Pathologizing the Canary

Canary

A domestic canary of the type historically used to detect gas in coal mines. [Image source: Wikimedia Commons–no machine-readable author provided]

All of sixteen years ago, Lani Guanier and Gerald Torres wrote a book titled The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy. It pointed to race as the miner’s canary, an unfailing indicator of underlying problems in society that ultimately affect everyone, not just minorities. It suggested that winner-take-all hierarchies of power had failed. It called for building grass-roots, cross-racial coalitions to remake structures of power, to foster public participation in politics and reform the process of democracy. In a related AACU address in 2005, Guanier said:

 

…the experience of people of color in higher education is the experience of the canary in the mines. The problem with the way we have been thinking about that experience is that we have tended to pathologize the canary. That is, we see problems that come to our attention because they are associated with a visible and vulnerable group. And then we assume that those are the problems of the canary, rather than heeding the warning that those canaries are giving to us that it is actually the atmosphere in the mine that is toxic–not just for the canary but for the miners as well.

Edith Campbell brings the inquiring canary approach to her SLJ post,  “The Review is Critical,” Edith Campbell brings the inquiring canary approach to book reviews:

Traditional reviews limit themselves to how the story is presented by discussing characters, themes, plots, and setting. Critical book reviews go beyond this by focusing on how people and events are represented, whose voice is missing from the story, and the ways in which power is enacted. This reading strategy of the word and the world has implications across every form of literacy as it empowers readers to more fully realize the architecture of the information presented.

Campbell’s piece lists reviewers who examine the word and the world in ways that shine the light of re-envisioning upon our field. They’re a prolific, informed, opinionated bunch. It’s liberating to navigate those sites and hear all those voices taking part in a conversation of books. Because it’s easy to see story as consisting only of character, plot and setting. And reading the word is directly connected to reading the world. And since, let’s face it, we’re very far from an ideal world of peaceful coexistence, maybe it’s about time to start listening to the canaries.

On Mentors and Mentoring, Part 2

More on the relationship of mentoring and writing from a couple more of the 2019 WNDB mentors, writers of distinction who care about books for young people.

Swati Avasthi:

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Photo credit: Anne Marsden

As a teacher at Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I’ve had the honor to mentor many writers.  Each time, I’ve gotten unexpected gifts:  the first look at an amazing manuscript, the knowledge my students have offered from expertise in their day jobs, a connection that outlives graduation, and most importantly, a sense that I am part of a larger community. I’m constantly rewarded, even though I can never anticipate in what form that reward will come.

I’m specifically excited about mentoring at WNDB because I’ve gotten to work with very few mentors of color as a writer over the years and none in my early years. But whenever, I get that chance, something powerful and honest stirs in my work, simply because I’m in a space free from the white gaze. By mentoring in WNDB, I hope to find more and more ways to create a safe and supportive spaces for a writer of color and continue to grow as a mentor. And who knows what other gifts and lessons mentoring will bring?

JaNay Brown-Wood:

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Photos by Tatsu

Something I’ve learned during my time in the children’s literature industry is that there are always more opportunities to learn from individuals at every level of the industry, no matter how seasoned of a writer you are. I think by serving as a mentor, it allows for me to reflect back and think about things I wish I would have known as I started writing, as well as think about tips that helped me along the way. Additionally, looking over someone’s work, critiquing it, providing feedback, catching things that the writer might have overlooked, and pushing them to improve their skills help me as a writer, too. Scrutinizing someone else’s work helps to remind me of best practices in the craft of writing. For example, am I taking my own critique advice in my work? Am I making sure my work includes scenes as opposed to telling? Do my characters sound like children, or adults in children’s bodies? Am I being particular in the words I choose? Is there a true narrative arc including a pressing conflict? These are each things I’ve mentored others with before, so they stay at the forefront of my mind as I write and revise my own work. Lastly, I hope to continue to fine-tune my own teaching and mentor skills so that I can mentor others in the future, leading them to feel excited and proud of the work they produce.

Thanks, Swati and JaNay!

See earlier post on the WNDB mentoring program, with contributions from Robin Stevenson, Alex Gino, and Francisco X. Stork.

Note: This is not an official WNDB promotion but a reflection of my personal/professional interest in the program and in diversity in our field.

On Mentors and Mentoring

Thoughts on the relationship of mentoring and writing from some of the 2019 WNDB mentors, all writers of distinction in the field of writing for young people.

Robin Stevenson:

20180606-20180606-_M8A1392.jpgWhen I started writing, I was on maternity leave and in my mid-thirties. I knew nothing about writing or publishing, so I reached out to the only author I knew- my friend Pat Schmatz. Pat gave me gentle, insightful feedback on manuscript after manuscript, asking perceptive questions about my characters and being curious about my stories-and in the process, helping me become a much better writer. I will always be so grateful for this generosity.

