Nothing Just Happens to Be

By Kell Andrews

Diversity and being culturally generic

Deadwood, my middle-grade mystery, takes place in a diverse town, like communities I based it on and where I’ve always lived. Culture is not central to the story, which is about two seventh graders who must lift a curse on a tree to save their town from growing disaster, but I wanted to include diverse characters to reflect the reality I pictured.

Still, I was intimidated about writing someone from another culture, so I decided to hedge a little. When I began the novel, the main character of Martin had a Puerto Rican dad but was raised by his white mother and grandmother. I thought if he was raised in my own culture, I had the right to write him.

The story is not about the ethnic background, and it’s been said that Martin “just happens to be” Puerto Rican. But it didn’t just happen to him, just as my other main character, Hannah, doesn’t “just happen to be” white. I decided that these would be the characters, and I grew their voices, personalities, and backgrounds. It didn’t just happen.

As I wrote the story, my understanding of the character changed. Although Martin’s ethnic background isn’t central to the progression of the plot, I realized it IS central to Martin himself. He asserted himself and his identity as I wrote, so I changed his heritage to fit. His mother, grandmother, and aunt became Puerto Rican too, and that changed the threads of the story and his character. Martin holds his cultural identity very close, reflective of his feelings for his mother and abuelita.

There’s no such thing as culturally generic books, but we need them.

On May 1, 2014 right as #weneeddiversebooks was officially kicking off, SLJ published a list of Culturally Diverse Books Selected by SLJ’s Review Editors. SLJ wrote, “These books are those in which the main character(s) ‘just happen’ to be a member of a non-white, non-mainstream cultural group. These stories, rather than informing readers about individual cultures, emphasize cultural common ground.”

While culturally generic is not a term I love, it is established in literacy and education. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term as part of a framework of multicultural literature for librarians and educators in Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Literature (NCTE, 1982). The now-ubiquitious metphor of “windows and mirrors” is hers. She defined the categories of “culturally specific” — containing details that define the characters as members of a particular cultural group and “culturally generic” — representing a specific cultural group, but with little culturally specific information. (Companion Website for Elementary Children’s Literature: The Basics for Teachers and Parents, 2/e , Nancy A. Anderson)

But is The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata or Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina — two of SLJ’s listed titles — really culturally generic? Could these stories happen to any child, of any race? I don’t think so. If you put Summer in Medina’s book and Piddy in Kadohata’s, the stories would not be the same.  Summer and Piddy don’t “just happen to be” Japanese-American or Puerto Rican — it’s an essential part of their identity and the story. Good stories and characters are always specific.

But yes, as the “culturally generic” label indicates, these stories are supremely relatable for young readers. Readers of all kinds need diverse books because they are not windows or mirrors, but both at the same time. As KT Horning wrote in response to the SLJ list, characters by Kwame Alexander and Varian Johnson are viewed as culturally generic because they are writing from the inside: “more Us than Other.  They have invited readers to stand on their own bit of cultural common ground for a while.”

Much of the time, culture is the framework we live inside — we don’t always see it, but it doesn’t “just happen” to characters of color — or to white characters either. White is the default in the United States. It is almost always seen as culturally generic, but it isn’t. It’s the culture that many writers write and readers read within seeing it because it’s ground they’re standing on.

“Culturally generic” books — as problematic as the term is — do the same. They are the fantasies, mysteries, romances, coming of age, and science fiction books where readers can see diverse characters like and unlike themselves doing more than explore culture.  They expand the cultural common ground.

I wrote Martin as a skinny, wild-haired, Puerto Rican kid and Hannah as a tall, blonde, white one. Neither is culturally generic. Diversity in children’s books requires a decision by writers, readers, publishers, booksellers, and librarians to create and share books on that expanded common ground. Whether writers and readers experience diverse characters or only a homogenous world, it doesn’t “just happen.” It’s a decision.


Kell Andrews writes fiction for children and nonfiction for adults.. Her first novel, Deadwood (Spencer Hill Press), was published in 2014, and her short fiction will appear in an upcoming issue of Spider Magazine. A member of SCBWI, Kell holds a humanities degree from Johns Hopkins University and a master of liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she now lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. You can contact Kell here, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

You can buy a copy of Deadwood here.

Inspiration From Unexpected Places

By Sharon G. Flake

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When you are drowning in a novel—writing yourself into a hole—it is best to have one or two distractions.  Something to lure your mind away from writer’s block, deadlines you know you’ll never meet, or the thought that you may never be published again.

Besides chocolate, HBO’s hit series True Blood became my distraction of choice. The show is set in a small town where some really good-looking vampires are misunderstood and discriminated against, when they aren’t sucking everyone’s blood in town, that is.

I was writing Pinned at the time of my drowning—a novel which went on to receive tremendous praise and to be named one of the top ten books of the year by Kirkus Review;  a Junior Library Guild Selection; an NAACP Award Nominee, and the Best Book of the Year by the Detroit Free Library.

Like millions of viewers, I became a huge fan of True Blood.  Sometime during the first season I began to write my own vampire tale.  It was to be for my eyes only.  Another distraction. But a writer makes lots of promises to themselves that they never keep.

Initially the book was about crazed vampire children; complete with coffins, damp basements and plenty of blood.  Years and many rewritings later, it turned into something much more significant and compelling.  As a result, my first historical mystery novel, Unstoppable Octobia May, was born.

