More on the “Color Blind” thing

When I was a kid, we used to have a song we sang when we walked down the street, deliberately bumping into people we didn’t like.

I am blind and I can’t see, and if I knock you down don’t you blame it on me.

As if that absolved us from guilt.

Being “color blind” requires that you pay no attention to the reality visible from the corners of your eyes. Certain parts of reality remain unseen, unheard, unnoticed.

Specificity, accuracy and authenticity all come from paying attention. A good writer is curious, and willing to step outside his/her normal boundaries. A great writer is someone willing to admit that what they think they know about other groups could be false.

Minority groups do not have the option of being color blind. The media, entertainment to news, businesses, unions, and all ordinary aspects of life are dominated by images of the majority culture.

Authors who really care about writing diversely and want to do more than exert their right to “write whatever I want,” strive to find new and innovative ways to learn their subject matter. They don’t settle for the quick and easy things everyone knows, or take the stereotype path.

Posted in A writer's life, diversity, NaNo | Leave a comment

So You Say You Don’t See Color

At first, the question the novice writer asked seemed simple.

A member of one of my writing groups asked whether describing one of her characters as “a black man” was racist.  That one word (racist, not black) often seems utterly terrifying for many white people – especially white authors. I started simply, by asking if she was describing other people in her story as white men or women. Or was she doing what so many authors, and readers, do: assuming that white was the default, and calling out anything other than the default as wrong or abnormal.

Her answer was a little ambiguous. First she said yes, of course she did. Then she added that there were only two other characters, a white man and woman. The woman in the story was lodging a complaint of sexual harassment against…guess who.

The author was adamant that, in spite of the potential for cliché or stereotype, the woman had to be white, the man dealing with her complaint had to be white, and the perpetrator had to be black. It could not possibly be racist because she an incident like that had happened to her, she was simply using that for her story. Since it really happened, she was certain the information had to be okay. Since she became so certain about that, I was left to wonder why she had even bothered to ask the question in the first place, because no matter what anyone said, she already knew what she intended to do, so no one could change her mind in any way.

The complication is, this is essentially a memoir, and I’ve noticed how people seem to always want to be 100% exact in a memoir. But at the same time, she finally admitted she had felt no reason to mention the race of the [white] man doing the investigation. That detail somehow did not matter. Nor had she done any more physical description about the black man except to give his race. Height, weight, demeanor, facial expression etc., the only thing that mattered enough to go in to her story was that he was black. My final question to her was, why was it necessary to mention race at all?

Is it because you know the default character is white, so unless you tell the reader otherwise, they would see all three characters in your tale as white, and that was something you could not have? Did his being black alter some crucial factors in the story so it was unthinkable to keep that knowledge from readers?

Sometimes racism is that simple, that it is absolutely imperative that people know the bad guy was black.

Posted in A writer's life, diversity, NaNo | Leave a comment

It feels good to be known

I was recognized today.

When you are a writer, that’s important. Even when, no especially when, another author knows your name.

I attended a writing workshop at the Northbrook, Illinois public library about crafting YA characters.  The library holds a series of workshops int he fall entitled NorthBrook Writes! These are all open to the public, you do not have to live in Northbrook to attend (good thing, because I don’t live there). I attend as many as I can.  Heck, the one last week actually gifted me with a story idea for, of all things, a YA Historical. I’m already in the thick of research, and that may become this yer’s NaNo novel.

I never know what gems I may pick up at these workshops. And they are all free. Northbrook, like a number of other libraries across the US, are actively looking into ways they can help content creators int heir communities. This workshop brought in YA author Michelle Falkoff. She had audience members introduce themselves. When it was my turn, I said my name and her eyes glazed over for a moment. Then she shouted out, “I know you.”

Wowser.

I have at least one fan, and quickly copped onto the opportunity to talk for a few brief seconds about my next book, Courage. (I promise, I was really brief)  Michelle went on to talk to us about character development, and then led us through an exercise where we picked a character and wrote:

  • What he/she wants
  • What he/she fears
  • A secret they hold

Then we also wrote 10-12 traits about this character.

I used the time to brainstorm about one of my characters from my to-be-written historical.  It’s not the main character, but it is an important secondary character who:

  • Wants to stay alive long enough to grow up and experience real freedom
  • Fears crowds so much he panics easily when too many people are around
  • And doesn’t want anyone to ever find out about the fire he set at a neighbors barn.

