Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Multi-ethnic characters in children's and YA novels

courtesy microsoft office

Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful If You Come Softly, the novel we have been reading together here at 3 Sisters Village this October, is a modern day interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous play, a romance between an African American Romeo and a white Jewish Juliet. Simultaneously, it is an exploration of race and racism in modern day U.S. society.  (see previous posts here and here for further discussion of issues of race and representation in the novel)

At first glance, this set up -- of Black and White ‘star crossed lovers’ -- suggests a country whose racial profile is necessarily one of fixed, distinct categories. People who are Black or White, this or that.  Yet, as a country whose very President is multi- and not mono-ethnic, modern day America is increasingly a place of multiple ethnic heritages rather than singular ones.

In Woodson’s novel, it is the character of Carlton, Jeremiah’s Mercutio, who represents multi-ethnic identity. Carlton’s mother is white and father is Black, and he is the one to whom Jeremiah turns when he realizes he is falling in love with Ellie. Carlton is, in a sense, the moral touchstone to Jeremiah and Ellie’s romance, who realizes that interracial relationships “happen” and “ain’t the worst thing in the world.” (89) And although he’s a minor character, without him, the novel would suffer from a sense of racial anachronism. Carlton’s presence reminds the reader that multi-ethnic families and multi-ethnic characters are a reality in our vibrant society. And while couples like Jeremiah and Ellie may still face racist challenges from family, friends, and even strangers, they are no longer a complete anomaly in our ever-shrinking world.

And now that I’ve been looking around, I’m realizing that multi-ethnic characters are popping up everywhere in children’s and YA literature. So I thought that I would suggest a few other titles with multi-ethnic characters and call out to you, the readers, to share with us some of your favorites.

In Veera Hiranandani’s The Whole Story of Half a Girl, the primary character is Sonia Nadhamuni, a half Indian and half Jewish American girl. As the title suggests, this novel deals with multi-ethnic identity in a fairly explicit way.

Yet, in other YA novels, such as The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, characters simply ‘happen to be’ multi-ethnic,

To read the rest of this essay, please visit 3 Sisters Village!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bridge Characters in Multicultural Children's/YA Literature

Last week, I finished Jacqueline Woodson’s breathtaking If You Come Softly – a novel that is, among other brilliant things, a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with a white Juliet and African American Romeo. I wrote about some more general thoughts on race in the story here at 3 Sisters Village last week.

In the meantime, since writing a rather detailed critique of New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky at I’ve been thinking about how race is handled in other settings. Primarily, I’ve been thinking about the notion of the ‘bridge character’ or the responsibility of a multicultural story to build a ‘bridge’ for outsiders.

You see, in answer to a critique of his reporting style, which sometimes features white outsiders going to ‘help’ in Asian or African countries, Kristof answered in this youtube video that this choice was purposeful. Although it might play into stereotypes of “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors,” Kristof suggested that “One way to get people to read…is to have some sort of American they can identify with as a bridge character.”

Which of course begs the questions – who are the people we want to be doing this reading? And why do they need a ‘bridge’ into a compelling story – simply because it’s about non-Americans or people of color? (And don’t immigrants, and people of color in general, always have to do such ‘bridge-making’ in their day to day lives anyway?)

So I guess what I want to grapple with here is if literature bears a similar burden. Do ‘bridges’ need to be made between readers and stories about characters that aren’t from their countries or cultural backgrounds?

In Woodson’s If You Come Softly, one can imagine the ‘bridge’ between the story and the reader might be the Shakespearean play itself. That perhaps it is ‘easier’ for some readers to enter this (potentially frightening/inspiring of defensiveness) story about racism and police brutality because the overall plot – about star-crossed lovers – is one that is so culturally familiar. In addition, both of her characters aren’t of color, one is white and Jewish and one is African American. Their very romance is an act of bridge-building as it were, between two seemingly disparate experiences and worlds. In this way, Woodson’s novel potentially parallels the experiences of readers into her story.