Octobia May is a girl sleuth who has been given what we say we want for all children—the freedom to explore, examine and critique the world around them while learning to think for themselves.  Qualities our nation did not readily encourage or expect from girls or blacks during the 1950s when the story takes place.

It is no easy feat to write a book for children that explores issues of gender, race, and the politics of the day, all the while attempting to answer the question 10-year-old Octobia May poses—is Mr. Davenport really a vampire living in her Aunt Shuma’s boarding house? Although Unstoppable Octobia May is set in the ’50s, the novel also reaches back in time when many of the book’s characters reflect on their Holocaust and World War II experiences.

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Sharon G. Flake

Writing a novel that includes a suspected vampire, the contributions of Thurgood Marshall and the plight of Negro soldiers during WWII, is a tall challenge, to say the least.  Especially given that African-American history has so often been belittled, dismissed or ignored.  So I spent a great deal of time in the library in an effort to get the historical aspect of the novel correct.  But the more I researched, the more frightened I became, especially when it came to War World ll.  With all of his shananigans and secrets, could Mr. Davenport be a former Tuskegee Airman?  No it would be unfair to those Negro soldiers who fought so valiantly against all odds, I thought.  What about a member of the Red Ball Express?  Nope.  It went on and on this way for a while—asking myself questions, researching and fretting. Until one day a light went off.  These soldiers where human beings, who were fighting for the right for all Americans to be treated equally and humanly.  And humanity is some messy, complicated business. So how could I make them less than human, by holding them to standards of perfection that did not exist in any other person on the planet?

This revelation helped me come to terms with a few characters in the book, and the choices that people make when they want to be unstoppable (i.e.: to accomplish any dream they desire) in a society that has placed limits on their ability to do so.

Like humanity, writing can be some messy business. Sometimes a writer has to step away from their novel for an hour, day, or year to gain perspective.  Or as in my case for one hour a week over the course of a few years.  I am thankful now for Pinned and the opportunity it afforded me to seek out distractions.  If not for that book, perhaps Octobia May would never have been birthed.  And a novel filled with adventure, mystery and one unstoppable girl, may not have been written.


Sharon G. Flake is an internationally recognized author whose break out novel The Skin I’m In earned her the reputation of having one of the most authentic voices in children’s literature.  She is the author of nine middle grade and young adult novels and the winner of multiple Coretta Scott King Honors.  Her novels have been translated into Korean, French and Italian.  Readers may reach Flake via twitter @sharonflake, Facebook, or sharongflake.com.

You can purchase a copy of Unstoppable Octobia May here.

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood

By Varsha Bajaj

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What thirteen-year-old Abby wants most is to meet her father. She just never imagined he would be a huge film star—in Bollywood! Now she’s traveling to Mumbai to get to know her famous father. 

Abby is overwhelmed by the culture clash, the pressures of being the daughter of India’s most famous celebrity, and the burden of keeping her identity a secret. But as she learns to navigate her new surroundings, she just might discover where she really belongs.


Bollywood movies are glamorous, colorful, and seeped in song and dance. Its heroes are larger than life, its heroines are gorgeous. The movies are three hours long and at times thin on plot.

The best of them are entertaining and full of heart. One of my favorite Bollywood movies is Lagaan.

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It is set in Victorian times, about the wager between a British officer and Indian villagers burdened by crippling taxes imposed by the Empire. If the villagers win a cricket game, their taxes are to be forgiven. The music and the setting take you on a magical journey where you are rooting for the underdog. The villagers don’t have the equipment or the knowledge of the game, but they have the heart and the determination to win.

I grew up in Mumbai, India. Even though my mother was very selective of which Bollywood movies we could watch as kids, the glamour of the films was around me. The street on which I lived was home to some directors and musicians. Their children played hopscotch with me and we blew out birthday candles together.

Books took me to foreign places and introduced me to characters whose names were different from mine. In doing so, they made me aware that these characters were not as different as I thought, we felt the same emotions. Reading diverse books helps kids and adults to realize our shared humanity.

Abby Spencer travels to Mumbai and takes the reader with her. I did not gloss over some of the harsher realities of Mumbai and neither did I want to skimp on the playful, glamorous aspects of Abby’s setting. Striking a balance at times felt like walking on a razor’s edge.

Abby experiences a different world and culture and so does the reader. She is biracial, as are so many children growing up today. Her journey helps her forge a relationship with her father and to understand a part of her heritage. As a teen, I loved wish fulfillment books. Abby’s fantastical journey is grounded in reality.

In our multicultural society, how can our books not reflect the diversity of our readers?


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Varsha Bajaj was born in India and came to America as a graduate student in 1986. Varsha’s debut middle grade, Abby Spencer goes to Bollywood (Whitman, 2014), was released in March. Her upcoming picture book, Our Baby (Nancy Paulsen Books, summer 2016), will be illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. She published her first picture book, How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? (Little Brown, illustrated by Ivan Bates) in 2004. When not writing she loves to cook for her family and go for walks with her best friend, Scamper.

You can purchase a copy of Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood here.

Getting Understanding

By Jacqueline Woodson

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I don’t remember when I first started writing Brown Girl Dreaming.  Maybe I was always writing it — from those early days when I first leaned the absolute power of words on paper — how they lifted off the page and into memory.  Or maybe it was before that, learning to write my name, my older sister’s hand curled around mine until the letters were neat and clear on the page.  What I know is that  from a very young age, I was memorizing bits of conversation, TV jingles, whole paragraphs from books.  And even though I was a child who could not stop talking once I got started, I was also deeply thoughtful, loving the quiet alone moments when I got to live with all that I knew.  So much lived inside my head back then, pictures and stories and small moments from my childhood.  I didn’t know that was what they would come to be called — small moments — because they weren’t small then.  They were huge.  They were everything.  They were the beginning of me — remembered.

