Building a Personal Reading List

faqsSome time ago, I got an email from reader Maxwell Shea who came across my FAQ lists and had additional questions. I’m posting my replies here, since they may be of interest to others as well.

Admittedly those FAQ lists are old and in need of updating, but that will have to wait until I have time on hand. Me and time, we’re constantly at odds.

Anyway, here we go:

MS: You said to try to read mostly newer books when getting a feel for how to write for children, but I don’t quite understand why you might say that, other than to say don’t try to copy other famous books.

UK: Well, here’s the deal. If you are submitting to today’s publishers, you’re just going to have to read a representative number of today’s books, to see where your voice is going to fit into the conversation. It’s not about copying someone else’s work, but rather understanding the range of subjects and sensibilities currently found in publishing catalogs, so you can figure out where the gaps exist that you and only you might be able to fill. Aside from gauging the field for submission purposes, I think a writer for young readers should read widely and deeply, across the age ranges, across the decades and also across borders of geography and culture. I tell my students that in each month’s bibliography they should read at least one book published before they were born, and one or two books published outside North America.

Nothing can replenish a writer’s wordbag like reading, so read generously. Learn to read critically. Write an annotation for every book you read, looking not for what you like and dislike but what you can learn from that book. If you want to write in a particular form (picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels), start reading now. Read 50 books before you try to write one. Read to see how others do the work you are seeking to do.

MS:Wouldn’t a voice with fresh ideas and some skill be equally at home finding inspiration in the richness of the early 70s as well as what’s on the bookshelf today? In fact, I actually am disappointed in a great deal of the new books I read when I go to a bookstore. There must be an insatiable demand for cuteness. I know there must be many more good books being published than I see at bookstores. I just can’t see how reading new books, whether as an adult would-be writer or as a child would be an improvement over a similarly rich bench of books from 40-50 years ago.

UK: We do have an amazing artistic history in our field, so sure, draw on whatever inspires you but remember that you can’t compete with books that are deemed classics, for one good reason. Those books are still around. Unlike in adult literary writing, where today’s writers aren’t competing with the giants of decades past, the nostalgia factor in the sale of children’s books is huge. I also think it’s a paradox of the art we work in that if we want to write something that endures, we must write the stories that matter to us and will resonate with children in a world that is vastly different from that of the 1970s. The word, in Paulo Freire’s terms, must connect the reader and the world.

Finally, don’t be too quick to write off today’s writers based on the overflow of cuteness on shelf at your local bookstore. If you can’t find indie bookstores with informed children’s/YA staff (and I know they’re scarce in many communities) scour library shelves instead. Get to know your local children’s and YA librarians. Read review journals and the many blogs that offer information and opinions on current books. Start making your own lists of books that speak to you, books that extend your thinking, books that make you want to read more, and books that make you want to write.

Writing Because You Must

OzickWhen I first crossed the border into Canada, I found some things familiar, and I liked a lot of what was not. I mean, in the goddess category, there’s Margaret Atwood. But I missed NPR terribly. CBC is starting to grow on me, but the voices of NPR meant more to me than I’d ever realized.

So thank goodness for audio archives and streaming, and for the friendly stations that broadcast all the way to Vancouver Island.

Here’s a Weekend Edition Sunday interview to treasure: Cynthia Ozick on reading as a child, the loss of a literary culture and the importance of fiction. Much to think about at a time when I sometimes feel left in the dust by the changing, shifting world.

 

Diversity 102: from the Lee and Low blog

Diversity in Publishing 2015 C

Graphics courtesy of Lee and Low Books

For years, the number of diverse books in American children’s and YA publishing has remained stuck at about 10%, according to data gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Could the backgrounds of the decision-makers in our field–publishing executives, editors, sales reps, marketing and publicity people, reviewers–have anything to do with this? It is after all surprising to find such a gap between the representation of diversity in children’s and YA books and comparable demographics in the general population?

