Tag Archives: contemporary

Q&A with M-E Girard, Author of GIRL MANS UP

By M-E Girard

M-E Girard’s debut novel, Girl Mans Up, is a coming-of-age story about a queer girl named Pen and what happens when her best friend and parents keep crossing the line—always blaming it on the fact that Pen looks and acts like a boy. It’s about Pen having to make choices about who deserves her respect and loyalty. It’s also about video games, hot girls, guy-code, and Ninja Turtles.

M-E joins us today to answer some hot button questions about identity, queerness, sexuality, and gender.

What is Pen’s identity? What makes her queer?

When I decided to write Pen’s story, I was most interested in exploring gender norms within the binary (man and woman), and how a teen who doesn’t quite fit on their assigned side of that binary might handle what life puts them through. My character, Pen, is not trans. She is cisgender (or simply “cis”), which means her gender identity is in line with the one she was assigned at birth.

What makes Pen queer is her sexual orientation: she is a girl who is attracted to other girls. Her gender expression and presentation complicate things, because she is also a girl who doesn’t look and act according to contemporary North American ideas about what a girl should look and act like. In fact, she very much conforms to our society’s ideas about what a boy should look and act like.

How much awareness does Pen have when it comes to her identity and queerness?

Pen knows very little about things like the gender binary, non-binary-identified people, transness, the concept of self-identifying, or even queerness. She just hasn’t been that curious about it, and definitely doesn’t have anyone in her life who would facilitate these kinds of conversations. This makes it really hard for her to understand what she’s dealing with. It makes her doubt herself because she doesn’t feel smart enough to “know what she’s talking about.” Words empower us, they help us understand what’s going on around us and within ourselves. Words give us the ability and confidence to work through our feelings and speak about our lives—they validate our existence. I know for myself, my
understanding of queerness and where I fit within it changed and evolved the more I learned about it: listening to other people talk about their queerness, reading theory books, reading novels featuring queer voices, etc.

Still, Pen has a strong sense of self—she’s been that way since she was very little. She’s presented herself in the way that felt natural, and she resisted the pushback she was getting, even as a kid. The older she gets, the more this pushback upsets her. She faces near-constant criticism and policing of the way she performs her “girlness.” She feels very dissatisfied with what it seems to mean to be a girl, and she doesn’t believe that all her masculine characteristics belong only to boys.

She knows everyone thinks she’s “not doing it right.” Part of her wants to redefine what being a girl means, but the other part—the part that feels beaten down by the criticism and judgment—feels like maybe she’s hanging on to an identity that she has no claim to. She wonders if she’s going to wake up one day and realize she was something or someone else altogether, and everyone around her knew it all along.

Was Pen always going to be a lesbian?

Yes. I could have told the story from the point of view of a heterosexual, cis Pen, because all of the gender expression stuff wasn’t dependent on Pen being a lesbian, but her being attracted to other girls was something that was important to me for a few reasons: I have always had a soft spot for girls like Pen, and since the inspiration for her came from my girlfriend (who obviously like girls!), Pen was always going to be attracted to girls. Her sexual orientation was also important because I wanted to explore the fact that the way a queer person looks—how identifiably queer they look—will often determine how much and what kind of negative reactions and treatment they’ll get from others. Pen learns that it’s not the fact that she likes girls that makes her stand out; it’s the fact that she looks the way she does.

You talk a lot about language, so why use sexist expressions like “man up”?

I write about real people, and we real people are not always all that pretty to listen to or watch, are we?! Realistically, a lot of people use these sexist words and expressions—often without even realizing what they’re saying. So with GMU I wanted to incorporate this into the story; I wanted to show the seeds of awareness, when it comes to language, being planted within this character’s consciousness.

Pen manning up never had anything to do with acting like a man. Just like Pen decides certain clothes and behaviors don’t belong exclusively to certain genders, she also realizes the definition of “manning up,” the actions and behaviors that constitute “manning up,” don’t belong to one gender in particular, and don’t describe one gender in particular either.