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Somewhere in my brain
each laugh, tear and lullaby
becomes memory.

And yes the stories seemed to be that — memory — even as they were happening — as though I was two girls at the same time — one living the story and one, always, remembering the story, stepping outside of who I was to watch it happen.  Already, even in the moment, I was thinking about the retelling and later — the writing.  So Brown Girl Dreaming was always a part of me in the same way my family, my stories, my life — have always been a part of me.

as a child, I smelled the air

Mama takes her coffee out to the front porch
sips it slow. Two steps down and her feet
are covered in grass and dew.
New York doesn’t smell like this, she says.
I follow her, the dew cool against my feet
the soft hush of wind through leaves
my mother and I
alone together.
Her coffee is sweetened with condensed milk,
her hair pulled back into a braid,
her dark fingers circling her cup.
If I ask, she will hold it to my lips…

My mother, my brothers and sister, my grandparents on both sides, uncles and aunts, my father — all of them, in the end, made their way into the pages of Brown Girl Dreaming.  As I wrote it, it was as if each sat by my side, leaning over me, watching, reminding me what not to forget.  My grandparents and my mom have become ancestors but not before leaving me with this gift — the gift of a life truly lived, a world in which I was and remain truly loved.

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Jacqueline Woodson

It’s strange to hear people talk about writing about race — some people see it as a coat you can shrug off and on depending on the character.  Others think of it as a social construct that can be disregarded if one has evolved enough.  Some believe we are living in a “post-racial” America.  Still others believe that color is only color, consider themselves color-blind.  When I finally started putting Brown Girl Dreaming onto the page as the book it was to become, I didn’t say to myself this is going to be a book about “race” or “civil rights” or “black history.”  I thought this is simply going to be “my story.” And my story is the story of a brown girl in America so every fiber of every journey, every word touched by my pen, every song sang and poem read, every meal eaten and tear shed, each bit of laughter, every single thing in Brown Girl Dreaming has to do with being both a person in this country and a person of color in this country. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop eloquently writes about readers needing both “windows and mirrors” in literature. Brown Girl Dreaming is both: look inside and truly see every nuanced fiber of this amazing family, hold up the mirror of this book and see yourself inside these pages. There is no such thing as being color-blind when it comes to race but there is a thing called “deep understanding” — and the hope is that we each one day have a deeper understanding of how someone else lives. My grandmother used to say “In all your getting, get understanding.”  In writing this book, I think I’ve finally got understanding.

the fabric store

Some Fridays, we walk to downtown Greenville where
there are some clothing stores, some restaurants,
a motel and the five-and-dime store but
my grandmother won’t take us
into any of those places anymore.
Even the five-and-dime, which isn’t segregated now
but where a woman is paid, my grandmother says,
to follow colored people around in case they try to
steal something. We don’t go into the restaurants
because they always seat us near the kitchen.
When we go downtown,
we go to the fabric store, where the white woman
knows my grandmother
from back in Anderson, asks,
How’s Gunnar doing and your girls in New York?
She rolls fabric out for my grandmother
to rub between her fingers.
They discuss drape and nap and where to cinch
the waist on a skirt for a child.
At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.


Jacqueline Woodson’s most recent book, BROWN GIRL DREAMING, was a NY Times Bestseller and long listed for the National Book Award.  Her books include, among many others, EACH KINDNESS, LOCOMOTION, BENEATH A METH MOON, and MIRACLE’S BOYS.  Among other awards, she’s received three Newbery Honors, a Coretta Scott King Award and the Margaret A. Edwards and ALAN Awards for Lifetime Achievement in Young Adult Literature.  She lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY.

You can purchase a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming here.

Interview with Sara Farizan

The author of If You Could Be Mine talks about her new lesbian YA novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, a light-hearted romantic comedy about an Iranian American teen girl.

By Malinda Lo

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Sara Farizan made a huge splash in the YA world last year with her debut novel, If You Could Be Mine (Algonquin Young Readers), about an Iranian teen girl who contemplates changing her sex in order to marry her female best friend. The novel won a slew of awards, including the Lambda Literary Award, the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.

Sara is back this fall with a new YA novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, a more light-hearted look at first love about an Iranian American teen named Leila and the girl(s) she crushes on at her Boston-area prep school. I invited Sara to answer a few questions about her new novel for Diversity in YA.

Malinda: How would you describe Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel to a potential reader?

Sara: It is a comic coming-of-age story with a funny and insecure protagonist who happens to be gay. It’s part prep-school drama and part figuring out who you are in your universe of family, school, social groups etc. There is angst, make out sessions, embarrassing farts, and emotional turmoil. It’s about liking the wrong person and learning to like yourself. A fast read, nobody dies, and it ends up being an uplifting story.

Malinda: In my experience, novels rarely come from one isolated moment of inspiration but rather a collection of ideas, some conscious and some subconscious, and sometimes I don’t fully understand those subconscious inspirations until years later. What were some of your inspirations for Tell Me Again?