Yet, much of Woodson’s work does not do this. Locomotion, After Tupac and D Foster, or even her stunning picture book Show Way, based on Woodson’s own family history of enslavement, are wonderful pieces of literature simply because they are so unapologetically set in their own cultural spaces. Like other fantastic writers – from Salman Rushdie, who peppers his novels with Indian English-isms and obscure cultural references, to Junot Diaz, who explains, and doesn’t explain, Dominican American political history in his writing – Woodson simply lets the strength of her stories carry the reader into potentially unfamiliar worlds.

To read the rest of this essay please visit 3 Sisters Village!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Children's Literature as Social Justice: Bruce Coville's 13 Rules for Writers

Courtesy One World, Many Stories Summer Reading Program

I don't usually blog about the writers conferences I attend.

Because, to be honest, there's plenty of people I see taking copious notes at these things and I'm 100% positive they are writing far more informative and useful blog posts than I ever could. Usually, I'm too busy doing the yogic thing (being in the moment) or the tired thing (being in the moment while drinking coffee) to really take the sorts of notes that could mean anything to anyone else after a conference.

But today at the Rutgers Council on Children's Literature's One-On-One Mentorship conference, I heard the fabulous Bruce Coville speak for the first time. And I was so moved, I actually took notes. Well, part of the time, anyway. The other part of the time I listened with slack-jawed adulation as he said all the things I think about children's literature.

That it's an act of social justice.

That it's a part of allowing all children to see themselves in their own worlds.

That it's a critical way to imagine a better future.

Actually his words were "Our work has the potential to change the world in ways we can't imagine."

The stuff of tears, people. Tears in my coffee.

He talked about power, and how our cultures hates children. There can be no other explanation of why, despite the rhetoric, funding for schools, teachers, libraries, and communities are slashed. There can be no other explanation why, when in pioneer times, they were family workers and earners, when, in post WWII/industrial revolution times, they were objects of family love and adulation, now, in our modern times, children are being bred to be nothing more than consumers -- who demand to be bought the goods they see advertised on the television and internet.

Literature is tasked with changing this dynamic -- with honoring children, and celebrating them -- or at least that's what his message said to me.

He quoted the wonderful John Berger (whose Fortunate Man I teach from all the time), who, in a short story wrote of a man talking to the ghost of his dead mother, who tells him to make one small change, and therefore, effect the world. (It was an example, Coville said, of what's also been called the butterfly effect.)

The barking dog in the yard is on too short a chain, the dead mother explained. If you increase the dog's chain, then the dog will be able to reach the shade and rest, and stop barking. If the dog stops barking, then the mother ironing in her kitchen will be remember that she always wanted a singing canary in a cage. And if she is soothed by the canary song, she will iron more shirts. With a freshly ironed shirt, the father will be better able to bear the weight of his workday on his shoulders. And if he is able to bear that weight, then maybe he will laugh and joke again with his teenage daughter when he comes home. If he laughs and jokes with his teenage daughter, then maybe she will bring her lover home. And if she brings her lover home, perhaps the father will ask him to go fishing...

And all this from the lengthening of the chain.

Coville asked us, in our writing, to lengthen the chain. To bring change to the world. To effect kids' lives.

These, except the above quote, are paraphrases. But I did actually take notes on the 13 Rules For Writers Mr. Coville shared with us. See if you find them as fantastic as I did:

1. Marry Rich -- some advice the wonderful Natalie Babbitt actually once gave him when he revealed he wanted to write for children.

2. Take acting or storytelling lessons -- public speaking is actually the #1 fear of American adults, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. Yet, part of a writer's job is sharing their work in public, a part of the job from which introverts can't shy away

3. Take voice or singing lessons -- your voice is your instrument

4. Take your art seriously, and yourself seriously as a business person -- read your royalty statements, learn to negotiate, and plan for your retirement

5. Never throw anything away you've written -- you never know when, 30 years later, that novel that never worked or the chapter in your idea folder will give birth to a publishable book

6. Take a vacation -- getting away from work is a good way to get back to it sometimes

7. Scare yourself -- take yourself to the edge of discomfort, take assignments that scare you. He quoted Cole Porter as saying "courage is freedom."

