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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

February is Diversity in Literature Month - so say I

I am kicking off the 2012: The Year of the Writer with our first theme month, 
February: Diversity in Literature.  

Diversity can be a touchy issue for writers, especially if you want to write about someone from a different heritage, religion, mental or physical ability than yourself.  Ramifications can be ugly.  For instance, I've seen scathing reviews of Kathryn Stockett's The Help claiming that she's just another white person getting rich on the black experience.  Ouch!  Does anyone want to receive criticisms like that?  No thank you!  Nor do we want to paint the world as a tapestry of people who look and behave just like we do.  Weren't we all taught in English class that good writing holds a mirror up to the world?  Is there any way to win? 
Well, according to the incredible Mitali Perkins, there's hope.  Mitali, who is a phenomenal writer as well as a powerful advocate for diversity in literature has graciously allowed me to reprint a blog post of hers, from Sept. 19, 2011, on this topic.  For a lot more on the topic of diversity in literature, stop by her blog.  She also has a great, though troubling, chart comparing census data to book content in children's literature here.  (Thank you so much, Mitali!)

How To Write Fiction Without The "Right" Ethnic Credentials

By Mitali Perkins 

Fiction, lest it morph into memoir, always involves the crossing of borders. We create characters who belong to different classes, genders, and generations. But when it comes to writing stories in our racially-charged  North American setting, we writers hesitate to cross borders of ethnicity.

Yet boldly there we must go, to shatter any kind of artificial, controlling apartheid with rules about who can write for and about whom. Do I give white or black authors the freedom to create brown protagonists? Of course! I want the right to include white and black protagonists in my fiction. I don't want to write only about Bengali-American girls growing up in California — been there, done that. So why should I protest if a topnotch Korean writer features a Bengali-American girl growing up in California and does it astoundingly well?

As with most resounding affirmations, though, there are caveats. My theory is that when we feel we lack an authenticity credential in our idea for a story, we must compensate with three powerful tools: imagination + empathy + research.

Read widely, writers. In this case, our imagination is best fed by reading the works of writers who are different than we are. When is the last time we finished a novel written by an author of a different race or ethnicity than ours?
Tread carefully, writers. If a particular community is processing a shared experience of suffering through the healing power of story, maybe it's time for our "outsider" version to wait. When we have more power in society than our protagonist, it's always good to ask whether to speak on his or her behalf. If we still feel compelled by the story, we must lean heavily on the gift of imaginative empathy. Always, love deeply within that community and listen well. Someone once said that to cross a border of power to tell a story, a writer better live there first, shut up, and hold a bunch of babies.
Study diligently, writers. Authenticity rings in the details of story. Dialogue and nonverbal gestures and postures come instinctively to insiders; outsiders must become A+ students of cultures not our own. Books, visits, interviews, academic journals, photographs, videos, movies ... each border-crossing novel should generate a bibliography, and feel as intense as a thesis when it comes to mastering the details.
The bottom line is that even if we've covered the bases of imagination, empathy, and research, we'll still make mistakes. But so what? Nobody, insider or outsider, has ever written a novel without something cringe-worthy in it—even if the author's the only one who notices it. All we can do is swallow our pride, admit to and learn from errors, and keep pressing on in the good work of storytelling.


What are you thoughts on diversity in children's literature?  What are your favorite books for kids that feature diverse protagonists or show a rich tapestry of people?


Sunday, January 29, 2012

2012: The Year of the Writer

While feeling great about where my writing is heading, I confidently declared on Jan. 1 that 2012 would be:                               The Year of the Writer.  

Me and Gordon Korman
Christy Raedeke
      Today, I decided to make that happen rather than sit around and wait.  (there's a lot of waiting with publishing, isn't there?)  So, to that end, I've decided to devote this blog to the year of the writer.  Each month will delve into a different topic designed to challenge and enlighten us as writers (and readers!)  I'd like to do more interviews and get a lot more guest posts.  I also have some fun events up my sleeve, but more on that later. 
     Get ready to kick things off in February! 
     In the meantime, who are some of your favorite writers?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Harris Burdick

I first encountered Harris Burdick when I was in 6th grade.  I had a particularly wonderful 6th grade teacher (Mrs. Bloomquist, I know you're out there somewhere).  Anyway, it had been no secret I loved to write since 2nd grade.  My teachers knew I was always writing little stories and they encouraged it.  When I got to 6th grade, Mrs. Bloomquist called me up to her desk at the end of the day and told me about a summer writing camp for kids that she wanted to recommend me for.  She gave me the brochure to show my parents and I signed up.
The most memorable part of that experience was our final writing project.  The instructor brought in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.  Each of us had to select an illustration from the book and write a story to go with it.  If you haven't seen the book, get to a library or just go ahead and buy it.  The illustrations are slightly creepy and all come with a provocative title and caption.  Harris Burdick is the mysterious illustrator, according to the forward by Van Allsburg.  Trust me, you need to see this book.
So, as I was flipping through review journals for work a few weeks back, I was surprised and delighted to see The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales / With an Introduction by Lemony Snicket by Chris Van Allsburg.  I couldn't wait to see an authoritative story for each picture.  Would they be anything close to what I'd imagined?  I immediately put the book on hold at the library and hoped it wouldn't take long to arrive.  It didn't.  And that leads me to this blog post.  I have read the book and wanted to share my thoughts with you.  
To begin with, I was disappointed.  I should have known it would happen, but really, some of the authors interpretations of the illustrations just felt so wrong it was like a betrayal of all the time I'd spent in my youth imagining about those drawings.  I considered not going on, so I took a break for a few days.  But I ended up persisting, and I'm glad I did.  None of the stories came close to what I'd imagined but most of them ended up being so surprising and interesting that it was worth the read.  Among the ones I loved, it's hard to pick a favorite, but the Cory Doctorow story thrilled me since it went the route of alternate realities.  If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you know how much I absolutely admire and cherish Michael Lawrence's The Aldous Lexicon, an alternate reality trilogy.  M.T. Anderson hit one out of the park with an otherworldly tale that becomes urgently personal by the end.  (Bear in mind, I've met M.T. and I don't think he was particularly taken with me.  But to break up the monotony of this post, I'll slip in my picture with him.)  
M.T. Anderson, not so impressed with The Restless Writer

Lois Lowry has a great imaginative and fun story in the collection.   And, Chris Van Allsburg, the one who started the whole thing, did a deeply satisfying and brilliant story as well.  

So, my verdict is:  I'm glad I continued reading the book but the fact remains, the original illustrations are so richly provocative that the imagination can ponder them into infinity and continue to generate new possibilities.  For that reason, the first wins my personal, "Best Books of All Time" award and the second wins a solid, "worth reading".  Both inspire the imagination and that's always a good thing.  

What are your experiences with Harris Burdick?