Things about him on my list:

  1. He doesn’t talk much, gives single word answers as much as possible.
  2. He walks around with his head bent and shuffles his feet, but not because he is shy.
  3. He’s sixteen, but large for his age.
  4. His family is extremely poor
  5. He never wanted to move with his parents from the farm to live in Chicago, but came because his life was in danger if he remained behind in Mississippi.
  6. He saw his best friend killed by a mob.
  7. He envies his cousin, born and raised in Chicago (my Main Character), for her  for her carefree lifestyle.
  8. He can’t swim.
  9. After spending the first ten years of his life a slave, he’s still not sure how much emancipation will really mean, even in Chicago in 1871

This is the as yet unnamed cousin of my adolescent girl Livia, who has lived her life a free Black in Chicago. It’s the fall of 1871, in Chicago. She’s not happy that her home is crowded with these new relatives from the south. Not happy at all that the summer ha been so hot and dry. And has no idea how unhappy both she and her cousin and the entire city will be on Sunday, October 8, when sparks fly at Mrs. O’Leary’s barn.

Yes, I began my character profile at today’s workshop. As I told attendees, even after three published novels, I almost always get something useful from continuing writing education.

Posted in A writer's life, character, Courage, Novel Writing | Comments Off on It feels good to be known

Courage Spotlight – Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a quiet epidemic, hitting 25% of all women, and 7.6 percent of men at some point in their lives.  October is Domestic Violence month, for the millions of men, women and children who live within violent homes every day.

Domestic violence makes up 21% of all violent crimes, and has no respect for age, socioeconomic status, race, or geographic location. Occupation, income level, urban or suburban environment — studies show that none of these factors is an indicator of more or less incidents of domestic abuse. When it comes to racial divide, there is no difference either. According to Good Housekeeping,

“White, Black and Hispanic women all incur about the same rates of violence committed by an intimate partner.”

Acts of domestic violence has long-lasting effects on victims, such as PTSD and depression. Even when there is only one aggressor and one designated victim in the family, each act damages the entire family constellation. One in fifteen children witness domestic violence every year. Most tellingly, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program reports:

“Women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship.”

Linda’s mother was one of those women.

Linda Murhasselt is one of the children in Courage. Her father physically and emotionally abused her mother until their divorce.  At nine, Linda lost both parents, her mother to death, her father into prison for the crime. Now twelve, she has forgotten how to trust and can’t forgive anyone, not even herself. She feels responsible for welcoming her father back home, the act that resulted in letting him close enough to attack her mother that last time.

Like Linda, the ten million children exposed to DV yearly become fearful and anxious. They are always on guard, watching and waiting and never feeling truly safe. That’s why she cautions her friend T’Shawn Rodgers against trusting his brother, Lamont. She knows first hand that anyone can pretend they have changed.  She doesn’t want her friend to experience even more pain at the hands of his violent brother. Not when she fears she will never be able to forgive herself.

Click here for more on COURAGE

Posted in Courage, MG, Multicultural, YA | Comments Off on Courage Spotlight – Domestic Violence

Courage Spotlight – Sickle Cell Disease

There are many kinds of courage. Living with Sickle Cell Disease requires more than one of them.

Dontae Morrow is twelve, and does not want to be labeled the sick kid. He may have to live with sickle cell disease, but that does not define him. Being the minister’s son, however, does sometimes prove difficult to deal with.

He lives on Chicago’s south side where he and T’Shawn have become best friends. Truth is, he gets a little put off when T insists on “mothering” him, but that doesn’t interfere with their friendship. Medications and T’s care have kept him crisis free for some time…until the day the boys have an encounter with the Chicago Police Department that leaves him writhing in pain and fearing for his short life.

Sickle cell disease is a group of blood disorders that effect hemoglobin. It is the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States, affecting 1 in 500 African Americans, and 1 in 1,000 Hispanic Americans. The disease can also be found in People of Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, and Mediterranean descent.

Extreme pain can occur in individuals with SCD during a crisis, when sickled blood cells clog the smaller arteries depriving tissue of oxygen. Thanks to advances in treatment, many people with SCD live long and productive lives. But SCD can also cut lives short due to anemia and the damage that can occur to tissue and organs when deprived of oxygen during a crisis. This can include the possibility of strokes, even in young children.