8. Stop scaring yourself -- don't be your worst critic, or let fear paralyze the writing. (Bruce Coville here told the fantastic story of how he and his lifelong friend Paula Danziger would keep each other going by promising to have 3 pages to read to one another every day on pain of outrageous shame. When this threat wore off after a while, they promised that the person who didn't have 3 pages done to share with the other every day would have to write a check to George W. Bush's campaign (at the time), and tell all their friends and family that they were writing the check. That inspired him more than anything, because there was no way he was writing that check.)

9. Make your own rules -- there are no rules to writing except the ones you make up. Here, he quoted Kipling: "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,/ And every single one of them is right!"

10. Take your art seriously, but yourself lightly -- try to be great, but try to be good. keep writing every day and every once in a while something splendid will happen.

11. Learn to take a compliment -- just say "thank you"

12. Don't be afraid to show your heart 

13. Embrace the unfinished chord in your writing -- something dangling for the reader to ponder 

Thank you, RUCCL, and thank you Bruce Coville.

Children's literature as social justice. Yea, for that, I can put down my coffee cup and pick up my pen. Because the arc of the writerly career may be long, but it should bend towards justice.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shakespeare in Black and White


Two households, both alike in dignity/ In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,/ From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,/ Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean./ From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/ A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life

---Romeo and Juliet, Prologue
Does the world need a Black and white Romeo and Juliet?
If I’d been asked this question a few weeks ago, before I had read three-time Newberry Honor author Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly, my answer might have been no.
Don’t we have enough Romeo and Juliet interpretations, I might have asked. Isn’t a racialized Romeo and Juliet a bit of a cliché, I might have added. I mean, Montagues and Capulets as African Americans and whites, really?
But all it takes is a good story to change anyone’s mind. Including mine.
If You Come Softly is hardly a literal retelling of Shakespeare’s work. But the Bard’s shadow certainly falls across its pages. Ellie, Woodson’s Jewish American Juliet, may look out her window, and not her balcony, on to Central Park West, Miah, Woodson’s African American Romeo, may hold a basketball rather than a sword, and the distance between their worlds may be the subway ride between the Upper West Side and Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but they are certainly world’s apart. 
Instead of familial feuds, high schooler Ellie and Miah’s worlds are torn asunder by forces from casual racism to racial profiling and police brutality. Real forces impacting young people in our real world today. But like Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers, Ellie and Miah choose connection over ignorance, love over hate.
But unlike Romeo and Juliet, Woodson raises no question of her characters ‘denying their fathers or refusing their names’ (well, at one point, Miah, the son of a famous film director, does hide his last name from Ellie). By this I mean, Woodson does not offer any facile, “post-racial” solutions to racism – suggesting that Ellie and Miah can somehow forget their ethnicities and backgrounds and run off into the sunset together because ‘love is colorblind.’ 
To see the rest of this essay, please visit 3 Sisters Village

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Your Women Are Oppressed, but Ours are Awesome." How Nicholas Kristof and 'Half the Sky' use women against each other

Actress America Ferrera in “Half The Sky.” Via

I just saw the most problematic image on Facebook. It was a photo of four blonde, female pilots in combat gear with the caption, Hey Taliban, look up in the sky! Your women can’t drive, but ours CAN!

Despite the issues I have with militarism, or this country’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m all for cheering for female pilots (yea, bad-a&& flying ladies!). What I can’t just can’t stand by and let slide is this “your women are oppressed, but ours are awesome” rhetoric, a rhetoric which only illuminates how – both actually and metaphorically — racism, xenophobia, and imperialism so often play out on women’s bodies around the world.

