Friday, March 30, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Jaime Reed

There's still time to get in on the giveaway for Karen's book, Tankborn so don't forget to comment on that post.

Today I am excited to bring you Jaime Reed, author of Living Violet, the first in the Cambion Chronicles and a paranormal book with a very different twist. And more importantly for me, it has a smart, funny, sarcastic female lead who just happens to also be biracial. I love this book!

The other great thing about having Jaime here today is because she is an author who cares deeply about diversity and who blogs about it at her own blog Write or Die

So I'm very happy to turn over my blog to Jaime today and also to give you guys a chance to win Living Violet. All you have to do is leave a comment and we'll pick a winner by next Friday. Take it away Jaime!

Ellen has asked me to talk about why diversity is important to me and honestly, I don’t know where to start.  I’ve written a few blog posts on this topic, and I’m glad that I’m not alone in feeling that there could be more variety and ethnicity represented in the YA genre.

I wrote Living Violet about a cynical teenager named Samara who juggles the duality of being of two different races. It’s not the main plot of the book, but it adds a new dimension to her character and helps her understand the inner struggle that her love interest, Caleb, has to deal with.

Growing up, I used to read teen books and watch teen shows and wondered why there weren’t any Hispanic, Asian or black characters. There were never any black super heroes, or shy Mexican girl that gets asked to the big dance. There was no (vampires/were-animal/fallen angel/ insert supernatural creature here) fighting for the love of a poor Indian girl. I was under the impression that girls like me were the helpful sidekick with little else to offer outside of comic relief. 

Whenever I did see a minority character, they were the most hackneyed and offensive stereotypes possible or just in the background to fill some politically correct quota. It became clear that in order for you to be desired by the hot mysterious guy you had to look a certain way. And if you didn’t, odds were the bad guy would kill you off, because hay, you were just there to make the lead character look good by comparison anyway.

Samara is biracial and her best friend is Filipino and their ethnicity doesn’t deter from the plot in the slightest. So it is possible. The story takes place in the suburbs in an upper-middle class area, which removes most of the inner-city “hood mentality” that is normally depicted. This is a different side that very few have seen.

I wasn’t trying to make a political statement or raise social issues. I just wrote a cool story where the lead saves the day, and oh by the way, she’s mixed. I like to read about a character I can identify with on a cultural level. Identity is a delicate thread with young girls. I should know, I was one. When reading—if it’s good—you’re automatically sucked into the world and become the character. Most kids feel different and don’t fit in and they shouldn’t have to feel that way while escaping the real world.

I wanted young girls to be able to pick up a book and enjoy a character who doesn’t have long flowing hair, or is thin with ivory skin and still get swept away into the supernatural. I felt it was time to have minorities take center stage for a change. That’s what diversity means to me. To have a good number of books on the shelves representing real characters from different cultures and have as much attention and press as other books in its genre. We have a long way to go, but I and other authors mentioned in this blog hope to get the ball rolling.

Thank you Jaime! And I wanted to link to Jaime's great posts here so that if any of you want to read more of Jaime's thoughts on diversity, you can:

Color Outside the Lines:

Life Imitating Art Imitating Everything Else

Monday, March 26, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Karen Sandler

Thanks to everyone tuning into this blog series on diversity. I wanted to share with you the winner, by random number generator, of Danette's beautiful book is Christy Farley! Congrats Christy!!

Today I have another wonderful guest post by Karen Sandler the author of Tankborn, a truly excellent sci fi/dystopian novel released by Tu Books.

It's another cover that wowed me when I first saw it and has a fantastic premise (genetically engineered non-humans) in a lush and detailed world with a scary caste system. It's a crazy good read! So after you've read her wonderful post, please leave Karen a comment for a chance to win Tankborn.

