Social Justice and Activism in YA Lit

Yesterday, I started noticing tweets about literature related to the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. The events there and the very different reactions to them just confirm that we need diverse literature.

One YA title that immediately popped into my mind was Kekla Magoon’s The Rock and the River. In that book and in the sequel, young people see injustice around them and are moved to action. What I really appreciated about The Rock and the River was that Magoon acknowledged that there are gray areas. Activism is messy and it’s not just perfect people against evil people. In her excellent blogpost, “The Violence in Missouri: Writers and Artists Respond,” Lyn Miller-Lachmann also mentioned Kekla Magoon’s books among others. In her own book GringolandiaLyn has also written about social justice issues and activism.

There are quite a few titles available for children and young adults that deal with social justice issues and activism. There are already a few lists circulating online. School Library Journal created a list of resources on their blog, Understanding Ferguson: Resources on Protest, Nonviolence, and Civil Rights. In that post, they pointed to the work that Left Bank Books (a bookstore in St. Louis) is doing. Left Bank is curating a list they have named #Ferguson – How We Got Here. Their list includes titles from picture books through adult. There are also two hashtags on Twitter that are related to this subject if you want more titles. For any and all ages see #FergusonReads and for children’s lit see #KidLit4Justice.

Here are a few titles that are specifically YA.

rockThe Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon
For thirteen-year-old Sam it’s not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older (and best friend), Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever.

Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick’s bed, he’s not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore.

Sam wants to believe that his father is right: You can effect chnage without using violence. But as time goes on, Sam grows weary of standing by and watching as his friends and family suffer at the hands of racism in their own community. Sam beings to explore the Panthers with Stick, but soon he’s involved in something far more serious — and more dangerous — than he could have ever predicted. Sam is faced with a difficult decision. Will he follow his father or his brother? His mind or his heart? The rock or the river?

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Fire in the Streets by Kekla Magoon
Maxie knows all about how fire can erupt at a moment’s notice, especially now, in the sweltering Chicago summer of 1968. She is a Black Panther—or at least she wants to be one. Maxie believes in the movement. She wants to belong. She wants to join the struggle. But everyone keeps telling her she’s too young. At fourteen, she’s allowed to help out in the office, but she certainly can’t help patrol the streets.

Then Maxie realizes that there is a traitor in their midst, and if she can figure out who it is, it may be her ticket to becoming a real Panther. But when she learns the truth, the knowledge threatens to destroy her world. Maxie must decide: Is becoming a Panther worth paying the ultimate price?

revolutionThe Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano
There are two secrets Evelyn Serrano is keeping from her Mami and Papo? her true feelings about growing up in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, and her attitude about Abuela, her sassy grandmother who’s come from Puerto Rico to live with them. Then, like an urgent ticking clock, events erupt that change everything. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, dump garbage in the street and set it on fire, igniting a powerful protest. When Abuela steps in to take charge, Evelyn is thrust into the action. Tempers flare, loyalties are tested. Through it all, Evelyn learns important truths about her Latino heritage and the history makers who shaped a nation. Infused with actual news accounts from the time period, Sonia Manzano has crafted a gripping work of fiction based on her own life growing up during a fiery, unforgettable time in America, when young Latinos took control of their destinies.

angel Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery by M. Evelina Galang
Angel has just lost her father, and her mother’s grief means she might as well be gone too. She’s got a sister and a grandmother to look out for, and a burgeoning consciousness of the unfairness in the world—in her family, her community, and her country.

Set against the backdrop of the second Philippine People Power Revolution in 2001, the contemporary struggles of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII, and a cold winter’s season in the city of Chicago is the story of a daughter coming of age, coming to forgiveness, and learning to move past the chaos of grief to survive.

surrender The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle
It is 1896. Cuba has fought three wars for independence and still is not free. People have been rounded up in reconcentration camps with too little food and too much illness. Rosa is a nurse, but she dares not go to the camps. So she turns hidden caves into hospitals for those who know how to find her.

Black, white, Cuban, Spanish—Rosa does her best for everyone. Yet who can heal a country so torn apart by war? Acclaimed poet Margarita Engle has created another breathtaking portrait of Cuba.

 

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Gringolandia by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Daniel’s papá, Marcelo, used to play soccer, dance the cueca, and drive his kids to school in a beat-up green taxi—all while publishing an underground newspaper that exposed Chile’s military regime. After papá’s arrest in 1980, Daniel’s family fled to the United States. Now Daniel has a new life, playing guitar in a rock band and dating Courtney, a minister’s daughter. He hopes to become a US citizen as soon as he turns eighteen.