Anyone who reads GMU will hopefully see my attempts to complicate some of the sexist and misogynistic terms and expressions I used. In this story, words are tested on their meanings, and they’re assigned new meanings as Pen experiences life and decides what is true and what isn’t. It happens with the sexist/misogynistic words and expressions the same way it happens with words like respect, loyalty, friend, family. Pen’s whole world is shifting, and part of that shift involves the language she uses and the ways she understands those terms.

Does GMU engage with trans* issues?

I did not write about a trans character, but I did write about issues that affect gender-nonconforming cis people and trans people, often in very similar ways. Pen is a girl, and for the duration of the story, she struggles to retain the right to be who she says she is. She feels like the world is pushing her out of her identity as a girl because the way she expresses her gender is more in line with being a boy or being neither. There are similarities between the narratives of some trans people and some gender-nonconforming cis people. Pen deals with things like daily microaggressions, being misgendered, and bathroom issues. She may even be dealing with some form of gender dysphoria, depending on what one’s definition of the term is.

I hope many readers will be able to relate to Pen’s struggles—trans, cis, queer, non-queer, and straight alike.


m-e_girardM-E Girard lives just outside Toronto, where she splits her time between writing YA fiction about badass teen girls and working nights as a pediatric nurse. A 2013 and 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow, M-E is a proud feminist who is endlessly fascinated by the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding the concept of gender. Her debut novel GIRL MANS UP was published in September 2016 via HarperTeen and HarperCollins Canada. You can find her online at www.megirard.com and all over social media.

5 Things I Learned While Writing INK AND ASHES

By Valynne E. Maetani

maetani-inkandashes-ag15When my sister turned eighteen, I decided to write Ink and Ashes for her. Because I never got to see myself in books other than those with settings involving war, an internment camp, or high fantasy, I wanted her to have a contemporary title with a Japanese American protagonist. I was tired of reading about people like me who were hated just because of the way they look and thought the greatest gift I could give her was a book I never got to read.

Following red herrings and guessing how a story might end has always been a thrill, so I knew this was the type of book I wanted to write. I also wanted a Japanese element which added mystery, and that naturally led me to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

The only problem was that I had never written a book before. Fortunately, writing a book was really fun and easy.

Until it wasn’t.

So here are some of the most important things I learned:

1. Writing is hard. In order to grow, I had to leave my ego at the door. I had to be willing to let my manuscript be ripped to shreds. I had to hear why parts of my story didn’t work. I had to learn where my weaknesses were, so I could discover my strengths.

2. Writing is hard. There were times I hated my book. I hated my characters. I wanted them all to die. But I also loved my book. I loved it enough that I couldn’t give up writing. I was passionate about my story even when I thought my manuscript would never be published. In fact, I was pretty certain my story would never see the light of day. No one had written a book like mine, and so I believed there wasn’t a market for my story. But having an underlying passion for what I was writing carried me through the times that were difficult.

3. Writing is hard. I think some of the hardest scenes to write for Ink and Ashes were the ones where I left a part of myself on the page. Allowing myself to be vulnerable was difficult, but it also meant I was writing a story no one else could write.

4. Writing is hard. But having friends who are writers has made the journey easier. Only writers truly understand why we do what we do—why we torture ourselves and yet love the craft. Writers understand exactly what it means to get an agent, to sell a book, to be on deadline, to write another book. They have been a support system that I couldn’t have done without.

5. Writing is hard. But it is also fun. It is worth the blood, the sweat, and the tears. It has brought joys and opportunities I could have never imagined; introduced me to people I wouldn’t have met otherwise; and filled voids that I wasn’t even aware of.

Writing is hard. But it wouldn’t be meaningful otherwise, and I can’t imagine life without it.


valynnemaetaniValynne E. Maetani grew up in Utah and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In a former life, she was a project manager and developed educational software for children with learning disabilities. Currently, she is a part-time stage mom, part-time soccer mom, and full-time writer. Her debut novel, Ink and Ashes, is the winner of the New Visions Award 2013 and a spring 2015 Junior Library Guild selection. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

Ink and Ashes is now available.