And now I gratefully turn the blog over to Karen:

I like to say that Tankborn is a book that took me 25 years to write. That statement is a bit misleading; I wasn’t actually working on Tankborn for 25 years. But the book was adapted from a science fiction screenplay, Icer, that I wrote back in the mid-80s. Yes, I plagiarized myself (authors are allowed to do that). I picked and chose what I lifted from the script: the genetically engineered slaves, Kayla’s name and her “sket” (skill set). But what was originally an action-adventure story for adults (movie-Kayla was in her mid-20s and pretty kick-ass), became a young adult book in which life was much more complex for GENs like Kayla, and much more perilous.

A screenwriter writing on spec isn’t supposed to “cast” the movie in their screenplay. For example, unless it’s key to the story that a particular character be black (as in this script for The Help:, we’re not supposed to specify the ethnicity of a character. So I wouldn’t have the license to identify Kayla as of mixed race since in Icer the story isn’t about her being mixed race. It would be up to the director to decide how to cast the movie. This pretty much sucks, but that was the reality of Hollywood then (and still is in large part today).

What I was able to do was to include this line in describing my genetically engineered slaves:

Their skin color varies as well, from deep black to white, with every shade in between.

I learned this trick of slipping in diversity while attending the Hollywood Networking Breakfasts put on by Changing Images in America ( The organization seeks to develop, produce, and support programs that promote and embrace diversity in American culture. Their focus is specifically on the entertainment industry. They got me thinking about how I could promote more multi-ethnicity in Hollywood via my screenwriting.

Later, as a novelist, I made it a point to include POC in my books. I was writing romances and due to the restrictions of that genre, my hero and heroine were always white, but I would mix in African, Hispanic, and Asian characters as minor characters. Would Harlequin have accepted a book proposal from me with a non-white hero and heroine? I honestly don’t know if they would have let me, a white author, write non-white characters (although my second to last book for Harlequin did feature an Hispanic hero).

I admit that part of my hesitation in writing main characters who were POC had nothing to do with the strictures of the romance genre. I kept thinking, well, that isn’t my story. I should leave that to someone else to write. I also worried about offending someone of another culture who might think I’m “co-opting” their culture. I think that objection is fair, and I still haven’t completely shaken those feelings.

But I also felt it was time for me to step outside my comfort zone. I wanted to write the characters of Kayla and Devak as ethnically diverse, to explore their worlds, and do my best to portray their culture accurately (which was helped by the cultural expert Lee and Low brought in to vet the book before publication).

With all the freedom that comes from writing a science fiction book like Tankborn, I could make the world any way I wanted. Finally I had a canvas that could be filled with as much ethnic diversity as I wanted. It was exactly that diversity that helped me to write Tankborn’s story.

Why is diversity so important to me in the first place? Partly, it’s for selfish reasons. I am a busybody, endlessly fascinated with where people come from, what their lives were like growing up, what they’re like now, every detail from food to dress. I’m that rude lady who will ask you, So, where are you from? And I’ll soak up everything you say.

But also, particularly since I’m now writing young adult, I’m completely behind the mission of my publisher, Lee and Low: “to meet the need for stories that all children can identify with and enjoy.” Not only should children of color be able to see themselves in the main characters of books, all kids should see that diversity. We can become too easily accustomed to things “being the way they are” (as I mentioned above regarding Hollywood). If children see diversity in the stories they read right from the start, diversity will become the norm for them.

What does diversity mean to me, anyway? It’s inclusion, it’s variety, it’s learning about each other because we all have something to offer that’s unique and valuable. It’s being grateful to have the opportunity to taste a new food, to hear about a new custom, to share what delights us and what moves us. There is so much world out there. There are so many people. Why would we not want to get to know them all?

Friday, March 23, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Mike Jung

First of all, thanks to all the wonderful comments on my first Diversity series post. There is still time to win a copy of Danette's book. Please leave a comment on Danette's post to win a copy.