When Daniel’s father is released and rejoins his family, they see what five years of prison and torture have done to him. Marcelo is partially paralyzed, haunted by nightmares, and bitter about being exiled to “Gringolandia.” Daniel worries that Courtney’s scheme to start a bilingual human rights newspaper will rake up papá’s past and drive him further into alcohol abuse and self-destruction. Daniel dreams of a real father-son relationship, but he may have to give up everything simply to save his papá’s life.

This powerful coming-of-age story portrays an immigrant teen’s struggle to reach his tortured father and find his place in the world.

march March: Book One by John Robert Lewis and Andrew Aydin with artist Nate Powell
Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall.

dreamer The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle
“I find it so easy to forget / that I’m just a girl who is expected / to live / without thoughts.” Opposing slavery in Cuba in the nineteenth century was dangerous. The most daring abolitionists were poets who veiled their work in metaphor. Of these, the boldest was Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, nicknamed Tula. In passionate, accessible verses of her own, Engle evokes the voice of this book-loving feminist and abolitionist who bravely resisted an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen, and was ultimately courageous enough to fight against injustice. Historical notes, excerpts, and source notes round out this exceptional tribute.

freedom The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell
To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer murders, this will be the first book for young adults to explore the harrowing true story of three civil rights workers slain by the KKK.

In June of 1964, three idealistic young men (one black and two white) were lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. They were trying to register African Americans to vote as part of the Freedom Summer effort to bring democracy to the South. Their disappearance and murder caused a national uproar and was one of the most significant incidents of the Civil Rights Movement, and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

yummy Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri with illustrations by Randy DuBurke In August of 1994, 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer — nicknamed for his love of sweets — fired a gun at a group of rival gangmembers, accidentally killing a neighborhood girl, Shavon Dean. Police searched Chicago’s southside for three days before finding Yummy dead in a railway tunnel, killed by members of the drug gang he’d sought to impress. The story made such an impact that Yummy appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, drawing national attention to the problems of inner city youth in America.

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty relives the confusion of these traumatic days from the point of view of Roger, a neighborhood boy who struggles to understand the senseless violence swirling through the streets around him. Awakened by the tragedy, Roger seeks out answers to difficult questions — was Yummy a killer or a victim? Was he responsible for his actions or are others to blame?


 

While the final title (Yummy) is not really about activism, it brings up many questions about justice, violence, and our communities. These are issues that young people are seeing in the news and possibly experiencing in their own lives. Literature is one way to open the door for discussion. If you know of any other titles that would fit in with this list, please let us know in the comments.

— Cover images and summaries are from Goodreads

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#nErDCampMI Celebrated Diverse Books

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Logo designed by author/illustrator Laurie Keller

If you haven’t yet heard of #nErDCamps, they are EdCamps with a literature focus. They came into being through Colby Sharp and other members of the Nerdybookclub. As you may have guessed, the members of the Nerdybookclub are quite enthusiastic about reading. At this amazing “un” conference, the participants decide the session topics and each session is run collaboratively by the attendees.

I was able to attend this fantastic event earlier this month. In the morning we met to decide what sessions would be happening. I was super excited to see Cindy Minnich and Sarah Andersen offer up the topic  “Finding Diverse Lit for Diverse YA Readers.” Cindy started out the session highlighting the work of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and encouraging everyone to participate and spread the word about the campaign and about diverse books through blogging and social media. Cindy and Sarah have a website called YA Lit 101. “Cindy and Sarah created this course so teachers can read and discuss YA, try new genres, and find ways to incorporate it in their curriculum.” (quote from their site) They explained that after participating in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, they were going to have a diversity focus this year for YA Lit 101. Yesterday, they officially announced their plan. I am looking forward to seeing what they have in store for the coming year.

In addition, the people who attended the session (and there were many – yay!) spent a lot of time asking for specific types of titles and sharing great titles they have found. A list of titles and resources was compiled here. I was encouraged that there were so many teachers and librarians that wanted to learn and share about diverse lit. I look forward to seeing the conversation continue throughout the education and library communities. More than that though, I am eager to see actions taken as a result of these types of discussions.