The Ballet Blanc

By Dhonielle Clayton

charaipotra-clayton-tinyprettyHow far is too far? At one of Manhattan’s most elite ballet schools, wafer-thin ballerinas pull their hair into sleek buns and lace their pointe shoes high, waiting for their chance to shine. But beneath the pretty, polished surface, these girls are hiding some terrible secrets and telling some twisted lies.

Privileged Bette is tiny and beautiful–like a ballerina in a music box. But living forever in the shadow of her ballet-star sister and under the weight of family expectations brings out a dangerous edge in her. 

Perfectionist June can turn a flawless fouette and diligently keeps her weight below 100 pounds. But she’s never landed a lead role. Tired of always being the understudy, this year she’ll settle for nothing but the best–even if she must resort to some less-than-perfect means to get there. 

And new girl Gigi isn’t your traditional ballerina. A free-spirited California girl, she’s not used to the fierce competition. Still, that doesn’t stop her from outperforming every dancer in the school. But even she is hiding a ticking time bomb, and the very act of dancing just might expose her secrets to everyone.

Being a prima isn’t all satin and lace; sometimes you have to play dirty. With the competition growing fiercer with every performance, and harmless pranks growing ever darker, it’s only a matter of time before one small spark ignites … and even the best get burned.


“Brown bodies look different on stage and Asian faces can sometimes be distracting in classical ballet productions.”

While I was an academic teacher at a pre-professional ballet academy, I asked the other teachers in our shared office about why there weren’t any black and Latin@ dancers at the academy, and about how the Asian dancers fit in during the holiday and spring performances. After being at the school for a few months, I was secretly dismayed by the lack of varied diversity at the school, and by the social dynamics. Dance is such a vital part of many communities, so I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t reflected in the student body. I had a few Jewish girls, an Argentinian girl, a Hawaiian boy, as well as a group of girls and boys from Korea, a Taiwanese girl, and one boy and one girl from Japan.

The ballet historian at the time gave me a quick lesson on how diversity in ballet worked. Or, in actuality, how it didn’t work. She started with the quote above, and boiled it down to the Russian aesthetic: a desired body type, a long silhouette, a certain muscle-fat ratio, proper technique, flexibility, the look of one’s face and more. She used stereotypes about lean Asian bodies to explain their entry point into the art form, and how Asian ballerinas couldn’t be denied due to their small frames and discipline-oriented cultural backgrounds. She also referenced the phrase ballet blanc several times.

A quick search of the term ballet blanc will give you definitions such as ballets danced in the romantic styling of the 19th century, referring to ballerinas wearing all white, and considered to be the pure classical form of ballet.

The great classical ballets — the ones we all sort of know a little bit about because they’ve seeped into popular consciousness — are those that magnify white fairies, white sylphs, white swans, white wilis, and white shades. The term develops a deeper meaning and moves from a discussion of costumes and stage aesthetics to actual bodies. From Giselle to Swan Lake to La Sylphide, the image of a ballerina is marked with whiteness and exclusivity.

However, I wasn’t satisfied with her answer. So I asked a few of my students. One mentioned a talented black girl who had attended the school and left after a few “stressful” incidents and issues with ballet teachers. I didn’t get any more details, but it piqued my curiosity enough to think about how race plays out in the pre-professional ballet world.

I also thought about what it might be like for an Asian dancer, whose body and technique and stereotypically perceived compliance might please the ballet gods, but how those dancers still had uphill battles when it came to being cast as leads in traditionally ballet blanc productions. After all, for all their desired qualities, they still don’t fit that old school ballet russe aesthetic.

image

The seeds for the characters in Tiny Pretty Things started to bud. I thought about what it might’ve been like to be that lonely black girl or the overlooked Asian girl at a cut throat ballet conservatory. I danced for several years in the suburbs of MD, and Sona danced in New Jersey, so we’d experienced the feeling of being the only “other” sort of girls in a ballet class. Brown arms, brown legs, brown faces on stage and photographed, never quite fitting in.

