Innate Identity vs. Imagining the “Other”

Rebellion Final Cover medWith all three books of the Tankborn trilogy completed and released into the wild, I’m doing as a writer does and working on my next project. Not to give too much away, but it’s a dark fantasy YA with a multi-cultural cast. No elves/orcs/wizards, but my own invented world. I’m on solid ground with my world-building, because it’s not based on anything except my own fertile imagination.

But what about creating that multi-cultural cast, or more importantly, my main character? She’s Alejandra, a 16-year-old, 2nd generation Mexican-American girl who’s Catholic and lives in Reno, Nevada. She and her mom aren’t below the poverty line by any means, but they struggle a bit financially. She’s not a super-genius, but smart enough to get a scholarship if she works hard.

Some of the cultural/identity elements of the character:

  • Mexican American
  • Catholic
  • Speaks a little Spanish (but not enough to carry on a conversation with her abuelita)
  • Lives in/grew up in Reno
  • Her family is little lower on the socio-economic scale
  • Very close to her mom
  • Hard worker
  • Not one of the popular kids

Some of my personal cultural/identity elements

  • Russian-Austrian-Italian-German-American
  • Catholic raised, Jewish heritage
  • Speak quite a bit of Spanish (I could carry on quite a credible conversation with Alejandra’s abuelita)
  • Grew up in Southern California/live in NorCal
  • Have relatives in Reno & have visited there often
  • My family was middle-class, but we went through some rough financial difficulties
  • I was very close to my mom
  • I was a very hard worker in school
  • Most definitely not one of the popular kids

Based on who I am, how well can I get into this character’s head? How authentically can I write her identity, her culture?

It might seem like I’ve got it covered since there’s quite a lot of overlap in our life experience. But there’s a very key area missing–she grew up Mexican-American, and I grew up as a white American.

People are people, you might say. We have more in common than we have differences. Absolutely. But if I want to write an authentic character, one with a different core identity than mine, who grew up immersed in a world different than mine, I can only imagine so much. And it’s possible that what I “imagine” about the character will come from my own ingrained stereotypes that will worm their way into my writing.

Rosary-sSo what do I not have to imagine? What have I lived? I’ve lived the Catholic upbringing. Catholicism is so rooted inside me that to this day I can’t walk inside the church without reaching for the holy water to dip and make the sign of the cross. Even though I haven’t attended Mass in years, I immediately feel comfortable inside a Catholic church, like I’m home.

By the same token, I often feel out of place during services at other Christian churches. And although I am Jewish by heritage from both sides of my family and am married to a Jewish man, I’m a complete fish out of water in a synagogue. I don’t know the prayers, in either Hebrew or English. I don’t know the songs. Judaism wasn’t part of my upbringing, so it didn’t get into my DNA like Catholicism did.

I know what it’s like to be the unpopular outsider as a teenager. After all these years, that pain still lingers. I know what it’s like to work hard in school. I lived through difficult financial times when I was a kid, where my parents’ worries filled me with anxiety. I know what it’s like to be female, to sometimes be slighted because of my gender, and to sometimes fear men.

But despite all that Spanish I learned over the years, despite living with many Hispanic neighbors in L.A., do I know what it means to grow up Mexican-American? No. Not in any gut way. I’m white, and I lived the white experience, with all its privilege and dominance, during a time when racism was far more accepted. I’ve experienced subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bigotry and trivialization because of my gender. But it’s a white face I present to the world, and the world has treated me accordingly because of it.

So how do I authentically write Alejandra? To some extent, I use my imagination, but in the end, I need some expert input. A friend has been giving me advice about the Spanish that is sprinkled throughout the book. And before the book ever sees the light of day, I intend to find a Mexican-American beta reader to vet my cultural references and make sure I haven’t let stereotypes creep in.

Could I just decide to write only white characters in my books? I could. But I choose not to. And with that commitment to write diverse, comes the responsibility to make my absolute best effort to do it right.

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#LA14SCBWI: Schmooze, Learn, Get Inspired


The view from my room at the Century Plaza #LA12SCBWI.

I’m really looking forward to my upcoming trip to SCBWI-LA, the annual summer conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. My flight down to LA is at a much less ungodly time than my usual trips–it leaves at a very civilized 10:15am.

