Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Stephanie Guerra

Hi all! Please welcome author Stephanie Guerra for the latest installment of Diversity Solutions! There have been many calls for greater diversity in YA recently.  In this series, we focus on discussing how we can achieve the change we need.

Stephanie Guerra is the author of Torn, a YA contemporary featuring a straight-arrow Latina teen who is drawn into a friendship with a wild-child new chick.  Stephanie recently switched gears by penning Billy the Kid Is Not Crazy, a humorous middle grade novel.

She is also a contributor to the Latin@s in Kid Lit blog, dedicated to speaking to issues of diversity in children's literature.

Hi Stephanie! Thanks so much for joining the discussion and approaching some touchy subject matter!

First, can you tell us a little bit about TORN and how you decided to craft your Latina main character?

TORN is my debut novel, and here are a few lines of synopsis from School Library Journal:

Starred review Gr 9 Up–Guerra’s gritty novel (Amazon Children’s Pub., 2012) is a spectacularly realistic portrait of a teen torn between her former friends and the new girl in school, running the family household and having fun in high school, and being a friend who goes along with anything or one who really cares. Often stories like this are moralistic, with the good girl celebrated and the bad one shunned. But sometimes the choices aren’t so clear-cut... This is a wonderful story with real characters in real situations…–Joan Kindig, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

School Library Journal nails it: at heart, this is a book about friendship. Race is secondary and incidental, not pivotal to the plot. The review does not mention race, and I love that. I decided on a Latina main character because two of my closest friends from high school are Latino. The book is dedicated to one of those friends, Carolyn, and although it’s not a biographical story, I did (with her permission) draw on her family and experiences to build my main character.

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

I wish I knew the answer to that! It’s hard to speculate, because I’m on the writing end of the industry rather than the publishing end, and while I understand my own fears and motivations, I’m hesitant to speak for anyone else. 

Here’s my best shot, extrapolated from my own experience: Writing—and I assume publishing—books about diverse characters can be an anxious process. I’m white. (I married into this last name.) I’m scared of getting it wrong. I’ve taken the leap three times now and am working on a fourth, and each time, I confront serious self-doubt. On one hand, there’s a significant, much-discussed lack of diverse characters in children’s and YA lit. On the other hand, there are many critics and readers who are ready to jump on the slightest transgression in the area of stereotyping. 

Many white writers have become afraid to attempt characters of color for fear of offending someone for something… we don’t always know what. And I assume some publishers share these fears. It’s easier to play it safe than to risk being called a bigot. My personal belief is that until we can freely write villains from every background imaginable, there is no real equality of representation in literature.

Did you think it is easier or more difficult to get a book with diverse characters published? What was your experience like in the submission process?

My sense is that the quality of the novel—strong characterizations, plot, voice, and language—matters more to publishers than the color of the characters’ skins. It’s hard to narrow down a good answer to your question because there are so many variables involved in the decision to publish a book. My submission process was fairly painless. I sold my debut novel quickly and followed up with another contract for a book about a white ten-year-old with an African American best friend, and then a contract for a series about a white teen and his Russian girlfriend. Both the African-American and Russian characters are central to the plot.

Do you feel that writing about diverse characters has helped or hindered your career?

I’d like to approach that question from two different angles. First, the “business” side: I don’t know whether writing diverse characters has helped or hindered my career. If someone ever declined or acquired one of my books for that reason, I wasn’t told.

Second, the “creative” side: I feel that writing diverse characters has helped my artistic development and stretched the range of my writing voice. One of the great pleasures of fiction writing is the chance to inhabit a character’s world and try on a personality and set of life experiences entirely unlike one’s own. This experience is amplified for me when I’m writing a nonwhite character. I’ve written Latina, Black, Russian and Italian-American characters, and in each case I’ve been stretched creatively and personally. I teach teens from a wide range of cultural and racial backgrounds, and their language, mannerisms, and world views inform my writing to a great degree. I also lean on beta readers of color to vet my books for anything that might cause offense. Both of these practices—working with kids and beta readers—have pushed me to a higher standard as a writer.

There is a belief in the publishing industry that books with ethnic characters on the cover don't sell as well. If this is the case, what can we do to change it? What types of covers would you like to have for your books?

I suppose that to change this problem, we have to buy more books! Give them as gifts! Vote with our dollars.

