History from Within in Under a Painted Sky

paintedskyA different kind of western here, with two girls pretending to be boys, heading out to the great beyond, following the trail of hopeful Argonauts. Each is after her own escape. “Chinaman’s daughter” Sammy is fleeing from the law after she has fought off and accidentally killed a would-be-rapist. Andy, her black friend and companion and sister in outlawhood, is fleeing enslavement.

Stacey Lee handles all kinds of subtleties with great grace in this novel. Stereotypes get turned on their heads. Andy tells a story and everyone listens with rapt attention. Sammy can hardly wait to ask her, “Was that a story from your ancestors?” Sure, yes, the ready assumption. And then Andy shakes her head and laughs it off, saying, “Nah. I made it up.”

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Photo courtesy of Stacey Lee

In all, what blew me away is how this book mixes darkness with humor, despair with hope. It takes a gritty part of history and gives us a fresh look at it. Humor, clever characterization, lively writing, and the clearly drawn female perspectives lift this book above the usual western staples of plot and adventure. Under a Painted Sky switches up perspective and tells an untold narrative of the west in the same way as do books like Vaunda Nelson’s Bad News For Outlaws or Susan Krawitz’s Viva, Rose!  In doing so it fills out and enriches the history, and gives young readers more complete look at the past than previous generations of books have done. And it works because the narrative stays clear and true to the main character’s vision of the world.

About the author: Stacey Lee is an award-winning author of historical and contemporary young adult fiction. A native of southern California and fourth-generation Chinese American, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because, she says, “I wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.”

When Prejudice Becomes Normalized

When I was a neophyte writer, I was cautious and careful. I tried really hard not to offend anyone. I tried to be polite. I thought that if I took the high road, the low-roaders would give up. I believed the market place was big enough for me, and them, and a lot of others besides. I ignored inappropriate behavior, like the woman (whose name I have now mercifully forgotten) in a writing group in Maryland who asked me why I didn’t just write about “normal” kids, instead of these Indian ones with weird names whose families ate strange foods. Well, okay, I cried and left the group, never to return. But I figured that I wasn’t taking real abuse, just feeling a temporary sting from someone else’s ignorance. It wouldn’t kill me.

It didn’t. Some 20-odd books later, until quite recently, I’d managed to convince myself that things were getting better in our little corner of the publishing universe.

Maybe not so, it turns out. Admittedly, I wasn’t part of the original Twitter debate (too old, too slow, too much writing energy needed for actual writing) but it’s been impossible to ignore all the discussions and counter-arguments, calls for greater insight and understanding, and more. Surprisingly, some commentators admit to not having read the book that sparked the whole thing.

In light of all that, and particularly in light of Charlottesville now make an eloquent case for more debate, not less.

dimplerishiThey quote Sandhya Menon, author of  When Dimple Met Rishi:

“When people who’ve historically held positions of privilege feel their privilege threatened, or like they won’t get a ‘free pass’ anymore, they can sometimes perceive that as reverse discrimination rather than an evening out of the playing field.”

And so it is in reality. Only now there’s another factor at play. Prejudice has become normalized in the United States of America. That is the truth–no other sides to this reality. And the world of YA books, it seems, is not so tidily sheltered from the real world, after all.

Veera Hiranandani: Teaching Writing and the Pure Act of Story-making

9780375871672_p0_v1_s260x420Veera Hiranandani is the author of the Phoebe G. Green series and The Whole Story of Half a Girl. See my earlier interview with her.

Veera also teaches at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY and at the Writopia Lab in Westchester, NY. (Her upcoming spring workshops, Writing Middle Grade and YA Fiction and Story Mapping are currently open for registration.)

I’m happy to be talking to Veera again.

[Uma] Veera, what makes teaching a good fit with writing for you?

[Veera] They intersect in many ways and constantly feed each other. I haven’t always practiced teaching and writing together in the way I’ve been able to the last few years. During a writing workshop, though I’m supposed to be the “teacher,” nothing teaches me more about writing than working with my students. I’m always learning.

P1070394.jpg[Uma] Tell me more. What does your writer self learn from teaching? 

[Veera]  As a writer, it’s hard to see your own work from an objective point of view. I’m usually too close to it. When I work with a student who’s wrestling with some of the same things I am, I’m able to bring that objectivity or at least some of it back to my own writing and get a fresh perspective.  

I’m also privileged enough to teach both children, teens, and adults. Working with such a wide age range compliments so many parts of me as a writer. When I teach young people, though many have dreams of being a “real writer” when they grow up, I find the work they do is so real, because it’s not motivated by professional and adult concerns. They’re not thinking about the market or query letters or finding an agent, they are simply wrestling with the stories in their heads and how best to get them out in the form of the written word. Watching and guiding them through the process is to witness the pure act of story-making, one I can sometimes lose sight of. 

When I work with adults, I get to relearn many elements of craft as I try to figure out how best to communicate this information with my students. I constantly think about what kind of feedback would be helpful to me as a writer when I’m giving feedback to others.  I’m inspired by their productivity and their ability to go back to the drawing board to get something right. I also feel like I’d better walk the walk when I talk about the benefits of having a writing schedule, plotting, and pre-writing work, so they keep me on my toes. 

[Uma] Walking the talk. Too true. So how do we reflect that back in our teaching?

[Veera]  As I’m writing, I really try to remember and be sensitive to what leads me to my own writing breakthroughs. What was the process that allowed me to figure out this character, or this scene, or this plot, and how do I share it with my students? I find that I’m a much more reflective writer because of my students. 

