Author Spotlight: Coe Booth

coe

Photo via Scholastic Press

Earlier this year, I was in Minneapolis to see Andrea Davis Pinkney speak at the University of Minnesota. While I was there, I was lucky enough to run into Coe Booth. I knew of her books, but hadn’t read them yet. We chatted about her newest book set to be released around the beginning of the school year, Kinda Like Brothers. I enjoyed chatting with her, so when I got home, I tracked down all three of her published books. I loved getting to know Tyrell and Kendra. If you haven’t met them yet, you’re missing out.

tyrell

Tyrell
Scholastic Press

Goodreads summary: Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can’t get a break. He’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father’s in jail. His girlfriend supports him, but he doesn’t feel good enough for her – and seems to be always on the verge of doing the wrong thing around her. There’s another girl at the homeless shelter who is also after him, although the desires there are complicated. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?

My thoughts: Tyrell is a very well written book that kept stomping on my heart. Tyrell doesn’t always make the choices that I wish for him, but I understood why he was doing what he was doing. Booth lets the reader know him so well through his thoughts and actions. He is a kid trying to be a man he can respect and he isn’t getting a lot of help from the adults around him.

I found it difficult to read because it just ripped up my heart watching things go from bad to worse. The choices he has to make and the situations he faces are just so far beyond what I would want teenagers to go through. Of course, as soon as I was finished, I wanted the next book so I could see him grow.

 

bronxwood

Bronxwood
Push

Goodreads summary: Tyrell’s father is just out of jail, and Tyrell doesn’t know how to deal with that. It’s bad enough that his brother Troy is in foster care and that his mother is no help whatsoever. Now there’s another thing up in his face, just when he’s trying to settle down. Tyrell’s father has plans of his own, and doesn’t seem to care whether or not Tyrell wants to go along with them. Tyrell can see the crash that’s coming — with his dad, with the rest of his family, with the girls he’s seeing — but he’s not sure he can stop it. Or if he even wants to.

My thoughts: Once again, Coe Booth made me care about this young man. Tyrell’s heart is in the right place as he struggles to parent himself and his brother since their parents have often been unwilling or unable to do the job. This is one of the major issues in the book. When a young person has to take on so much responsibility, it’s very hard to step back into the role of a child. Tyrell straddles that line between childhood and adulthood and he’s unsteady on his feet,  stumbling around quite a bit. Balancing becomes even more of a challenge when his father actually starts to step back into a parental role. I would love to see another book in this series.

Kendra

Kendra
Push

Goodreads summary: Kendra’s mom, Renee, had her when she was only 14 years old. Renee and her mom made a deal — Renee could get an education, and Kendra would live with her grandmother. But now Renee’s out of grad school and Kendra’s in high school … and getting into some trouble herself. Kendra’s grandmother lays down the law: It’s time for Renee to take care of her daughter. Kendra wants this badly — even though Renee keeps disappointing her. Being a mother isn’t easy, but being a daughter can be just as hard. Now it’s up to Kendra and Renee to make it work.

My thoughts: Kendra is a companion book to Tyrell. I didn’t realize that until I got into the story. Kendra lives in the same neighborhood. Like Tyrell, Kendra deals with very adult situations. What I like about the books is that the characters are so real. They have hard decisions to make and they don’t always take the path that I, as a mother, would choose for them. The choices they make though, make sense seen through their eyes and emotions. Booth lets us in there up close and personal. Her books are not easy to read lightly.

What’s New – Having read these three books, I had to wonder about the coming middle grade novel especially since I teach elementary school students. Coe Booth did not sugar coat things in her young adult novels. She put everything out there. Tyrell and those around him use some very colorful language and several of the topics covered were very definitely teen or adult. In Kinda Like Brothers, Booth still provided realistic characters and situations, but without cursing or mature content. It fits since Jarrett’s mother would never put up with such language and though there are difficult situations, there are also caring adults around.

kinda

Kinda Like Brothers
Scholastic Press

Goodreads summary: Jarrett doesn’t trust Kevon. But he’s got to share a room with him anyway.

It was one thing when Jarrett’s mom took care of foster babies who needed help. But this time it’s different. This time the baby who needs help has an older brother — a kid Jarrett’s age named Kevon. Everyone thinks Jarrett and Kevon should be friends — but that’s not gonna happen. Not when Kevon’s acting like he’s better than Jarrett — and not when Jarrett finds out Kevon’s keeping some major secrets. Jarrett doesn’t think it’s fair that he has to share his room, his friends, and his life with some stranger. He’s gotta do something about it — but what?

