Category Archives: Diversity

Answering the Question: “Why Did You Write This Story?”

Recently, I sat with my marketing team at HarperCollins and discussed different ideas for promoting my novel, The Poet X. People often ask me what my novel is about (which is a question I hate! I don’t have my elevator pitch down and I often hem and haw my way through every plot point only to wrap up with, “anditisaboutslampoetryandloveandfaithanddaughterhood.”) but at this particular  meeting my publicist asked a question I wasn’t expecting, “Why did you write this particular story?”

I’ve been sitting with that question. I think I wrote The Poet X because as a teen Afro-Dominicana, spoken word was a place that I found I could express myself and question all of the roles that had been impressed upon me by my culture, and neighborhood, and school; roles that sometimes felt like too tight clothing I couldn’t breathe in.

I’ve taught everything from 8th grade English to creative writing in adjudicated youth centers to the award-winning cohort of youth poets, the DC Youth Slam Team, and time and again I was moved by the realization that many of the young people in my classes and workshops found poetry as an outlet to be their full selves. So many of these young people were also trying to stretch into the person they wanted to be. At some point in their life they’d been told they were too big, or loud, or black, or brown, or accented, or poor, or incarcerated, or dumb; and so The Poet X is for them. A place where young people who are “too much” can see themselves reflected back; a reminder they exist and are worthy of every piece of literature.

Between when I began The Poet X and when it sold, I wrote two other manuscripts. One was an urban fantasy novel set in the Dominican Republic and the second one was magical realism centering a teen mom who aspired to be a chef. I loved both those stories and each one of them taught me how to become a better fiction writer. In my heart I knew that I wanted my debut book to be a story that set a strong foundation for my career and if it was the only thing I ever wrote, I wanted it to be something that reflected the values and experiences I hold dear. So for writers working on their first project, here’s what I’ve learned while trying to answer the “why” that I think led to my telling the story closest to my heart.

  • Write with blinders on. That doesn’t mean to be tone deaf to current events, but it’s easy to want to write in response to a trend. I think about all the writers who wanted to write vampires or BDSM after those subjects became trendy, and it was clear what stories had been mulled over for years and explored and writtend irrespective to what was “hot” and the stories that were quickly slapped together to fit the times. If the story doesn’t nag at you, or tug on your heart, or make your palms sweaty that lack of rootedness will show. Write the story that feels urgent to you. Don’t chase a trend because what the market wants will change in a second, but what moves you will move others. If you return to an idea, it’s because you truly love it.
  • Give yourself permission to meander. I had to write a lot of different things before I could finish to The Poet X. Like a first time dater, I had a lot to learn before I could fully commit. I needed to play with other storylines, and try different styles and genres, so that by the time I returned to X, I was smarter, a better writer, and had a clear sense of why this was the story I wanted to be working on and putting out into the world.
  • Allow your book to be a mirror and a window. In The Poet X, I was intentional about how I deployed slang, and non-standard English, and Spanish, and Latinidad, and slam poetry, and urban imagery; I was mindful that not all of my readers would be familiar with ways to navigate those different experiences, but I trust readers will still be intrigued enough to peek in and stay awhile. For other readers, I imagine this world will feel really familiar and I’m so happy they will find a comfortable place to rest their head. Negotiating what needed context clues and what might require the reader to do additional work, was a tough balance to find, but I stayed true to telling my most authentic story.

My “why” will probably change as the release date gets closer and I keep mining the myriad of answers that spring up every time I think about my book. The heart of my answer will probably always be: Growing up, I wanted to find a blueprint for myself in stories but struggled to find a girl like me in books. So, I decided to write her. And so my last piece of advice: write into existence the story you most needed growing up; your younger self will thank you.

20131031-dsc_7508-copyELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over fourteen years of performance experience, Acevedo has toured her poetry nationally and internationally. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and has two collections of poetry, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

 

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Filed under Characters, Creativity, Diversity, Editing and Revising, Inspiration, process, Uncategorized, Voice

Encouraging Early Activists

the-youngest-marcherIt is Martin Luther King’s birthday. It seems particularly important to pay attention this year to Dr. King’s life and the dreams he fought and died for. I have traditions for this day – reading the I Have a Dream Speech – listening to Shed a Little Light at least once and this year I will start a new tradition. It will include a yearly reading of Cynthia Levinson’s THE YOUNGEST MARCHER – The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist. It’s so fitting that Cynthia’s story, beautifully illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton would be launched this week as Audrey Faye Hendricks was the youngest known child to be arrested for a civil rights protest. This book seems a wonderful follow-up to Cynthia’s book WE’VE GOT A JOB which tells the story of the 4,000 black elementary-, middle-, and high school students who voluntarily went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