Besides all the fun and inspiration of attending panels and keynotes and seeing author friends I only see at conferences, I’ll be seeing a couple of l*o*n*g time non-writer friends. We’re talking one friend I went to kindergarten with and another friend I met in college (which believe me, was a long time ago). I think my college friend and I haven’t seen each other for close to 30 years. I’m also going to be meeting up with a brand-shiny-new friend I met by chance at Burbank airport.

diverse-logo-sI’m also thrilled to be participating in a We Need Diverse Books™ poolside chat on Saturday (more info here). This will be my first time taking part in an “official” WNDB event, so it’s pretty cool.

Anyone else going to LA? Or any other conferences you’re looking forward to this year? There are so many great ones. Which are your favorites?


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Adventures at the ALA #alaac14

Me and StacyThis was my first trip to the American Library Association’s annual conference and it was a whirlwind tour for me. I arrived in Las Vegas around lunchtime on Friday, then headed back to the airport around dinnertime on Saturday.

In between I packed an inhumanly large number of activities. After communing with a couple slot machines, I scoped out the convention floor, then had dinner with my editor, Stacy Whitman (@stacylwhitman), publisher of Lee and Low’s Tu Books. Librarian Nina Lindsay and fellow author Valynne Maetani (@valynnemaetani) joined us.

On the way to the restaurant, I noticed an odd thing about Las Vegas (okay, there are a lot of odd things about Las Vegas)–all the faux architecture around town. Like the imitation Arc de Triomphe outside the Paris hotel and the fake Eiffel Tower. It’s like Disneyland for adults. A never-ending costume party as well with some very interesting apparel choices.

Saturday morning, I met with representatives from two of ALA’s ethnic caucuses–Heather Devine from AILA and Eugenia Beh (@ebeh) from APALA. We discussed ways they could get involved in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and how WNDB can utilize the ALA caucuses as a resource. Sadly, we didn’t think to take a selfie of the three of us. :-(

Me and Don TateAfter a cruise of the convention floor, I returned to the Lee and Low booth to meet fellow Lee and Low author and new WNDB team member, Don Tate (@Devas_T), who was signing at the Lee and Low booth. Seems I can’t quite keep my eyes open when I get my picture taken. I got a copy of Don’s book IT JES’ HAPPENED which will probably end up with my older granddaughter once I’ve read it a few times and had a chance to enjoy its beautiful illustrations.

Me and Meg Medina


After visiting with Don, I stopped at Meg Medina’s signing (@Meg_Medina) to buy her book YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS. I later crashed Matt de la Pena’s signing, stopping to introduce myself. He was very nice about my interruption. Also, Stacy introduced me to Jacqueline Woodson and between her and Matt, I was pretty starstruck.

Eriq La Salle I timed my return from lunch perfectly. Not just because I had a 2pm signing of the Tankborn Trilogy at the Lee and Low booth, but because Eriq La Salle (@EriqLaSalle23), the actor who played the prickly surgeon, Peter Benton, in ER, was just starting his signing. He’s writing a thriller series, self-publishing through Ingrams program. I managed to get a quick shot of him in passing.

My own signing was great, giving me a chance to meet fans and talk to librarians about the Tankborn Trilogy. After my autographing session, I headed over to the Special Events section where the Oakland Library (@oaklibrary) was participating in a poster session. They’d put together a bunch of the beautiful #WeNeedDiverseBooks photos that they’d taken during the campaign.

Me and Oakland Library CrewAs inspiring as it was seeing those photos come through tweet by tweet, it was amazing seeing them all together in one display. I also got a chance to meet the librarians responsible, Sharon McKellar (@sharon), Nina Lindsay, and Helen Bloch. They had sheets handy with “We Need Diverse Books” across the top for people to write their own response. Sharon took their pictures and insta-tweeted them on the spot.

I headed back to the airport shortly after the poster session. Great conference. I’m looking forward to ALA 2015 in San Francisco. :-)

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If #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Why Not Just Self-Publish?

diverse-logo-sA while back, I wrote this post. I ranted about how during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, some white folks jumped on the hashtag to flog their own books (which may or may not have been truly diverse). I got into a mostly polite back and forth with an anonymous commenter who among other things suggested that if diverse authors can’t sell their diverse books traditionally, they should just self-publish.