Sara: I started writing Tell Me Again when I was 23 and depressingly unemployed in Los Angeles. I had been writing these spec scripts that I hoped would get me work, which involved writing teen soaps that had mostly straight, WASP characters. And I started writing Tell Me Again as my version of a teen soap. Over the years it ended up becoming very much part of what my high school life was like and also VERY, VERY different from what my high school life was like. I also wanted to write a story about liking the wrong person. Someone who you think the world of and then begin to question what it is you really do  like about that person.

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Sara Farizan

Malinda: Do you think you’d ever like to return to screenwriting? And what made you move from screenwriting to novel writing? They’re such different formats.

Sara: I would love to return to screenwriting only I don’t have the networking skills. I’m very bad at selling myself or my ideas. I was also always better at dialogue than relaying great visuals. But I miss it a lot.

Malinda: How did the experience of writing this novel differ from that of writing If You Could Be Mine?

Sara: If You Could Be Mine required a lot more research and has a more serious tone because of the subject matter. Sahar is also a lot different from me and is more adult in If You Could Be Mine. Leila, from Tell Me Again, is more like me, though I was more social and outgoing in school and definitely did not have a love interest or get into all the hijinks she does. It was easier to write Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel than it was If You Could Be Mine. I was also able to just do humor in Tell Me Again, whereas injecting more humor in If You Could Be Mine didn’t feel right.

Malinda: Tell Me Again was definitely funny, and it reminded me that I rarely read novels about lesbians that are funny! Did you set out to write a funny book? How do you see humor fitting in to your writing?

Sara: Well we lesbians have a long tradition of having funny ladies in our camp, no? I use humor a lot in life in almost every situation. My parents are both very funny people in their own ways and I also grew up figuring out how to make friends through laughter. Life’s so hard as it is, you need to laugh every so often. People remember funny and they remember if you made them feel happy.

Malinda: Tell me, how should a crush feel?

Sara: Oh God I don’t even know anymore. In high school, it was exciting and scary. Now I just watch Cheers on Netflix.

Malinda: Sam or Diane?

Sara: I love Sam and Diane. I can’t choose! But I am pretty sure I relate most to Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger) when he tries to speak to women he’s attracted to. We both make unintelligible noises and strike out. I’d also love for everyone to say “Sara!” whenever I walked in the room, like with Norm.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel is now available.


Sara Farizan is the author of If You Could Be Mine. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Farizan currently lives in San Francisco, but Boston will always be her home. She is an MFA graduate of Lesley University and holds a BA in film and media studies from American University. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel is her second novel.

Growing Grayson

Gracefully Grayson, coming this November, is one of the first middle-grade novels ever published about a transgender girl.

By Ami Polonsky

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I never set out to write a novel about a transgender girl. In fact, when Grayson’s character first came to me, I thought she was a boy—she looked like a boy, she sounded like a boy, she dressed like a boy. Of course, I was wrong about her, but this was at the very beginning; I didn’t yet understand who this child was.

I wrote Gracefully Grayson, first and foremost, as a mother. My two children were young when the idea for the book came to me and, in retrospect, I know that Grayson’s character is rooted in the frustration I often felt when my kids were little. I was diligently trying to raise my preschool-aged son and daughter as creative human beings who felt free to explore their world openly. I cringed at the thought that they should ever receive the message that girls should do this or boys should do that. I found myself constantly contending with the media’s messages, the world of consumerism (the pink aisles and the blue aisles), and well-meaning adults who would subtly or not so subtly tell my son how to be a boy and tell my daughter how to be a girl.

As a preschooler, my son was as happy playing with dolls as he was with cars. My daughter was as happy kicking a ball against the wall as she was baking cookies in the pretend kitchen. And I was happy just watching my kids explore whatever interested them on a particular day.

I would wonder, though: How would it feel to raise a child who, in a dramatic fashion, didn’t conform to the stereotype of what it means to be a boy, or what it means to be a girl? How would a parent support a child’s effort to be true to him or herself if that child’s exterior appearance and interior identity didn’t align? I didn’t know it at the time, but in those moments of wondering, the seed for Grayson was planted.

It was the summer of 2011 when the seed started to grow. The idea for a character had come to me—a twelve-year-old boy named Grayson. He was hiding a secret: He lived in a fantasy world, a world in his own mind, where he was his true self—a girl. He’d pretend his “boy clothes” into dresses and skirts so that, in his imagination, his community could see him for the girl he truly was. I am a liberal woman. I am a feminist. I am open-minded. I am a fervent supporter of LGBT rights. I relish in questioning what we, as a society, claim to be “truth.” But I didn’t get it. Grayson was my creation, and, still, I didn’t truly understand what it means to be transgender; I didn’t understand that a transgender girl is a girl, through and through.

As I drafted the early chapters of what would become Gracefully Grayson, I referred to Grayson as a boy. When I talked to the few family members and friends who knew I was attempting to write a book, I’d call Grayson “he” because I didn’t understand the completeness of her femininity.

As I made my way through the first draft, I was getting closer to Grayson’s truth, but I wasn’t there yet. At this point, it seemed to me that Grayson was a boy who was a girl.

I finished the first draft. I joined a writing workshop. I understood, more or less, that Grayson was a girl, but I wasn’t emphatic about it. When my group referred to Grayson as male, I didn’t correct them. I understood where they were coming from; I’m a visual person—whenever I thought of Grayson, I saw an image of her, and she looked like a boy to me, too. I still didn’t understand the spectrum of gender; ironically, I still couldn’t fully grasp that some girls are born with male bodies.