The second part of your question is timely for me, because I’m previewing covers for my fall release, BETTING BLIND. My protagonist, Gabe, has a Russian love interest who is an important part of the plot, and she’s featured on all the covers I’ve seen so far. The problem is that the designers are selecting all-American blondes instead of Slavic models. Russians are distinctive looking. I’m standing my ground that if this character is to be featured on the cover, she must look Slavic. All this to say, I’d like to have covers that accurately reflect the backgrounds of my characters, no matter how politically unpopular at the moment.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

1. Publish books that feature diverse characters but are not thematically focused solely on race and ethnic identity.
2. Promote those books to broad audiences.
3. Expect and believe that young readers will be interested in stories about characters from a wide variety of backgrounds. I know that’s an odd-sounding prescription, but young readers often respond to expectations. There may be a self-fulfilling prophecy at play here: if teachers and parents and writers and publishers hold an unspoken belief that young readers will only respond to characters from their own backgrounds, they may unwittingly act in way that influence kids to fulfill their expectations. For instance, if we only hand white students books about white kids, we are saying something. So, perhaps if publishers and other adults change their expectations, they may interrupt this cycle and improve sales of books with diverse characters.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1. If a writer isn’t ready or called to attempt a main character from another background, then he or she might consider including diverse supporting characters.
2. Volunteer with kids from these communities. Make author visits. Make an effort to connect with this audience offline or on.
3. Write books that are not narrowly focused on the race/culture/identity experience. Write a book that everyone will want to read. One of the big issues I see in multicultural literature is that if a book features a non-white character, it must therefore be “about” race. This adds a layer of unnecessary pressure and does not reflect real life.

Thanks for a great interview! I really appreciate that you’re asking questions about this issue! Best of luck on this project. (-:

Thank you so much for your fantastic answers, Stephanie!

Lots to think about, folks.  Don't miss the other installments of Diversity Solutions with Nathan Bransford and Sherri L. Smith

To learn more about Stephanie, check out her website, her posts on the Latin@s in Kid Lit blog, or the video below of an 11-year-old reviewing Billy the Kid Is Not Crazy!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Sherri L. Smith

Welcome to the second interview in Diversity Solutions! It seems as if the cry for more diversity in kid lit is everywhere in the media right now. In this series, authors discuss how we can achieve the change we need.  Today, I'm so excited to have Sherri L. Smith share her insight into the many hurdles we face. 

Sherri L. Smith is the author of Orleans, a post-apocalyptic tale told after hurricanes have all but obliterated the Gulf states, and Flygirl, a WWII story about a girl who hides her racial heritage in order to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Sherri has also worked in film, animation, comics, and construction.

Hi Sherri! Thanks so much for joining us and tackling some of the tough questions about diversity in kid lit today!

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

In general, there is a discrepancy between representation and actual demographics in all of entertainment—film, TV and books alike. Given that we are a “free marketplace” society, the belief is books (and movies and TV shows) reflect the consuming audience. If most of your readers are tall redheads, in theory you should produce more books about tall redheads. What this does not take into consideration is the reader’s willingness and great desire to read beyond his or her own experience. 

If publishers trusted their readership more, they might open up to more diversity. Additionally, if some clever statistician would crunch the numbers and show that minorities do in fact buy books, and buy a sizeable amount of them, then we might facilitate change. 

Another thing to consider is the global market. A book isn’t a blockbuster anymore unless it’s an international blockbuster. A European publisher once told me my novel, FLYGIRL, was “too American” for their readership because it dealt with Jim Crow race issues, which were alien to their nation. Sadly, racism is a universal phenomenon, including in this person’s country (hate crimes were in the news that very week!), but they could not/would not equate themselves with the deep history it holds in the US. The trick there is, how do you take the minority experience and make it universally relatable? Then it might sell around the world, and the publishers will say “yes!” to that.

There is a belief in the publishing industry that books with ethnic characters on the covers don't sell as well. If this is the case, what can we do to change it? What types of covers would you like to have for your books?

This is a common belief in movie posters, too (my Master’s thesis was on marketing “black film.”). Quite often, if the cast is African-American, there will be a color wash over the image, turning everyone a lovely shade of gold or blue or something non-racial. I have never heard anyone say they won’t see a movie because the person on the cover is a certain color, nor have I heard it said about a book. Then again, some characters sell well on the cover, and some don’t. Donald Duck is huge in Italy, Mickey Mouse is preferred over here. Boys won’t read books with girls on the cover, girls will read anything, or so they say. It seems different cover images suit different audiences. 