On the surface, this sounds like a splendid idea. Self-publishing has become a much more acceptable route to publishing, and there have been some mega-successes (Hugh Howey and Barbara Freethy come to mind).

But how many self-published authors have actually made a go of it? According to Bowker, in 2012 alone (the most recent statistics I could find), nearly 400,000 books were self-published. So that’s a lot of people striking it rich, right?

Not so much. According to this study by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, the bulk of self-published authors (about 82%) make less than $5000 per year. The chart they included with the study shows that 19% of the 82% segment make nothing. Zero, nada, zilch. And the chart also indicates that the percent of self-published authors dwindles even more in the higher income brackets.

So right out the gate, if a diverse author went the self-published route, they, like all self-published authors, have a lesser chance of being compensated for their work. Therefore, by being channeled into self-publishing instead of into traditional, diverse authors are almost certainly placed in a lesser position financially.

So a diverse author self-publishing is very likely going to make less money. How about if we move to the other end of the financial issue–what it costs an author to self-publish. I can speak with some authority on this since I have a dozen or so indie-published books up for sale. Here’s what you have to pay for if you’re not publishing traditionally:

  • Editing — If you hope to have any credibility as an author, you need a clean, professionally edited book. Traditional publishers do this in-house, but self-published authors have to pay someone for this service. Costs can be $1000 and up per book
  • Cover art — You think you can do this yourself? Maybe some can, but most authors are masters of the written word, not the visual arts. Even using royalty-free clipart, authors usually don’t have an eye for composition, nor do they own the pricey programs need to put the elements together. An unappealing, amateurish cover can lose you sales, so you’ll want to hire someone experienced to do it for you. Expect to pay $100 and up for cover art per book. It will be even more if you’re going to print rather than just ebook since there’s more work involved in a full cover.
  • Formatting/Uploading — If you’re a technical whiz, you can probably handle the tedious work of getting your book properly formatted and uploaded onto the myriad of sites that sell ebooks. But as someone who has an MS in computer science, I can tell you that this process has been a trial even for me. The worst thing for any author would be to put up a book that’s riddled with errors. Believe me, readers notice and will warn off other readers. So you may need to go the route I did–hire a virtual assistant to do the work. Depending on what their hourly rate is and the formatting problems the VA encounters, I’d say it could be $50 and up per book.
  • Marketing — There are a lot of free avenues for marketing/promoting your book–Twitter, Facebook, e-newsletters. In my opinion, it’s pretty obnoxious to see a million tweets or FB posts urging people to buy your book. But it’s free…and it’s also rarely effective. A lot of people barely register those “Buy me, buy me” tweets, or ignore them entirely. So you might need to go with promotion that costs money, many of which start at $50 or so and go up into the stratosphere cost-wise.

So before a diverse author can get their book up on the virtual shelves of online bookstores, they’ve had to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars. Money that the statistics show they are unlikely to recoup. But there are many out there (like my anonymous commenter) who think that self-publishing is a viable way for diverse books by diverse authors to get into the hands of readers.

Expecting diverse authors, but not white authors, to go the indie route is a ghettoization of publishing. Let’s say two authors, one white, one diverse, both have a well-written, publishable book. We’re saying to the white author, “Step right up to this line, the traditional publishing line. We’ll pay for everything, and give you an advance to boot.” Then we’re telling the diverse author, “You have to go to the self-publishing line over there. You’ll have to take all the risk of getting your book published.”

Just as white shouldn’t be the default for characters in books, self-publishing should not be the default path for diverse authors.


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Thanks for Adding to the Conversation–But Could You Sit Down and Listen Now?

weneeddiversebooks-share-revThe first tweet featuring the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag appeared on April 24th, 2014, and since then the campaign has exploded worldwide. The topic was trending on Twitter days before its official three day inauguration, with dozens of people answering the question: Why do we need diverse books?

Those dozens became hundreds, the tweets surged into the tens of thousands and the number of impressions for the hashtag mushroomed into hundreds of millions.

I’m very excited to be on the WNDB campaign team, and I’m thrilled at the attention we’ve been getting from media and like-minded people everywhere. But there are some among us that I’d like to have a little conversation with.

SCBWI Holiday MixerFirst off, a declaration–I’m white. More specifically, I’m a white author. I’m not rich and famous like @realjohngreen or @_SuzanneCollins, but I’m multi-published. And a few of my published books feature main characters of color.

