Monday, June 30, 2014

Why We Need Diverse Books

Recently, I had a rather interesting* Facebook discussion with one of my brother's friends about the issues surrounding Chief Wahoo. He felt the logo should stay. I respectfully disagreed using many footnotes. But even though it lasted less than a day, I've been thinking about the conversation ever since--how attached to a corporate logo an average person can be. How easy it is to not understand...
This is the feathered fellow, in case you don't know him.

I grew up just south of Cleveland, so this happy, smiling face is pretty much everywhere you go. It's on T-shirts, and sweatshirts, and baseball caps. We had Tribe days at school when the Indians were good enough to be in the playoffs.  A lot of people in the area love the Indians. They really, really want  Chief Wahoo to say. They see it, in part, as a tradition, in part as respect and honor. It's part of the culture. Part of tradition.

But get this--there are no federally recognized tribes alive in Ohio today. (And I'm not counting the countless people who "claim" to be part-Fill-In-Tribe-Here.) Not that you would know that from the many place names, cities, and other landmarks that use words derived from one of the many native nations that once populated the state. No, Ohio is very much tribe free, and that's because of a long and complex history of relations between Euro-settlers and people native to the area.

The Northeastern Ohioans who root for the Indians each year are not alone, though. Many people in that area--or in DC, where I live now (hello, Redskins), or in Illinois, where I went to grad school--love these images of Native Americans.
Grown Men (and Ladies) Cried During His Last Dance
That's not surprising. When your childhood is defined by ballgames with your family, rooting for the tribe, or when you picked a college because of the way your dad cheered when he took you to see Chief Illiniwek dance at halftime, or even when you watched Disney's Peter Pan and cheered for Tiger Lily's rescue and sang along to "What Made the Red Man Red," it is understandable that a person would have a real, emotional attachment to these images. To these ideas of what Native Americans are.

Ah, childhood...

For many, the images that are so hateful and hurtful to the people they represent are comforting, happy memories that have become part of their identity. To see these images as racist is to admit that maybe their hands aren't completely clean. That maybe, they were--are--wrong.

I've found from experience that people do not, on the whole, enjoy being (or admitting to being) wrong.

This dude is totally right. Totally.

This is why We Need Diverse Books.

The issues of diversity are already out there, but right now, many diverse populations are being represented by stereotypes. They are being seen in popular culture as nothing more caricatures that turn whole groups of people into types. Into things.

And let me be clear--a so-called "positive" stereotype (Native Americans are warriors, Asians are smart) is still a stereotype that can and does do real harm.

We need diverse books so that the representations change. We need diverse books because everyday, children are given shirts with the red-faced clown you see above, but they aren't given books with realistic representations of people whose experiences might be different than theirs.

We need diverse books because it's a little bit harder to chant "Save the Chief" after you've read "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." Or at least, it should be. Once you've metaphorically walked a mile in another person's shoes, it should be harder to look at Wahoo and smile.

We need diverse books because it's harder to see others as "those people" when you've read a book that makes a character feel like a friend--or like you have felt.

I grew up without these books. It took me a long time to find them, a long time to even begin to understand the complexities of history and culture that go into a people. I decided to go to school to study these issues, and I still don't feel like I'm there yet. But for a lot of children, all they have--all they'll ever get--is Chief Wahoo.

We need shelves of books, so that Chief Wahoo and his ilk don't stand a chance. We need to give kids new heroes--realistic heroes--to root for.

We need to make sure that these hateful, racist images don't get to be the only or dominant representations out there. We need to fight for these stories the way the other side fights for their out-of-touch images.

We live in a diverse world, so we need to hear diverse voices. We need diverse stories that represent characters as individuals, so the public doesn't learns to see people rather than types.

We need diverse books.

*by interesting, I mean it was not pretty.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Snapshot of Diversity in a "Non-Diverse" Place

Besides being a writer, I'm a teacher. At a rural, mainly white, high school—population approximately 500.

Because diversity in young adult literature has been all the flutter on Twitter and elsewhere (fist pump BEA), I thought it might be interesting to break down one of my smaller classes for you. Of course no naming names, and some of these attributes are doubled up on a particular student, but I was wowed. Because this was my smallest class. Imagine what this list would look like for my largest class? And can I repeat, I live in a decidedly "non-diverse" area.

12 Students:

4 males
8 females
9 Caucasian
2 Latina
1 Bi-racial (African American/white/Portuguese)
1 out gay student
1 teenage mother of a toddler
4 children of divorce
2 children of a single mother
1 child with a dead parent
1 child with a dead sibling
3 Honors students
1 Occupational Studies student
1 Pagan
3 Devout Christians
1 Preacher's daughter
2 students with severe vision issues
1 Homeless student
1 student who never plans on leaving the area
4 students who want to travel the world
4 students living below the poverty line
3 students with jobs

And these are only the attributes I know. So when people say we need diverse literature, I think this list sums it up pretty nicely. Even in the smallest sampling, we find a multitude of issues, beliefs, and situations among today's teens. Let's write for them.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Fall Fourteeners Announce... FULL JACKET REVEALS!