When I started this blog series, I knew I would have to ask Mike to guest post for me for a few reasons. First of all, he is one of my ninja critique buddies. Second, my daughters began the first chapter of the Mike Jung fan club last year and at times seem more excited about his book release than mine (ahem!). Lastly, he has a fabulous middle grade book coming out this fall. And right on the cover of his debut book is his main character, Vincent Wu, an Asian American character. I remember cheering loudly with my three daughters when we first got a peek at Mike's cover.

As much as I wish I could offer a copy of his book at this time as a giveaway, Mike's book is not out yet. Which means you'll have to wait until October when I will be having a giveaway. But in the meantime, I can tell you his book (which I've read) is laugh out loud in hysterics funny and touching and sweet and just wonderful. So I take great pleasure in letting Mike take over the blog today.

Mike Jung

I've wanted to write a children's book since my days as a preschool teacher - my first love was actually picture books, although I write middle grade novels now. One of my favorites back then was Peggy Rathmann's OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA, and it still amazes me to think that years later the editor of that book, Arthur Levine, is now my editor.
I later took a class in picture book illustration at UC Berkeley that was taught by Julie Downing, which was when I discovered that picture books are REALLY HARD. I was easily discouraged back then, so I spent the next 10 years daydreaming about writing childrens books while pursuing other things.
It was only when my daughter was born in 2006 that I realized I was at a crossroads. I could succumb to the notion that raising a family meant surrendering my long-held dream, or I could choose to test my mettle and truly commit to pursuing my dream. Thankfully, I chose the latter.
I mined a lot of my own childhood interests in doing so - my comic-book geek past, my feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement during my school years, and the bonds of friendship between early teenage boys. But I was also strongly influenced by my present reality as a husband and new father, and that's largely why a girl turns out to be the alter ego of Captain Stupendous.
It's also why my characters represent a variety of ethnicities, because thinking about the reality that my daughter had just entered made it impossible to do otherwise. During my teen years I was almost exclusively surrounded by people of white European descent, and that left its mark on me, but my daughter is growing up in a far more diverse and challenging slice of society than I did. I wanted to write a book that reflects her reality, which is now my reality. I'm honestly not sure if I made that choice for her benefit, or for mine, but it felt like the only valid choice I could make.
Ellen asked me why I think books like mine are important to our kids. I have some trouble thinking about my book in terms of importance. I hope kids will think my book is entertaining and funny, and that it'll provide a way for kids to temporarily escape from whatever struggles they're going through, as books so often did for me. I hope reluctant readers will give it a chance, have a good time reading it, and use it as a gateway to other, different books. 
I do also hope that kids of mixed ancestry and post-immigrant backgrounds will look at my book and recognize something of themselves in it, even if my book isn't a piercing examination of those aspects of their lives. In fact, I hope that readers will find value in the fact that GEEKS isn't about being a mixed kid or the child of second-generation parents, because I strongly believe that those kids can (and should) have stories that are as goofy, adventurous, lighthearted, and superpowered as anyone else.
What does diversity mean to me?
To me, diversity means complexity. Acknowledging diversity, comprehending it, and incorporating it into our worldviews is challenging. We have to be self-aware, so we can perceive own shortcomings. We must have strength, because without it we'll be unable to contain and manage the anger that an unjust world so often provokes. It's vital to continually learn from the people around us, because the alternative is to live in a destructive state of societal isolation. And we must be vulnerable in our hearts and generous in spirit, because it's only then that we can love and trust each other in the face of such constant exertion.
It doesnt make things any easier that the definition of ethnicity has expanded beyond ethnicity to include sexuality, gender, socioeconomic level, education, and more. The world can feel like an increasingly complex place, and the effort required to engage with it in a truly inclusive way is not insignificant.
That can be very discouraging, and some people clearly view it as a reason to entirely dismiss the concepts of diversity and inclusion, but they're wrong. Its vital that our individual mentalities evolve to match the increasing complexity of the world, because I believe a simplistic understanding of it is dangerous. An unwillingness to grapple with that complexity can directly contribute to the horrors of racism, religious hatred, misogyny, and homophobia.
What does this mean for me as a writer? Well, it means being vigilant about my creative choices, happenings in the industry, and the stellar example being set by other authors like Matt de la Pena, Mitali Perkins, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, who are champions of diversity as well as champion authors. It means   engaging in meaningful dialogue whenever possible, and taking meaningful action whenever necessary.
It probably means my books will evolve over time, and that my current interest in writing books that are silly and entertaining will expand to include topics that are more explicitly concerned with diversity, at least in terms of my own life experiences. I have a book in me, somewhere below the surface, that will explore brotherhood, multigenerational families, life as the child of immigrants, and the shifting nature of adolescent identity. I need to grow into this idea, but one day I'll have both the chops and the fortitude to write it.
That's not to belittle the books I'm currently occupied with, however. GEEKS is chock-full of superheroes, giant robots, and slam-bang action scenes. It's not heavily focused on my protagonist's ethnic identity, and that's good too. As I said earlier, I think every kid on the planet could use a few laughs and a few daredevil adventures once in a while.
My protagonist is named Vincent Wu. Hes half-Korean, as is Polly Winnicott-Lee, the girl he has a mammoth crush on. My own children will always be able to look at my book and find characters with an ancestry similar to theirs, and Im grateful that Arthur A. Levine Books put that half-Korean boy right there on the cover for everyone to see. GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES wont change the world for anyone, but it might introduce a hint of needed complexity for someone.
It could even provide a note of affirmation for a kid whos struggling to find his or her place in the world, and that might be a legitimate way to illustrate the shift from a simplistic worldview to one that's more complex and complete. An isolated and alienated boy explores the world through books, and over time he starts to understand that the world is more vast and multifaceted than he previously suspected. As a result, this terribly lonely boy, who's always believed that the world has no place for him, starts to believe that maybe it does have a place for him after all.
Wouldn't that be glorious? Wouldn't that alone justify all the effort we expend in the name of diversity?