So you might think I’m on Easy Street being involved with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. That I have this giant platform to stand on to trumpet to the world about my books. That I might not be rich and famous now, but I will be soon because I can slap that #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag onto the three hundred Twitter posts I’m planning to tweet, complete with “buy links” of my diverse books.

Erm…no. I have not used that hashtag to promote my own books, nor do I intend to. And here’s where I have to have a little conversation with all you fellow white authors out there.

Be honest–have you used the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag to promote your “diverse” book? Maybe posted something like “#WeNeedDiverseBooks and that’s why I wrote DUCK AND WOLF ARE FRIENDS. Buy it here:”

diverse-logo-sPlease stop. Don’t do that. Number one, you’re white, and a big part of the WNDB campaign is to support and encourage diverse authors, not just diverse books. Number two, you’re white, and while I don’t know this for certain about your particular book, there’s a possibility that you have not done your homework and even with the best of intentions, what you think are diverse characters are actually full of offensive stereotypes.

And number three, no matter who you are, as unseemly, tacky, and distasteful as it is to go around blaring to the world on Twitter that people should go out and buy your book, it’s even more unseemly, tacky, and distasteful to do so in the guise of being a supporter of diversity.

Because the way so many of my fellow white authors jumped in, I had to wonder just how important diversity was to them before #WeNeedDiverseBooks made such a big splash. Whether they’d been on the diversity soapbox for years like Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo. Whether those white authors show their support of diverse authors by buying their books, or if they just saw a topic trending on Twitter and jumped right in to take advantage.

Maybe the white authors I saw tweeting about their “diverse” books weren’t as opportunistic as they seemed, jumping on the bandwagon of a successful movement. If nothing else, the campaign has certainly demonstrated that there are people of good will everywhere. All those eager promoters might just be people passionate about diversity.

Either way, I beg of you, white authors. Tout your book on Twitter if you must. But, please, please, leave off the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag.

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Diversify Your Shelves Campaign #weneeddiversebooks

Diversify Your ShelvesToday we’re revealing the next part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, a project that’s near and dear to our hearts! Part three is called “Diversify Your Shelves,” and it’s all about taking a personal approach to promoting diversity in literature.

What exactly does that mean? Is this maybe something we’ll do for a week and then go back to buying books by old white guys?

Well, no. “Diversify Your Shelves” is a continual celebration of fabulous diverse literature, by fabulous diverse authors. Checking out what books we have on our shelves, and seeing how we might diversify them, is just a jumping off point.

There’s also going to be a “Diversify Your Shelves” chat on Saturday, May 3rd at 2PM EST to discuss our favorite diverse books and authors! Use the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag to join in!

But wait! Why is this so important?

Well, there are lots of people blogging about this more eloquently, but some of the biggest reasons are:

Because, at every conference we writers attend, there are kids asking why they can’t find books with characters who look like them, either on the cover or in the pages.

Because the same thing happens at book signings, except there the kids are saying they’ve always wanted to get into writing, but don’t think they’ll be successful because they’re people of color.

Because queer kids are still killing themselves over being different (or being told that they’re different) and the greater representation they have in books, the less alone they’ll feel.

Because awesome genres like YA wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t moved away from the old, white dude model of literature and started reading stories written by ladies. Diversify Your Shelves is a continuation of that principle—hearing all stories from all voices.

Because it’s 2014, but we still keep seeing all-white panels at book festivals, or even all-white male panels in genres vastly dominated by women, and we think that’s kind of insane. Diversity shouldn’t be the exception. It should be the norm.

And because, at the end of the day, when we look at our shelves, we think:

We can be better.

We can do more.

And we’d love for you to join us.

So, without further ado . . .

Let’s Diversify Our Shelves!

Here’s how it works: this weekend, May 3rd and 4th, we’re all going to head out to our local bookstores* to pick up books by fabulous diverse authors. (Need recommendations? Check out the May 3rd #WeNeedDiverseBooks chat! Can’t find the books you want? Ask the bookstore to order them). Then, once you’ve returned home, snap a photo of your new diverse book(s)** and post it as a comment below! And if you want to get really creative, you can take Before and After photos of your bookshelves: Before, when they weren’t too diversified, and After, when you’ve added in books by fabulous PoC authors, queer authors, and authors with disabilities! Woot!