My thoughts: [a review copy was provided by the publisher] Coe Booth crafted a unique story here and again made the characters matter to me. I’ve run across quite a few stories about foster children, but this was one of the only times I remember a book that looks at it from the foster family perspective. Jarrett knows all about not getting too attached to the babies that come and go. Having an older foster brother is new though, and is way more difficult. Sharing a room, his friends, and especially his mom, wears him down. Jarrett also has some troubles with school and has a shady habit of spying and eavesdropping. I was rooting for him even when I was groaning at some of his actions.

To hear a little bit about the book, check out the NPR interview. In it, Booth is asked about one of the scenes in the book that especially stood out to me – when Jarrett witnesses a counselor at the community center getting frisked by the police. There is discussion about the fact that Jarrett and the other children at the center will likely experience the same situation because of their skin color. While this isn’t the focus of the book, it certainly gives the reader much to think about.

Coe Booth is a master of realistic fiction and I look forward to reading more of her novels be they young adult, middle grade or any other age she may take on  next.

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Guest Post: E.C. Myers

We’re excited to welcome E.C. Myers, recent winner of the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy for his YA debut, Fair Coin. In addition, E.C. deserves additional medals for being a thoughtful and super fun author, and we’re delighted he had the time to stop by and guest post. Read on!


myers_coinsOver the course of writing and selling my first two books — we’re talking over the course of many years, because that’s how publishing rolls — diversity in YA became more important to me as a reader and as an author. When I first drafted Fair Coin, I envisioned the protagonist, Ephraim Scott, as half Puerto Rican and his love interest, Jena Kim, as half Korean; but aside from a few oblique character descriptions, readers might not have realized it. Ephraim’s friend Nathan is Jewish, and Mary and Shelley are Latina, but again, these began as insignificant details — details that were perhaps only there for me, the writer.

Eventually, I decided that just wasn’t good enough.

As I became more aware of how few multicultural YA books there are, I realized that the diversity in my own stories was almost invisible. There’s a simple reason for that: Growing up as a half-Korean boy, I didn’t define myself by my mixed heritage, and so I figured it need not be a big deal for Ephraim or Jena either. (And I certainly didn’t want to include stereotypical characteristics just to bring the point home: “Look! You can tell she’s Korean because eats kimchi!”) But even though I considered myself simply “American,” whatever that means, from the outside, many people saw me as Asian — and that might not be a bad thing in fiction, when there aren’t many Asians at all.

It took me a while to realize I could give my characters richer backgrounds and make them more visibly from other cultures without making the books about their heritage. I could be nuanced without rendering their heritage invisible, by conveying their different upbringing in their perspectives and how they approach situations and each other, not just what they eat, how they talk, or what they wear. The characterizations were deeper for it, and I hoped there would be readers out there who would see some of their own unique experiences reflected in them — and see Latino and Asian characters who identified as such, as part and parcel of their personalities.

I did tweak Fair Coin before publication to emphasize the characters’ backgrounds more, but diversity isn’t something you can just shoehorn into a book. I had more freedom in writing Quantum Coin and tying it in more organically to the plot. Ephraim’s Puerto Rican father reappears in his life, giving him a glimpse of how different things would be if he’d been raised by him instead of his mother. And we also see Jena’s immigrant relatives and some of the unfortunate impact of racism on her and her Korean family.

I’m more committed to including more people of color in my fiction from here on, but I’m still learning that the degrees must be dictated by the nature of the story, rather than the other way around. The science fiction YA manuscript I’m working on now is very multicultural, because it makes sense for that world, but that also means that diversity is also a given for those characters. (If only!) Mainly, I’m determined to look for opportunities to include more characters from different backgrounds and with each story, question whether the protagonist can be of another race, gender, or sexuality before simply defaulting to white male. And that’s the least we can ask of any writer: To consider more varied perspectives in your fiction and challenge yourself to do better than what you’ve done before.


ecmyersE(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. His debut young novel Fair Coin won the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy and its sequel, Quantum Coin, just released recently. He blogs at ecmyers.net and is on Twitter @ecmyers.

