Tag Archives: diversity

When Life Imitates Art… or What Tropical Storm Irene Taught Me

I have written many times about my experience of life imitating art with regards to my debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane – how I researched diligently as I wrote and rewrote the story; how I felt like I had done a thorough job of it; how I felt like I had found a deep place of empathy and understanding for Zavion, my main character who lives in New Orleans and who lives through Hurricane Katrina; and how, in one day, everything changed. Tropical Storm Irene swept through my town – and very specifically my block and my house – and I was suddenly and amazingly inside my story.

Another Kind of Hurricane coverI have also written some about what I learned through that odd, reverse process of the art experience coming before the life experience. First, my two main characters, Henry and Zavion, are strangers when the story begins. They are strangers from two very different places – geographic and internal – and yet the only traces of solace they eventually find are in one another. They become connected and they become friends. This happened to me during Irene too. Important lesson #1, a reinforcing lesson: I got that connection piece right in my book. Second – oh boy – the visceral and emotional experience of living through a flood (and the subsequent recovery from that flood) is intense, to put it mildly. And Katrina was so much more…everything…than Irene. Important lesson #2, a reminding lesson: striving for knowledge and empathy, while accepting that I might not be able to totally get it – is truly the best I can do. Maybe another way to put this is knowledge and empathy and a good dose of humbleness is my best practice when I write anything outside of my direct experience.

But is there more to it than that? And how does this all fit within the conversation about diversity we’ve all been engaged in? Does it offer anything new or useful to that dialogue?

Amy Koester, who has a blog called The Show Me Librarian, wrote a post in February of this year titled Selection is Privilege. It’s spot on, in my opinion. In it, she talks about the frustration she feels when colleagues take “diverse”* books out of their libraries, or simply don’t buy them for their libraries because they feel they either a) don’t have enough diverse patrons to read those books or b) their non-diverse patrons don’t have any interest in those books. She then said this:

 When it comes down to it…selection is a privilege. If you select materials for your readers, you are privileged to get to influence not only what children read, but what they have access to in the first place. And when I read arguments against including diverse titles, or questions about why we have to talk about this topic, it puts into sharp focus for me the fact that we have to recognize our privilege as selectors, and, more than likely, as white selectors for diverse readers.

I feel like this extends to us writers too. Or I’ll only speak for myself – to me as a writer. If I am to have the great fortune of having any sort of influence over kids, then I must recognize my privilege. In an interview over at CBC Diversity, agent and author Tanya McKinnon cited some neurological research:

“The thing that reduces hate and increases acceptance of diversity is knowledge and rational thought. The more we use our pre-frontal cortex, the seat of rational thought, the more likely we are to reduce hate. That’s why reading about difference, especially at a young age, is so very important. And it’s why racially inclusive children’s books are so crucial for a rational and tolerant society.”

And there it is. If there was ever a reason to use my privilege – as a white, middle class woman, but also simply as a writer fortunate enough to get a book published, really – well, there it is.

To offer a door or a mirror for the child reading my book.

So how do we writers do this with integrity?

By finding the places where we are the same as our characters, and finding the places where we are not. By connecting to our characters where that sameness resides (and connecting our characters to each other in a similar way), and by trusting ourselves to hold an empty space inside that we work to fill by listening and researching and being curious (and allowing our characters to have similar empty spaces inside for the same kind of journey.)

We need to know the borders we are choosing to cross as we make those journeys. The process of that knowledge is fluid and constant. The more we are curious, the more open we are, the more we venture into places that are not our own, the more we integrate all of that into ourselves. We need to integrate, but at the same time keep things distinct. It is a dance of sorts. Am I more suited to tell a story about flood victims because I have experienced a flood? Yes. Am I still a middle class woman who could borrow money from my family when I lost so much in that flood? Yes. Did many of the flood victims in New Orleans not have that privilege? Yes. There is part of that dance right here.**

If I am taking those journeys, then I know it is possible to take them, you know? And thus I am creating the opportunity for kids (my readers) to take their own, perhaps similar, journeys.That means everything to me.

One of my favorite photos from Irene, taken by Jared Katz. Talk about a journey...

One of my favorite photos from Irene, taken by Jared Katz. Talk about a journey…

Back to Another Kind of Hurricane, and Zavion and Henry, and my experience with Tropical Storm Irene: it was all an accidental gift; a humble journey of finding connection despite (and alongside of) differences. Is there a way to consciously leave space inside of ourselves for those kinds of gifts? Is there a way of holding tight, as we write, to the threads that connect us all? Because those are gifts too.

I don’t know if this adds anything new to the diversity conversation. But I do know it’s something I want to continue to explore. What do you think about it all?

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*I am only going to use quotes around diverse once. But I want to use them a lot! It is such a loaded word. Take it to mean many things – racial, social, gender-based, ability-based differences; also differences in experiences and environments and many other things as well.

**This is a riff off of a great essay that Mitali Perkins wrote over at CBC Diversity.

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ImageTamara Ellis Smith writes middle grade fiction and picture books. She graduated in 2007 from Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Tam’s debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane will be published by Schwartz and Wade on July 14, 2015. She is represented by the incredible Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and can be found on the web at www.tamaraellissmith.com andwww.smithwright.blogspot.com.

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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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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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