I revised my draft. I queried my agent. My book was sold, and, at this point, it was the fall of 2012. The world was changing. Stories about transgender children were cropping up more and more in the media. I allowed myself, finally, to share my news openly with a wider circle: I had written a book and it was going to be published!

Of course, people asked what it was about, and I needed a tag line, so it became, “It’s a coming-of-age story about a transgender girl.” I said it over and over, again and again, to those who asked. I wrote a book about a transgender girl. I wrote a book about a transgender girl. A transgender girl. A transgender girl. A girl.

 A girl.

The idea of being transgender can be difficult to process—especially for adults. Even I, the person who literally made Grayson, struggled at the beginning. But I always loved Grayson like she was my child, and this made it my duty to understand her. I sincerely hope that readers of Gracefully Grayson will also fully internalize who Grayson is. I hope they will appreciate her struggles, her uniqueness, and her identity as a girl, through and through.


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Ami Polonsky (www.amipolonsky.com) is a reading and writing tutor, mother to two young children, and author, among other things. A former Language Arts teacher and literacy coach, Ami remains devoted to guiding children towards a love of books and helping create lifelong readers. Ami lives outside of Chicago with her family. Gracefully Grayson is her first novel.

Gracefully Grayson will be published 11/4/14, by Disney Hyperion. Pre-order it here.

My Multi-Coloured Heroes

Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness is the last book in Sarwat Chadda’s middle grade fantasy trilogy.

By Sarwat Chadda

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I love action. I write it, I read it. I watch it on the cinema screens and collect it in comic books and all the formats it’s available. I even type to the big, epic and loud soundtracks.

Heroes have always fascinated me and we can see, with the current domination of the superhero flick, they are alive and well and gathering more and more fans by the day.

What I want to do here is give you a flavour of some of the awesome heroes out there that are just as great and inspiring as the Captain Americas and Batmans and Hawkeyes who we all know and love. Heroes, no matter where they come from, are cut from the same cloth. They optimize what is best in humans. What we could achieve. Our noblest selves.

RAMA

The biggest hero in Indian mythology. Check out the Ramayana, his tale where he faces down the demon king, Ravana, who’s kidnapped his wife, the beautiful Sita. However you approach it, it is awesome. It’s epic high fantasy. There are armies of monkeys (and how can you not love that?) and the climax between Rama and Ravana is heart-stopping action.

Rama is the perfect hero. His capacity to love is what makes him great. He’s loyal and honourable, but when wronged, will not stop. He’s got archery skills that would make Hawkeye chuck in his bow, and fires devastating aastras, divine super-weapons that can slay thousands.

Ravana, the demon king, isn’t your stereotypical villain. He’s the classic fallen hero. He and Rama share so many qualities they could have been allies but for Ravana’s pride and lust. The demon king is loyal, he has honour and his own people adore him. And he will not bow to fate. He is defiant till the end, even though he’s wrong. And isn’t there something heroic in that?

MOWGLI

Come on, you must have seen The Jungle Book. It’s the greatest Disney film ever! I find it interesting we use “Disneyfication” as an insult when Disney, perhaps alone out of the major production companies, have brought us ethnic heroes for generations. Mowgli is Indian. Then you have Aladdin, an Arab. There have been Creole heroines and African heroes (what else is the Lion King?) too. But Mowgli’s my favourite. I saw him up on the screen when I was seven or eight and was blown away. There was a boy, a hero, brown and skinny, just like me!

Read the original books by Kipling. There is deep magic in them and Mowgli is as much a mystic as a wild boy. And he’s totally bad-ass.

THE MONKEY KING

Looking over at Chinese mythology we have The Journey to the West and perhaps the most amazing hero of them all. The monkey king is flawed through and through. Frankly he doesn’t want to be a hero at all. He’s a drunken frat boy forced to do the right thing. But he’s insanely good at fighting, as cunning as a bag of vipers and loyal to his friends. And that’s just what you need to defeat the forces of evil.

ARJUNA

Okay, we’re back in India for this guy. The ultimate god of war. He’s Jason Bourne, Achilles, and Legolas rolled into one. The Mahabharata is the longest, greatest epic in the world. The stories are filled with heroes but Arjuna’s the star. A demi-god trained by the best warriors in the world he leads his armies into apocalypse, the greatest war that the world will ever see. He’s also advised by Krishna, a god, and faces thousands of soldiers, demons, horrors of dark dreams, and finally Karna, another demi-god and tragically, his older brother.

To Indians, the story of the Mahabharata encompasses all that there is in life, both light and dark. They are not wrong. If you want to read fantasy that leaves Lord of the Rings lying in the dust, try the Mahabharata. And before you get too carried away, I LOVE Lord of the Rings.


 

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Sarwat Chadda has lived and travelled throughout the world, from China to Guatemala. He’s been lost in Mongolia, abandoned at a volcano in Nicaragua and hidden up a tree from a rhino in Nepal. Throughout his travels, Sarwat has soaked up the myths, legends and cultures of far away places. Now, with the Ash Mistry series, he aims to bring these unfamiliar tales of ten-headed demons and blue-skinned heroes back home and put them beside the exploits of Achilles and Thor. His heroes are Prince Rama and the demon-slaying Kali. Isn’t it about time you met them too?