Monday, March 19, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Danette Vigilante

I've found the discussions and blog posts, comments, tweets, and facebook updates that have been generated in response to my previous post to be heartwarming. What I've always sought is open discussion on topics, no matter how difficult. And I think that is happening. What we want is not to blame anyone or any group. That helps no one. Instead, we ask for change.

So in keeping with an excellent question from Michelle Witte as to what can we do in the short term to help this issue, I've decided to showcase a new series by a variety of authors who write diverse main characters. Some are minorities and some are not. But all of them have one thing in common - they believe in diversity in publishing. The series will go on until April 24th when I will have an interview on the Enchanted Inkpot with Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director of Tu Books and one of her new authors, Kimberly Pauley.

My first guest author is Danette Vigilante who's beautiful book The Trouble With Half a Moon was one of my favorite books of 2011. And look at her beautiful cover.

Ever since her brother's death, Dellie's life has been quiet and sad. Her mother cries all the time and Dellie lives with the horrible guilt that the accident that killed her brother may have been all her fault.
But Dellie's world begins to change when new neighbors move into her housing project building. Suddenly men are fighting on the stoop and gunfire is sounding off in the night. In the middle of all that trouble is Corey, an abused five-year-old boy, who's often left home alone and hungry. Dellie strikes up a dangerous friendship with this little boy who reminds her so much of her brother. She wonders if she can do for Corey what she couldn't do for her brother-save him.
I loved this book. It's the type of book that makes your heart hurt. And I loved how it brought NYC to life for me. It felt so much like how it was for me, growing up in a rough part of Brooklyn. This was what it felt like, sounded like, smelled like. The Trouble with Half a Moon is beautifully written and emotionally satisfying. And it gives me great pleasure to offer it in my first Diversity book giveaway.

