Tag Archives: children’s books

99 problems (and my story has them all): Diversity and “issues books”

For a while there, I had a great writing streak going. Ideas popped into my head at the most random times – at meetings, during conversations, while driving, or in the shower. I started carrying a small notebook with me so I could jot these ideas down before I forgot them – because too many times, I’d said to myself, “Oh, I’ll remember.” And, well, you know how that goes, I’m sure. It was like I couldn’t write fast enough. My day job was beginning to feel like this big inconvenience, because I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do justice to all these great ideas. But when an idea grabs hold of you, it’s hard to let it go. So I made the time to write, whether it involved staying up late, getting up early, or grabbing a few minutes here and there. The writing didn’t always come easy, and sometimes what seemed like a good idea in my head sounded clunky on paper.

And then . , . the well ran dry. For months, I’ve had trouble coming up with new, fresh, and compelling stories. Many writers I know have experienced this very thing, and in each case, the writing eventually started up again. But this felt a little different that what I’d heard people describe. It wasn’t like the well ran dry slowly, like a riverbed drying up in a drought. No, this felt more like the coin-operated showers you find at campgrounds – when your five minutes are up, the water stops abruptly, and there you are, freezing and dripping wet. Strange. And I had no idea why.

Until today.

Every spring, I attend a writing conference that’s hosted by my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Last year’s conference focused heavily on diversity in children’s books, probably in response to the well-publicized and much-needed #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. One of the workshops was “How to Write Diversity Into Your Stories,” which, ironically, was led by young White female associate editor from a large New York publishing house. At the end of the session, one of the questions I had was this: When writing for a diverse audience, how do you incorporate issues like racism, homophobia, class oppression, etc., in a way that’s appropriate for children?

“I wouldn’t focus too much on those things,” she said. “If you do, then it’ll be an ‘issues book,’ which are the scourge of the publishing industry.”

An “issues book.” I’d never heard the term before. But since the conference, I’ve seen that term tossed around quite a bit, along with its sibling, the “problem story.” Book reviewers tend not to like issues books, and if they do, it’s despite the presence of these issues. Most children’s picture books with LGBT characters fall into the category of “issues books.” Many books featuring people of color do as well – and when they don’t, the race and ethnicity of the characters aren’t really a central part of the story.

So now what do I do? I thought to myself. I’d written a manuscript about a girl who’s grieving the loss of her transgender sibling – an issues book. I’d started working on another one, at the request of my editor, about a mixed-race girl with two daddies who’s trying to figure out how to navigate Mother’s Day at school – another issues book. I’d been playing with a story about an intersex character, and another about a child whose mother comes out as transgender – which are, of course, issues books. Meanwhile, in the back of my head, round and round like the stock ticker in Times Square, I’m hearing, Issues books are the scourge of the publishing industry. No wonder I couldn’t get anything on paper! So many of my ideas involved addressing a character’s personal struggle triggered by oppression, and the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to a scourge.

That was only part of my epiphany. The other came this morning, when I read this article from the Diversity in YA blog. What they had to say about “issues books” basically boiled down to this:

  • If your characters are part of historically marginalized groups, then oppression is part of their experience.
  • If your characters have multiple minority identities, then the issues they face will involve these complex intersections. (For that reason, most books don’t include characters with more than one minority identity.)
  • Simple narratives that have a clean ending don’t reflect the realities that multiply minoritized people face.
  • As long as minoritized people face oppression, then books that realistically capture their experience will need to include issues – even if it seems like “too many issues.”

BINGO. This article nailed it. This is what I wish I’d thought to say at that conference.

It’s scary to me how easily this editor’s words derailed me, which speaks to the power of internalized oppression. I’ve studied internalized oppression for a long time (my dissertation focused on internalized homophobia), and I’m continually amazed at how, like a toxic mold, it can creep up and invades our psyches so easily. Internalized oppression may keep us from writing the stories we want to write. It keeps publishers from putting those stories out there – they fear they won’t make money, or they’ll be too depressing. But I don’t think it’ll keep readers from reading them – because, for many of us, they are our stories.

Just before I started writing this blog post, a little story idea popped into my head. I jotted it down, and later I’ll play around with it. Yes, that quickly, the idea well seems to be filling again.

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Filed under children, covert homophobia, culture, intersectionality, intersex, LGBTQ youth, media

This Day in June is released TODAY!!!

Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday, dear This Day in June!

Happy birthday to you!

TDIJ cover

 

 

You may think I’m very weird for singing “Happy Birthday” to my new children’s book. But you have to understand: Today is Book Release Day. Which, if you’re a writer, is a Very. Big. Deal. It really is like the day you gave birth to your child (if you have a child, of course). And writers do all sorts of things to celebrate The Big Day. Some throw a party for themselves. Some go to a bookstore and buy their book – because that’s just a cool thing to do. Some go out to dinner.