The good news is the FDA recently approved a new treatment for SCD, as reported here.

That’s why, even though he hates being the sick kid, Dontae mostly follows the rules designed to keep himself strong and healthy, such as eating well, getting enough rest, and keeping up with his checkups.  The problem is, he can’t avoid the stress that comes when a police officer stops him because he “fits the description.” Stress brings on a crisis, and a crisis means he can’t comply with their orders – not even when a gun is pointed at his chest.

Click here for more on COURAGE

Posted in blacklivesmatter, character, Courage, MG, Multicultural | Tagged | Comments Off on Courage Spotlight – Sickle Cell Disease

Finding a Literary Agent

This post is a response to a question about how I got an agent, from someone about to start the process of searching for one of their own. The timing on was excellent. I have been commissioned to create a workshop on the business side of writing for KidLitNation.com, and chose to use this as part of my process for pulling the workshop together, because getting an agent is a common topic.

My first step in the process was making sure I understood what an agent could, and could not, do for me. Beginning writers often see agents as fairy godparents who wave a magic wand and get their story accepted by a publisher with a huge dollar contract.

Agents have contacts and reputations and negotiation skills. That’s what they bring to the table. They also want and expect a partnership with authors in the effort of polishing your manuscript, making the sale, and doing what comes after. Since they only make money if you, the author, make money, it is in their interest to partner with authors who will be prolific and professional. Since there are lots of authors out there, they can afford to be choosy.

In fact, most good agents are inundated with queries. Your query has to zing to stand out of the crowd of the hundreds the agent receives EVERY WEEK. And responding to queries is a minor part of his/her job. So you need to write something that stands out in that haystack and makes them say, “hmm, I see potential.”

There are three ways to attract an agent that I know of.

1. Get your actual manuscript in front of them as the result of a contest or auction. Many chapters of the RWA hold contests with various agents/editors as the final judges, so if your work is good enough you can get it in front of them by being a finalist. Other organizations do the same. KidLitNation recently held a fundraising auction that included critiques by several agents and editors. Information on some contests for all genres of writing, including non-fiction and poetry, can be found at http://www.stephiesmith.com/contests.html (Note, this is not an endorsement of any of the contests noted it is simply information.)
2. Attend a writer’s conference. SCBWI holds two major conferences a year, one in New York, the other in Los Angeles. In addition, numerous state chapters of the organization hold smaller, local conferences. Agents and editors attend and normally either take pitches from attendees, or invite all attendees to submit their manuscripts. (BTW, this often includes publishing houses that are otherwise closed to new submissions or will only take agented submissions.) Attending the conference gives you a side-door past the regular query pile. Note: This year KidLitNation used the proceeds of its fundraising efforts to pay the conference fees of ten authors and/or illustrators to attend the Illinois SCBWI conference.
3. Write that super-awesome query. 95% of queries earn a no. That leaves 5% that get a followup. You just need a great book and a super query.

I actually had results from two of the three methods. First: the query.

I queried, and queried, and queried. In the meantime I kept learning and improving both the query and the manuscript. Here’s a version of my initial query for my debut YA novel, Pull. (The publisher changed my title, darnit!)

How much do we owe the dead? Especially when our life is all we have to give? In my 68,000 word Young Adult novel, Pull My String, David Albacore is haunted by his mother’s ghost as he searches for an answer to that question.

Seventeen-year-old David enters his senior year in a rough Chicago neighborhood feeling a failure. Not because of school, although given a choice he’d drop out in a second. But his choices died the night his father’s bullet ended his mother’s life. David dedicates himself to keeping her memory alive and parenting for his sisters. Things seem to be holding together until a school bully makes David a personal target. Worse yet, David and the bully’s former girlfriend become a couple, draining his meager resources and alienating his sister. Things fall apart when David loses his job and his new girlfriend. He knows a man’s supposed to take care of his family but the stress of being a man at seventeen leaves him drowning in resentment for everything and everyone he loves.