I asked Danette if she could share with us what diversity means to her. Here's what she said:

Ellen has asked me to talk about why diversity is important to me and I’m honored to do so. I only hope I can get it out and still have it make sense.
Growing up in a housing project had a huge stigma attached to it, only I didn’t realize it until junior high school when my friends—who were either Puerto Rican, like me, or African American— and I were frequently chased home to the other side of the highway. This along with two other incidents stand out in my mind.
Once, my family and I were out to dinner (in the same neighborhood as my junior high) where we watched everyone around us being waited on while we never were. It was quite obvious why we weren’t. The second was more traumatizing. My best friend (who was African American) and I were walking near school when a group of young adult white males started yelling foul things at us. We linked arms and ran all the way home. I remember not being able to hold my head up or look their way, I just wanted to get home where nothing like this took place. That’s not saying that things were perfect in my neighborhood, but I never had to think twice about something so simple as my olive complexion or my father’s crazy afro.
Incidents like these plant seeds deep inside the tender hearts and minds of young people. It’s not always visible, but rest assured it’s there and sometimes it leaves a nagging quiet question: why am I not good enough? How can a young person grow to his or her potential with that festering inside? And who are those people to plant these things there? This is at the heart of why diversity is important to me.
I wrote the TROUBLE WITH HALF A MOON for many reasons. Though there are two that are the most important to me.
The first reason had grown deep roots while I was a young teen. I knew a little boy just like Corey, the boy in Trouble who never has enough to eat. This boy would knock on some of the neighbor’s doors asking for food.  Can you imagine a child having to take on that kind of responsibility? This boy stayed in my heart until I had enough courage to write his story and give him all the love and food he needed and deserved.
The second reason why I wrote Trouble was to show that we all have the same hopes, dreams and fears no matter where we live or what we look like. This is a seed we need to start planting in our young ones now and that’s why I think books like mine are so very important.
 Recently, I was at a party where I struck up a conversation with a four year old boy. He was smart, funny and very engaging. When I asked him about school and whether or not he had friends there, he happily named two people then, with a wrinkled nose and a knotted brow, he added a third. “But, he’s Chinese.”
Alarms exploded in my head and the word lesson rang in my ears.
“Really?” I asked.
He nodded in quick agreement.
“Well, does he have two ears?”
Again, he nodded.
“What about two eyes?”
He began to see the silliness of the game but played along anyway.
“How about two stinky feet? Does he have those too?”
His laughter was encouraging.
“What about a head, I’m sure he must have that, right?”
“Of course,” was his reply.
“Well, you know what all of this means, don’t you?”
He stared blankly.
“He’s just like YOU!”
He smiled then gave a big grin.
I went home happy to think that when the little boy returned to school on Monday, maybe, just maybe, he’d remember the nutty conversation he had with a crazy lady. Maybe he’d start to see the sameness and not the differences in everyone. A tall order I know, but perhaps I succeeded in planting a seed that day.
Thank you Danette for this beautiful reminder of what diversity in books does. 
To be a part of "What diversity means to me" please tweet or FB or post about it and link it back to here. Leave me a comment on the blog and you'll get a chance to win Danette's beautiful book. Be a part of this movement and spread the word on why diversity is important. Change can happen. We can make it happen. All you have to do is spread the word. Thank you for being a part of this change.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why The Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs to End

Recently, there has been more Asians on TV than usual. This makes me happy because it is such a rare event. Spotting an Asian on TV always feels like trying to find Waldo. And when I do spot an Asian on TV or in the movies, I jump up and down and get overly excited, like I've spotted some rare species or mythical creature, like a unicorn, or Big Foot.

So you can imagine my exuberance over watching the Knicks and Jeremy Lin. What's not been so cool has been the media response to him. Lots of people have lots of opinions on him and race plays a huge factor in it all. Why? Because, like Asians on television shows and movies, Asian pro-athletes are few and far between. Jeremy Lin's performance is irrevocably linked to his race. He is considered an Asian anomaly. Let's focus on that word "Anomaly." Meaning to deviate from the expected - an irregularity. It is in this way that the media lifts up one man and backhands an entire race.