This Monday, May 5th, one lucky winner is going to win FIVE BOOKS OF THEIR CHOOSING out of the choices below!!! And every Monday throughout the spring, a new winner will be chosen to receive two fabulous diverse books! Woot!

Click here for your book choices and how to enter the giveaway

But wait, it doesn’t stop there. Remember when we said “Diversify Your Shelves” was a continual celebration? That means any time you buy a book from a diverse author, or featuring a diverse character, snap a picture of that book and post it to Twitter with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag! We’ll retweet you, and help spread the word about what diverse books people are buying! And by participating in the “Diversify Your Shelves” movement, you’ll be showing publishers the kinds of books you want them to buy, showing conference organizers which authors you want to see on panels, and helping tweens and teens find representation in books! Which, really, is the awesomest prize of all!


*Obviously, not everyone has the money to “Diversify Their Shelves” at this particular moment. That’s okay! Because stopping by the library and having them order a book by a diverse author, or even sending them an email about your interest in diverse books, can make a big difference in the “Diversify Your Shelves” movement! You can even snap a photo of a certain section in your local library, and then snap another one after they’ve ordered more diverse books for you! That way, you’ll not only be diversifying your own shelf, but you’ll be diversifying the shelves for your entire neighborhood! Go, you!

**Don’t worry, e-book lovers! You can totally enter the contest too. Just snap a photo of your reading device with the book’s cover showing (or a screenshot of the purchase), and you’re good to go

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We Need Diverse Books Campaign

weneeddiversebooks-share-revRecently, there’s been a groundswell of discontent over the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The issue is being picked up by news outlets like these two pieces in the NYT, CNN, EW, and many more. But while we individually care about diversity, there is still a disconnect. BEA’s Bookcon recently announced an all-white-male panel of “luminaries of children’s literature,” and when we pointed out the lack of diversity, nothing changed.

Now is the time to raise our voices into a roar that can’t be ignored. Here’s how:

On May 1st at 1pm (EST), there will be a public call for action that will spread over 3 days. We’re starting with a visual social media campaign using the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks. We want people to tweet, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, blog, and post anywhere they can to help make the hashtag go viral.

For the visual part of the campaign:

  • Take a photo holding a sign that says “We need diverse books because ___________________________.” Fill in the blank with an important, poignant, funny, and/or personal reason why this campaign is important to you.
  • The photo can be of you or a friend or anyone who wants to support diversity in kids’ lit. It can be a photo of the sign without you if you would prefer not to be in a picture. Be as creative as you want! Pose the sign with your favorite stuffed animal or at your favorite library. Get a bunch of friends to hold a bunch of signs.
  • However you want to do it, we want to share it! There will be a Tumblr at that will host all of the photos and messages for the campaign. Please submit your visual component by May 1st to with the subject line “photo” or submit it right on our Tumblr page here and it will be posted throughout the first day.
  • Starting at 1:00PM (EST) the Tumblr will start posting and it will be your job to reblog, tweet, Facebook, or share wherever you think will help get the word out.
  • The intent is that from 1pm EST to 3pm EST, there will be a nonstop hashtag party to spread the word. We hope that we’ll get enough people to participate to make the hashtag trend and grab the notice of more media outlets.
  • The Tumblr will continue to be active throughout the length of the campaign, and for however long we need to keep this discussion going, so we welcome everyone to keep emailing or sending in submissions even after May 1st.

On May 2nd, the second part of our campaign will roll out with a Twitter chat scheduled for 2pm (EST) using the same hashtag. Please use #WeNeedDiverseBooks at 2pm on May 2nd and share your thoughts on the issues with diversity in literature and why diversity matters to you.

On May 3rd, 2pm (EST), the third portion of our campaign will begin. There will be a Diversify Your Shelves initiative to encourage people to put their money where their mouth is and buy diverse books and take photos of them. Diversify Your Shelves is all about actively seeking out diverse literature in bookstores and libraries, and there will be some fantastic giveaways for people who participate in the campaign! More details to come!

We hope that you will take part in this in any way you can. We need to spread the word far and wide so that it will trend on Twitter. So that media outlets will pick it up as a news item. So that the organizers of BEA and every big conference and festival out there gets the message that diversity is important to everyone. We hope you will help us by being a part of this movement.

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