Thankfully, just as Tiny Pretty Things is hitting shelves, we’re starting to see change, with rising stars like Misty Copeland, Hee Seo and Michaela DePrince changing the face of modern ballet. As in publishing, diversity is still the exception, rather than the rule — and there’s a long road ahead. But as more and more dancers of color step into those toe shoes, they give the next generation of petit rats hope that they, too, can follow in those hallowed footsteps.

Want to read more about diversity in the ballet world?

Check out these links:


Dhonielle Clayton

Dhonielle Clayton spent most of her childhood under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. She hails from the Washington, D.C. suburbs on the Maryland side. She earned an MA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University and an MFA in Writing for Children at the New School. She taught secondary school for several years. Now, she is a librarian at Harlem Village Academies and co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative kitchen whipping up decadent — and decidedly diverse — literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers. Her YA fantasy series THE BELLES is coming soon from Disney/Hyperion. Twitter: @brownbookworm

aa-charaipotraSona Charaipotra is a journalist published by the New York Times, People, ABC News, Cosmopolitan and other major national media. A collector of presumably useless degrees, she double-majored in journalism and American Studies at Rutgers before getting her masters in screenwriting from New York University (where her thesis project was developed for the screen by MTV Films) and her MFA from the New School. When she’s not hanging out with her writer husband and two chatter-boxy kids, she can be found poking plot holes in teen shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars. Call it research: a strong believer that three-act structure can work in fiction, Sona puts her outline-obsession to good use as the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book development company with a decidedly diverse bent. Tiny Pretty Things hits shelves May 26. Twitter: @sona_c

Tiny Pretty Things is available for purchase here.

The Time I Drowned in My Own Sweat

By Francesca Zappia

zappia-madeyouupIn January, I spoke on a panel at ALA Midwinter ’15 with a wonderful and diverse group of debut authors, talking about a wonderful and diverse group of debut books. Attendees had filled the seats and lined the edges of our small area, packing even the entryway.

I was sweating. First, because I’m terrible in large groups of strangers; second, because I was at the end of a long panel of authors who are confident, knowledgable, and wonderful people; and third, because I was there representing the mental illness piece of the diversity spectrum.

My debut book, Made You Up, is about Alex, a girl with paranoid schizophrenia.

I was sweating. I was sweating a lot.

Normally, I write science fiction and fantasy. I like sea monsters and nightmare hunters, underwater prisons and skysurfers. I like things that are just silly enough to make sense. If something is cool, then it’s ninety percent of the way to getting into one of my stories.

Paranoid schizophrenia is not cool. Paranoid schizophrenia is a serious and debilitating mental illness.

I didn’t write about paranoid schizophrenia because I thought it would make for interesting themes and symbols. I did it because I never saw it in books, and when I did see it in movies and television, the person with the illness was always relegated to two positions: either the dangerous criminal or the invalid who teaches life lessons to harried and well-meaning family members.

Alex is a teenage girl. A teenage girl with paranoid schizophrenia, yes, but still a teenage girl. She likes history, playing chess, and slacking off at work. She butts heads with her mom. She messes with her little sister. She wants to fit in but isn’t quite sure how to do it. She never forgets she has schizophrenia, and she never stops fighting it (though of course, at times, her resolve wavers). Above all else, it was important to me that Alex didn’t end up either dangerous or a decoration.

At ALA Midwinter, I felt a little out of my depth. But Made You Up is a story I worked very hard on for a very long time, and it’s a story I believe in. After that panel was over, a lot of people came up to me and told me they were excited to read the book, and while that, too, made me sweat, it also made me happy.

I’m happy I wrote something that people want to read.

I’m happy I wrote something people are recommending to their friends. I’m happy it’s about Alex and her schizophrenia, so the more it gets around, the more people will think about it. I’m happy, despite the sweating.

I hope it lives up to expectations.


Francesca Zappia lives in Indiana and majors in Computer Science at the University of Indianapolis. She spends most of her time writing, reading, drawing, and playing way too much Pokémon.