I am an active member of the Chicago North chapter of Romance Writers of America and the Illinois chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and take writing classes and workshops through Harper College and Chicago State University. In addition, I have contributed several short stories to the Arlington Almanac, a quarterly journal circulated in the Chicagoland area, since 2007. As a lurker on your blog for some time I appreciate your advice and know your interest in Young Adult fiction. Per your instructions I’ve included the first five pages in my email. If you find Pull My String interesting I will be happy to send you the complete manuscript.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

That actually got little more than form rejections. Here’s the version that worked and got me an offer –

As an active member of the Chicago-North chapter of Romance Writers of America, I have heard many good things about you and your agency from both Courtney Milan and Simone Elkeles. Simone provided valuable feedback on my writing and mentioned that you had an interest in young adult books written for males, leading me to hope my 67,000 word YA novel, Pull My String, will be of interest to you.

Seventeen-year-old David can’t wipe out the memory of the night when he failed to keep his father from murdering his mother. When he departs the elite Grogan Hills Academy and enters a new school on Chicago’s south-side, he assumes a secret identity in hopes of a quiet senior year. He’s prepared to give up sports, friends, and his desire for independence to care for his younger sisters. His quest for anonymity is shattered when he’s forced to rescue one sister from an attack by a group of mean girls led by “The Dare,” the acknowledged school slut. David is prepared for the school psychologist’s attempt to force him out of the shell he’s drawn around himself. But he’s not prepared for the way guilt makes him lash out at the people he loves, forcing him to confront the fear that he’ll follow in his father’s destructive footsteps. Nor is he prepared for his growing attraction to The Dare, a girl hiding a secret shame more destructive than his own.

I am an African American woman who grew up in Chicago’s inner city, and knows first-hand the struggle to be the responsible eldest child after the loss of a parent. In addition to being an active member of RWA, I have had several short stories published in the Arlington Almanac, a quarterly journal circulated in the Chicago area, in 2008 and 2009. If you find the premise of Pull My String interesting I will be happy to send you the complete manuscript.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

Note that with the second, I tried to establish a rapport with the agent, noting something we had in common, or at least a reason why I did not pick their name out of thin air. I also name dropped one of their clients who I happened to know, at the time we were both members of the same writing group.

The next paragraph tells something about the story, concentrating on the characters and their inner journeys. Its not a synopsis but a hook for the agent. I do not try to tell the whole story because I don’t want to leave them yawning, I want them to be enticed.

The query ends with information about myself, something that lets them know I consider myself a professional. And never forget that all-important thank you.

This query got me an offer. An agent responded saying that she really liked the concept. But, almost simultaneously, I got an offer from another source, the contest route.

I had entered Pull My String into a contest earlier that year. Actually I entered several contests, I considered them a great, inexpensive way to obtain feedback on the opening of a manuscript. I chose contests with three judges to maximize the feedback I would obtain, that’s really all I was looking for. Over time, I used the judges comments to improve my manuscript. When I entered the Golden Rose contest with my story about a teen boy, I never expected more than additional feedback.

Instead I became a finalist.

Then I received an email saying the agent who was the final judge LOVED the book and wanted to represent me.

There I was, with two nearly simultaneous offers arriving over the Thanksgiving holiday. (I will never forget that) In the end I signed with my contest judge, Andrea Somberg from the Harvey Klinger agency, because LOVED trumped liked to me. And because I spent a few furious days researching them both.

As an FYI – from the time I finished the book to the time I signed with Ms. Somberg took just under a year. She sold it a few months afterward. All of this is actually extremely fast for a first time author. But then, Pull My String was not the first book I wrote. My first published novel was actually my third completed manuscript. While writing those first books my writing skills improves. I also took coursed, both online and in person. I can look back on my first books now and see why they never got anything but form rejections.

My big piece of advice – send out your queries, join professional writing organizations, take classes. And keep writing. There is no better way to improve. And remember that you and the agent are individuals entering into a business partnership. Let them know that you will be a contributing partner, not just sending them a manuscript and expecting a miracle.

References:

  1. My column on the “Who I Got My Agent” blog – http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-i-got-my-agent-b-a-binns-and-a-free-book-giveaway
  2. A blog from my agent Andrea Somberg – http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/agent-advice-andrea-somberg-of-harvey-klinger-inc
Posted in A writer's life, Agents, Novel Writing, Publishing, Pull | Comments Off on Finding a Literary Agent

Revision is a Bitch

Revision is a bitch, with a capital B!