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Diverse Lit Conversations & Summer Reads

My head has been spinning with all of the discussions and activism around diversity in children’s and YA lit lately. It has been a wild ride since February actually. The CCBC-Net discussion in February was centered around Multicultural Literature. I loved that Sarah Hamburg asked us what activism would look like to each of us. It made me stop and think about the many possible ways that an individual could work toward change. I responded and many others did also. Ultimately, Sarah gathered the results and they were posted on many blogs such as Crazy QuiltEdi. During that discussion, School Library Journal announced that they would be devoting an entire issue to Diversity in May. I was able to write an article from the Teacher Librarian perspective. In case you missed it, the issue is still available online and has many excellent articles.

Next up was the announcement of a BookCon panel of all stars from the kid lit world which they planned with all white men. Kelly Jensen explained it well here. The result of that particularly glaring example of ignoring diversity inspired the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign. Amazing things have been happening ever since and I am excited about the potential for change.

One of the best ways to support diverse lit is to buy it, read it, and let other people know about the amazing books you find. Here are some of the books I plan to read and talk about this summer. Do you have some books on your summer reading list? Have you read any amazing books already this summer? We’d love to hear about any that have caught your attention.

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revolution

Rebellion FC

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other

 

 

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The World Agrees: #WeNeedDiverseBooks Panel Recap

Thanks to the awesome Eunice Kim for recapping the #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel for a Rich in Color guest post!

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The #WNDB Panel (L-R): Ellen Oh, Marieke Nijkamp, Aisha Saeed, I.W. Gregorio, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Matt De La Pena, Grace Lin, and Jacqueline Woodson

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) Panel at Bookcon with my friend Kacie. When Bookcon officially announced the panel a few weeks back, Kacie, and I knew this would be the panel we wanted to attend the most. Kacie and I arrived to the panel room about a half an hour before the panel was scheduled to start to wait on line. Author Lamar Giles (author of FAKE ID) and other co-organizers generously passed out some cool freebies, including WNDB buttons, pins, and bookmarks during this time before doors opened. Next to the panel stage, there was an ongoing slideshow featuring photos from the WNDB campaign. By the time the panel started at 10 am, the room was soon packed with every available seat taken, and a ‘standing-room’ only section towards the back, where attendees stood against the back and side walls. Additional attendees were turned away when the room had reached its capacity.

The panel began with remarks by moderator I.W. Gregorio (author of NONE OF THE ABOVE) who gave a “virtual mic drop” for everyone who tweeted and submitted photos, but also for the overall love and support for the WNDB campaign. Gregorio then introduced key members of the WNDB team, including its founder Ellen Oh (author of the DRAGON KING CHRONICLES series), Aisha Saeed (author of WRITTEN IN THE STARS), Mike Jung (author of GIRLS, GEEKS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES), Marieke Nijkamp (founder of DiversifYA), and Lamar Giles. Special guest panelists included authors Matt de la Pena (THE LIVING), Grace Lin (WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON), and Jacqueline Woodson (BROWN GIRL DREAMING).

After panelist introductions, Aisha Saeed spoke generally about the campaign, and noted that despite changing demographics in the US, “children’s literature has remained anything but diverse.” Saeed specifically cited a recent study by the Children’s Cooperative Book Center (CCBC) documenting this lack of representation, noting that out of the 3,000 books used in the study and published in 2013, only 7.5% had any diversity. Saeed also emphasized the grassroots aspect of the campaign, noting that the hashtag alone garnered over 162 million Twitter impressions, and “while we [the WNDB team] many have organized this campaign, it was your [the audience] collective voices that made the world stop and listen.”

Next, Marieke Nijkamp of DiversifYA emphasized how “representation matters,” so “when our books don’t include [diverse] characters that our readers can relate to by shared experiences, shared backgrounds, and shared abilities, our books continually erase those characters. We teach readers that their stories and voices don’t matter. We teach them that they don’t matter.”

Ellen Oh discussed the next WNDB initiatives, and probably the most exciting among them included the current planning for the first Children’s Literature Diversity Festival to be held in Washington, D.C. in Summer 2016. Oh stated that this will be a “a festival where every panel, every event, will be to celebrate diversity in all of its glory.”

Gregorio then went on to ask specific questions for the panelists, and there were great anecdotes and answers. When the authors were asked ‘what was the first book that you read that reflected your diversity?” Giles discussed growing up, how “librarians kept trying to point me to books about slavery and black power,” but coming across Walter Dean Myers’ FALLEN ANGELS when he was 11 or 12, really instigated the first “spark.” However, it would take a few years later before Giles stumbled upon the type of work that he felt really represented him.

