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.

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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

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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:

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Right

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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.

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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.

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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.

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