Who works in publishing? This was the simple question that led to the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, although the conversation itself has been going on for much longer. As Jason Low writes:

While the lack of diversity among publishing staff was often spoken about, there was very little hard data about who exactly works in publishing.

The survey results are now out. They come as no surprise.

I’m happy to say that two of my publishers are involved with the survey. Lee & Low, of course, with the intrepid Jason Low at the helm of this effort. And Groundwood Books, another North American pioneer in bringing underrepresented books to the market. But Simon and Schuster? Did I miss them somehow? Nope. Not there.

So the question remains, what happens next? And whatever happens, how can we learn to talk about it and move on? This survey feels like a giant step in the right direction. So, for that matter, does this year’s Newbery Award.

From a Joint Discussion, Belonging to Everyone: Diversity in Children’s and YA Literature

Thank you to CCBC-Net for hosting a month-long discussion on diversity. It was heated at times; it touched nerves. It also gave us the chance to discuss two amazing new titles by Native American writers: If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, and How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle.

In the end, CCBC member Sarah Hamburg brought it all together by developing a list of personal and professional actions in the cause of diversity on the bookshelf. Asked if the list could be forwarded broadly, Sarah said: “It comes from a joint discussion. It belongs to everyone.” That seems a good way to send this list on its way. Here it is, reposted by permission of Sarah Hamburg and with thanks to CCBC-Net.

  • Many of the ideas focused on personal activism: actively buying books representing a diverse range of voices; committing to ongoing challenges (Crystal Brunelle mentioned The Birthday Book Challenge, Diversity on the Shelf Challenge, and Latino/as in Kids’ Lit. Challenge); recommending and promoting diverse books to others when and wherever possible; asking for them at bookstores, schools and libraries; using social media in those efforts and to draw attention to issues of representation; writing reviews on Amazon, B&N and Goodreads; and stepping out of personal comfort zones to make connections and advocate on these issues.
  • For writers and illustrators, people also suggested personal activism would include: stepping out of artistic comfort zones; consciously considering questions of representation, audience and perspective in one’s work (including whether the perspectives and voices of people of color tend to be explored/presented in a heavy context); soliciting and listening to feedback from members of the communities one is writing about when going outside one’s own culture; and also considering questions of cultural bias and representation while conducting research and evaluating sources.
  • The same considerations hold true for those publishing, buying and using books with children, promoting books to parents and teachers, creating library and bookstore displays… etc. including whether those books receive the same quality and quantity of promotion, and whether they are somehow held apart from other books.
  • Many came back to the importance of smaller presses in making space for new voices. This included Tim Tingle’s publishers Cinco Puntos Press and RoadRunner Press, and Lee & Low Books. (Would it be helpful to create a list to share here of independent publishers who are actively publishing “multicultural” books?) Lyn Miller-Lachmann talked about visiting smaller presses at conventions to order books and create buzz. Jason Low talked about “liking” Lee & Low on Facebook and using social media to promote them and their titles, and purchasing their books through independent bookstores. Are there other ways people can actively support small presses, or that smaller children’s publishers can perhaps share resources to further cross-promote with one another? (Some consortium, such as an umbrella website?)
  • People also mentioned the importance of writers’ events and conferences, such as the Native American Literature Symposium, VONA Voices, the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Muslim Voices Conference, the Comadres and Compadres Writers’ Conference, and the Carl Brandon Society. (Would it be helpful to compile a list of similar conferences/organizations?) Is there a way to facilitate more outreach to events such as these, and also encourage more inclusion/ promotion of writing for children at those events?
  • Along with such conferences, people talked about the possibility for individual outreach to writers/ artists who are working in other areas, but who seem like they might be suited to the children’s book field (like Debbie Reese introducing Eric Gansworth to Cheryl Klein.)
  • It’s exciting to see new businesses forming, like Cake Literary and the Quill Shift Literary Agency (where you can sign up to be a reader.) Are there other ways people could help promote them?
  • People have also started an amazing array of blogs, websites and tumblrs that focus on aspects of diversity in children’s books. These include Diversity in YA, Rich in Color, American Indians in Children’s Literature, The Dark Fantastic, CBC Diversity, Lee & Low’s blog, Cynsations… (I know I’m leaving many out! Please add them– would a list of these be helpful, too?) Would it also be helpful to create some sort of consortium here as well– like the Niblings umbrella?
  • In addition, people asked that “diversity” be an inclusive idea, and not limited to one group or set of groups.