When I look back to all stages of my life, I feel like I’ve always had a writer and a teacher in me. Getting to do both things professionally allows me to connect with a fully realized version of myself. I only hope I’m able to do both for a long time.  It’s such a satisfying circle, the way each process serves and stimulates the other. I can’t really imagine doing one with out the other anymore. 

[Uma] Thank you, Veera, for placing this work in the context of a writer’s life. Here’s to the pure act of story-making!

Interview With Karen Rivers

Karen Rivers is a friend and colleague, a neighbor, and a fellow writer who teaches. She is the author of The Girl in the Well is Me, which Kirkus, in a starred review, called “a brilliantly revealed, sometimes even funny, exploration of courage, the will to live, and the importance of being true to oneself.”

Here she is talking to me about her new YA novel from FSG, Before We Go Extinct. In praise of the book, the National Reading Campaign says:

Before We Go Extinct has no easy answers. Rivers’ characters are complex – sometimes cruel, and other times child-like in their innocence – and she does not condescend with a tidy conclusion that ties up all the plot threads.

Here’s Karen talking about the main character’s journey and the process of writing the novel.

Process Talk: Padma Venkatraman on A Time to Dance

Padma Venkatraman is the aa time to dance cover - large fileuthor of YA novels Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End. Of her latest novel, released to starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA and SLJ, the Kirkus reviewer writes:

Venkatraman weaves together several themes so elegantly that they become one.

I traded e-mails with Padma about her writing and in particular this book.  

[Uma] Talk about what made you a writer, and how you ended up writing for young readers.

[Padma] I got a doctorate in oceanography (nothing to do with reading or writing) because I like numbers, and I wanted to choose a profession that would give me financial independence. But I’ve always loved writing, and as life progressed, that love only deepened. So finally, I became brave enough to give up oceanography and try my hand at writing a novel.

 Thus far, my three novels are for the young adult audience – partly because I feel that books are more likely deepen a young person’s empathy and compassion; older readers are more set in their ways – they’re less likely to change (as people) because of something they’ve read.  It’s also in part because the movies in my mind have thus far featured teen protagonists as stars. Then again, right now, I’m working on a novel for adults, so I do sometimes hear older voices in my head.

 [Uma] Your books all draw upon the Indian subcontinent—its history, its lesser known stories, its social dynamics, and iconic character types that reflect everyday life in the region. Will you tell me what the importance is of setting to you? How much of it is craft and how much a personal exploration through fiction?

PadmaVenkatraman3 [Padma] I’m American and I love my American home and my family. But India is where my journey as a human being (and thus as a writer) began, because it’s where I lived when I was young. My childhood was rather horrid in many ways – but then again, there were moments of beauty and love even during tough times, and the Indian culture left an indelible impact on my mind.

I also read many Indian writers (poets and novelists) as a young person and I’m still fascinated with my origins, I suppose, which is probably rather self-centered! So yes, it is a personal exploration. But I’m also starting – after decades of living in America – to “own” the American culture – and am, in my current work in progress, exploring it.

[Uma] What are the origins of Veda’s story for you? 

[Padma] When I was 19 years old, I was bitten by a Russell’s Viper – one of the four most poisonous Indian snakes – on a trip back to India. I almost died, and it’s a miracle that I survived without having to have my leg amputated (it had turned all the colors of the rainbow and looked rather like something Renoir might have painted for a while). That experience – of nearly losing my leg, not to mention my life, and of being so close to death – solidified within me a sense of spirituality (without necessarily any religiosity per say). I didn’t realize this until recently, but Veda’s story was born of that experience.

[Uma] Why is this a verse novel? How does form affect content in this story?

[Padma] The easy answer: because when Veda’s character possessed me, I heard verse. Of course, nothing’s as simple as that, is it?

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Young Bharatanatyam dancer. Photo source: Padma Venkatraman’s personal collection. All rights reserved.

I fought against writing A Time to Dance in verse  because although I love and read poetry, I’ve never studied it. Luckily for me, Richard Blanco (who later read at President Obama’s inauguration) let me sit in on a poetry workshop he was doing at the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and his friendship and faith in my ability helped me overcome my fear of experimenting with this form. Other wonderful poets: Scott Hightower, Peter Covino, and Peter Johnson also encouraged me, as did my marvelous agent, Rob Weisbach and my star editor, Nancy Paulsen. Along the way, another editor whom I deeply trust, Stephen Roxburgh, provided insights that were vital. His confidence in me felt like permission to try lean, spare prose.

Finally, on my 101st draft or so, I had an epiphany. Stories that feature a character’s spiritual growth are rare. It was the core of Veda’s story. As was her love of dance. A character’s spiritual growth is incredibly hard to write in verse. It’s virtually impossible to capture in straight out prose – or was, for me, for Veda. Spiritual growth – and the power of art – especially of dance – two key themes in A Time to Dance – go beautifully with verse.

In this story, rather than form affecting content, it was the other way around: Veda’s voice (content) dictated form. And I’m glad she spoke in verse, and I’m grateful to all those who trusted that I could listen to her properly, including my wonderful husband, Rainer Lohmann. It was really a tremendous relief that it’s been so well reviewed. I’m glad not just for my own sake but for the sake of the many differently abled (disabled) people I interviewed during the process of writing the novel. It’s their story, not mine.

[Uma] Thank you, Padma! Much luck with this and future projects. 

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.