparing to give a panel type presentation of a social experiment they performed last week. Because I teach 8th graders who are fidgety this time of year, I have them participate in a Rice Baby project, which ultimately grounds them in the last few weeks of school year. They read Gaby Rodriguez’s memoir, The Pregnancy Project and used it as a template to perform an experiment that tested people’s perceptions about teen parents, specifically teen parents of color. Again, students really got into the novel, especially since Gaby is Mexican-American like many of my students. They enjoyed discussing the novel and got into the research, planning, and execution of their experiment. At this date, they are working on their experiment write-ups and preparing their panel presentations where they will share their conclusions from the project. This project, again, meets a number of the Common Core standards, yet has the students engage with the standards in a unique way, that connects to their daily lives.

Overall, I’ve worked hard this year to help my students get to where I want them to be and I can only hope that when they begin their high school careers in the fall, they feel like the education they received from me was worth it.

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The Importance of Research

research

 

By the time this blog post goes up, I will be on a plane returning from a week in London and Paris. While I went on the trip to sight see and write, the friend I went with chose Paris because she was using the trip as research for her novel. She went to some of the places certain events in her novel took place to get a feel of the neighborhoods and how the residents lived. She also wanted to make sure she captured the “feel” of Paris, instead of relying on her memories from when she was a young girl. In our conversations, she expressed how much the trip helped her with different parts of her novel and allowed her to understand her characters even more. Seeing the places they lived and interacted with their city, brought new ideas about her characters and their relationships. She left with the knowledge that the feel of her novel will be enhanced due to her trip.

Now, I completely understand the privilege she and I have to be able to go on a trip of this nature to use for research and writing time. However, there are other ways to perform in-depth research in order to make sure you get your characters, their lives, their world right – especially when you are writing characters of color.

Every author, no matter what ethnicity, needs to do some research for their novels. Yes, your character’s voice may come to you, but if you only write from what you think you know, then you are getting it wrong. For example, I am currently working on a novel where my main character is a young African-American man. I’m a woman, therefore I have no experience what it’s like to be a young man, so I read a number of books, specifically memoirs, about what it is like growing up as a young Black man. My husband is also a sounding board because, well, he was once a young man. He is someone who has no problem telling me when I’m getting it wrong and every writer needs someone like that. Interviewing, getting to know people who are like your main character, and reading primary sources will help an author create a true rounded character who will feel real to the reader.

An author has to also think about the world the character lives in. I’ve traveled to different countries before, but this trip is the first time I truly took in my surroundings with a writer’s eyes. I expected London & Paris to be vastly different from life in Los Angeles, but simple things, such as particular facial expressions and physical gestures Parisians make when talking, caught me by surprise. It made me realize that with my own novel, which is set in Oklahoma, there is most likely small regional affectations that I do not know about. I realized then that I need to do more research about the world my character lives in. Using Google Earth to look up locations is a wonderful tool, but I need to do more. One idea, suggested by my traveling friend, is to use Instagram. Follow people who live in the areas you are writing to get a sense of the world they live in. Another source would be Periscope, that way you can hear and see the thoughts of the people who live in the area your characters do.

In the end, if you want to make sure you are doing everything you can to make your characters & their world come alive, you need to take the time to do your research. Do you have to do your research first and then write your novel? I’d say no. I’m doing research and writing at the same time, but I’m still in the first draft stage. All this research that I’m going to continue to do will show up when I begin to revise the novel. If you want to just write your novel to get your story out, by all means do so, but make sure you do the proper work, using all the research you’ve done, during the revision process. That is when your story will take shape, become a living breathing thing, and you want to make sure you get it right. Doing your due diligence with your research is the only way.

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Changing the Conversation

As much as I gripe about it, I love YA lit, and I love watching the landscape change into one more welcoming of POC representation. Things have definitely changed for the better over the last few years… but obviously, there’s still a long way to go.

One thing that bothered me, several years back when I first started paying attention to the diversity movement in YA lit, was how often the conversation repeated itself. First step, establish that diversity is important! Second step, discuss how to ‘write diversely’ and encourage writers to be brave! The weight of media representation weighs heavy on your shoulders, unnamed white author. Rinse and repeat.

The YA lit conversation always seemed to circle back to this “writing diversity 101” business, and it was clear by the tone and information given that the target audience was white, privileged. Ironic, no? I recognized that this as important, and figured the conversation would shift as everyone grew, the shadows turned, the earth orbited.

Surprise! The conversation didn’t change. It’s expanded to include more complex discussions, hashtag campaigns, beautifully compiled book lists, and so on. But still, the conversation always returns without fail, to the same refrain. “How do I write diversely? I’m afraid to get it wrong. Can you tell me that I did it right?” Occasionally, bloggers would point out that being able to ask these questions was a mark of privilege. That demanding reassurance and kudos for writing diverse representation was a microaggression in itself. That the privileged are centering the conversation on themselves, even when they try to be allies.

There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, etc etc. So today, I’m linking to a few things that are helping change the conversation. Maybe not perfectly or even efficiently, but at least it’s not the same-old, same-old.

Bare Lit Festival with Media Diversified – read about the UK festival for writers of color here
Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award – promoting and publishing new writers of color
We Need Diverse Books’ Mentorship Program – partnering industry writers and illustrators with up and coming writers
Diversireads’ Reviews – some of the most thorough, honest YA lit reviews around
Decolonise, not diversify – an important reframing of representation discussions
I’m Still Here | YA Highway – still an incredibly relevant post… here’s a quote:

There’s this weird thing that happens when we talk about the overwhelming whiteness of publishing and it assumes that because publishing is overwhelmingly white that the only people we should ask about fixing this are the white people in the structure. Or that because you can’t see us, we’re not talking. And it ignores first that most of us have set up our own groups and communities to talk this out, because we’re safest among people who understand the macro and microaggressions we experience day to day without judgement or fear. And second that we have been having this conversation for a long, long time…

I’m not advocating for silence, but for a restructuring of how we think about those of us underrepresented in the young adult publishing community. Instead of thinking of us as people that need to be lifted up or spoken for, consider us equals and the people who should be driving this conversation, instead of just grateful to sit at the table.

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