Thinking about Audrey got me thinking about other young activists. Many of us know the story of young Malala Yousafzai who was living under Taliban rule in Pakistan, where young girls were at times forbidden to attend school. She started writing a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC at the age of 11, detailing what life was like and sharing her views on education for girls. Her passion and activism earned her several television and print interviews. Unfortunately, in 2012, a gunman boarded her school bus, asked for Malala by name and shot her in the head. Although in critical condition after the attack, Malala eventually stabilized enough to be sent to a hospital in England to recover in safety. She speaks about the rights of women and girls often and won Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. She has been nominated twice for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize – the youngest person and only girl to ever be nominated.

Fewer have heard the story of Ryan Hreljac who in 1998, at six years old, learned that kids in Africa often had to walk several kilometers for clean water. This seemed wrong to Ryan. Using money he earned from household chores and funds he raised from speaking publicly at different events about Africa’s clean water issues, Ryan managed to fund the construction of his first well in a Northern Ugandan village in 1999. From there he established Ryan’s Well Foundation, an organization that has helped build thousands of water projects and latrines, bringing safe water and improved sanitation to close to a million people.

As 2017 dawns many of us are feeling the need to do more. As children’s writers we can make sure all children see themselves in the books they read and show them that they’re never too young to make a difference. Cynthia Levinson has raised this bar with THE YOUNGEST MARCHER. Join me in making this book part of your Marin Luther King Day celebration.

darceyhighres About Darcey Rosenblatt
Darcey Rosenblatt’s debut novel will be published by Henry Holt/MacMillan in August 2017. LOST BOYS, an historic fiction, tells the story of a 12-year old Iranian boy sent to fight in the Iran Iraq war in 1982. With her critique group she runs the Better Books Workshop – an annual small deep craft conference held in Northern California. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her fabulous husband and perfect daughter, some fish, and the best dog in the world. By day she is an environmental planner and when time permits she paints and costumes for a 5-8 year old theater.

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Filed under Activism, civil rights, Diversity, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Illustrators, Inspiration, Uncategorized

Interview with THE NIAN MONSTER Illustrator, Alina Chau!

The launch for Andrea Wang’s THE NIAN MONSTER continues with an interview with the book’s illustrator, Alina Chau! Scroll below to read about New Year celebrations and mythical monsters, and to see some stellar illustrations!

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Jason Gallaher: Your illustrations for THE NIAN MONSTER are absolutely stunning! Can you describe your style and the materials used to create the illustrations?

Alina Chau: Thank you.  The Nian Monster illustration is mostly watercolor on paper, except the two pages about Nian’s legend. I use Photoshop to create the Chinese paper puppet look and some of the decorative elements on the flap, that looks like traditional Chinese paper cut art.  As for the style, since this is a Chinese New Year story, I use a design style that is influenced by traditional Chinese folk art and painting.  A lot of the New Year decorations in the book are inspired by the traditional decoration.  The feel and atmosphere of the New Year is very much drawn from my childhood memories in Hong Kong.  Chinese New Year was one of my favorite holidays as a kid.  Before the New Year, the market will be extra festive.  At home, everyone is busy preparing for the big new year dinner.  Chinese New Year dinner is kind of simliar to Thanksgiving here.  It’s an important evening for family to get together and give thanks and good wishes to each other.  Kids often get new clothes in red as a symbol of a new beginning.  I painted my favorite childhood new year memories in the pages.

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Alina’s workspace

How did you come up with the design for the Nian Monster? Did his look change much throughout the editorial process? Do you happen to have any images of his development that you could share?

As a kid, when we learn about Nian’s story, I always imagined it sort of looking like another Chinese mythological creature, Qilin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qilin).  While Qilin is considered a heavenly creature who protects the mortal world, Nian is a trickster.  Qilin looks a bit more like the relative of a dragon.  I imagine Nian would look like an earthy creature – the Chinese Lion.  I pretty much drew the Nian from my childhood imagination.  As for Nian’s color, my gut feeling is to have it be an orange and red creature, since they are the color of the New Year.  But I also did a color test of the green and blue color scheme.  The doubt I had was that I knew there would be many red elements in the background, as well as Xingling’s outfit.  I was worried the color would clash.  But after the color test, I don’t like the blue and green color.  It doesn’t feel right.  I decided to stay with red and orange and make the color work.

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How about Xingling? Is the way she looks now how you envisioned her from the start?

