SundayMorningReads

My week began at a campus wide workshop on social justice. I looked forward to hearing something new and different on this topic, but not to the intense level of personal sharing, not on a Monday morning and not with a crowd somewhat unaware of entitlements. The presenters, Kathy Obear and Vernon Wall, were excellent and I believe appropriately met people where they were. I can’t let my own ‘just tell me what I need to know’ attitude ignore the power of a workshop that pushed people to engage and discuss about personal experiences with entitlement. It’s the personal experience that makes all the difference when you don’t really know people who live outside your ethnic, gender or ability experience. Books can provide these experiences, too.

Obear and Wall kept referring to research that documents the importance of diversity in the workplace and my thoughts kept wandering to information industries (entertainment, technology and publishing) that lack diversity.

I’ve so far traced the diversity movement, the call for better representation of African American children back to the 1930s. While I’m sure it can go back further and deeper by looking at Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and those who are LGBTQIA fighting separate and similar fights, when you look at these years and years of knocking on the door, don’t you have to wonder how much longer we’ll keep knocking, and why? I often wonder why more haven’t followed Lee & Low or Just Us books to create publishing companies for marginalized people. I know there are many such as Zetta Elliott, Kwame Alexander, Myles Johnson, Kwame Nyong’o and Innosanto Nagara who have done their own publisher and I know libraries are doing more and more to support local, independent writers. Will this movement continue to grow? There is no more work in marketing for beginning writings whether they are self-published or with a traditional publisher, so why not?

Today’s NY Times features an article by Molly McCardle that moves us beyond counting books and workers, beyond breaking down 100 years worth of reasoning for better representation and puts the next move squarely with publishers. She tells them essentially to get with the 21st century. Because, as noted above, authors do not need publishers to be able to deliver their stories to readers.

I went on a tirade on Twitter the other day just tired of “what will you say to white writers who want to write diverse stories”? I’m tired of de-centering the need for diversity, of moving away from the fact that marginalized stories need to tell their own stories. I would ask those white writers what are they willing to do to get more authors of color to press? I would ask if they realize there are publishers who will look at two books, both with African American characters, one written by a white author and one by a black author and they will choose print the book by the white author. I would ask those white authors how often they purchase and promote books by queer authors. I’d say if you’re going to write diversity, live it. And, I’d say understand that there are unseen forces at work. A book can be written by a white author with not a single marginalized character but can still work to promote social justice and equity, can still exist sans Whiteness and can do this unintentionally by one who lives social justice and equity.

Believe it or not, I haven’t been dwelling on diversity this week!  The weather is nice and I’m walking more. I’ve planted garlic and pulled out the seed catalogs. I’ve gotten a couple of coloring books themed on ‘harmony’ and I’m still watching ‘Gilmore Girls’. It’s an amazing life when your passion becomes your work, but it’s really important to have outlets that clear your mind and de-stress your being. There’s so much I do to promote diversity that I enjoy! I think I’ve mentioned that we’re about to finalize the We the People Summer Reading List?

I’ve been working on the Digital Public Library’s Open eBooks, a new initiative and e-reader app that will make thousands of popular, top-selling eBooks available to children in need for free. The project worked hard to identify books that represented marginalized children and reacted to how few there really are. I love that this project incorporates technology, building on other literacies for young people. Yes, this is a double edge sword that cuts away those with no Internet in their homes, but thank goodness for libraries who do provide this access. The initiative was announced by Michelle Obama.

Open eBooks is not a federal program; it was created by a breakthrough coalition of literacy, library, publishing, and technology organizations who worked together over the past year to make the initiative possible. This team – Digital Public Library of America, First Book, and The New York Public Library with content support from digital books distributor Baker & Taylor – created the app, curated the eBook collection, and developed a system for distribution and use. They received support for development of technology critical to the app from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and content contributions from ten major publishers — including today’s big announcement that National Geographic will include all its age-appropriate content in the app.

For more information, or to sign up, visit Openbook.net. Please share this link with parents and teachers so that we can get and keep our children reading.

And that’s what it’s all about: getting and keeping our children reading.

This week, I’ll be reviewing Tanita Davis’ new book, visiting my dentist and going to see a local production of Nathan Louis Jackson’s “Broke-ology”.