Along with these existing or already mentioned avenues for activism, I had a few other possible ideas based on issues people have raised. Some may well already exist in some form, and if so please excuse my ignorance! I also don’t know if some may feel segregating rather than inclusive, or otherwise problematic– but here they are:

(All initiatives mentioned below would include leadership in design and implementation by people from the communities in question.)

  • School Library Journal/ Horn Book…etc. might create a regular column, written by a Native, PoC, and/or LGBT, and/or Muslim, and/or disabled contributor, which might discuss issues regarding children and books in different communities, or highlight reviews of recent books by people from those communities, or discuss collection development/ classroom use issues related to problematic books, or be published in a bilingual format, or simply be a space always kept open for additional voices from less-represented communities.
  • Development of a course within the Massachusetts 5-college area, in conjunction with the Carle Museum, for Native college students/ students of color to study illustration and writing for children.
  • Outreach to a group like 826, with centrally-organized workshops about writing/illustrating led by people in the children’s book community.
  • A group within SCBWI for Native artists/ people of color to meet and speak about issues in the field specific to their communities, and provide resources and networking opportunities.
  • A subsidized (with some form of community grant?) internship at one of the children’s publishing divisions or literary agencies for a person of color or Native person.
  • Some form of organized mentorship program for aspiring authors/ illustrators.
  • A bilingual division of something like Net Galley, featuring bilingual books, and other books by Latino/a writers and illustrators.
  • A group made up of members of publishers’ marketing departments, convened to study marketing strategies and approaches, with leadership that includes, outreach to, and input from members of different communities.
  • Some e-publishing/ print-on-demand initiative or business, focused on bringing back out-of-print titles by people of color.
  • Also, something like the New York Review of Books Classics, which would bring back into print/ reissue/ highlight classic children’s books by people of color– including international titles. (Or, actively petitioning the NYRoB children’s collection to include more such titles– do they currently have *any* books by people of color on their list? I couldn’t find them.)
  • Concerted outreach at events like Bologna to find and acquire titles by international authors of color/ indigenous authors for publication in the US.
  • Something like the PEN New England Discovery Award (which recognizes the work of unpublished children’s writers, and provides an opportunity to have that work read by an editor at a publishing house) that would be national, and would recognize work by unpublished Native/PoC writers. It could include a specific category for nonfiction.
  • Inclusion of Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark (and Zeta Elliott’s article “Decolonizing the Imagination”) on the reading list at MFA Programs focused on writing for children, with a curriculum that includes more lectures/ discussions about race, writing and the imagination– not just in the context of discussion about writing outside one’s own culture.
  • Focused outreach as part of recruitment initiatives for MFA in writing for children programs (perhaps writers’ conferences like those listed above would be one good place?) and promotion of existing opportunities like the Angela Johnson scholarship at VCFA.
  • A centralized resource for parents/ teachers that would look at still-read classics and more contemporary books, and examine different responses/ perspectives on those books related to representation. This might include strategies and perspectives on classroom use. (A sort of “critical engagement” resource, with different perspectives- like that of Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature.)
  • More inclusion of issues related to representation/ cultural bias in reviews of current nonfiction and fiction titles.
  • Some central website to publish/ promote lists of recommended titles (such as the Top 100 Books by Indigenous Writers, Recommended Books regarding the Middle East, Lee & Low’s Pinterest pages, and the many other lists of recommended books shared here…) There might also be the possibility of compiling and promoting new lists, based on the needs and interests of those who work with children. Maybe individual titles from the lists could be highlighted on a rotating basis as well.
  • Lobbying and activism on related issues, such as funding for public schools and libraries, and support of those institutions (as well as businesses like independent bookstores) on the local level.