When I first read Andrea’s manuscript, I could see Xingling very clear in my head.  While I knew Xingling’s look well, I did spend some time trying to come up with a cute outfit for her.  I want her to feel relatable to our readers, but still reflect her regional culture trend.  I therefore researched current girl fashion styles in Asia.  The style of her pink dress is fairly trendy in China and Korea.  But I also tried to balance and not to push it too far.  I want the illustration of the book to be time lasting and have universal appeal.  Towards the end of the book, Xingling changes to a little red dress. I wanted her to wear red to celebrate the New Year tradition.

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Your depiction of Shanghai is so detailed and vibrant. Did it take a lot of research for you to create the Shanghai environment, or are you familiar with the area?

Jordan, my art director at Albert Whitman, sent me a lot of reference images of Shanghai.  I also went online and did research to get myself familiar with the cityscape of Shanghai.  I have never been to Shanghai, so all the Shanghai city designs are heavily relied on Google.  As for the atmosphere of the city, that is drawn from my own experience growing up in Hong Kong and occasional travel to China.

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What else are you working on right now?

I am working on a couple of new picture book and graphic novel ideas.  I want to try writing my own books.  My stories are focused in culture diversities, some are drawn from my personal experiences.  I was born in China, immigrated to Hong Kong during British colonial time and then moved to the US.  I have been a citizen of three countries.  I am blessed and never get into bad discriminatory situations.  Yet, it’s still challenging to grow up and be the kid that’s different for one reason or another. With the current political climate, there is more urgency to share diversity stories with children.  Ensure the children that it’s OK to be different.  It doesn’t matter if they have different cultures, skin color, beliefs etc., their voices and stories matters.

 

Thank you so much for your time, Alina! We can’t wait to see what you illustrate next!

Andrea is giving away a copy of THE NIAN MONSTER to one of our readers! Just comment on any of the posts celebrating her launch, and you will be entered to win! You can also buy a copy of the book at IndieBoundBarnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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Filed under Book Giveaway, Book Launch, Celebrations, Diversity, Illustrators, Interviews

The Ever-Expanding Table by Susan Vaught

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On October 11, 2013, my son wrote an article for Corrine Duyvis at Disability in Kidlit, entitled JB Redmond: What You See . . . And What You Don’t See. JB talked about being a children’s author with a neuromuscular disability (in his case, Cerebral Palsy), and a reader looking to find accurate and compelling representations of himself. Some highlights were, living in his man-cave on a farm in Western Kentucky, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Twilight, a full-sized suit of armor in his bedroom, 600 movies in his collection, coffee, publishing his first epic fantasy in 2009, and this:

 

“…I’ve never found too many disabled characters in the books I enjoy, unless they’re villains or buffoons. In fantasy, disability tends to equate with evil or sainthood…In science fiction, disability usually gets cured by technology, genetic manipulation, robotic implants or exoskeletons, or advanced surgical techniques and medicines. Disability never seems to be okay, or allowed to exist in futuristic worlds, unless they’re dystopian.”

 

I know what you’re thinking. Wait—what? He has a suit of armor in his bedroom?           image2

 

Why, yes. Yes, he does. This is Sir Rusty. And yes, he’s holding a brand new Nimbus 2000, because, why not, and Harry Potter forever!

 

If you got stuck on the 600 movies, it’s probably closer to 800 now, and he can tell you which numbered slot in his 2 400-DVD jukeboxes you can find every single one of them.

 

As for the epic fantasy, it’s a two-fer, Oathbreaker: Assassin’s Apprentice and Oathbreaker: Prince Among Killers, co-written with me and both published by Bloomsbury, USA

 

The very welcome groundswell of discussion about diverse characters, and how children’s literature might be taking a strong lead in transforming the literal and figurative “face” of what we’re reading to include everyone in our amazing world, brought JB’s article to my mind again. It’s a year later. I know there’s at least one book about to enter the world with a character who has Cerebral Palsy (Peavine Jones in Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy), where the Cerebral Palsy isn’t the focus of the story—in fact it’s barely mentioned. I know this, because I wrote the book. Sadly for JB, Peavine has no magical rocks, doesn’t ride a Pegasus, can’t shape-shift or live forever as a vampire, and hasn’t (yet) visited other planets. Footer’s story isn’t JB’s style. If it doesn’t have robots or a good spell or two, he’s probably giving it a pass. Someone please write a book with people who have Cerebral Palsy in it, living life and being a part of the world. If they could have light sabers or magical powers, or be the long lost ruler of some kingdom in a far away galaxy, that would be seriously peachy, too.