Matt De La Pena noted that he was a reluctant reader growing up, but Sandra Cisneros’ THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET and Junot Diaz’s DROWN proved to be instrumental books for him. On the other hand, Mike Jung recalls that growing up, he doesn’t recall “ever reading a book that reflected my ethnicity. Ever,” and subsequently thought about his kids (a three-year-old and seven-year-old) when writing GIRLS, GEEKS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES. Jung specifically noted that he “could have chosen to create a world that wasn’t racially or ethnically diverse, but I would have needed a reason for this, and I didn’t have a good, compelling reason not to make it diverse.” So, Jung wanted to create a daily reality that reflected not only his own daily reality, but also that of his children. Jacqueline Woodsen also highlighted the importance of dialogue when first coming across a book that reflected her diversity, with characters calling their mothers “mama.” This caused Woodsen to realize “what I’d missed until I saw it on the page, and then being hungry for it for the rest of my life.”

The panelists also emphasized that diverse reads aren’t just for marginalized readers, with De La Pena stating that “it’s incredibly powerful for the suburban white kid to read my books,” and Lin explaining that “we need to sell diverse books to people who don’t know that they need them.” Lin particularly touched upon her own background as a former bookseller in Cambridge, MA. During this time, when Lin would show a when book featuring a person of color to white customers, they would immediately reply, “Oh, that’s not for us,” but often without realizing why. Thus, Lin emphasized that it’s important that “we need to talk about diverse books differently,” citing that her Newbery winning fantasy novel, WHEN THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, as a fantasy adventure tale featuring a female heroine and a dragon, thus it should appeal to all readers, and not just Asian-Americans. Lin then cited her “Cheat Sheet For Selling Diversity” which is available on her blog.

The panel concluded after a quick Q&A session, but ultimately left on a positive note, and probably best by this quote by Jacqueline Woodson after she was asked what her vision for WNDB is next: “My biggest vision is that we don’t have to have this panel anymore…where ‘there is no ‘other.’ These books aren’t just for the people who look like us. They’re for all of us.” The panelists also commended the audience for their support, with Mike Jung pointing out that “Everyone here is speaking out and stepping up…and this is vital, necessary, and absolutely important to do so to effect change.”

After the panel, Kacie and I were also lucky enough to meet Ellen Oh, who kindly signed my copy of PROPHECY!

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My signed copy of PROPHECY!

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Some freebies I picked up!


Eunice Kim is a recent graduate of Sociology, but has always been, and will always be an avid bookworm at heart. She currently works as an Editorial Associate at Simon and Schuster. You can reach her at her tumblr!

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Diversity Done Right: Dreams of Gods & Monsters

Full Disclosure: To avoid spoiling the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, this blog post will be vague in parts. Sorry. Go read the series!

I’m going to admit something a bit embarrassing, but all to real for readers of color. When I first read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I made the mistake of not clearly reading the physical descriptions of the character Akiva. I was enjoying the story, inhaling the gripping twists and turns that I did what many readers do – defaulted in my mental picture of Akiva (i.e. White guy). It wasn’t until I was reading the last book of the trilogy, Dreams of Gods & Monsters, that I realized my error. There was a description of him that brought me up short. I stopped, read the line again, and my mental picture changed. I grabbed the first book in the series and scanned looking for physical descriptions and bam, found my error. I had read the words, but did not truly take in what skin tone the descriptions meant.

I imagined this….

Because I'm a HP fan.

Because I’m a HP fan.

Now I picture this….

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While I can’t fault the author for my misinterpreting, I think if she had included a few more physical descriptions, I think I would have caught my mistake earlier. She clearly described the main female character, Karou, many times so the reader could create a full mental picture, but with Akiva, the descriptions are few and somewhat vague. It is really easy to see how in this instance, a reader could default. There have been many discussions about how much description a writer should use when writing a character of color; the debate being giving too much description or is it “othering” to only describe characters of color. I am in the camp of that a writer should be specific in their descriptions and to repeat a few times throughout the novel. Let us be aware of what the characters look like, otherwise we will default to the Eurocentric standards of beauty.

In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, Laini Taylor changed up her tactic and spent more time giving character descriptions, repeating them sometimes in beautiful ways to make sure the reader know that the characters that inhabit the world of her story are very diverse. The novel takes place in different places in our world and on an entirely different world, but all the people in both worlds are made of a variety of colors. By making sure both her worlds were reflective of the racial diversity of our world, the book felt more grounded in reality (as much as she can make it). This attention to detail in her character descriptions made the book extremely enjoyable to me. I liked knowing that in a major event in our world, all the people would be represented, and that even in a different world, the different colors are all represented as well.

