Archive for October, 2015

Diverse Hands Holding The Word Diversity

You may have read my post three weeks ago on diversity in children’s literature. If you did not, I essentially paid lip service to the cause, then made excuses for why I didn’t think it applied to my daughter’s and my book.

I got a lot of feedback.

I had one conversation with a delightful woman who insisted that I was absolutely correct to refuse to include gay people in my middle grade novel, because they were perverse and no child of any age should be subjected to conversations about sex. Over the course of our cordial debate I completely changed my attitude about diversity in children’s books.

Before, I felt like the movement was perhaps a little over-pressuring. I was offended by the notion that as white writers, if we didn’t include people of color in our book – regardless of the subject matter – that we were part of the problem. Perhaps we are. I won’t argue it; I’ve put down that particular banner, now.

My argument, with regards to our current book, was that the cast is very diverse already, even though almost everyone is white. The characters in this book range from German to French to Cockney to Swiss, and they have the accents to prove it. Isn’t that diversity? Well, yes it is. But if you are the parent of a Middle Eastern child looking for a book to give that child which will make them feel included, whites from Europe are really no different from whites from America. I argued that to simply make some of our characters Hispanic or black or Asian merely to be diverse was as bad as stereotyping; one should only include people of color if their inclusion makes sense, or if their color is integral to the story.

But then I started discussing with my “fan” the merits of creating a picture book with two gay parents. The example was a book about a married lesbian couple taking their child to the zoo to see the various animals. I argued that there was absolutely no reason such a book should not be written, and that the inclusion of a married gay couple was in no way perverse or sexual, and was just as valid for any child to read as one with a traditional couple. I had just seen a very cute commercial about some Star Wars themed soup in which both of the male parents took turns feeding their son soup while impersonating Darth Vader: “I am your father!” It was adorable. And while homosexuality has nothing at all to do with soup or Star Wars, I found the commercial to be an important one. A child of gay parents can see themselves very positively in that commercial. And children of traditional parents see a segment of our culture that is real – and there was no sex or perversion implied (unless the viewer is unreasonably bigoted).

So why not rewrite some of our own characters into people of color? Well, I thought about it. And while the reasons I gave in my earlier post were premature and not well-thought out, I stand by our decision, and for a very good reason. Many – even most – of the characters in this middle grade fantasy are sinister. There is a limo driver who is descended from imps – sort of a poor man’s jinni, characterized by horns and a tail. Like all of these kinds of characters in our book, we made them be from the same culture that created the myth. Imps (and jinn) are Middle Eastern. But we felt uncomfortable giving our slippery and underhanded imp character an Arab accent. We have a ogre, whose people are known for hunting and eating children. Should we have made him black? I almost made our brownie (who is a servant) black, but was cautioned that that particular combination invited offense. We did make our jinn black and gave them a subtle South African accent. We set up the jinn as characters of great power who might choose to join either the good side or the bad side, then had them join the good side. And my main character and her best friend are white. Changing either one of them would require a major rewrite which I am not prepared to do at this point. But almost all of the peripheral characters mentioned in the story are black or Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern.

So, are we part of the problem? I hope we aren’t. But we also aren’t willing to add to the problem on purpose by reinforcing stereotypes. Bottom line: Diversity in kidlit can go too far. But how far is too far? Much farther than I thought before.

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Finger pushing enter button of keyboard

So, about five weeks ago my daughter and I received a Revise and Resubmit request from our dream agent, on our middle grade fantasy manuscript. And because she is swamped with school, I have taken on the task of making all of the revisions and resubmitting the manuscript when ready.

I told the agent we would have the revised manuscript back to her in eight weeks. I finished the revisons a week ago. It is a struggle to resist sending it off so we can get to the part where she signs us.

The way I see it, an R&R is actually a whole series of tests … or opportunities. Of course the agent is looking for a perfect manuscript, or at least a marketable one. But not only that. An agent is also looking for a client she can work with, a client who gets her and a client she gets.  A client who understands deadlines, follows directions, accepts criticism as well as praise, and who can read between the lines. So when an agent says, “It might be better to relocate the character’s development elsewhere,” it helps to understand what she means and to be able to make that happen in such a way that it satisfies her issues with the manuscript.

I’m pretty confident I’ve addressed every one of her concerns and criticisms, and the revisions and additions all support these changes and improve the book. It took a lot of planning and late nights, but I think I’ve pulled it off, and I think the agent will like the results. But here’s another opportunity to impress: turning in the work early, exceeding expectations.

The extraordinary thing about this agent is how remarkably fast she has responded. She requested our full manuscript the very next day after we sent her the original unsolicited query. And one week after we sent the full she replied with an R&R, complete with extensive notes. Given that the consensus in the writing community is generally that an R&R request means an agent is quite likely to sign a client, I am understandably eager to put this revised manuscript into her hands as soon as possible.

The only problem is … I haven’t actually read the new manuscript, yet. Not as a whole, not in order. Not with a fresh perspective.  And the easiest way to turn off an agent is turn in a manuscript with bigger issues than it had before the revision. Or, you know, typos. But before I could read it again I needed to take a week off from this project and stretch my creative legs. I read a book by another author. And it was glorious. It had brand new words and everything!