The WNDB mentorship program will be the first time I have served as a mentor in a formal arrangement, but I have been teaching and freelance editing for years. I love supporting other writers as they develop their manuscripts, and I always learn from it myself. I think that reading and responding to other people’s work helps me to view my own writing more critically— and having to articulate my ideas helps to further develop and clarify them. Working with writers as they take a first draft and transform it into a much stronger completed manuscript is inspiring: so much can be achieved in revision. It is always a good reminder to me not to give up on my own uncooperative first drafts! Best of all, I have made many wonderful friends, and have enjoyed watching former students become colleagues. I am very much looking forward to being a mentor for We Need Diverse Books in 2019.

Alex Gino:

alexpenbooklaunch-225x300.jpgHaving a mentor was critical for me as a writer. I don’t think my first book, George, would have been published without it. I had pushed myself through writing a first draft, which was a new accomplishment for me, and I had even gone through and looked for typos and better word choices. But I had no idea how to turn this pile of words into a cohesive story with a full arc divided into satisfying, chapter-size chunks. It was my dear friend, Jean Marie Stine, an amazing sci-fi editor and writer, who sat down with me page by page, looked at the structure of my story, and showed me where to push for me when I didn’t know where to go. I was (and am) extremely lucky to have Jean Marie in my life, but not every writer just happens to know a professional editor. I am delighted to now be able to mentor others through that mysterious process from completed draft to marketable manuscript.

Francisco X. Stork:

francisco_stork.jpgI didn’t have any writing mentors but I was fortunate in my life to have teachers who were willing to be friends with me outside of the classroom. These were individuals who were living with purpose and dedication to their work and their “mentorship” was really the life-example that they provided to me.

I have learned that the role of a writing mentor is not only  about providing feedback to the manuscript or in providing practical advice for publication.  The important part of being a mentor is to share with the mentee what it means to be a writer and the attitudes toward our work and the writing life that are harmful and helpful.

Each mentor-mentee relationship is different. Each is a dialogue and not a monologue,  so there will be growth on both sides.

More to come. Applications accepted in October 2018 for the WNDB 2019 mentorships.

Note: This is not an official WNDB promotion but a reflection of my personal/professional interest in the program and in diversity in our field.

WNDB 2019 Mentorships Announced

a1a3d5c0-e214-46fb-8a60-6b52c89d4cccBeginning in October, the We Need Diverse Books™ (WNDB™) Mentorship Program will accept applications for the program’s fourth consecutive year. The mission of the program is to support writers early in their career by pairing them with an experienced children’s author or illustrator.

A total of 11 applicants will be matched with mentors, in picture book text, middle grade fiction, young adult fiction, MG/YA nonfiction and illustration. Read more about the mentorship and application process on the WNDB™ website. For further information, contact co-chairs Miranda Paul and Meg Cannistra at mentor@diversebooks.org.
The 2019 WNDB™ mentors are an award-winning group of children’s book creators including Alex Gino, Swati Avasthi, Coe Booth, Traci Sorell, Francisco X. Stork, Robin Stevenson, JaNay Brown-Wood, Samantha Berger, Kathi Appelt, Marina Budhos, and Joyce Wan.
I invited the 2019 mentors to share some thoughts about their experiences with mentoring. Look for their responses here in the next few days.

J.L.Powers on Writing, Publishing, and Being a Third Culture Kid

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All images used by permission of J.L. Powers

I met Jessica Powers when she took the picture book semester at VCFA, and I’ve been interested in her work ever since. In this guest post, she talks about who she is and the paths that have led her to what she does.

I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico Border in a working-class Mexican and Mexican-American neighborhood. I am what people call a “third-culture kid”—I grew up in a culture completely different than my parents’ culture (they are from the Midwest U.S.A.). This fact shaped me more vigorously than just about anything else. I always feel a bit “in-between”—not quite this and not quite that. Sometimes that’s a wonderful feeling; it’s easy to distance myself from the cultural habits and values of white, middle-class Americans—after all, it doesn’t represent me or my lived experience. Sometimes, it’s difficult because people are determined to place me in that cultural box even if it doesn’t fit me very well.

The summer I turned nineteen, I worked with street children in Kenya, and quickly leapt into a genuine love for African people that went on to sustain me as a graduate student of African history, as a learner of Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele and currently Afrikaans, and now as a publisher of African writers. I have spent the last decade in and out of southern Africa, loving the many people there who have chosen to embrace me as a friend and family member. Yet I still have a very strong connection and pull to the Mexican Border, where my family still lives.

9781617755804_FC.jpgEven though I loved many of the classics as a kid, they produced in me a keen and vigorous longing. I never saw my world represented in children’s books. So as a writer of books for young people, I’ve always written about the worlds that I do live in, which are generally not mainstream.