I once wrote a post about the differences between revising and editing a manuscript at (https://romancingthegenres.blogspot.com/2015/08/revision-and-editing.html)

Those actions require two different skill sets and produce two different levels of pain.

Revision means changing scenes, moving action around, adding, subtracting, modifying. Change pieces from act 1 to act 2, or act 3 to act 1 and make sure the inner and outer journeys both align with the new story. Reset turning points, possibly even changing motivation and the moment of epiphany.

Gah!!!

I have spent the last three weeks revising COURAGE, my middle grade manuscript that required almost a year to originally craft.  Three weeks to change almost everything except the main character’s name.

My editor at Harper Collins is the sweetest, most patient person imaginable. Smart too, because most of what she suggested ended up as spot on improvements to a story I considered complete and immutable when I first typed “The End.”

The last three weeks were literal “nose to the grindstone” days as I revamped things starting from page one. I lived, ate, breathed the story. I have to be one of the few women in the country that has yet to see Wonder Woman (that changes tomorrow) because I barely came up for air. (I did take an hour for a massage last week, I needed that more than I needed air.) I seriously don’t know how people do this with hundred thousand word missives.  Mine is sixty-eight thousand words and almost two hundred fifty pages. I nearly went insane.

This is actually my second run at revising Courage.  I first tackled it in March. Unfortunately, I also had some severe life issues during that month. Really unimaginable, and while no one died, in some ways things felt worse than death. I’m not a person who shares every part of my private life and tribulations on social media, so I have not and will not go into detail. But I did speak to my doctor and he prescribed an anti-depressant which I took. People who know me would understand exactly how bad things had to be for me to go there.

Anyway, I tried to soldier on through the revisions. I actually got something done and sent a new version back to my editor by the deadline. Now this is why I say she is both sweet and patient because she never told me how bad that version was. She even tried to find something nice to say about the crap. I found out it was crap after the medication took hold and I went back to look over the material I sent her.

Dear God in heaven, I had never read anything so poorly crafted in my entire life, and that includes my first drafts which no one ever sees except me. I could not belief what I had written, and that I had actually sent if out for someone else to read. I’m surprised she didn’t send the thing to the wastebasket and demand her advance back.

I wrote this nicest woman on Earth an apology for having made her wade through that version. Fortunately, she already knew some details of the family issues I had to deal with at the same time I was trying to work on revisions. I may not post my personal issues to the world, but I do tell people who need to know. And she understood.

So now I have turned in the second revision, after being in a situation where I could dedicate myself and my sound mind to the effort. Two new characters, a change in motivation for one of the exiting characters, several new scenes and an entire new ending, along with the deletion of almost ten thousand words. The version I sent back after my March catastrophe had grown, I think in my depression I was adding things in but never taking anything out, even if the material was contradictory.

Anyway, it’s over, for now. After sending it back last night to meet my deadline, I perused selected scenes this morning. So far, it looks good and not the mess I had to cry over before.

I don’t know if there will be more before we get to editing. In the meantime, Wonder Woman. Tomorrow.

Posted in A writer's life | Comments Off on Revision is a Bitch

The Gift of #Ownvoices

I gave myself an extra special holiday gift this year.

Was it expensive? Absolutely.
Was it worth it?    Again, a resounding yes.
Will I do it again? Read further and see the answer.

What was this present – well, a little background first. As a professional author with a host of short stories and three books behind me, along with two more in progress including my middle grade debut novel Courage coming in winter 2018 from Harper Collins, I attend various conferences. Some are better than others, more boring or more informative, and may be geared toward readers or writers. No matter what, there remains one constant – most suffer from monochrome syndrome, the audience and speakers are largely white. Yes, the speakers are deserving and qualified, But I, like many of the young readers I write for, sometimes need a mirror up on the stage expounding wisdom, and in the seats around me. Someone we can look at and see hope for a future for ourselves.

I belong to the Illinois chapter of SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They hold a one-day conference every November called Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day (PWID) – Illinois is the prairie state, get it?