To me, this photo represents how blithely and blindly women from the Global North allow ourselves to be used as (actual and metaphorical) weapons of war against women from the Global South. In fact, that offensive caption isn’t significantly different from comments I’ve been hearing this week like, “These are countries where women have very little value.”

Sadly, the place where I’ve been hearing such phrases isn’t on some conservative TV program or website (where I think that all-woman pilot photo originated), but rather, on the PBS film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women, a well-publicized neo-liberal “odyssey through Asia and Africa” hosted by everyone’s favorite white savior New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof.

New York Times reporter Nikolas Kristof in “Half The Sky.”

Inspired by a book co-written by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and supported by talking head cameos from the likes of Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, George Clooney, and officials from the United Nations, CARE, and other non profit and development organizations, the film, unfortunately, reeks of KONY 2012 style missteps.  In fact, in ‘white man’s burden’ style, Kristof even says at one point, “When you have won the lottery of life that there is some obligation some responsibility we have to discharge.”

Perhaps reflecting this sense of noblesse oblige, the film is based on an amazingly problematic premise: the camera crew follows Kristof as he travels to various countries in the Global South to examine issues of violence against women – from rape in Sierra Leone, to sex trafficking in Cambodia, from maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, to inter-generational prostitution in India. Because, hey, all the histories and cultures and situations of these countries are alike, right? (um, no) Oh, and he doesn’t go alone! Kristof travels with famous American actresses like Eva Mendez, Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union and America Ferrera on this bizarre whirlwind global tour of gender violence.

There are plenty of critiques I could make of Kristof’s reporting (in this film and beyond, see this great round-up of critiques for more). Critiques about voyeurism and exotification – the way that global gender violence gets made pornographic, akin to what has been in other contexts called “poverty porn.”

For example, would Kristof, a middle aged male reporter, so blithely ask a 14 year old U.S. rape survivor to describe her experiences in front of cameras, her family, and other onlookers? Would he sit smilingly in a European woman’s house asking her to describe the state of her genitals to him? 

Yet, somehow, the fact that the rape survivor is from Sierra Leone, the woman being asked about her genital cutting is from Somaliland, seems to make this behavior acceptable in Kristof’s book. And more importantly, the goal of such exhibition is unclear. What is the viewer supposed to receive, other than titillation, and a sense of “oh, we’re so lucky, those women’s lives are so bad”?

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Racialicious!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Changing the Narrative: LGBT Young Adult Novels

It’s banned books week again, which is a time of year that always makes me appreciate the power of stories. Stories have such power, words such potential, that people actually fear them. Usually, this fear stems from a desire to limit the narratives that young people can access, and in so doing, attempt to limit the ways that they can think, feel, and live.

But they’re just stories, you say, just stories. These book banners are getting to het up over nothing – everybody knows that stories don’t matter.

I disagree. What those book banners know is that stories have enormous power, to change hearts and minds, to change the way that we think and act, to change the ways that we live. And stories aren’t inherently good or bad.  In fact, as a faculty member in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia, I teach a graduate seminar in Narrative, Health and Social Justice, and run a faculty level seminar of that same name. In those seminars, we often discuss how stories can be used toward ends of injustice. Unjust or oppressive narratives are part of the reason that a set of human beings can cease to see their neighbors as equals, as fellow humans, and that narrative change is part of the way that genocides – from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide — happen.

So that’s why, equally, I teach how stories must be operationalized in ways to counteract such oppressions, how stories must be used toward the goals of justice. Stories DO make a difference. This lesson, that SILENCE = DEATH, that THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL, that giving voice to our private experiences can galvanize social movements and create social change is a vital one, handed down to us by the civil rights, feminist, AIDS activist, and other movements.

So, do stories matter? Can stories destroy lives? Can different stories save lives?

Yes. Yes. and YES.