Here’s to a week filled with doing our best. I really like this quote from Vernon Wall, “May the work I’ve done speak for me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

book review: The Deep

Cover_v8.inddtitle: The Deep

author: Zetta Elliott

date: 2013; Rosetta Press

main character: Nyla

The Deep continues the stories of Nyla, Keem and D that began in Ship of Souls. While Ship of Souls was D’s story, The Deep is Nyla’s. We knew something happened to Nyla in Germany and now we find what it was and how that terror stole Nyla’s sense of self. She moves to Brooklyn with her stepmother and begins covering herself in an array of body piercings, spiked hair and black clothing. In appearance, she is oddly matched with Keem, an attractive athlete, but he seemed to give her the space and respect that she needed. She is as impulsive in her decision-making as any 14-year-old would be.

As a character, I found Nyla difficult to like just as I imagine a real life Nyla would be. A smart black girl struggling with so many personal issues, would indeed take some special love if you didn’t know her. This girl managed to build a thick, protective covering around herself that didn’t manage to interfere with her sense of independence or her core values.

Before leaving for Brooklyn, Nyla rhetorically asks if she could indeed belong in Brooklyn. Identity and fitting in are themes in this book and they’re themes that shape the lives of many nerdy black girls who rarely find themselves represented in American media. Nyla finds that she has a special purpose, a unique calling that comes from her mother; the woman who walked out on her and her father when she was 4 years old.

Elliott creates a strong sense of place as the Brooklyn landscape plays a prominent role in Nyla’s fate. Prominent public locations become portals that transport Nyla into the deep and deliver important messages to the characters. As D, Keem and Nyla ride the trains, visit the pizza shops and hangout out in the parks we feel such a strong connection to this place that we want to believe this is where they all belong. But our Nyla is being pulled away.

These three friends are once again confronted by powers from below the ground that  bring many threats, not the least of which is the threat to end their friendships. Nyla struggles with her new-found powers and with so many major elements in the book, yet Elliott lets these teens remain teens. Each of them wants to know how to maintain  relationships with parents, friends and lovers. And, each of them wants to find their place in the world. Well, D and Nyla do. We still need to hear Keem’s story!

Elliott continues to self publish imaginative and provocative young adult speculative fiction. Her commitment to her readers is evident in the honest portrayals that she gives them. Zetta sent me a copy of this book back in December when I was knee deep in BFYA reading. I never committed to when I would read The Deep and honestly, I didn’t want to read it because I didn’t want to not like it. I shouldn’t have doubted her skills.

About Courage #2: Zetta Elliott

img_11982Zetta Elliott earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003; she has taught at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, Mount Holyoke College, Hunter College, and Bard High School Early College. She currently teaches in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand, and Hunger Mountain. She won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest, and her picture book, Bird, was published in October 2008. Her one-act play, girl/power, was staged as part of New Perspectives Theater’s NYC festival of women’s work, GIRLPOWER, in August 2008. Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was published by AmazonEncore in February 2010; her second YA novel, Ship of Souls, was published in February 2012. Her short story, “Sweet Sixteen,” was published in Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance in July 2012. Her most recent YA novel, The Deep is currently available on Amazon. The Kindle version is  currently only .99!  Zetta’s most recent article Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A Black Feminist Conversation on Fantasy Fiction for Teens, a conversation with Ibi Zoboi appeared in Bitch Magazine just last week.

I invited Zetta to participate in this series on courage with the following prompt.

Nyla is one courageous young woman. When you were developing her, did you purposely give her courage? In reading The Deep, what hints do readers find that say ‘courage’? Is it in her actions? The way people react to her? What she says? Who inspired the courage you developed in Nyla? 

I think you’ll find that Zetta really didn’t have to go  too deep to find inspiration for Nyla’s courage within herself.

Last month while having brunch with two writer friends, I mentioned that I am conflict averse. To my surprise, they looked at me like I’d just told the most hilarious joke! It has happened before: last spring I was interviewed by a young writer who referred to me as “a ‘no holds barred,’ uber-transparent blogger” who’s not “afraid to engage contentious commentators, or offend with what [I] say on [my] blog.”

I thought those who know me best would have a different opinion, but my cousin surprised me during a recent visit when she called me courageous. “I’m not brave at all,” I replied, and that wasn’t false modesty. I really am conflict averse and will go well out of my way to avoid confrontation (for example, I don’t get along with my family members so I moved to another country).

As a writer, I spend a lot of time alone and when I feel the need to make a point, I do so from the safety of my couch—the internet makes it very easy to be an armchair activist, and I don’t feel it takes a whole lot of courage to post an opinion piece on my blog. I speak out when I see something unjust, but I’m not leading boycotts or marching in the street. I care about certain issues but I wouldn’t say I’m on the front line. That takes guts.

