On Saturday afternoon I went with fellow Teen Writers Bloc member, Sona Charaipotra, to Books of Wonder for the “Diversity in YA” blog tour. Authors Jacqueline Woodson, Cindy Pon, Malinda Lo, Neesha Meminger, Matt de la Pena, Kekla Magoon, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich joined editor Cheryl Klein in a discussion about diversity and diverse book titles in the Young Adult market. I was very excited to be in the same room with people who have influenced my own writing and made me desire to become a successful children’s book author.
Question: Why do you write for teens?
Neesha Meminger, author of Shine, Coconut Moon and Jazz in Love, said when she first started writing she wrote a large, multi-generational tome because she thought that’s what South Asians wrote about. Then she sent it around to agents and received some rejections, but one woman pointed out that her favorite part of the book was the teen character, so she decided to write it as a teen book and found her place in the teen world.
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of Eighth Grade SuperZero, said she always knew she wanted to write for children and teens because she was working with children in various roles, and wanted to write about transformation and change and what better way to write about it than for kids.
Jacqueline Woodson, author of over 40 books for young people such as Feathers, believes that she writes books from the age she’s stuck in, where she’s trying to work things out.
Question: Do you identify strictly as an African-American, Latino American, Asian-American, LGBTQ etc…? Do you feel like you have to “represent” the group?
Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Huntress, admits to resisting labels as a young person. “I’m American,” she said to the many people who asked where she was from. She hated that question growing up because it insinuated that an Asian face didn’t mean she was born and raised in America. As she aged, she wanted to be just a writer without any qualifiers, but then she started realizing the power of qualifiers, and being out in the world as an “Asian writer”, “lesbian writer”, “feminist writer” etc, gave her a sense of power.
Neesha Meminger doesn’t feel like she has to represent her identity, but writes about a particular experience that happens to fall within a certain ethnic or racial group. She writes from this experience and vantage point because she desperately needed to see her experience as a South Asian on the page, so she writes them. She said she is, “Writing herself into existence.”
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich said she was a black author who liked cheese, and she represents all the things she loves. She wanted to write about the varied and diverse experiences of people of color, and for her it is all about the character.
Kekla Magoon, author of The Rock and the River and Camo Girl, said she finds it important to write about African-American and black kids and to have their faces on the book covers for kids looking to read something with characters in it that look like them. Writing about the brown/black experience is more than just about skin color, and as a multiracial person it is the line she stands on.
Jacqueline Woodson said she writes from her vantage point as a black person and a queer person because it comes from the sense of trying to legitimize ourselves on this planet through writing. She wants to bring to the page what has been historically invisible. She starts with the “otherness” of the character and then gets to the humanity of the character and their human experience.
Cheryl Klein said something powerful that she’d read: “Kids need windows and mirrors. Windows into other experiences and mirrors to reflect back their own experiences.”
Question: What challenges and pleasures have you faced in publishing diverse characters?
Cindy Pon disliked the preconceived notions she encountered about fantasy with Asian characters in it. And that her books needed kung fu and things of that sort. Or that her books would only interest an Asian American audience.
Neesha Meminger spoke about the disconnect between the “business” of publishing and the art of writing. She reflected on the many polite rejections she received that said, “Great book but no market for it.” She knew there were kids out there that wanted and needed to read her stories. And it reinforced that she believed there was a huge fissure between creativity and commerce, and how many publishing houses are afraid of risks.
Malinda Lo lamented that she’s had an overwhelmingly positive experience publishing her lesbian retelling of Cinderella Ash, and feels like the exception to the rule.
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich said the most disappointing thing she’s experienced is overhearing parents discuss her book. She told a story of how she would be at book fairs and book expos and kids would pick up her book Eighth Grade SuperZero, and ask their parents to buy it. The parent would scan the paragraph on the back and reach the word “Jamaician” and say something to the effect of, “This book isn’t for us.” She wrote this book for kids just like her and those not like her, and thus the parents’ reaction was disheartening. She finds that kids are grateful to read about themselves, as well as others.
Kekla Magoon says kids are way more open-minded about diversity than adults. And most of the problem seems to be the “gatekeepers” of children’s literature: librarians, teachers, publishers, and parents.
Matt de la Pena, author of I Will Save You, Mexican White Boy and others, reiterated that the business of writing and the art form of writing are so separate. He doesn’t want to be the “Hispanic” author to fulfill some sort of quota, and feels like his books are about being biracial and “not being Mexican enough”. Most times he feels like a sell-out.
Question: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Malindo Lo: “Write whatever you want to write and make it as gay as you want to. Tell your stories the way you want to tell them.”
Kekla Magoon: “Believe in your voice. You’re going to get a lot of feedback, criticism, and input on plot, characters and structure, but cling to that unchangeable essence of your voice.”
Jacqueline Woodson: “Just write all the time. Don’t be afraid of what you’re writing. And surround yourself with people who “get” it . Sit on the ‘stoop’ with other writers.”
Thanks to Cheryl Klein and the Diversity in YA group of authors for their creative works and great answers. However, I will say that I was disappointed in the preparations taken by Books of Wonder for their tour stop. There were only 13 chairs for audience members, leaving a huge gap in the back of the store. People had to sit on the floor or were unable to hear. I have attended lots of events at this bookstore and have seen the entire back area filled with chairs and ready for other events. It is just a shame that the attention to detail and presentation reflected at other events wasn’t mirrored during this particular event. I couldn’t stop shaking my head, because of course, an event featuring writers of color wouldn’t look like the other events I’ve attended at the same store. Epicfail Books of Wonder. Shame on you!