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When Every Culture Is a Foreign Culture: Writing on the Autism Spectrum

We welcome Lyn Miller-Lachmann today to share about her writing journey both as an insider and an outsider. Lyn is the author of Gringolandia, published in 2009, and Rogue published in May of this year. I was lucky enough to read Gringolandia earlier this week and am looking forward to sitting down with Rogue soon.


Miller-Lachmann

Before I became a published author of fiction for teens, I compiled multicultural bibliographies and edited the journal MultiCultural Review. Except for two years teaching high school social studies and English in Brooklyn, New York, and several more years teaching English as a Second Language in Madison, Wisconsin to refugees and students from Latin America, I had no special multicultural credentials to do this work—or so I thought at the time.

However, I did know what it was like not to fit in—and what it was like to leave home and family for places unknown.

I left at the age of 18. It was a moment I had looked forward to for a long time, because my childhood community was a place where I had been misunderstood, bullied, and excluded. But moving brought its own challenges—meeting new people, learning new ways of doing things, and trying to find a place for myself where everyone already seemed to know the way. My own struggles helped me to understand my immigrant students in Brooklyn and Madison, and I learned a lot from their experiences of adjusting to a new land.

Some of the stories I heard from friends and colleagues became the basis for my YA novel Gringolandia, the story of a Chilean exile teenager trying to reconnect with his father, a former political prisoner and torture survivor. At the time, I questioned my right to write about a culture to which I did not belong. My Chilean friends encouraged me to go for it; they knew I’d done my research. The people I interviewed in Chile in 1990, during the transition to democracy, wanted me to tell people in my country of their suffering as a result of the CIA-sponsored military coup in 1973 that led to the 17-year dictatorship. The novel took me 22 years to write and get published. My fiction-writing career during that time was one of close calls, heartbreak, and misunderstandings. I also found out that, even though I had escaped the place where I didn’t fit in, I could not escape the problems that made it so difficult for me to fit in.

In 2008 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The diagnosis answered a lot of questions about why I had so much trouble making and keeping friends, fitting in socially, understanding non-verbal communication and “hidden meanings”, and recognizing faces (because I’m not actually looking at people or making eye contact when I talk to them). With Gringolandia already in production, I questioned my ability to write fiction—which requires so much in terms of portraying emotion and social relationships, conveying the meaning of language and gesture, and forging connections with readers. These are all the things I struggle with in daily life.

I then remembered my Chilean friends’ advice. They said I’d done my homework. I had studied a culture that was not my own, thoroughly enough that I could write authentically about it. Perhaps that meant I could study all my characters’ cultures thoroughly enough to write about them. I could approach any culture as if it were a foreign culture—because to me as a person on the autism spectrum, every culture is a foreign culture. I also thought about the people I interviewed in Chile, survivors of a brutal dictatorship. They wanted their stories told so people would understand what they went through.

I had long avoided telling my own story of bullying and exclusion for a variety of reasons: I didn’t want to remember the pain. On some level, I felt I deserved it. I had internalized the dislike others felt for me and thus didn’t believe I could create a likable character similar to the younger me. But after my diagnosis, I realized that my story could help others in my situation, and create greater understanding of people on the autism spectrum, how we think, and the challenges that we face.

For inspiration, I turned to the X-Men. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the character of Professor Xavier, who used a wheelchair and gathered around him a group of misunderstood and rejected young people who nonetheless had special powers that they could use either to destroy society or to save society. He wanted these outsiders to use their powers for good, and by doing good, create understanding of mutants.

In this way Rogue was born. By setting the novel in the present, I was able to use the newer X-Men character of Rogue as protagonist Kiara’s hero. Rogue is the perfect role model for a teenage girl on the autism spectrum, as she cannot touch or be touched, and she has to steal the memories and emotions of others because her emotions did not fully develop.

Above all, I transferred to Kiara my strongest desire when I was growing up—to have a friend. Like Kiara, I would do anything for a friend—clueless things that got me laughed at (like thinking I could become popular by sitting at the popular girls’ table), naïve things that led other people to take advantage of me, and dangerous things to prove my loyalty. Rogue is the first novel I have written as an insider, and I have sought to present my character honestly and in a multidimensional way. Yes, she’s a young teen on the autism spectrum, but she’s also an avid bike rider who repairs her own bike, a lover of music, and a budding filmmaker. She has a life and interests that are independent of her neurological difference. She also has a lot in common with everyone else in her desire to be connected to other people, to be loved, and to contribute to her community. I’m not sure I’ll write a sequel or another novel with a protagonist on the autism spectrum—a lot depends on how many “friends” Kiara makes—but I am fortunate to have had the chance to write my own story and make something positive of it.


