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:



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?

Thinking about My Own Glares of Disdain

I can’t even begin to tally the many ways this NYT piece by US Children’s Literature Ambassador Gene Luen Yang speaks the truth to me. It’s about books as windows. You’d think, how could anyone say anything fresh and new about that old trope? Well, here we go. To start with Gene puts himself at the center of the anecdote:

glareofdisdain1Then he takes me into a scenario filled with the small, incidental meannesses of  childhood that we all know about. Only he’s culpable as well, so I am immediately committed to this journey, uncomfortable as it is. And it is, especially as he has happened to name his antagonist after (gulp) my only child. Point taken. We’re all part of the journey.

Snippet of banner text:

“When our class visited the school library, Nikhil and I were surrounded by windows into the lives of our other classmates, but never each other’s.”

glareofdisdain2And then, just when  I think I know what’s going on, I get hit with this! No, really? My book and Mike Jung’s? I was a fan already and now I am committed.

Gandhi, the movie, seals the deal for me.

What a powerful piece this is! It carries so much weight in each small choice that Yang has made. The local theater. The school library. We’re all in the same tangled webs of relationships and rough edges and glares of disdain. The solutions have to come from all of us.