To me, the solution is to make better covers. A striking image is a striking image. Period. As for my books, I tend to prefer art to photographic covers. As a reader, I’d rather imagine my protagonist than see them strongly imprinted on the cover. It stifles the imagination.

I have heard stories from authors about getting a rejection from an imprint because they already had a book about a particular minority, as if that disqualifies other stories. Have you had any experience with this?

That’s hilarious—clearly someone is filling a quota, rather than looking for good stories. I can’t say that’s been my experience. I do remember developing a story for a book packager based on their springboard, with no mention of race, so I wrote what came to mind. They came back and asked, “Why aren’t the characters black?” I said, “Should they be?” They had assumed they would be because I’m black. No discussion necessary. That surprised me at the time. Needless to say, that project disappeared shortly thereafter.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

1) Seek out great stories from all kinds of writers—not just MFA graduates.
2) Put some marketing money behind those great stories in the ethnic niche as well as the wider audience, not just one or the other.
3) Stop saving your multicultural titles for February (Black History Month), May (Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month) or National Hispanic Heritage Month—which isn’t even a calendar month, but runs September 15th to October 15th! Not every minority gets a month, and every minority should count throughout the year. You don’t need an angle or a gimmick to force people to read a good story. You just need the story to be good.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1) Write great stories.
2) Write your cultural experience.
3) Don’t be afraid to write outside of your cultural experience. Do your research and walk a mile in somebody else’s shoe. If that cultural group takes issue with it, maybe it will encourage them to tell their own stories, too!

Thank you so much for your excellent analysis and advice, Sherri! 

To learn more about Sherri L. Smith, check out her website, blog, facebook, or twitter.

Also, don't miss the other installments of Diversity Solutions with Nathan Bransford and Stephanie Guerra!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why I Write About India

I recently started the Diversity Solutions series, which tackles some of the uncomfortable questions regarding the relative lack of diversity in children's lit.  I want to explore how we can achieve change, and I believe that starts with honest discussion.

Personally, it doesn't seem like writing about India has specifically set me back career-wise.  I can't be sure of course, but if anything, I think fatigue for dystopia and near-future settings have been bigger hurdles.  Most people in the industry seem enthusiastic about diverse or multicultural books, including those set in India.  The only doubts in my mind, and what motivated Diversity Solutions, are from the apparent disconnect between that enthusiasm and the actual works being published.

In terms of representing the population, the most troubling gap is actually the lack of books featuring Latino or black characters.  For my part, I have made a personal goal to seek more of them out and support them.

In any case, I don't see myself changing what I'm writing to suit the market.  I think most of us write what we want to read, and I have yearned to see more diverse YA, especially fantasy and sci-fi YA. While writing Sky Mahal, I was inspired in part by Alison Goodman's Eon, which presents a pan-Asian mythology that I thought was very cool.  (I am also very excited to be represented by the same agency as Ms. Goodman!) On my nightstand, I have Ellen Oh's Prophecy, which I understand is based on Korean folklore, and I can't wait to read that, too.  Similarly, I wanted to create a cool and interesting world based on Indian history and culture.

I think diversity in SFF is something badly needed both to help create a feeling of universality and to offset some of the narrowness bred by our Euro- and US-centric education system and press.  That very narrowness drives xenophobia at home and ham-fisted foreign policy.  If we can instill a better understanding of the world at large, we will have better leaders tomorrow.

I strive to present a different view of India, one that conveys that developing countries aren't just places where depressing things happen, where poverty and corruption reign.  That is part of India, but it's not everything.  In my writing, even though it is science-fiction, I try to convey that India is a complex place with art and culture and religion.  It's a place with a booming and innovative tech industry.  And most importantly for YA: it also has its own urban youth culture which is not so very different from America's.

In short, I try to convey the relateable and universal experience of being a teenager while imparting something of India's culture and history, and yes -- problems.  Plenty of problems, but I don't call my writing "dystopian" because the problems are really today's problems extrapolated to the future.  To be sure, many of those problems are shared with the US: prejudice and discrimination, wealth inequality, privacy concerns, and the increasing and insidious power of corporations. 

Although not all my novels will try to cover so much ground, I don't know if that passion to share India will ever fade.  Even if I decide to write something where race isn't relevant, I will always strive to use diverse characters because there is no such thing as a default race, and I don't want to perpetuate the notion that there is.

What about you? Why do you write the characters and settings you write?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Nathan Bransford

Hi all! I'm starting a brand new series called Diversity Solutions!