Lyn
Lyn Miller-Lachman authored Gringolandia – published by Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press and Rogue – published by Nancy Paulson Books/Penguin. She is also a reviewer for The Pirate Tree, a blog devoted to social justice and children’s literature.

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Four Tips for Diversity in Fantasy

Say hello to Shana Mlawski! Shana is the author of HAMMER OF WITCHES (which is out today!), and she has graciously agreed to stop by Rich in Color and give us some advice.

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Ever hear this before? “Diversity in fiction is nice and all, but you can’t expect there to be diversity in [insert popular work of fantasy fiction here]! That book is set in a world inspired by medieval Europe! Of course everyone is a white Anglo-Saxon Christian!”

If you’ve somehow avoided hearing this opinion before, start talking diversity with Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings fans on the Internet. Odds are, it’ll come up.

I’m here to assure you that fantasy stories can be diverse, even if they’re set in medieval Europe or some fantastical facsimile thereof. Here are four simple ways you can do it:

1. Set it in Southern or Eastern Europe.

It seems that, in many people’s minds, “medieval Europe” means “medieval England,” or maybe—maybe—Viking-era Scandinavia. (Thanks, History Channel!) But there are other countries in Europe, if I recall correctly. I happen to know a lot about medieval Spain, so I’ll start there. For more than a half-century, much of the area that is now known as Spain was ruled by various Moorish caliphs and emirs. It was probably the most technologically-advanced and best-educated region in Europe at the time. That’s why it’s now considered a major part of the so-called Islamic Golden Age. Why not build a fantasy world based on that culture instead of the done-to-death Monty Python and the Holy Grail medieval English mudhole? I’d read it.

You can also consider basing your setting on Eastern Europe. Let’s see more Romani fantasies. Byzantine fantasies. Polish fantasies. (Our friend Copernicus was from Poland, you know.) Take a page out of Bryce Moore’s book and go Slovak. What I’m saying is, there are plenty of non-English countries out there waiting to be populated with wizards and monsters.

2. Or, sure, set it in England (or France or Italy)!

Even though these countries were not incredibly diverse in the Middle Ages, not everyone there was a white Anglo-Saxon Christian. There were Jews. There were Africans. (Where do you think Shakespeare got the idea for Othello from?) There were pagans. In Basque Country, there were Basques. If you’re going to write a medieval European fantasy, do a little research into all of the racial and ethnic groups in medieval Europe at the time. It’ll make your world much richer.

3. Remember that racial and ethnic diversity aren’t the only kinds of diversity there are.

Readers now remember, thanks to Game of Thrones and Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, that some people in the Middle Ages were born with dwarfism. There were many people with physical and mental disabilities in the Middle Ages, especially due to disease (and in the case of royalty, sometimes inbreeding). There were gay people in medieval Europe—some historians even say there was a form of gay marriage in some parts. There were genderqueer people in Europe in the Classical Era, and we can assume they didn’t all disappear when the Middle Ages came around. There were some really, really poor people in medieval Europe, even if many works of fiction ignore them. There were slaves, too. According to the Domesday Book about 10% of the English population in the late 1000s were slaves. I’m sure you get my point. There was more diversity in medieval Europe than you might think.

4. Just add some diversity, will ya?

If you’re writing a fantasy book set in a fantasy world, why not put just add some diversity to make things more interesting? You’re building a setting where there’s magic or elves or some other unbelievable thing. You expect readers to accept that, but you don’t think they’ll accept a person of a different race or sexuality? I think I’m going to start calling this the “Black Vulcan* Problem,” after that silly situation back in the day when some Star Trek fans bristled at Tuvok’s skin color. To those fans, pointy-eared aliens were perfectly believable, but dark skin was (if you will) beyond the pale. Yeesh, people. Yeesh.

Of course, all of the above advice must go with the obvious caveat: don’t just add diversity without doing the research. But if you do, I guarantee your fantasy world will be much more interesting than it would be otherwise, and it might actually be more historically-realistic, too.

*The Federation kind, not the Superfriends kind
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Don’t forget to follow Shana on Twitter! You can also read Crystal’s review of HAMMER OF WITCHES or put in a last-minute entry for our ORLEANS giveaway. The giveaway ends tonight at midnight EST, so be fast!

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