You can order Sarwat’s young adult and middle grade books here

Five Reasons Why I Wrote “Love Is the Drug”

By Alaya Dawn Johnson

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Love Is the Drug is entirely a work of fiction. None of the characters are me or my family or my friends, and I’ve thankfully never had to survive a global flu pandemic. But the experience of growing up in Washington, DC did, in broad strokes, inform the way I wrote the book. What follows are five snippets from my novel followed by five moments of my life that helped inspire them.


Nothing is like DC in the summer. The rich smell of humidity and baking asphalt, the sharp-sweet of cut grass and the sulfurous fumes of spent fireworks, all swept away in the ferocity of an evening storm that pounds the city, rich and poor, white and black, Northwest and Northeast, with its harsh equality.

We walk around all summer long. My sister, my cousin and I. We walk to the video store, to the soft-serve ice cream shop, to the canal where we can rent bicycles or canoes and follow that tow path for two or three locks, trailed by clouds of gnats and the buzzing of cicadas. It’s unbearably hot, at least everyone says so, but we can’t wait to get out of the air conditioned world of our parents’ houses and our schools and smell the churned silt of the Potomac, the obscene greenery of the woods that arc over the canal and turn the sky an emerald set with lapis blue. When the air quality is at its worst, the buses are free. We take them all over the city: to the National Mall, to the Library of Congress, to Northeast, to visit my uncle, or to Southeast, to visit my grandmother. On the Fourth of July, the whole city shakes itself like an overheated dog after a jump in the pool and comes out to celebrate the summer. In Northeast, the kids jack the hydrants, ruining the whole block’s water pressure—but how they scream and laugh running through that fierce spray, sliding in the lake they’ve made of the street. I walk past and breathe deep of water evaporating fast on stove-hot asphalt. Nearby, fireworks go off: the big rockets that are illegal in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. They sounded like gunshots to me the first night I heard them, sleeping over in my uncle’s house. Sheltered as I was, I’d never heard a real gunshot before. I’d have known the difference, my aunt told me.

One Fourth of July the ozone falls and chokes those parched streets; the clouds roll in. We all pray the storm holds off long enough for the fireworks, and it does. They go up in a break in the clouds, and as soon as the last shower of white sparks fades away, the first drops land. We dance with the Hare Krishnas in a pit of mud, soaked to our skin, and as we walk back we sing “Lightning Is Striking Again” at the top of our lungs. Some people look at us kind of funny, and some people join in.

*

He switches into a higher gear and the engine drowns any conversation as they tear down the road, traffic lights blinking a stream of forlorn red behind them. The tires squeal when he makes the turn onto Military Road, and she wonders why her knuckles ache before she sees her hand gripping the handle above her head like she’s hanging from a cliff.

“Could you slow down?” she says, clipping each word hard against the back of her teeth, not quite a scream but close enough.

He knows what he’s doing. He sees her stitches. He visited her in the hospital, for God’s sake. He’s doing this to intimidate her, to show off, because he’s a rich white dude who can, and —

I’m in line near the Federal Triangle station. This black guy comes up to me, smiling. I smile back, cautiously. I know what’s coming, and I’ve gotten all right at deflecting it, but it’s harder to walk away in a line. But he’s funny about it. “Someone give me 25 cents, because I got to call my mother and tell her I’m in love!” I laugh and smile more genuinely. He’s an older guy, we both know perfectly damn well my seventeen-year-old self is not getting with him this afternoon or any other, but it’s a moment in a lifetime of this particular interaction that feels more playful than aggressive, that feels like a joke between the two of us in this sea of white people, and I like that. He keeps at it, and I’m laughing and saying no, not trying particularly hard to shut it down.

Suddenly, this white guy in front of me turns around, so abruptly that I’m startled and step back. He’s tall—bigger than both of us (because it’s suddenly an us, me and this black guy I’ve never seen in my life).

“She said no,” says the white guy, stepping forward, using his height to get in the black guy’s face. “Leave her alone already.”

Black guy steps back, clearly ego bruised and clearly not looking for trouble. “Hey man, I didn’t mean anything by it,” he says. He doesn’t meet the white guy’s eyes, but he glances at me before he leaves. White guy turns to me, in shining armor, “Are you all right?”

I say yes, I am. I feel dirty, complicit in the kind of DC racial interaction that always makes me angry, but it feels complicated too. I’ve been honked at and catcalled in the streets of this city since I was ten years old. I love to walk, and so I’ve learned how to deal with it. Have I learned to deal too much? Do I cut those guys who love to chat me up too much slack? He was bothering me a little. But not a lot. He was funny. He was one of my people, and no matter how I turned it around in my head I still hated that this white guy had barged in and used his physical strength and his race to intimidate someone so relatively powerless.

*

Felice reaches out and pats her head, very gently. “Is something wrong with your hair? It’s a little…puffy.”

Bird stares at her, shamed into silence. Felice seizes her victory in her delicate, manicured hands and walks into the senior room. Alone, Bird slumps against the wall, buries her hands deep into her puffy, unacceptable roots, and waits for the knife in her heart to hold still.

In tenth grade I convince my mom to let me take my hair out of braids. I’ve had the same style since fourth grade, since it’s easier for my mother to manage than a daily taming of my thicket of short hair. I liked the braids, but the pain of getting them put in (one to two full days in the hair salon) and then taking them out (a full weekend stuck at the house) has made me desperate to have my hair out again. Unfortunately, I don’t have the first clue of how to deal with my hair loose. It tangles, it threatens to dread, I spend most days with it in two thick braids or hidden behind my growing collection of head scarves. My sartorial choices are not popular at school. One day my mom suggests that I let her blow-dry it straight. I like the idea: I’ll be able to see how long it’s gotten and I won’t have to worry about it for a few days.