Recently, there have been a lot of great articles discussing the need for more diversity in children's literature. (I almost wept when I read this opinion piece by Christopher Myers in the New York Times.) I think we can all agree that we need to see more people of color in children's lit, but I want to discuss how we can achieve it.  Today, I have Nathan Bransford with some fantastic thoughts on the subject!

Nathan Bransford is the author of the Jacob Wonderbar series, which begin with Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow.  The series features a mixed-race young boy named Jacob who trades a corn dog for a spaceship and sets off to explore the universe--provided he doesn't accidentally break it first.

Nathan is also a popular industry blogger and brings to us his knowledge as a former literary agent.

Hi Nathan! Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your experience on some sensitive subjects! 

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, (which you previously blogged about) there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

I honestly don't know. When I was an agent I didn't see a shortage of books with multicultural characters and I represented a wide spectrum of books, but the overall stats of what ends up being published speak for themselves.

There is a belief in the publishing industry that books with ethnic characters on the covers don't sell as well. If this is the case, what can we do to change it? What types of covers would you like to have for your books?

I'm fortunate because I feel like my covers accurately depicted Jacob Wonderbar, who is mixed race, but other writers I know haven't been as fortunate to have their characters accurately reflected on covers. At some point there will be a breakout book with a minority on the cover that may upend the paradigm, but in order for that to happen everyone along the way, from author to agent to publisher to booksellers to readers are going to have to believe it is possible and promote it accordingly.

But I think it's too simple to blame this entirely on publishers. When I posted (pretty tamely) about multiculturalism in young adult literature I never had so many people unsubscribe from my blog in one day. I was appalled. Publishers bear plenty of responsibility, but this is a society-wide issue that runs deep.

Um, that is really sad.  Like, really, depressingly sad.  And I agree, publishers are not the only problem.

However, I have heard stories from authors about getting a rejection from an imprint because they already had a book about a particular minority, as if that disqualifies other stories. Have you had any experience with this, either as an author or when you worked as an agent?

I've heard stories like that too, and it boggles the mind. Fortunately it's never happened to me directly, but I have heard stories along those lines.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

There's really only one thing, which is to judge, acquire and promote books based on their quality period. Find and promote great books. And guess what: many of them are going to have minority characters, and covers should accurately reflect that. Readers will find the great books and love them.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1. Don't ever whitewash a book because you think it will help your sales. You owe it to your readers to be true to your own vision.
2. Authors don't usually have much say over their covers, but do everything you can to get the cover you want. Go down swinging.
3. Vote with your dollars and tweets. Buy the types of books you want to read, follow and support the authors you like. Believe that change can happen.

Thanks so much for the fantastic advice, Nathan!

You all heard the man! I'm fired up - are you?

To learn more about Nathan Bransford, follow him on his blog, twitter, or facebook.

Also, check out the other installments of Diversity Solutions with Sherri L. Smith and Stephanie Guerra!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Anything Else is the New Pink

Guess what?  I have a crazy feminist agenda.  I am against femininity.  I am also a tyrant and deprive my baby daughter of choice. And clearly, I was hoping for a boy, not a girl.

Yes, that was sarcastic.  But that is how a lot of my relatives have acted when I asked them not to buy my daughter pink clothes or toys.

Their response baffles me as much as it frustrates me.  To be clear: I love having a daughter.  I am not against femininity.  I am against gender conditioning.

Yes, I am a feminist.  But I'm not sure why that term is supposed to mean I'm a crazy man-hater. My definition of feminist is someone that believes that women are equal to men, that women deserve equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunities as men.  Is there some other secret definition of feminism I haven't heard of?  Because who isn't for all of those things (and wants to admit that in public)?

Is everyone else not aware that 90% of girl baby clothing at most retail stores is pink or purple? Therefore, by stating no preference whatsoever, the chances are that my daughter would end up with 90% pink and purple clothing.  Now you tell me, is that what is meant by "choice"?

Further, my relatives act as if this delineation in the baby stores is harmless, that it doesn't play a part in gender conditioning.  Perhaps they think that gender roles are something from the past?  But if  gender conditioning is no longer a problem, why do so few women go into math, science, and engineering, even at a time when more women are going to college? Why aren't there more female politicians and executives?

I'm not saying that my daughter has to do one of the above.  But I'm sure as hell not going to let her believe she CAN'T do any of those things.