And some worry. Will anyone buy my book? Will it get a horrible review – or LOTS of horrible reviews? 

I’m one of the worriers.

So many of us have amazing creative talents. We write. We paint. We sculpt. We sing, or dance, or design, or craft. But for many of us, especially those of us who are “professionals,” those creative talents are hidden. Because it’s one thing to have our guilty creative pleasures. It’s another thing to go public with them, and celebrate our creativity with exuberance and pride. Why? Because it’s scary.

Consider these examples:

A few days ago, I complimented a little girl at my daughter’s school on her outfit, which was colorful and wildly creative. Her mom, who was standing next to me, whispered, “I wish I had more time to sew. Maybe when my kids get older.” As it turns out, she had made the outfit, but she didn’t want to admit it – probably because she didn’t want to brag and look like she was full of herself.

A few weeks ago, a student came to talk to me because he was concerned about his grade. When he opened up his notebook to show me how he takes notes, there were beautiful, intricate drawings in the margins. “Those are amazing!” I said to him. He blushed. “Oh, that’s just doodling. Instead of wasting my time on that, I really should pay more attention in class.”

A few months ago, at a party, I met someone who had a lot of tattoos, one of which was especially striking. “Where did you get that done?” I asked. She told me, and then, lowering her voice, she said, “I designed it myself.” She paused. “It’s really not that hard.”

All three of these individuals clearly have unbelievable creativity. And when they told me that they had sewed the outfit, drawn the doodles, designed the tattoo, they each found a way to downplay it – dismiss it, really. But honestly, I think all three of them wanted me to know that they were the creative force behind their awesome works of artistry. And you know what? I am no different from them. I love to sew, and do all things crafty. But when I sew a doll and give it to a child as a gift, I never tell anyone that I made it – even though I’m always in awe of each doll I make, because each one is so cute, and each has its own unique little doll personality. When someone asks me if I made it, I’ll tell them . . . but in a lowered voice, because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging. It’s the same with writing: When a children’s story I write gets published, on Book Release Day I want to jump up and down and share with every single person I see my excitement about this exuberant and celebratory picture book. But a little voice in my head tells me I should be Humble and Reserved. That I shouldn’t share my excitement, or brag a little bit (or a lot), or throw myself a big party – because that’s narcissistic, you know.

Personally, I think that voice is Fear. Because if we don’t share our creativity with others, then nobody can criticize it – or criticize us. However, when we bravely put our creative work out there in the world, we’re revealing our bodies and baring our souls – and opening up our deepest pools of vulnerability.

When I kick Fear to the curb, here’s the truth that’s revealed: I’m more excited about This Day in June than I am about anything else I’ve ever created. The story itself is fun to read. Kristyna Litten‘s illustrations are simply outstanding – they capture perfectly the essence of Pride, and there are lots of intriguing little details embedded in each two-page spread (including an image that bears an uncanny resemblance to me – see if you can find it!). At the end of the story, the cultural and historical elements that are referenced throughout the book are explained more fully, and there’s a section that offers guidance on how to talk to children about gender identity and sexual orientation (because, oddly enough, there are no books out there on this topic).

You know the biggest reason I’m so excited about This Day in June? Because our children deserve a beautifully fabulous book about Pride – and I’m thrilled that I got to do it. It’s long overdue.

So how will I celebrate? I will go to work, as usual – but on my way home, I’ll swing by my local bookstore (The Avid Reader, in my case) and purchase my book – even though I already have several copies. (I’ll buy the Kindle version too, while I’m at it.) Maybe we’ll go out to dinner, but I might just prefer a quiet dinner at home. I’ll have a launch party – just not today. (Stay tuned on that one). And I’ll read This Day in June to my daughter before she goes to bed.

This Day in June is available today from Magination Press, from Amazon, or from your local bookstore.

 

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I wrote a children’s book!

For those of you who read The Active Voice regularly, you may have noticed that I’ve been discussing children’s books quite frequently lately. And you may be wondering why. Well, here’s why.

I WROTE A CHILDREN’S BOOK! And it’s going to be released in early May! (picture me clapping and jumping up and down)

OK, now let me connect the dots. Writing children’s stories has become a side hobby, and I’ve written probably a dozen or so. But this one is different. And a few weeks ago, I read two articles that crystallized for me why these “different” kinds of children’s books are so important. Read on.

* * * * * * * * * *

In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.