The first few compliments in school feel nice. “Alaya, your hair is fantastic!” “You look awesome!” But then they get weird: “You should do that to your hair every day!” “Wow, you look so much better with your hair straight!” I practically crawl to my friend’s house at the end of the day. I feel twisted up: I like the difference of the new style, I like it as a change of pace. But now even my own enjoyment of my long hair feels complicit, like a betrayal of the girl who went to school the day before with a tangled mess covered with a do-rag.

*

Nicky apologizes that he can’t drive her to school, but she understands. Between the checkpoints and the driving restrictions, he couldn’t get her there and make it to his doorman job on time. Bird’s mom calls Nicky a deadbeat, but it isn’t really a fair word for a guy who’s worked shit jobs most of his life. It’s just that he can’t manage to keep anything for very long, and what he does get is soul-killing.

A year later, I’m in the school cafeteria when I hear someone call my name. I turn around. It’s a man dressed in khaki coveralls with a red insignia stitched on one breast. I blink, wondering why the plumber would want to talk to me. Then I blink again, and realize that I know him: he’s the husband of my mom and aunt’s best childhood friend, a man I’ve known all of my life. In a few months, I’ll go with his son to the Junior prom. I call his name, hug him, ask him what he’s doing here. It turns out he’s here to fix the broken boiler; he’s with the plumbing company my school occasionally uses. He says he had heard I went to this fancy school, but he didn’t know if he would see me.

How could I not have recognized a man I painted Easter eggs with? Who has always been part of my extended family? Is it this school? We’re in the middle of Washington, DC and yet half of it passes through us like dark matter, only visible through certain rare interactions, and gravity.

*

She shakes her head. “I’m venezolana, Emily, and I’m working with very paranoid security officials. Either I’m perfect, or I’m a —”

Dr. Granger’s laugh is so bleak that Bird winces. “It’s not easy here, is it?” Bird says.

“No, not really. But we both have to stay. Especially you, Emily. This school will keep you safe. Whatever else it does.”

I’ve left the city, but my sister is still there. The morning of 9/11 I’m in Manhattan, watching the smoke  from the top of my dorm building. My sister is on the top of Mount Saint Alban, where a few students who happened to be facing that direction have a direct view of the plane flying into the Pentagon. The state of panic is immediate, and very Washingtonian. The kids get herded into the crypt of the Washington National Cathedral, which is now doubling as a bomb shelter. For weeks after the mood is tense. The care taken of these children of senators and ambassadors and other political heavyweights is very particular; no one will take any chances. As my sister describes it to me over the phone, I can’t help but wonder about the rest of DC, about the public schools in those neighborhoods that were so joyous that Fourth of July. If they really did need a bomb shelter, would they have one? In that segregated town, whose welfare counts in case of an emergency?


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Alaya Dawn Johnson lives, writes, cooks and (perhaps most importantly) eats in Mexico City. Her literary loves are all forms of speculative fiction, historical fiction, and the occasional highbrow novel. She plays the guitar badly and eats very well, particularly during canning season. She has published five novels for adults and young adults, including The Summer Prince, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2013.

Love Is the Drug is now available.

Leaving Butterfly Hill

By Marjorie Agosín

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Every creative process becomes a journey of self-discovery as well as an opportunity to discover others. When I began to write I Lived on Butterfly Hill, my first middle grade novel, I allowed myself to be guided by my characters, especially Celeste Marconi, as well as by the story I was trying to tell.

I understood that during my entire adult life I had tried to explain to friends and strangers what it was like to leave one’s homeland: to lose the deep sense of identity children as well as adults long for and to try to build a new self in a new country, where no one knows you or your family and where the history of your past is not only a mystery but is often treated with indifference.

Celeste Marconi, the protagonist of I Lived on Butterfly Hill, teaches us of the hardship of being absolutely different. She not only leaves the vibrant and bustling city of Valparaiso at the south of the world in Chile, but she travels to the North of the world to the coast of Maine. Through writing this story, I learned how one finds equilibrium between the north and the south, between one’s own language and the acquired one. Celeste does it beautifully because she never loses her identity. She always belongs to Butterfly Hill and at the same time accepts her new geography, the village of Juliette Cove, Maine.

Many young children are forced to forget their original lands, their languages, their foods and celebrations to became part of a mainstream culture that somehow is also ambivalent. I learned that a child or an adolescent, in order to became whole again in a new place, must have roots; when you have roots it is easier to grow new wings. Celeste Marconi manages to do so. She is strong and the memory of her loving family in Valparaiso allows her to be herself as well as to teach others who she is.

Three months after the publication of this book, the hill where the novel takes place was burned and many people lost their homes and their livelihoods. In the novel, there is a chapter in which Celeste ponders upon the nature of rain: she says there is a rain for the rich where nothing really happens to their secure homes and the rain for the poor where their dwellings turn to mud. With the fires, the houses of the poor suffered, as they were not properly built.