I believe that gender conditioning starts at the beginning.  Studies have indicated that babies do not have gender specific preferences to color.  Those develop after age two -- when babies have been socialized.  That, and the fact that pink used to be a boy color prior to WWII, tells me that there is nothing intrinsic about girls loving pink.  And I don't want retailers or relatives pushing those gender roles on my baby.

Obviously, she will eventually start stating her own preferences.  But let's face it, those preferences are at least partially a result of what the cool kids are wearing at school, what pop culture is telling her.  If, as a toddler, she longs for princess culture and all the trappings that come with, it will be a learning process for both of us.  I'm not going to be a tyrant.  I'm not going to ban pink, if she's the one choosing it. But nor will I write it off as a meaningless, harmless stage.

The solution is to be aware.  The solution is to not assume that anything is intrinsic.  That means reading lots of books to her and asking lots of questions.  Dear Little B: what did you think of this fairytale?  Would you like to wait in a tower for a prince to come rescue you? Or would you like to go out and slay your own dragons?

It's not about the color pink.  I occasionally wear pink.  So does my daughter--because despite my request, some of it still manages to slip through.  But I don't want pink to own her or define her or limit her.

That's why anything else is the new pink.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Oh, I'm Not the Only One?

Friday, February 28, 2014

How Do You Focus? (Especially in Short Time Slots)

A few months back, I wrote a post on how to write with a newborn.  It was only semi-serious, and a lot sleep-deprived.  In fact, for the first three months after having a baby, I didn't get a lot of writing done.

Now that I'm making some serious progress, I do find that my strategies toward being productive have changed dramatically since becoming a mother.  For one thing, I can only write while the baby is napping.  I don't try to work on my manuscript while she is playing because 1) I'm keeping an eye on her and I don't want to get too involved with my laptop and 2) I know she'll demand my attention in a few minutes, and there's only so much distraction I can take while trying to write a scene.  This will probably change as she takes fewer naps, but at this point, it's my reality.

Therefore, I really have to make the most of my time when she does nap (and hope that her nap will be longer than 20 minutes).  In the past, it's taken me a long time to get my brain in writing mode.  I used to prepare to write by reading writing blogs for encouragement, and then procrastinate on social media for far too long.

With limited time slots for writing, I have to get in the mood much faster.  I thought I'd share some of my strategy:

1.  No social media or blog reading during write time. Write time is write time, period.  (I may send off the occasional tweet *about writing* during this time, but I don't stick around to see if anyone responded).  I read blogs & social media when it's okay to be distracted (aka when the baby is awake).
2.  Take planned breaks.  If I happen to actually get several hours to write (this usually happens when I have babysitting), write time is still write time, but I know I can't go that long at full steam.  So I give myself breaks at planned intervals.  The key is not taking a break every time you're stumped for the right word--that will just lead to endless distraction.  Instead, I make myself deals: if I write for 1 hour, I can read 2 blog posts. 
2.  Allow yourself to be scatterbrained when drafting.  Sometimes, I repeat information in my world building or character development.  I never used to do that, but it's just a reality that I can't remember everything I've already written now, and I don't have time to do as much rereading each time I start up again.  I have to let go of the compulsion to be perfect and realize that those type of things can be caught later. Beta readers are actually great for that sort of thing.
3. If you're stuck, make a plan of attack rather than trying to write through it. I used to be kind of obsessed with getting words down on the page.  If my fingers weren't typing, I wasn't being productive, I thought.  Now, if I use 45 minutes to decide how revise a scene, without actually revising it, I realize that is still making progress.  I write myself little notes in my manuscript, and do the actual writing work next time. This, I suppose is also known as "prewriting." And it's useful.
4. When possible, save revisions for longer chunks of time.  For new scenes, it's perfectly fine to be scatterbrained and choppy.  That's why the frenetic writing style of NaNo worked really well for me.  However, revisions require more finesse and concentrationPlan accordingly.
5. Break revisions into steps for short time slots.  Instead of trying to fix everything at once in an entire chapter, maybe just fix one aspect that needs work: a plot inconsistency, one character's dialogue, etc. You're more likely to make progress in a small timeframe. Or, as part of your prewriting, you could simply make a list of things that need to be fixed.
6. Use music to bring you back to the same headspace.  It's surprising how quickly music can help you focus, especially if you have certain albums that correspond with your WIP. (Although, if I'm not careful, this can wake the baby right up).

How do you get focused? I'm always looking for new tips!