My first novel was set in El Paso, about Mexican-American and Mexican kids, because that’s the world I’ve always known. My second, third, and fifth novel (forthcoming) were set in African countries (South Africa and Somalia) because that’s the world I’ve immersed myself in as an adult. My fourth novel (co-written with my brother, and the start of a series) is pulling on my love for the vast and wonderfully varied cultural terrain of the U.S. But can I say that I am returning to the Border soon enough for a future book? Look for that on the horizon!

I’ve worked for wonderful diverse publisher Cinco Puntos Press for a very long time. That’s been a classic fit. And last year, I launched my own publishing company, Catalyst Press and Story Press Africa.
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Why in the world would I do such a crazy thing? Well. I’m glad you asked!
After my child was born, I was really frustrated with the lack of African literature for young people. It seemed like there were two types of books: folk tales and books about Nelson Mandela. Come on, people! We publish tens of thousands of books every single year!

9781946498984_FC.jpegSo I teamed up with the amazing people at Jive Media Africa to start the African Graphic Novel Series. And because I love African literature widely and indiscriminately, I’m also publishing a variety of short story collections, crime novels, thrillers, and other books by Africans and/or set in Africa. Come check us out! I promise we will have something you love!

More about J.L. Powers: In addition to her writing and publishing, J.L Powers also writes and edits The Pirate Tree, a blog on social justice and children’s literature. 

Books by J.L. Powers

Amina coverUnder Water (forthcoming January 2019)

Broken Circle (co-written with M.A. Powers, 2017)

Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza (2014)

Amina (2013)

That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone, a collection of essays from around the world (2012)

This Thing Called the Future (2011)

Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent (2009)

The Confessional (2007)

 

 

An Invitation to Writers

Back in the day, when Vicki Holmsten, Kristine Ashworth and I were dreaming up the earliest iterations of the Bisti Writing Project in Farmington, New Mexico, I learned the power of the word “invitation.” It was a term commonly used by National Writing Project people–you didn’t appoint someone to committees or working groups, you invited them. Invitation leads to feeling welcome, and therefore to being welcomed. It levels the field. It creates transparency.

Some of my most joyful work over the years has emerged from invitations–to write, to teach, to speak. This week I’m at Hollins University, meeting with Children’s Literature classes after speaking at the grad student-run Francelia Butler conference.

Being invited to the conference made me think about my writing life, about all the steps and missteps that led me to become the person I am now. A greying writer with a treadmill desk and a laptop but also stashes of paper and a fountain pen, an old Remington portable typewriter and a head full of stories waiting to be written.

Being invited led me to think about the collective sea of stories–and about the marvelous glass metaphors that Rudine Sims Bishop employed in 1990 to call for stories with more characters of color. That article served as an invitation to me, years ago, to write the stories that mattered to me.

Now I felt invited to take that metaphor and extend it. As I finished work on Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh a couple of years ago, I’d been struck by how it was more than a mirror or window text. Why not, I thought, play with that notion? Why not embrace the complexity of history and story and the relationships of people within and across cultures?

Here are a couple of slides from my keynote, with samplers of books whose authors complicate diversity in the best way:

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Because windows were good for another time, and mirrors are necessary. But why stop there?  If you are a writer with a story grounded in a particular culture, or in more than one culture, consider this an invitation to frame your story as more than a mirror, more than a window. Why not make it a prism, capable of shedding light upon the world?

“Espacio between my pigtails”: Language and Laughter in Juana and Lucas

JuanaandLucasOne of the challenges of writing across cultures is how to include languages other than English in your text without having to pause the narrative to explain what all those foreign words mean. As a writer, I don’t tend to think of my audience as primarily American or Indian, and I’ve sometimes had to deal with puzzled editorial comments. Of course, it’s the job of editors and copyeditors to aim for clarity, so the default solution in many books (not mine, I hasten to add) has often been the parallel, parenthetic translation.  Or the glossary. Or both. Not ideal. Parenthetic translations tend to make even a good text didactic, and they can manage to  edit one with potential right into oblivion. It’s enough to give anyone a headache in the espacio between their pigtails.

Juana Medina bursts through this challenge with uncommon entusiasmo. Her irrepressible child character, also named Juana, lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her parents and her canine best friend, Lucas.

The fictional Juana in this cheery chapter book loves fútbol, eating brussels sprouts, drawing, and Astroman. Math is a bit of a challenge, and as for The English, that takes our young hero completely by surprise. She finds the language mind-bendingly difficult—nada de fun! It isn’t until a family trip turns the linguistic tables yet again that Juana applies herself to English, and discovers that she can habla it just fine.

JuanaandLucas2.jpgMedina’s lighthearted first person text and lovably wacky illustrations topple the accepted parameters of familiar and foreign and make the reader laugh all the way to understanding. No glossary exists to suggest that reading this book is an academic task, and in fact none is needed. Every single Spanish word is completely comprehensible in the context of the carefully wrought sentences and paragraphs. By the time you take a breath to ask, “Now what did that mean?” the answer breezes into view like a charm.