The person who asks “if anyone really cares” is Walter Dean Myers, author of several children’s and young adult books, including the widely acclaimed novel MonsterThis past March, he and his son Christopher Myers (a children’s book writer and illustrator) wrote a pair of articles for the New York Times Book Review about the lack of diversity in children’s books: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” (which is where the above quote came from) and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” respectively. Both articles were shared widely on the Internet (they showed up on my Facebook news feed several times that week), always generating a wide variety of comments and discussion. One comment I read made a point that’s stuck with me: “Publishers often say that they’re committed to diversity. If that’s true, then where is it?”

This is what Christopher Myers says on that issue:

The mission statements of major publishers are littered with intentions, with their commitments to diversity, to imagination, to multiculturalism, ostensibly to create opportunities for children to learn about and understand their importance in their respective worlds. During my years of making children’s books, I’ve heard editors and publishers bemoan the dismal statistics, and promote this or that program that demonstrates their company’s “commitment to diversity.” With so much reassurance, it is hard to point fingers, but there are numbers and truths that stand in stark contrast to the reassurances. The business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find.

For the past three years, I’ve attended a Northern California regional conference sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). At each of these conferences, diversity and multiculturalism have been major topics of conversation. And every single year,  I hear editors talk about their publishing house’s “commitment to diversity” (broadly defined). They want people to submit manuscripts that feature people of color, or LGBTQ people, or people with disabilities. One editor I met at last year’s conference lit up when I told her I’d written a couple of stories about LGBTQ issues. “Send them to me!” she said. An agent I met at that same conference had a similar reaction – she was ready to take me on almost immediately. I left that conference feeling like there wasn’t just a “commitment to diversity,” but that editors would jump at any chance to diversify their offerings.

So here we are, a year later. And the diversity, well, just isn’t there. In fact, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in children’s books, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has gotten worse in recent years. The number of LGBTQ-themed children’s books is harder to pin down, since no one seems to be tracking these numbers. From my vantage point, a lot of LGBTQ-themed books seem to be about two-mommy/two-daddy families or gender nonconformity, and a good number of them are self-published. The big publishing houses (including the one represented by the editor I met at the conference) just aren’t putting children’s picture books out there that reflect the identities of their readers.

Why is that? My guess is that publishers fear two things: avoidance and aversion.

First, the avoidance. With respect to race and ethnicity, publishers may fear that White people won’t read books about people of color, and that diversifying their booklist will come at a significant economic cost. (Interestingly, Nikki Grimes, who was a keynote speaker at this year’s regional SCBWI conference, shared many letters from White middle-class kids who read her books and loved them). If people don’t buy books, then publishers don’t make money – and a lot of books need to be sold in order to post a profit. Moreover, there may be an implicitly racist assumption that people of color are less likely than their White counterparts to read – and if that’s the case, then profits will take a significant hit. (Walter Dean Myers writes quite candidly about why he gave up reading for a period of time.)

It’s bad enough if people avoid something; it’s even worse if there’s an aversive reaction. Quite possibly a fear of aversion may be behind the lack of LGBTQ-themed children’s books – particularly because they’re aimed at children. Anti-gay organizations often make inflammatory, inaccurate claims, many of which revolve around perceived effects of homosexuality on children:

Homosexuality threatens the institution of marriage in America, which will have devastating effects on children.

If children are raised by gay parents, they will become gay themselves. 

Children are subjected to harmful pro-homosexual propaganda in schools, which increases the likelihood that they will choose this lifestyle. 

By logical extension, the fear is children who read pro-LGBTQ children’s books will be harmed by them. Which is a Big Lie. The reality is that children and adults benefit tremendously from LGBTQ visibility in children’s books – and, consequently, are negatively impacted by the absence of these stories.

* * * * * * * * * *

So. Guess what? I have a children’s book coming out in a couple of weeks. (YAY!!!! Picture me clapping and jumping up and down.)

It’s called This Day in June, and it is, according to the book description, “an uplifting and upbeat book that shares the experience of attending an LGBT Pride festival and a day when everyone is united.” It includes a section at the end with information about LGBTQ history and culture, and it also has a guide for parents and caregivers about how to talk to children about gender identity and sexual orientation.

Why did I write it? If Walter Dean Myers were to look me in the eye and ask me if anyone really cares, I would want to have integrity in my response. A change in the course of children’s literature is way overdue. It’s time to dramatically diversify the representations in children’s books. It’s time to challenge and demolish the myths that anti-LGBT organizations have perpetuated – and that many of us have internalized on some level. It’s time for publishers to walk their talk, and demonstrate a commitment to diversity. And I want to be a part of that.

You can pre-order This Day in June from Magination Press or at www.amazon.com.

 

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Filed under activism, children, gender nonconformity, homophobia, LGBT families, LGBTQ youth, racism