Common Errors in American children’s books with South Asian content

This isn’t about the right to write. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying a writer of one race or culture should never write of people from another.  That would mean I couldn’t, for example, write about protagonists who might be of European or alien or bunny ancestry. Me, I’m not about to give up those possibilities!  But the truth is that we’re inheritors of our common history, and we’d be fooling ourselves if we pretended that the past didn’t involve the stealing and appropriation of story, as well as land. Further, in the children’s market, we’re writing for “readers-in-progress,” so to speak, since young readers are still developing their knowledge and sense of the world.  Don’t we need to make sure we give them material that is accurate?  Here are some common errors that can be found in books with South Asian characters, background, or setting.  All examples cited below are from actual books, published by major American publishers within the last 15 years.

  • Factual errors: errors in historical dates, or omission of significant material.  A nonfiction book about Pakistan refers to the pre-1947 region as Pakistan.  Excuse me.  Did we imagine the entire saga of Partition?
  • Errors of cultural representation: names specific to one religion or geographical area are given to characters from another, such as a Hindu kid called Karim; the misnaming of things, e.g., a rural Indian character uses the anglicized term “Ganges” to refer to the river instead of the more natural Sanskrit and vernacular “Ganga.”  Or people from one area behave in ways consistent with the cultural practices of another.  E.g., a well-known YA novel has southern upper-caste Hindu women covering their heads when men enter the room.  That might happen in some circles in northern India, but in southern Hindu traditions it’s mostly considered inauspicious for a girl or married woman to cover her head. Minor quibbles? For those who know their geography, these things could make the difference between a convincing story and a disappointing one. Ignoring them definitely conveys the message that people from the region concerned don’t count.
  • Errors of spelling in transliteration of names (e.g., Daskin for Daksin, Kirshna for Krishna).
  • Layout and captioning errors: e.g., a stunningly beautiful nonfiction book about one part of Bengal includes a page about the Bengali language. The author has obviously done her homework.  But the image of a bit of wall graffiti in Bengali is–upside down!  A book about Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala has a picture of a page with Hindi lettering, but the caption tells us this is the Tibetan language.

Turning a cultural tradition or social problem into the raison d’etre of a plot in a work of fiction is another problematic common practice.  I read books like that and think, Hmm, where’s the story?

  • Finally, that elusive thing, voice.  It just doesn’t work to set a story in Afghanistan or Tibet, and then make the protagonist think and react the way an American child would.  Surely such “geographical fiction” ought to be approached with the same meticulous research and steeping in attitudes and norms that we are told we must bring to the creation of historical fiction.

If you’re a reviewer, please don’t get swept away by a lush locale or a sorry social context. Give the story the same critical look you would give to one set in a more familiar place and time. Don’t accept the need for narrative to step back and deliver social commentary, any more than you would accept that from a book set in New York City. And ask yourself if the story is doing justice to the place it purports to represent. If you’re not sure, it’s not too hard to find an informed reader to offer additional opinions for you to consider. I was recently sent a review copy of a nonfiction book on Sikhism. I’m not Sikh, so I got a friend who is to read the book and give me his comments. He found a few errors I might have missed, yet confirmed that the author had, all in all, approached the subject with care and respect.

If you’re an author or an editor working on a book set in South Asia, and you are personally unfamiliar with imagery, cultural and social nuance, or other contextual material, please consider using a consultant familiar with the region.  Keep in mind that all parts of South Asia are not alike, so if your story is set in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, for example, it will not do to get readers whose knowledge is of Tamilnadu or Bangladesh!  In this age of instant comunication, in which every overseas consulate in the continental United States has fax, e-mail, and a Cultural Attache, viewpoints and opinions can be traded and shared with greater ease than ever before.