Lately I’ve limited my online advocacy work; diversity in publishing still matters to me, but I have a finite amount of energy and decided I would rather channel that energy into writing. The publishing industry and its defenders have no interest in equity and only pay lip service to the idea (not the practice) of diversity. So why bother trying to engage those who refuse to listen? That’s like whistling in the wind.

At the end of November I did post one last essay on The Huffington Post. I was about to self-publish my novel THE DEEP, and wanted to draw attention to my book while responding to a Horn Book essay on the lack of Black geeks in YA lit.  THE DEEP is a companion book to SHIP OF SOULS (2012), and together the novels represent two-thirds of my “Black freaks & geeks” trilogy. I did have a contract for this urban fantasy, but when the publisher insisted on holding the book until 2015, I decided it was best to go it alone.

Self-publishing does take courage—a recent opinion piece in The New York Times gave this wry definition of self-published authors: “Treated as Crazy Ranting People: either ignored or pitied by the general public until they do something that is brilliant or threatening.” Independent authors are often treated as pariahs—our books aren’t reviewed by the traditional outlets, won’t be considered for any major awards, and most bookstores won’t stock our titles. Publishers often look at indie authors as “tainted” and no longer viable, though there are exceptions to this rule.

The truth is, even people of color who KNOW the publishing game is rigged will look askance at a self-published book. To some Black writers (and readers), self-publishing is gutless, the most shameless surrender. “Just be patient,” they’ll say after you’ve faced a decade of disappointment. “Try harder!” they’ll exhort, as if the publishing industry were an actual meritocracy. Others assume there must be something lacking in your work but won’t read your book in order to dismiss or confirm that assumption.  

So why self-publish? I explain my motivation in the acknowledgments section of THE DEEP:

I felt sure that there was a teenage girl somewhere in the world who needed this book yesterday. I never found anything like The Deep when I was scouring the shelves of my public library as a teenager, but it’s a story that might have changed my world—or at least my perception of myself. Black girls don’t often get to see themselves having magical powers and leading others on fabulous adventures.

It’s that simple. Nyla is a fourteen-year-old girl who’s recovering from a sexual assault that took placeth-1 at a school dance. Even though she fought back, like so many victims Nyla blames herself and isn’t sure she can trust herself to make smart decisions when it comes to boys. So when a strange man approaches her and tries to convince her that she has a special gift, Nyla flees. But in the end she can’t resist the opportunity to meet the other “freaks” who inhabit the deep—a dangerous underground realm policed by The League.

When I was fourteen, I was a wallflower; I had acne, difficult hair, ill-fitting clothes, and a desperate desire to escape my older sister’s shadow. For Nyla, the dim caverns of the deep offer her a moment to shine. Miles beneath Brooklyn she finds the mother who walked out on her ten years ago, and she discovers she has more power than she ever imagined. In the deep Nyla finds her destiny.

It doesn’t take much courage to write a novel like THE DEEP—it was actually a lot of fun! But I knew I was taking a risk when I put a defiant, beautiful, Black punk girl on the cover of my self-published book. The image is dark, forcing you to take a closer look. When I signed the first five copies of THE DEEP, I wrote the same thing over and over: “Be fierce!” It’s my way of saying to readers, “Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.”

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Thank you, Zetta for all you so courageously continue to do!

And So It Begins

Yesterday, my nutritionist mentioned that she could not believe we were already in mid November. Time can get away from us can’t it? I like what Zetta Elliott does every December. She creates an annual retrospective pulling information from her blog and FB posts which helps her see all she has accomplished during the previous year. Looking over what we post in blogs or journals, write about in emails or have taken photos of during the year is a much more powerful statement than the book that didn’t get finished (whether we were reading or writing it!), the project that never got started or the trip that got postponed yet again. Let’s look at what was there and see what was accomplished.

I had pretty much the same thoughts earlier this week when I read and commented on a blog post addressed to John Green and the lack of diversity in his books. I wrote a quick impulsive response, thought about it and wrote another one and still don’t think I said it quite right.

