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NYC Teen Author Festival 2014

I really enjoyed the NYC Teen Author Festival symposium (Saturday, 3/22). Lots of great conversation and insights by the assembled authors.

The moment that sticks with me, though, was the panel and crowd response to the “where’s the diversity?” question posed by my seatmate in the audience. She reflected on the preponderance of white authors on Friday and Saturday’s panels, and asked how the presenters approached the issue in their books.

One author spoke with evident sincerity (I’m paraphrasing here, since I didn't take notes at the time) about how she felt that as long as her characters were grounded in authentic experience and evoked universal human emotions, their race wasn't important; readers of different backgrounds could and did identify with them. The audience responded with a spontaneous round of applause.

Underneath the clapping was a murmur, which I parsed as disappointment. That was my reaction, anyway. I heard a partial truth, a response informed by fear.

Fear says, “You can’t write what you don’t know, what you haven’t directly experienced.”

When does listening to fear help us grow as writers? Don’t young readers deserve our best efforts? Deserve that we push ourselves to be aware of gaps in our knowledge, and try to address them?

True, you don’t have to be a pig or a spider to appreciate the friendship that blossoms in Charlotte’s Web. And yet, the position that when a writer conveys her authentic experience it will be relevant to everyone (so quit bringing this up, already), strikes me as too pat, too defensive, too dismissive. Especially when a white person is saying it.

Can you write for teens in 2014 and refuse to acknowledge that excluding people of color from your fictional landscape is hurtful? I’m talking about all genres, here: contemporary, historical, fantasy, sf, action, mystery.

Novels are fictional because we make them up, right? Often, based on what we’re interested in knowing. We can’t travel backwards in time, and yet that hasn't stopped anyone from writing historical novels. I’m no expert on falconry in Renaissance France, the origin of the Hope Diamond, or harvesting southern California’s edible native plants. But when I need that information for a project, I expect to research it, not absorb it from the ether. I try to read widely, maybe interview an expert in the field. When I've gotten things wrong, I try and accept correction gracefully, strive to do better the next time.

I don’t presume to think, “If I don’t already know this, it must not be important to my work.”

Respectfully, I would submit that as writers, it’s our job to think about aspects relevant to a novel-in-progress and then make every effort to remedy our ignorance, wherever that journey takes us. If we decide we owe it to our readers (and to ourselves) to portray diverse fictional worlds, we have a writer’s usual tools for creating authentic characters: observation, imagination, empathy, research. Why not use them?

For those interested in more practical advice, here are some links I've found useful on the subject of “Writing the Other”:

CBC Diversity committee, Resources for Writers

Cynthia Leitich Smith, Writing, Tonto & the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die   snippet: “Truth is, all authors worry about doing our best work and connecting with readers. Or at least we should. I know I do. I write both within and across. My latest story, a romance-friendship short, is told from the perspective a black, male, gay guardian angel. We all must stretch to some degree.”

Nisi Shawl, Transracial Writing for the Sincere    snippet: “Cultural background is data. If you want it, and you don’t have it, it’s valuable; treat it that way.

Zetta Elliott, Decolonizing the Imagination snippet: “If we do not create stories that expose the beauty and complexity of our varied realities, we will indeed remain trapped by the “fictions” created by those outside of our cultures and communities.

This Saturday, July 14, at 2 pm, I’ll be speaking at a book fair held at the Barnes & Noble in Central Plaza, 2614 Central Park Ave, Yonkers, NY. Festivities kick off at 11 am with a performance by Gigi and the Merriment Band, and continue with storytellers and puppeteers from Roosevelt High School. Fun for all ages! Proceeds to benefit the Yonkers Public Library branches.

fairy tales rule

Why’d it take me so long to figure this out: Undercover Boss = Cinderella! No wonder I’m such a sucker for this show.

Disguised as a lowly worker whose real worth is hidden by strange facial hair or harsh makeup and fake nails, UB toils at various jobs within the company for several days. The hotter and grungier (cleaning port-a-potties, landscaping, snaking drains), the better. During these trials, UB sufferers humiliation, makes friends, and occasionally is horrified by the people who work for the company. Always, he or she comes to appreciate the effort required to do these frontline jobs every day, and the sacrifices workers are making for their families. (To drive home this point, the show’s producers are sure to have lined up people with whom the boss can empathize.)