The conference theme was “Calling All Superheroes.” The event
included portfolio reviews for illustrators, critiques and contests (no, I did not win, darnit!) One of the best things for me was that this year, the conference organizers found a diverse cast for their faculty.

pwid-5

Agent: Linda Pratt, WERNICK & PRATT Executive Editor: Traci Todd, ABRAMS APPLESEED, Executive Art Director: Giuseppe Castellano, PENGUIN GROUP USA Executive Editor: Kendra Levin, VIKING CHILDREN’S GROUP Assistant Editor: Nikki Garcia, LITTLE BROWN & COMPANY

pwid-8

Linda Pratt, Kendra Levin and Nikki Garcia discussing issues in YA and MG publishing. In addition Linda Pratt gave a presentation on the elusive thing called Voice, Kendra Levin’s presentation helped attendees through exercises in character motivation, and Nikki Garcia helped us understand revising and editing MG and YA stories.

pwid-4The opening keynote speaker was Don Tate, a man who calls himself a “visual storyteller.” He discussed his long and winding journey traversing the children’s book publishing minefield, emphasizing the many twists and turns, and the length, of the journey while giving hope to those on their way. Mr. Tate will be one of the headliners at the 2017 Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural literature, spoke about his dedication to his craft. BTW, I spoke at the Virginia Hamilton Conference a few years ago. If anyone wants to go deep into diverse literature, and see a truly massive children’s library, that’s the conference to attend.

I want to give the PWID 2016 organizers kudos for noting the few attendees of color they have most years and resolving to look at possible ways to change things in the future. Maybe future attendees won’t look around and feel lost or out of place when they only see the same old same old in all directions:

right

Right

left

Left

Which brings me to the present I gave myself.  Writing and illustrating are largely solitary endeavors. Yet, we all gain dividends from having a community like SCBWI, RWA or MWA, to be part of, to learn from and gain support.

Many #ownvoices have little chance to become part of that larger
community. They feel isolated. Worse, many don’t even know those writing communities exist. While they too have a largely monochrome membership, people all over the world tell stories, from every race, ethnicity and religion. But #ownvoices can’t join if they don’t even know these groups exist, and if they don’t have the finances to join because there are hefty membership fees and even more money is needed to sign up for and attend meetings and conferences.

I wanted to see a few new faces that did more to reflect me. I resolved to do more than wish, and gave myself the gift of additional mirrors in the audience around me. My writing career has been moderately successful. I chose to use that to  extend a helping hand to other #ownvoices.

pwid-1

Khannie Dastgah, Urania Smith, B A Binns, Jill Kuanfung, Nabeeh Bilal

Aided by fellow SCBWI member Urania Smith, I set up a scholarship to pay the PWID conference fees so that three additional #ownvoices could attend their first professional
writers and illustrators conference. After a contest run earlier this year, we selected scholarship winners, Khannie Dastgah, Jill Kuanfung, and Nabeeh Bilal. They were all heartily welcomed by other attendees, even the ones who at first mistook Nabeeh for Don Tate.

It’s worth noting that almost none of the people who entered the contest did knew anything about SCBWI. Something for the organization to consider: if your current membership is largely white, and many have little interchange with any people of color, much less the subset that are authors and illustrators, those people have no way of knowing you exists.  That ignorance is costly, since the Predators in the business always manage to find those who are hopeful, talented, persistent, and dedicated to their craft…and alone. One of the contestants was on the verge of falling victim to a $20K vanity publisher trap because she had no idea of any alternative to getting her children’s books published.

P. S. My final reward was a copy of a book written by one of my scholarship winners, Nabeeh Bilal illustrator of  the Callaloo books.

callaloo-3

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An autographed copy!

So my gift to myself was to help others. It’s like the starfish parable, I’ve tried to make a difference to one other individual (okay three) with the hope act that will influence their lives for the better and they will keep giving it forward. That makes the answer to the question at the beginning of this blog – would I do something similar in the future, easy.

As long as my finances hold, the answer is YES, I will select a new winner next year!  I have a new YA coming out next year, and the MG set for release in winter 2018 by Harper Collins. My current books and short stories continue to sell and I teach an online class in writing diverse characters, so I have hopes of being able to sponsor another group next year. In the meantime,  if you know of any #ownvoices  out there, whether they write for children or adults, have them contact me to let me know.  If you happen to be an #ownvoice yourself, ditto.

Posted in #weneeddiversebooks, Conference, diversity, ownvoices, PWID 2016 | Comments Off on The Gift of #Ownvoices

Policies On Diversity Are Only The Beginning

Some thing require more than just a diversity policy.