I don’t think John Green should have to include characters of color in his writings no more than I think Coe Booth or Malin Alegria should have to include Whites or Asians in theirs. Authors write best when they write what they know. If they know an all white or an all Latino world, then write that. I may wonder how a neighborhood that I know to be rich in diversity can be portrayed as being so very White, but I know people don’t all seek or have the same experience. I know there are Blacks and Latinos who live in monolithic worlds just are there are Whites who do so. The problem I have is that those white readers can easily find books that reflect how they perceive their world while black and Latino readers have a very hard time find books written by those who understand their world and can write about it. While it amazes me that people can continue to live lives that lack diversity with respect to the types of people they interact with, foods they eat or books they read, I have to accept that there are people who question why anyone would want any type of diversity in their lives. Sure, we could argue that books are the perfect arena to introduce people to different thoughts and ideas, there are readers who don’t want that. They read for other reasons than to explore the world around them.

Why do you read?

Publishers Weekly recently released it’s best of 2013. Looking at the list of children’s books, I am wow-ed by the wide variety of literature on the list. The list includes British fiction, GLBT teens, a character with dyslexia, a female action lead character in a graphic novel, 16th century Scandinavia and monsters in Victorian London. Books by or about people of color are the following.

Boxers and Saints by Gene Juen Yang; Lark Pien

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

The Thing about Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tonya Lee Stone

These books stand as markers of what was published in 2013. Do you think they’re the best?

The Hispanic Division and the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress will honor Sonia Manzano for The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (Scholastic) with the America’s Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Program on Monday 23 September in Washington DC.

First Book made headlines this past summer when they targeted purchases from two publishers to increase the availability of diverse books for young readers. After distributing books from HarperCollins and Lee and Low around the country, First book has announced the second phase of their program.

So what’s next for First Book? In June, the group unveiled at the Clinton Global Initiative America the planned next phase of the project, a “Commitment to Action” that includes outreach to 30,000 new schools and programs, special collections of diverse and multicultural titles, matching grants for educators, and an influential council of authors to help inspire new books and stories.

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a growing dynamic in the demand for diversity in characters and authors in YA lit. Sure, it may be just another phase that the industry is experiencing, but I feel a real commitment from the individuals who are speaking up. They’re making statements that express concerns and beliefs they live with all the time. School Library Journal recently held a virtual conference “Embracing Diversity” which resulting in an article full of diversity resources.

The mosaic on Elephant Rag blog is a great place to find new books that reflect the world around us.

From authors Kelbion Noel and Zetta Elliott

Everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages. That’s what Diversity Reads is all about. Allowing youth the opportunity to enjoy speculative fiction featuring characters who look and deal, just like them. The non-profit is introducing a quarterly series, featuring multicultural authors of speculative fiction works, featuring main characters of color. Stay tuned for an event near you!

Their first event, “Black Magic” is in Toronto on 21 Sept.

Author Carole Boston Weatherford visited the Brown Bookshelf to discuss her book, Birmingham 1963 which pays homage to the four girls who lost their lives in a church bombing 50 years ago.

Lisa Yee is publishing on Paper Li.  STET, Good Books and Bad Dogs and Outer Space Stuff is brought to you daily.She’s much better at that than I am! I have a weekly publication but all I news I manage to collect comes from YALSA. I’m working on it!

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith will be presenting a Graphic Novel Writing workshop in Austin on 5 Oct. To prepare for this event, her blog recently featured an interview with her conducted by Samantha Clark, Austin SCBWI’s regional advisor, Why did she take her Tantalize series to graphic format?

The Tantalize series struck me as a great fit for graphic format. The books are genre benders–Gothic fantasies with strong elements of romance, mystery/suspense and some humor. They’re high action, rich in setting – an alternative Austin; Dallas; Chicago; small-town Michigan; Montpelier, Vermont – and offer diverse protagonists and visually arresting creatures (angels, vampires, werearmadillos).

Me? I’m working at the reference desk today! I’m looking forward to my first visit to Rose Hulman’s library this week to hear a speaker that’s part of the Muslim Journey bookshelf on which we’ve partnered. And, I’m reading reading reading for BFYA! With regards to BFYA, I’m really excited to have identified several ways to distribute the books I’ve been receiving. Of course, some have been going to the Indiana State University library! Advanced copies have been going to area teachers for their classroom libraries. Others will soon ship to the Boys and Girls Club of Burbank and in March I hope to distribute the remaining hundreds to school libraries here in Indiana. Thanks to a wonderful suggestion from Suzanne Walker, the Children’s Librarian for the state of Indiana, I’m planning a mini-grant program to send the books to the neediest libraries in the state. Hopefully, I’ve found a way to get it funded as well!

You?!! I hope you have a fantastic week and that your favorite team wins, unless they’re playing the Colts!