This novel taught me that the middle grade genre can make eloquent comments about social justice, and that it is important to do so. Celeste’s activist physician parents exposed her to the unfairness of economic and social poverty, and she is able to see clearly what is truth and what is just. I also learned to imagine the journeys of unaccompanied minors, not only those from Central America who cross the borders to the United States, but also of so many others, such as the millions of children displaced by wars, especially the most recent wars in Syria where almost a million children are displaced in refuge camps. Celeste Marconi travels alone to the safety of her aunt Graciela’s home on the coast of Maine, where she is lovingly cared for. But her journey alone, her inability to first speak English, made me also think of those much less fortunate than Celeste.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill allowed me to tell the story of the somber years of a military dictatorship through the eyes of a young girl. I also learned that my own generation can read this book to their own children as a way of telling them what happened to them as children, either as exiles or growing up under military rule. Literature seems to be a lighthouse that shines inside all of us, especially in times of darkness. It allows us to understand what is often unspeakable and to feel deeply the pain of others, especially the often-silenced voices of children. I have learned much in the process of writing and sharing this book, and hope that others will also learn from Celeste Marconi’s example and teach one another how to be loving and empathic, how to feel and not to judge.


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Marjorie Agosín has won multiple awards for her writing and has added a unique personal perspective to this novel. Agosín was raised in Chile by Jewish parents. Her family moved to the United States to escape the horrors of the Pinochet takeover of their country. Coming from a South American country and being Jewish, Agosín’s writings demonstrate a unique blending of these cultures. She has received the Letras de Oro Prize for her poetry, presented by Spain’s Ministry of Culture to writers of Hispanic heritage living in the United States. Her writings about, and humanitarian work for, women in Chile have been the focus of feature articles in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Ms. Magazine. She has also won the Latino Literature Prize for her poetry and is a Spanish professor at Wellesley College.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill is now available.

Our Diversity, Our Connectedness

By Crystal Chan

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As a mixed-race kid in Wisconsin in the ’80s, I learned that no one was like me. For instance, we were the only “Chan” in town, the only mixed-race family in town, and we had to drive over three hours to get to Chicago and buy Chinese groceries. Even more than that, though, not even my parents themselves understood what it was like to be mixed race, to be me: my mom is white, my dad Chinese, and the only thing they knew was a mono-cultural background. My dad knew the tensions of being a minority in a small, Midwestern town, but even he didn’t quite know how to answer the “What are you?” question that was lanced at me by everyone, teachers included. My mom always said, “Just tell them that you’re my daughter,” which, though her intentions were well-meaning, did nothing to help me cope with a world that let me fall through the cracks of race and identity.

In the children’s writing world, they tell you to write the book you would have wanted to read as a child. So I did. I wrote Bird. I wrote about conflicting belief systems — Jewel, the protagonist, is Jamaican, Mexican, and white and lives in the middle of Iowa: what do you do when these different cultures each tell you different things about life and death, such as what happened to make your brother, John, nicknamed Bird, think he could fly when he was five and jump off a cliff? Because of this tragedy, Jewel’s family is set apart from her town, and Jewel herself is overlooked by her parents; no one sees her, really, until a black boy, also named John, comes to town and claims that he is visiting his white uncle, that he’s adopted. But the questions linger: who is he really? Could this John be a duppy, a Jamaican spirit come to haunt the family? Or could he be Jewel’s first real friend? And so starts the story that blends reality and mysticism, that explores the power of forgiveness and friendship and beginning again.

Growing up, my family blended cultures all the time. I drank a tall glass of milk with my homemade Chinese stir-fry. We used chopsticks to prop open windows, reach up to high ledges, and do just about anything you can imagine. We even made up traditions for Chinese New Year, traditions that no full Chinese family would ever recognize.  I needed a mirror so badly — I thirsted and hungered to see my life experience reflected back to me in movies, in magazines, in the pictures in the Sunday advertisements, even — but I didn’t have them. So Bird is for those who need that mirror.

But curiously, it’s not just mixed-race kids who connect with the story. The book is being published in nine countries and across five continents, and I’ve heard from a lot of people who are not like me who are reading long into the night, who close the book and think about things that are not related to race, like claiming who you are, the power of connecting to others, the delicacy and strength of starting over.

So maybe that mirror is bigger than I had realized: Bird is not just reflecting back the mixed race experience, as many different kinds of readers are seeing themselves in the book. That fact should not be ignored as we delve into our conversations about race and power and access: for yes, while diversity is about being different, it can only be most deeply actualized while simultaneously bearing in mind our commonalities, our common humanness. To focus only on our differences means that we as isolated beings cannot connect, cannot relate to each other, and that’s simply not true. After reading Bird, a sixty-year old man in Germany climbed a tree, just like Jewel did, and wrote to tell me of his experience. Similarly, young children in Brazil are staying up late, reading, connected to that same story. Bird is flying around the world because of the universality of human experience, not because of the particularities of a mixed-race girl or Jamaican duppies. So yes, race is real, privilege is real, and inequality is real. But so is the fact that we all know woundedness, we all know joy, we all hunger for connection. As we move this conversation forward, as we must, we need to hold both our differences and commonalities, despite the seeming paradox. Only then will we be able to move beyond talking about diversity and instead start living it out — and with dignity, maturity, and compassion.


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Crystal Chan grew up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of the Wisconsin cornfields and has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. Over time, she found that her heart lies in public speaking, performing, and ultimately, writing. She has given talks and workshops across the country; facilitated discussion groups at national conferences; is a professional storyteller for children and adults alike; and contributes to Wisconsin Public Radio. In Chicago, where Crystal now lives, you will find her biking along the city streets and talking to her pet turtle.

Bird is now available