Everyone loves cover reveals. They’re a great way to get a first peek at the books you’re most excited about. They make you itch to look inside that cover and read an amazing story.

So if cover reveals are awesome, how awesome is this:

full jacket reveal!

We of the Fall Fourteeners think: pretty darn awesome.

That’s why, as our release dates approach, we’re going to be featuring some great jacket reveals on our site!

Full cover art, front and back. Author photo and bio. Book description. Blurbs. The whole shebang.

And to go along with the reveal, we’ll be offering some great prizes to our readers. Just leave a comment on the jacket reveals you like, and you’ll be entered into a random drawing for the prize!

First up: the jacket reveal for Austin Aslan’s The Islands at the End of the World!

Debuting on August 5, this gripping tale of survival set on the Hawaiian islands has been garnering rave reviews from the likes of Kirkus and School Library Journal. You can read more about it and preorder it here.

Look for Austin Aslan’s jacket reveal right here on July 5! One lucky reader will win a signed copy of the full jacket!

Monday, June 23, 2014

It All Comes Back to Identity

My book baby and baby baby
I have curly dark hair, green eyes, and the kind of fair skin that burns whenever anyone says the word sunshine. Growing up, I always thought of myself as one hundred percent Irish, like the majority of kids in my Catholic elementary school. My mom is Irish, after all, freckly with red-blond hair and my same green eyes, and I felt like I fit in with the rest of my small, Irish Catholic family.

And I am Irish. But I also had a Puerto Rican grandmother and a gigantic Puerto Rican family.

For some reason, growing up, I never saw myself as Latina. I can distinctly remember the moment when I put two and two together and realized if Gam (my grandmother) and Titi (my great-aunt) were Puerto Rican, that meant so was my dad, and so was I. I was probably eight or nine years old, and it frankly did not make sense to me. I looked white. I spoke hardly any Spanish. I somehow knew, intellectually, that I had Puerto Rican family and yet I also somehow divested myself of that heritage. I didn’t look the part like my cousins, aunts, and uncles, and so I subconsciously subtracted that part of my identity.

But as I got older, I began to realize that, no knock to my Irish (or Polish—my dad’s dad) roots, my Puerto Rican heritage was a huge part of who I was and am. I grew up listening to my grandmother and great-aunt bicker and laugh and gossip in a rolling stream of Spanish and English. I can still remember the taste of Titi’s chicken with rice (and it’s one of my bigger regrets that I never got her recipe before she died). I had a quinceaƱera, the traditional party for Latinas on their fifteenth birthday. I took four years of Spanish in high school and eventually minored in it in college.

Still, it’s strange. I find, often, that people I meet want to deny me my heritage. I’ll go to the doctor’s office and see the nurse check me in and tic off the “WHITE” box, skipping the “LATINO/A” box all together.

“Excuse me,” I say. “I’m also Latina.”

When I applied to college, I was so proud to mark that box on my form, and when I eventually got accepted at Harvard, my grandmother literally could not stop herself from telling every person on the planet. And then I started to hear rumors that I only got in because I said I was Puerto Rican (never mind, of course, that I was a top student, took more AP courses than almost anyone else in my school’s history, had been awarded for my writing and art, and was an Olympics-hopeful archer…).

I am Puerto Rican. I’m Irish. I’m also Polish and French, married to an Italian, and have a Chinese sister-in-law. I, like a lot of Americans, cannot fit into one small box, and it is very strange to me that my daughter, who will be born in only a few short (oh lord, too short) weeks, who will almost certainly come out into this world with curly dark hair, fair skin, and blue or green eyes, will most likely come to be defined as “White,” when her background suggests something much more complicated.

I wonder how she’ll react when I tell her that she’s Puerto Rican. When she visits her aunt and uncle in Hong Kong. When she learns how to make her dad’s family’s tomato sauce, a recipe tweaked and perfected over generations of Italian-American chefs. Will she be surprised? Will she feel any connection to these cultures, to her own personal history? Or will she look in the mirror, on the television, in books and politics and newspapers and see only one story, a white story, reflected back at her? Will she choose to adopt and embrace only one small piece of her identity, simply because that is presented as the only option?

There is something so terrible about denying a vital part of yourself because the message is that that part is not important. Or, even worse, because that part simply never even occurred to you, because even though you grew up listening to Spanish or eating chicken and beans or hearing about your cousins in San Juan, you had been told, taught, trained to think of the world in boxes and appearances.

That is why diversity matters. That is why we need books that tell more than one kind of story, protagonists who embrace their whole identities.