 

image1Which brings me back to this. We do need diverse books. We need diverse books for so very many reasons, not the least of which is, my 30 year-old son has been reading book after book and watching movie after movie, since the moment he understood what swords were, and uttered his first curse in Klingon (he was 8), and more than anything else, he wants to find himself in the pages. He wants to see a true reflection of his life, his hopes and dreams, his experiences, and his stories—just like everyone else.

 

But I also know this: it’s hard to write about his world, in real and accurate ways, unless you’re in it, or unless you share it, or unless you take a lot of time to understand it. Case in point: When JB was 7, I had a real learning experience when I asked him what he wanted more than anything in the world.

 

What I was expecting:

To walk

To be healthy

To marry his then girlfriend (even though she tended to bite)

To rule a sister-free planet full of Mutant Ninja-Turtles

 

What I got:

“To be able to whizz off the porch outside, like Dad.”

 

And, more recently, when his first and only nephew was on the way, and the whole situation got a little scary with his sister and the baby in some distress, I asked him what he was worried about.

 

What I was expecting:

His sister

Anthony (nephew)

Sleeping in the hospital for three solid days with no shower

Indigestion from eating vending machine food

 

What I got:

(Solemn, almost tearful) “I’m afraid I won’t be strong enough to hold him. What if my arms don’t work, and I drop him?”

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(No worries, we got this puppy sewn up with magic thread!)

 

Obviously, we don’t just need diverse books—we need diverse authors, too!

 

Diversity isn’t just about color or culture or size or beliefs or religion or gender or any one specific variable. It’s about everything, and everyone. To me, writing books is like bringing people to a beautiful table to share the best meal ever, whatever food they would like, however they would like to eat it.

 

If we bring more people, and more people, a miracle happens…

 

The table just keeps getting bigger.

 

There’s room for everyone.

 

And we gaze around in amazement, wondering why we didn’t realize that all along.

 

Susan Vaught

 

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Filed under Diversity, Writing and Life

Everyone Has a Story… and We Need Them All

MLK Day panel at WSHM

Last Monday, I was honored to participate in a panel on diversity and changemaking in children’s literature as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at the Washington State History Museum (you can read an excellent summary of the full panel here). In preparing for my part of the panel, I couldn’t help thinking back to my Emu’s Debuts from exactly two years ago (have a really been here that long? Meep!). That seemed like a good place for me to start.

In that old blog post, I referenced an MLK quote that resonated with me…

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

…and I talked about how our job as authors is to facilitate that kind of communication through story, whether true or fictional, and how stories can speak to universal human truths, even when the specific life experiences and situations are very different, such as mine and Emmanuel’s, as shown in Emmanuel’s Dream.

While drafting my recent speech, I also went through my transcripts from my interview with Emmanuel in 2010 and stumbled across this gem I hadn’t noticed before for some reason. He told me,

“When you hear about so many people—their story and their lives—you can say whoa, that guy’s story sounds like my story. It’s familiar. Because you know, the rich person has a story to tell, and the poor person has a story to tell, and the person who won the race has a story to tell, and the person who is in last place has a story to tell. So people have to come together to educate ourselves with stories, so that we can be able to move forward.”

As I concluded in my speech on Monday, I believe Emmanuel is right: stories will help us move forward. I have almost nothing in common with Emmanuel, yet his story touched me, and I hope it touches young readers, too. I hope it will help them understand and value other people despite their obvious differences. I also hope it will show them that each and every one of us—including themselves—has value and can make a positive difference in the world, just like Emmanuel did, and just like Dr. King did.

Their stories matter, and so do everyone else’s. That’s why so many of us in the children’s literature community are supporting the We Need Diverse Books campaign. The more diversity we have in our stories, and in our storytellers, the more we can all communicate with one another, the less we will all fear each other, and the better we can all get along. Diversity in literature builds understanding, and understanding builds empathy. With enough mirrors and windows, maybe we can finally stop the hate.

So, please, keep sharing stories–stories like Emmanuel’s, Dr. King’s, and, most importantly, your own. The world needs them all, now more than ever.


Laurie Ann Thompson head shotLaurie Ann Thompson’s debut young-adult nonfiction, BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS, was published by Beyond Words/Simon Pulse in September, 2014. Her debut nonfiction picture book, EMMANUEL’S DREAM, was published by Schwartz & Wade/Penguin Random House in January 2015. MY DOG IS THE BEST, her debut fiction picture book, will be available June 2015 from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux/Macmillan (May 2015). Maybe then they’ll finally force her to retire from Emu’s Debuts, unless…
Please visit Laurie at her website, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page.

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Filed under Diversity