Asians have long been the silent minority in this country. It's gotten so bad that when someone makes a racist remark toward Asians, they just shrug it off and make it seem like you're the one making a big deal about nothing. Or they think it's funny. Like a couple of white guys who think they are being clever by opening up a restaurant called "Roundeye Noodle shop" in Philadelphia. And then they are surprised when people get offended? The roots of that racist remark stem from Asians being called slanty-eyed chinks.  If anyone thinks "Roundeye" is not racist, you should come explain that to my youngest daughter who had the singular pleasure of being told by two boys in her class that her "small Chinese eyes" were ugly compared to her friend's "blue round-eyes." She was in kindergarten and only 5 years old. She cried for days. Words can scar you for life.

Later on, after I got involved and all the participants were made to apologize, a mother of one of the boys contacted me and told me that her son had acted the way he did because they had moved to the area from a small town in the midwest and they had never seen an "oriental" person before. I decided not to go into why I object to the word "oriental" and instead focused on what she was saying to me, this excuse she was feeding me. She was trying to laugh it off instead of taking it seriously. To be honest, it really bothered me, but it also gave me food for thought. It brings me back to my original point. We are still the silent, unseen minority. And sometimes we have to fight that overwhelming feeling of not belonging. Of feeling unwanted in a country we love and are proud citizens of. I know as a child, books were always my refuge from that horrid sense of being different and hated. But when I look at publishing today, I wonder if my kids will feel the same way.

As a YA author, I've found the lack of diversity in publishing profoundly sad. I've been particularly disturbed by what I find in the YA sections. Bookshelves filled with cover after cover of pretty white girls.

(See Goodreads Best YA Book Covers List)

The difference between the Middle Grade section and the YA section couldn't be more divergent. Picture books and middle grade books don't have the uniformity that YA does. They are bright and bold and diverse.

I love this cover so very much. And it's a great book.  But it feels like only in the middle grade section would you find a gem like this. It makes me wish my children would stay in the middle grade section for as long as possible. Because it is safe and welcoming for them.

Putting pretty white girls on all your book covers is the book equivalent of what all our fashion magazines do. An idealization of beauty that is unrealistic and dangerous to our youth. And it isn't the right thing to do. Seeing a minority grace the cover of a YA book is like spotting the Lochness monster, you wonder if you've truly seen it and if you'll ever see it again. How sad is that? To say that only pretty white girls can sell YA books is not a business model that publishers should approve of. And it's not true. We need look no further than the gender neutral and iconic covers for the Hunger Games and Twilight series to see the truth.

The feminists have been after the fashion industry for years and yet nothing's really changed, even with all the research that shows a correlation between teenage self-esteem and these magazines. But let's face it, there's a big difference between fashion magazines and books. We see fashion magazines as light entertainment. But books are an important part of our school curriculum. We teach our children about the importance of reading. And we send them out to the library and bookstore to look for books to foster their love of reading. But then they get there and the majority of the book covers resemble the covers of our fashion magazines.

We need for publishing to break this trend. Stop idealizing white beauty. I would rather there were no models gracing YA book covers rather than see wall after wall of only white ones. It's time for publishers and booksellers to act more responsibly. They have the ability to influence entire generations of young people. Tu Books is already paving the way with multi-cultural YA titles and covers. They have seen the need in the market and they are answering it. It is up to booksellers and readers to support them and make it clear that their endeavor is important and help it become a success. Then maybe more publishers will follow in their footsteps and help change the current landscape of YA book covers.

We need to teach our youth the beauty of diversity. Beauty does not come in only one color. It does not come in only one size and one shape. And maybe when our teens grow up exposed to diversity, then they will grow into adults who embrace it.

And then maybe their children will never call another child ugly simply because they do not match the ideal of white beauty.

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