Another aspect of the novel, a “Diversity Surprise” moment, was that Taylor also made one of the major characters a Black woman. I actually sat up and read the description twice because I was so happy to see this character included. I loved that a Black character was included in the ensemble and that the focus was not on her being Black, but other things which I can’t say because….

River-Song-Spoilers
But I will say that Taylor wrote her character to perfection as she was a real character where we learned more about her fears, her hopes, her dreams, instead of focusing just on her race. When authors ask “how do I write a character of color,” the aspects of the character’s personality is what they should focus on, not just a character’s race. A writer still should address it someone, after all, race does color how one views the world, but do so sparingly as dealing with racial issues is not something a POC worries about 24/7. For example, Taylor has Eliza describing her interactions with a hostile co-worker, she writes, “Eliza was used to being underestimated, because she was black, and because she was a woman, but no one had ever been quite so vile about it as Morgan”. Talk about your intersectionality laid out in one sentence! Taylor has lines like this peppered throughout out Eliza’s narrative, but it is not the focus of her story, it is just Eliza’s observations that she has from time to time. Those little moments, those small comments, will show that a writer has done his/her homework when creating a character of color and will make the character read like a real person instead of a stereotype.

I’m sad that Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series has come to an end because I really did love its epic story. I highly recommend this fantasy series to anyone who also loves plot twists that keep you reading well past your bed time, and characters that make morally gray decisions in order to survive. The story is gritty in it’s realness in regards to war and doesn’t hold back with the darkness just because it’s considered a YA novel. I fully respect authors who don’t insult the intelligence of the teen reader and my respect for Laini Taylor has grown three-fold with her creation of a truly diverse world.

Seriously, go buy this series.  You will not be disappointed.

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Talking Books, Culture & Identity

It’s that time of year when cities all across the country have weekends celebrated to the written word and this past weekend was one of my favorite weekends of the year, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Two days of a book addicts dream where there are all sorts of book talks, author signings, independent bookstores just waiting for my money, and just plain fun. The festival begins with the Los Angeles Book Awards ceremony where this year Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints won for Best Young Adult Fiction! Congrats to Gene!

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Gene draws and signs my copy of Boxer & Saints.

At the festival there were literally hundreds of talks and panels fans of books and writers of all levels could attend. Of course, being my focus is diversity in YA literature, one of the panels I attended was titled, “YA Fiction: Writing Culture & Identity.” The panel included Maurene Goo, Cynthia Kadohata and Gene. The panel focused on the topic of incorporating culture and one’s identity into their writing. The discussion was a lively one with Maurene and Gene giving insight into why they infuse their writing with their own culture. Maurene stated that as an adult YA reader, she noticed a void within the literary landscape and wanted to add her voice, her experiences. She said there were a plethora of diverse “message” stories (and I completely agree with her) and that she wanted Holly’s stories (from Since You Asked) to be universal. When asked if the authors were writing for their child self, Gene stated that “maybe I’m writing for the 12 year old me.” He expanded his statement that he was writing for the self who wished there were more characters in his books and comics that looked like him. In fact, this desire is what is also propelling him to write the Green Turtle series.

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The panel was not all about discussing problems with the lack of diversity but also a talk for solutions. Cynthia stated, and correctly so, that because Middle Grade/YA purchasers are usually the parents, the parents of children have to take the initiative and ask for books by and about people of color. Another suggestion (and I unfortunately did not write down who said it, sorry all) was questioning what are we, all of us, doing to help the next generation of writers. Are we nurturing kids writing, especially children of color, who might not be encouraged to write? I think this question is profound and an important one as I also work with mentoring young writers of color. Children need to be able to know that their stories are valid and worthwhile, instead of just voices from the dominate culture. Gene also followed up by stating that diversity is difficult, but by using common interests, we can build community.

Over all, it was a good talk and after I got to spend some time chatting with Maurene who is a lovely young woman. She mentioned what she is currently writing about and I got so excited!

Maurene Goo. We bonded over our love of Korean Dramas.

Maurene Goo. We bonded over our love of Korean Dramas.

If you have a book festival coming to you this spring, please go and support authors of color. Get your books signed, say hello, tell them how much you loved their book.

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