Winner of the 2017 Pura Belpré Author Award. Published by Candlewick Press. These comments are based on a copy borrowed from my local library.

Jacqueline Davies on Invisible Women Illustrators

The names we don’t mention matter as much as the names we do. Many of us know the feeling. A book conversation, and the names of the illustrious are among them. And after a while you start thinking, wait, something is wrong here. There are a lot of missing names.

Unknown.jpegIt’s especially ironic when the missing citations are of work that depends on its visibility, on being recognized on the page. It’s why the realization of writer Jacqueline Davies (The Boy Who Drew Birds, Nothing But Trouble) is worth paying attention to. She was at a lecture about illustration during which she had an experience, she says, similar to being infested by bed-bugs. An ickiness at an unpleasant realization:

About the presenter, she says:

He went to an elite art school. He studied. He learned. He graduated with distinction. He was consciously taught by the best of the best. And what he came away with after four years and $200,000—the knowledge he absorbed down to his cellular level—is that male artists matter and female artists hardly exist at all.

It’s an old story, right? Think about all the women missing from history as it’s typically been taught, their talents, when acknowledged, seen as inferior to that of the men they worked with.

Think of the missing women artists at MOMA.

The women whom science forgot.

But that was then, we might say. This is now. Where’s Wanda Gag on that list, and Beatrix Potter? Marla Frazee and Melissa Sweet and Suzy Lee?

If you made a list of gifted children’s book illustrators, who would be on it?

 

History From Within: Outrun the Moon

In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls. Today, I will walk on air.

outrunthemoon.jpgI asked Stacey Lee to tell me how she went about developing the character of the determined, gutsy hero of her YA historical novel, Outrun the Moon. Here is what she wrote:

I wanted to do a little stereotype busting with Mercy, who is the opposite of many of the Asian girls we’ve seen portrayed in media as shy, quiet, introverted, obedient, geeky or worse, exotic. She’s extroverted, charismatic, and willing to be a leader because of a cause she believes in, but not because she seeks power. She reminds me a lot of my mother who is all those things, and who grew up in Chinatown forty years after Mercy. Mom would tell me stories about herself marching up and down the hills of San Francisco wearing heels because that’s what teenage girls in the fifties did, and I imagine Mercy having the same sort of fearlessness.

And that intention comes through in the novel. The San Francisco earthquake rocks not juts the city but Mercy’s world. Her life’s longing shifts. So far, she has driven herself so she can find release from “pernicious drudgery.” Now she has to reach within and beyond herself to find out who is really capable of becoming.

A 2017 Amelia Bloomer pick.

 

 

The Legacy of a Newbery Winner from 1928

gayneckI’m grateful to Pooja Makhijani for including my comments in her terrific article in The Atlantic on 1928 Newbery winner Dhan Gopal Mukerji. It made me think about how politics, the laws of nations, and the upheavals of history can disrupt the narratives of people’s lives. We are restless beings, humans. Always have been, ever since the days we streamed out of Africa and ended up in the remotest corners of the planet.  Religion and politics, tyranny and dictatorships have tried to contain us, sometimes successfully. Sometimes we have managed to burst out from behind the restraints they’ve tried to impose. Sometimes only poets, artists, and novelists have the courage to speak the truth.

In 1928, when Dhan Gopal Mukerji went to receive his Newbery medal, he had to hide behind a stand of trees. The award had to be kept secret until the announcement. In a crowd of white librarians, his presence would have given away his status as the winner.

In our time, you’ll find a good number of brown-skinned attendees at the Newbery awards announcements. Yet surprisingly, few of the well-informed, highly educated people at those gatherings today will have even heard of Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Makhijani writes:

…90 years on, this once-celebrated book, which has remained in print since its publication, is rarely mentioned in discussions of racial and ethnic diversity in books for kids, as if Mukerji were some sort of aberration rather than an early chapter of what could have been.

Had the immigration laws not clamped down upon Asians after 1917, Pooja asks, what would books for children look like in the United States today? We may as well ask, what would society look like? Might it be kinder, more inclusive? The story of the bicultural Yuba City families, too, (of which my novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh is a fictional rendering), is largely forgotten. We seem to want to erase the complications of the past, instead of learning from them.

Children’s books constitute an important layer of self for every literate adult. The fuses they light burn long into the future. The rise of xenophobia in American society suggests that we desperately need the adults of tomorrow to be endowed with rich imaginations, empathy for others, and the will to overcome petty differences. Acknowledging and honoring the history of our own field can only help us give tomorrow’s adults the gifts that writers are uniquely able to offer–foresight, intuition, the long view, compassion.