But now I am back to our book, and I am about halfway done with the readthrough. So far I’ve only found a handful of very minor things to change, and not all of them related to the revisions.  A couple of tiny consistency mistakes, and so on.  But I haven’t gotten to the big changes, yet. I’m hoping I can get through the rest of it over the next week. And, barring any huge issues, I will be ready for the Resubmit portion of the R&R two weeks early.

Not a moment too soon.

Woman profile cut in crumpled paper

So what had happened was …

My daughter and I co-wrote a middle grade fantasy novel, which we called The Last Princess.  It turned out rather well, I think. I can say this, because we sent it to an agent we both quite like, and she asked us to make some revisions and send it back. This is very good, in case you were wondering.

Among the things she suggested was to slow down the pacing of the lead-up to the climax, because it came off as rushed.  So as I worked through the manuscript making revisions and getting closer to the climax, I struggled to find any definitive way to slow down the scenes in question.  I didn’t just want to pad them with filler, and wasn’t really any action missing that I could put in.

The day I was going to sit down and work on the offending chapter I hit upon the solution.  The night before the climactic battle, the hero sits in her room and contemplates giving up in her fight with the villain.  She has a revelation which changes her whole character, and she goes on to triumph.  This was originally a rather short scene — rushed, as the agent pointed out. But I hit upon the idea of having her mother check on her and offer some perspective, which informs the hero’s decision after her mother leaves.  The decision is still the hero’s, but now there is this lovely mother/daughter bonding scene and we get some new growth in their relationship.  I quickly wrote down about a dozen little moments and snippets of dialogue, which I then shuffled into a whole new chapter, ending with a revised version of that original scene.

It wasn’t until I sat down and rolled up my sleeves to write the new chapter that I realized this was the ghost of a scene we had cut from the story a year ago when we got to this point in our original draft.

Without going into too many boring details, we had originally planned to have Mom tell the hero a crucial missing bit of information, which would make the hero changer her mind about giving up.  But we decided it would make the hero stronger if she found the strength within herself to go on, then learned this missing bit of information after she triumphs — as a kind of bonus Aha! moment.  In the new chapter, Mom never reveals the missing fact, but drops enough hints that when the truth is revealed after the battle, the reader will think, of course that was the case.

That is, if I did it right.  I think I did.  But this just goes to show the advice is sound: In writing never throw anything away.  You may find a use for it later.

Diversity in Kidlit

Posted: October 7, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , ,

colorful hands

There is a rising trend in children’s literature — in all fiction, actually.  The inclusion of diverse characters.  Characters of color, LGBT characters, characters with all variety of economic backgrounds.  I think it is not only important, but crucial to expose our children to the notion that people of color, etc. are a normal, equal part of our world.  Because too much of our popular media (movies, TV, books, cartoon, music) either ignores diversity and assumes everyone is white, or puts those people in a bad or stereotypical light.  And I believe much of this comes from the works of non-traditional people themselves, just so you don’t think I’m pointing a finger.

Like it or not, our kids live in a world where gay people and Muslim people and homeless people share their classrooms and playgrounds. And if you’re like me, I don’t want my children to grow up thinking in terms of “us” and “them.”

But…

These are children’s books and movies and so forth, and I also don’t want my children (or anyone’s children) to be force-fed morality stories.  Kids should be allowed to have fantasies and adventures without a token transgender wizard or a random Asian space alien.  My own story, for example (which I am co-authoring with my daughter) is bursting with diversity. Our book features elves and dwarves and pixies and dryads as well as goblins and ogres and gremlins and imps.  And I will be very resistant to anyone who tells me I “must” make one of my elves gay, or one of my ogres Jewish.  You can’t make me.

The thing about every “movement” is that there are gaps and over-reactions.  Most of the people and organizations trumpeting about diversity in books are not militant about it.  But some are.  And some are only interested in certain kinds of diversity.  I read a rant by the founder of one group that tried to tell me I was the problem if I was white and didn’t go out of my way to include non-whites in my story.  But my daughter’s and my book includes people from France, Germany, Ireland, England, and Sweden. So those aren’t diverse enough?

I understand this is a real issue.  And it has been going on in America since before the days of the minstrel shows.  I remember Sambo’s Restaurant when the little boy in all of the murals was black, then suddenly he was East Indian when stereotyping black people went out of fashion (but stereotyping other people of color was still fair game).  But if you’re going to get on a soapbox about treating minorities fairly and appropriately, then you should include all minorities. And you should understand that they are minorities because there are fewer of them as a percentage of the population than your average White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  Every classroom in America is not a miniature United Nations. And it’s not a sin to be white.

Moreover, making a character Hispanic just so you can feel like you’re being inclusive is not helping the issue.  Is there any reason for your character to be Hispanic, in particular? Does that fit with the rest of your story? If your story takes place in Maine and you turn Ed into Edwardo just so you can jump on the Diversity bandwagon, are you not edging into “token” territory?  Oh, and if he does fit, you don’t have to make him love spicy food and telenovelas.  Just saying.

One last radical thought.  Children’s books are for children.  Children are smart.  And they are natural mimics.  My daughter’s and my book is for readers from 8 years old and up.  And I don’t feel like 8-year-olds need to be exposed to anyone’s agenda, political or otherwise.  I think it’s okay if most of the people in our book are white.