To me, YA is all about identity. It’s all about figuring out the kind of person you are, the kind of adult you will be. It’s about knowing the difference between “this is who I am told I am” and “this is who I really am.” How could race and culture not be a huge part of that question?

As an author, these are the questions I hope to address head-on, not just because they are questions I grapple with on a daily basis, but because I know I’m not alone, and because I want my daughter to grow up the opposite of color blind. I want her to see differences and understand them.

And that is just one of many reasons why we need diverse books.

Friday, June 20, 2014

It's Never Over

By Kate A Boorman

(and if you think I'm not singing that Arcade Fire song in my head as I title this blog post then THINK AGAIN)

So. I was cleaning my 5yr old "Going for the Gold in the Packrat Olympics" daughter's room yesterday. After hours of resorting, dusting, reorganizing, cleaning, recycling, I carefully explained to her my organizational system and how she could use it to keep her room tidy (she listened to me carefully, eyes wide, most likely hearing the teacher from Charlie Brown--waaah, waaah waaah waaah waaah) and then I stood back to survey my work.

I  felt an overwhelming sense of..... the opposite of accomplishment. Not failure, just.... as though I had done something to the best of my abilities that didn't actually result in anything that could be qualified as "finished."

I feel this way much of the time, but this is the way it is with parenting, I think. I have yet to feel that "whelp, I'm all done HERE" in regards to anything that has to do with my kids because, duh, they're little and also I don't know very much, but more than that: the job of keeping them safe and healthy and happy and yadda yadda is NEVER OVER.  The laundry will reappear, the pantry will need to be restocked, they will have that nightmare tomorrow night too, my daughter will earnestly listen to me and then destroy her room in about an hour flat. It comes with the territory.

As I stood gazing at her multi-coloured domain (the walls are a colour I like to call "Lalaloopsy Vomit") I realized this is pretty well the way it is with writing, too.

It's never over if you plan to make a career of writing. You can't publish one book and call it a day: you want to get better at your craft. You have other books to write, other territories to sell. You want to win an award or two. You want to sell the film rights to your 5th novel. Whatever it is, there will always be a 'something more'; you aren't finished until you are finished (read: 6ft under). Right?

What's weird is that, for me, the sense of finishing something also feels a bit elusive.

WINTERKILL is 'finished'. I can't do anything more to it; it doesn't even belong to me anymore. ARCs are out in the wild and it is headed to the printers and it comes out in September and that is that. And yet when people ask me about that sense of accomplishment ("don't you feel good about having finished a book?") I.... honestly don't know what to say. Like:  "I'm never going to read it in 'finished' form because I'll find lines I'd like to change?" (them: "So?"). "That world lives in my mind so it's never ever over?"(them: O__o ).... it's hard to place why I don't feel "whelp, I'm all done HERE", but I do.

To be clear, I'm proud of my book: I wrote the book my heart spoke (and I even sometimes listened to the grammar tips my brain whispered), and I am thrilled when people enjoy it.

But I also feel as though I did something to the best of my abilities and it's only a piece of a continual journey onward.

The silver lining? There are no errant My Little Pony combs mixed in with tiny little wooden beads mixed in with LEGO to negotiate on this NEVER OVER writerly journey.

(P.S. In case you're wondering what a Lalaloopsy is, it's the doll pictured here. In case you're wondering what it looks like when it vomits, it's the wall behind the doll. I'm pretty sure.)

Kate's alternate history thriller WINTERKILL releases September 9th, 2014.

Visit Kate online & follow her on twitter

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What If Diversity Was the Rule, Not the Exception?

I wrote my very first full-length book about a young math prodigy who gets sucked into a magical world of demons and demigods and mythical creatures and, oh yeah, who also happens to be African American. She's poor, but so is the white Irish boy (her eventual love interest) who gets dragged along for the ride. I made that choice in part because my daughter is half African (her dad is from Cote d'Ivoire), and I wanted her to see herself represented in fiction, but also because frankly, it just seems weird to have all white and/or straight characters in a story. I'm white, but I grew up in New York City, possibly the most diverse city in the world. "Multicultural" is my norm.

Anyway, the story (which I recently dug out and started working on again) doesn't dwell overly on race; let's face it, I am white, and don't feel remotely qualified to write that kind of book from the African American perspective (though others might be, I'm not judging here…). Doublewalker is a fantasy and intended primarily for entertainment. But simply the fact that fantasy is a genre that is apparently craaaazy whitewashed in terms of diversity makes it mean something to have a black MC, I think.

My current MC (Some Fine Day) is also biracial—Japanese American mom—and the story has a good number of non-white, non-straight characters, but again, these decisions just seemed natural to me and not a very big deal. This is who we are.

So…in the spirit of sci-fi/fantasy diversity, I'm recommending The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson.

And here's a longer list of picks from Tumblr's Diversity in YA blog.

Kat's debut, Some Fine Day, comes out July 1 from Strange Chemistry. You can find her on Twitter and her website.