Take the dark power of homophobic bullying, which sprung to mainstream national attention in 2010, with the bullying-related suicides of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clemente, Seth Walsh, and Asher Brown. Although each story was slightly different, each shared a similar premise. These young people committed suicide after homophobic teasing and bullying, which ranged from anti-gay slurs to the now infamous invasion of Rutgers college student Tyler Clemente’s privacy with a webcam. The narrative there? An old one, an awful one. Some lives are worth living, others aren’t.

Yet, how can stories themselves change this oppressive narrative?

To read the rest of this blog entry, please visit Adios, Barbie!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities Giveaway! – An Interview with Author (and Ukelele Player) Mike Jung

Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities 

Mike Jung is a funny, funny man with a ukelele. ‘A ukelele?’ You ask. Yes, a ukelele, trust me, he’s like the John Mayer of ukelele playing. Or maybe the Jason Mraz. Whatever, he’s really good is my point. (I don’t have a clip of him playing, but check out the fantastic photo below of him serenading editor Arthur A. Levine and author/illustrator Dan Santat)

‘But this is not a blog about ukelele players!’ You argue. ‘This is a blog about middle grade writers’. Which brings me to the point I was trying to make all along — Mike Jung is a funny, funny man with a ukelele who is also a fantastic writer. His debut novel, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Books, 2012) is hilarious, heartfelt, rip-roaring adventure chock full of middle grade goodness! And not only that, he’s a one-time blogger at Mixed Up Files, who has come back to let us help celebrate his book launch!

So fasten your seatbelts, middle grade readers! Here is one stupendous interview with the man who made superhero Captain Stupendous famous:
Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on “From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors,” Mike! It’s nice to have you, as a former blogger here, return “home” to celebrate the launch of your fabulous debut novel, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities.

Superheroes, Robots, Aliens, and Dastardly Supervillains your novel has them all. Yet, Geeks get top billing in your title and in your line-up of protagonists. Whats up with that? Are geeks the new superhero?

Geeks and superheroes both have perennial relevance, if you ask me! I knew all along that while the heroes, villains, battle scenes, and sound effects were important for making the book fun to write and read (I hope, anyway), the real heart of the story lay with the emotional arc of the characters. One of the many benchmarks of Arthur Levine’s genius is his ability to cut through all the trappings of a story and see its essence. He helped me see that GEEKS is really the story of how Vincent Wu, who sees himself as dismissed, berated, and unlovable, but eventually realizes that he’s acknowledged, celebrated, and genuinely loved. Vincent is very much the eponymous geek.

So onto the second part of your title, Girls. There are three boy protagonists in your adventure the three stalwart members of the Captain Stupendous Fan Club– and one girl. Did you think about things like gender balance when writing?

Thinking about gender issues is something I always try to do – it’s a big deal, you know? I want my daughter to grow up in a world that doesn’t devalue or dismiss her because of her gender, and I think our personal sensibilities and values do infuse our work to at least some degree.
That said, I wasn’t thinking specifically about maintaining mathematical balance between the boy and girl characters. In early drafts Polly actually was the narrator of the story, and the most important secondary character was her best friend, who was also a girl. And after two years of working on the manuscript I hit a wall, because it just wasn’t working as well as I thought it could – I couldn’t find the story arc, the characters weren’t developing fully, and most importantly in my mind, the voice felt off.

I scrapped the manuscript, strip-mined it for recyclable bits and pieces, and started over. I didn’t make the story autobiographical, but the friendship of the boys in the Captain Stupendous Fan Club was loosely inspired by my own boyhood and teenage friendships, which were NOT gender balanced. And the manuscript suddenly came alive.

Now, does that indicate something about my own level of unconscious gender bias? Probably, although I’m not sure that’s a question anyone can honestly or accurately answer with regard to themselves. In terms of sheer “this many boys” and “this many girls” numbers, the story ended up resembling my own middle-grade life experience with a fair degree of accuracy, so it is, at the very least, grounded in the childhood Mike Jung’s subjective perception of reality.

To read the rest of this interview and qualify to win a copy of Mike's book, please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!