An organizational policy on diversity is a lot like a school policy against bullying. It may make the people on top, school boards, administrators, teachers and counselors, feel good. It certainly gives them something to point to when parents or the news media come by with questions. But ask the kids how that policy really works, and you get the real truth. Bullies barely notice, and when they do, they don’t care.

I belong to several professional organizations I want to talk about, RWA ( Romance Writers of America), ALA (American Library Association), and SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). The good news is, all have looked around and noticed the overwhelmingly pale skinned, cis-gendered, middle-class, and non-disabled nature of their memberships. They are both putting together statements and policies.

RWA admits that their members from marginalized groups experience a different RWA than do those from the majority. They created a Diversity Ad Hoc committee as outlined in this blog post: RWA Reaffirms Its Dedication To Diversity Elements .

The report the committee made to the RWA board in Nov 2015 notes that the issues involved are huge. Both current and former RWA members from marginalized groups have experienced both overt and covert hostility from members who are in the majority group. Policy does not alter that. Nor does it change publishers who are not excited about diversity. Suggestions include education efforts for publishers and members, along with solicitation of feedback from individuals who have chosen to leave the organization or who decided against joining. The committee’s efforts are on-going and I look forward to learning more about what they are doing and what future steps they wills suggest.

The ALA policy manual state that: Libraries can and should play a crucial role in empowering diverse populations for full participation in a democratic society. ALA has a long-standing interest, including several special interest groups and affiliate organizations such as REFORMA and BCALA, and an Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that includes efforts to empower diverse voices.

SCBWI has partnered with WNDB and built a discussion board on diversity. My local chapter, SCBWI-Illinois, has set up a diversity committee to study. (I’m sure other chapters have done things as well, I’m just not aware of them, I don’t know how much communication there is between chapters, just that it doesn’t get down to my level). And that’s part of what’s wrong for me, the individual member who is also part of a diverse group who has in fact felt some of the both overt and covert hostility from other members. I’d love to see SCBWI and other writers organizations recognize the need to actively pursue and cultivate “own voices,” rather than just opening the doors and wondering why no one enters.

These organization are predominantly composed of white, middle class females. That’s not because people of color don’t write. Poor people, those whose religions are outside the “mainstream” an LGBTQ+ individuals also write stories for children. But relatively few of these marginalized authors and illustrators even know about many professional writing organizations. The policies and good intentions may circulate within membership, but there is still little outreach to those who have been left outside closed doors for so long many don’t know those doors exist, much less have any idea how to enter them.

I judged a contest for children’s books earlier this year. About 15% of the books submitted to the judges had diverse main characters. They provided a fascinating set of windows and mirrors into historical figures that spanned the globe as well as LGBT figures. However, not one of the other judges found anything worthwhile in any of those books and would not give them a second glance. Listening to them was like hearing publishers explain how they “just can’t get into the character,” when they reject a diverse manuscript. Not one made their lists of finalists or had any chance at recognition. The spoke so poorly about the subject matter (including accusing one of glorifying single parents) that I almost felt the contest should just tell publishers if their book had anything outside mainstream white characters, they might as well not send it in because it would never have a chance.

Recently I had an email chat with a publisher who spoke proudly about her companies devotion to embracing diversity. I asked her to expand on what that meant. They have had many meetings on the issue, she told me and I could almost feel her pride.

I asked about the results of these meetings, and that ended everything. There was nothing she could tell me, that information was a company secret. She couldn’t numbers, goals, or any comment about their pursuit of “Own Voices.” But they were definitely committed to diversity and talking about it a lot and I should just trust them, okay?

Just like the zero-tolerance policies on bullying that leave kids scared to go to school and injured by bullies, sometimes right in front of teachers. I hope our organizations decide to go further. Do actual outreach to those who have been outsiders while at the same time educating current members on the need to be welcoming, and calling out the instances of covert hostilities. Recognize that we truly do not live in a post-racial society. That people with disabilities are still mocked or considered a hindrance, that writers and illustrators from different socioeconomic groups may need an extra leg-up instead of the snide put down, and that people from different religions or ethnic groups have interesting, and universal, stories to share. That #ownvoices can do something extra; they have the ability to provide windows and mirrors to their fellow literary professionals by there very presence in a group.  Young readers are not the only ones who need windows and mirrors.