At the end, UB gets a reverse makeover and is “revealed” to coworkers in some palatial office or ranch or winery or estate, where cash prizes and favors are bestowed on the employees who helped during the previous week. Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, disloyal, rude, or incompetent workers are offered a path to improvement. Implicit is the threat that if they don’t shape up, they will be shown the door of the palace.

And everyone lives happily ever after under UB’s newly empathetic management.

Book du jour: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

by Rae Carson  

Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom.

In this debut novel, a fat girl finds her own strength and learns to be queen. It’s gotten rave reviews and blurbs, including by Tamora Pierce (“engrossing”), and should appeal to fantasy fans who like their heroines brave and sensitive. Some elements reminded me of Harry’s journey in The Blue Sword, but the setting has a distinctive Spanish flavor. The real draw is a sympathetically flawed protagonist who gradually comes into her own.

According to the author’s blog, sequel The Crown of Embers is due fall 2012. Excellent.

by Chris Moriarty

The day Sacha found out he could see witches was the worst day of his life.

I’m really glad that this novel was acquired in a multi-book deal, because 300 pages is just not enough time to spend in Sacha Lassky’s alternate turn-of-the-last-century New York. This book gets the ball rolling nicely, grounding us in Sacha’s particular family, neighborhood, and magical tradition before the plot spirals into the city’s wider world when Sacha gets a job with the NYPD’s most notorious Inquisitor. A fun range of characters and lots of action and magic. Next installment, please!

Book du jour: Anna Dressed in Blood

by Kendare Blake

The grease-slicked hair is a dead giveaway—no pun intended.

Not your average ghost story: teenager Cas “Don’t call me ghostbuster” Lowood dispatches dangerous ghosts on his own, without much fuss or drama. Then he meets Anna. She’s a special case, and he’ll need backup to cope with her.

While I thought the plot was uneven, requiring some uncharacteristic lapses of attention to detail on Cas’s part to keep the twists coming, I enjoyed the world, atmosphere, and character dynamics very much.

According to the author’s blog, the sequel, Girl of Nightmares, is on the way. (Amazon.com lists a release date of August, 7, 2012. Put it on the calendar!)

Book du jour: The Scorpio Races

By Maggie Stiefvater     
“It is the first day of November, and so, today, someone will die.”
Loved this book. Way to take an item of faerie lore—dangerous water horses—and build a compelling story and characters around it. Strong writing, characters you care about, and a setting that infuses the whole novel with beauty and menace. Most excellent.
(Cabin Boy got to watch several extra episodes of “Ruby and Max” at bedtime, because his mama wasn’t ready to put the book down.)

World Fantasy Convention

in San Diego next weekend. Very excited to take off the "mother of a 2-year old" hat and put on my "author" hat for a couple of days. I believe the convention is sold out, but if you're already going, I'll be attending Friday and Saturday, with a panel scheduled for Saturday, 10am

The Realities of Sailing:   Fantasy characters often travel via ship over the open waves, whether it be a terrestrial sea or a mystic domain of haunted waters. What do fantasy writers REALLY need to know about nautical vessels in order to bring them to life in fiction? A panel of experienced seamen discusses how boats and ships really work: telling port from starboard, talking about how ships are steered and crewed, how waterways are navigated and diagramming a ship. What details should be excluded in the interest of story flow?

Shelly Rae Clift, Dennis McKiernan, Devin Poore, Heather Tomlinson, Harry Turtledove (M)

hmm... wonder which part of my bio got me on this panel. Maybe the part about selling the house and moving onto a sailboat five years ago?

I'll be on the YALAPALOOZA panel at 5 pm on Saturday. Always a great time... and a new location this year, the USC campus. More info at the LA Times Events website.

edited to fix date... NEXT weekend, not this weekend! Arrgh. Too much excitement.

When cats revise.

I knew the draft needed more work, but really, Mr. Y ... was it necessary to shred the pages?