I am a joiner. I want to see myself as a welcome participant in my groups, and I do not enjoy being shoved in the shadows. To that end I have also joined some smaller groups. First, The Chicago Writer’s Association which I have since learned has chosen to ignore the diversity (or lack thereof) among members. I am left feeling a total outsider and I’m unlikely to be renewing with that group. The other group, the Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color, is just getting started. I am one of the moderators of this Facebook group, and I hope that in the future we will grow and assist each other in the perilous world of publishing children’s books.

Posted in ALA, diversity, RWA, SCBWI | Comments Off on Policies On Diversity Are Only The Beginning

PWID 2016 Scholarship winner – Nabeeh Bilal

Nabeeh_Bilal-photo You never know how the things you experience today can prepare you for an opportunity tomorrow. Likewise, you also never know how a person you met yesterday can influence your five year outlook. Let’s just say life is a puzzle and it’s up to notice the pieces and put them together.

I vividly remember the day I was finally accepted — after initially being rejected — into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Duke was, and still is, a vibrant arts magnate high school in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC. The school had visual artists, dancers, actors, musicians, singers, writers, and everything in-between. Duke was truly a different world, the kind of place you go to if you want to embark on a journey into the arts, a place that bleeds talent and cultivates success.

Coming out of the 8th grade, I really had no idea what or who I wanted to be when I grew up, but somehow I saw Duke as an essential piece to my puzzle. The fact that my sister had been accepted a year earlier gave me confidence that I’d somehow be a shoe-in.

Unfortunately, I broke my drawing hand a week before my audition which meant that I went into my audition having to draw with my left hand. Add that to the fact that I wasn’t very focused on academics at the time, and you may understand why I received a big fat rejection letter from the school. Needless to say, I was crushed. How could I ever piece together my life’s puzzle without the center piece?

I knew that had enough grit to survive in an environment like Duke, I just needed a shot. Luckily for me I had a father who was very determined to help his children achieve success. Somehow, my dad got me accepted into Duke on a probationary status. It meant that I had to attend summer school prior to the start of 9th grade, but most importantly, it meant that I could take the next great step in my life toward and eventually make a success of myself. The center piece of my puzzle was intact.

Fast forward 16 years later and I’d have to say that Duke was an essential experience for me. The people I met there inspired me to do better and be better. In fact, the people I met at Duke are the reason why I’m even in a position to attend the PWID.

Three years ago, I saw a play called “Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale”. The play was about a greedy young boy named Winston who eats all of his aunt’s Callaloo and is magically transported to the island of Tobago to learn a lesson. Months after seeing the play, I was inspired to approach the playwright to find out if she had bigger plans for her play. It just so happened that the playwright, Marjuan Canady, and I attended and graduated from Duke Ellington together (class of ’04).

I gained a lot of experience animating, designing, and illustrating for people in the years prior to seeing that play, but I now wanted to do something for myself, I wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact; something that would make me happy. Callaloo felt like the next piece to my puzzle, yet, a puzzle within itself.

Initially, I approached Marjuan about doing an animation of Callaloo, but animation is very tedious and time-consuming — especially if you’re the only one doing it — so we opted to start with a book. When we began our partnership, neither of us had ever written or illustrated a book of any kind before, but After nine months of drafts and revisions, countless sketches, character revisions, and skype meetings, we self-published “Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale” in January 2014.

Since publishing our first book, Callaloo (http://www.callalookids.com/) has taken on a life of its own. It features a book series, unique characters, a web series, live performance, and an arts educational program. I love to illustrate, but I love being involved in the entire creative process of building things even more.

My partner referred me to the PWID conference and its scholarship, and honestly, I did not think I would be awarded the scholarship to attend because there are so many people more talented and just as deserving as I am, but I’m fortunate that this came together. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m excited to be at the 2016 PWID because I know it will be a great experience to connect with so many other talented and ambitious people doing the same things I’m doing and trying to figure out how best to connect the pieces of their own puzzles. You never know how the things you experience today can prepare you for an opportunity tomorrow.

Posted in Conference, Contest, diversity, PWID 2016 | Comments Off on PWID 2016 Scholarship winner – Nabeeh Bilal