You can find her on Twitter @ChessieZappia, Tumblr (exeuntstormtroopers.tumblr.com), and on her website, www.francescazappia.com.

Made You Up is available for purchase here.

Everyone Has Dark Secrets

By Janet Gurtler

One of my crushes in high school was on a cute Asian boy. Of course, like most of my crushes (and yes there were many), it was unrequited. We were good friends but he thought I was a little too wild with my drinking and partying ways. In my heart I knew I wasn’t as wild as he imagined. I wanted him to look harder and see the real me I thought I was, but alas, we were not meant to be and so I continued my wild ways for a while longer and moved on to other crushes.

I had him in mind when I wrote my character, Flynn, in The Truth About Us. But in my story, he gets to see a little bit more of the wild girl and discover that sometimes things and people aren’t as they seem. Of course, my Flynn is fictional, and much more brooding and angry than my old crush. I created a boy who has a lot to be angry about. Flynn’s stepfather gambled away his mom’s money and then took off and left her with credit card debt. Flynn’s pitching in to help her get back on her feet and also helping raise his little brother. There’s not a lot of money and he needs to swallow his pride and ask for help sometimes. Life is not easy for my Flynn.

Jess, who on the surface has everything, enters his life. She’s white and pretty. She’s rich and she’s spoiled. However, underneath the pretty smile, she’s troubled and trying to cope with a dark secret about her mom, something no one in her family wants to talk about. In fact, no one in her family wants to talk period, and it’s eating away at Jess. She responds with self-destructive behavior. (Something I can relate to because as alluded to above, I was kind of good at that behavior when I was a teen.)

Flynn doesn’t see Jess for who she really is, or who she really wants to become. Jess begins the journey to change, but she needs to find that person herself. And Flynn has some issues of his own to deal with. On a primal level, they kind of get each other. Maybe they even need each other. But can they make it work?

I like dark secrets. I think most people have at least one. Something they would never want most people to know about them. I like having dark secrets in books. I think dark secrets make characters interesting and show the reader that things and people aren’t always black and white. There’s a lot of grey in life and in people. Good people have done bad things. And I wonder, do bad things cancel out the good?

If a person is in their essence, decent and morally right, can we forgive bad things they’ve done? Shameful things? How bad is bad and how do bad things define who we are? Can we forgive others and also ourselves if we truly move past those black moments? Can people change and do they deserve second chances?

To me that’s the core story in The Truth About Us. People who begin to discover the truth about themselves and others, and then have to decide if they can forgive and move past it.


A Rita Award Finalist and Crystal Kite Award Finalist, Janet Gurtler’s young adult books have been chosen for the JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION and as BEST BOOKS FOR TEENS from the Canadian Children’s Book Center. Janet lives in Okotoks Alberta, Canada with her husband, son, and a chubby black Chihuahua named Bruce who refuses to eat dog food.

The Truth About Us is available for purchase.

A Climb That Inspired a Story

By Lisa Yee

“Where do your ideas come from?” is the second most asked question I get. (The first being, “Do you want fries with that?”)

You know, it’s weird, but my ideas mostly come from that mysterious region in my brain that collects odd facts, interesting faces, and bits of fluff and memory leftover from childhood. That said, although it’s rare, every now and then I’m able to pinpoint an inciting incident that has caused a novel to materialize.

I always write my endings first. Even though I revise the hell out of a manuscript, the ending never changes. Never. I guess I focus on the finish line. Speaking of which, when my daughter was in high school she ran cross-country track. One afternoon, she was meeting with other girls on the team, and so I dropped her off at one of their houses.

A couple hours later I got a phone call.

“Mom, Mom can you come pick me up right away?” Her voice sounded shaky.

“Honey, is everything okay?”

When she replied, “Don’t worry, I’m safe,” I began to worry.

Not my proudest moment, but I probably broke a dozen laws speeding to get to her. When I pulled up to the curb, she flung herself into the passenger seat. She had been crying.

“Honey?”

Then my daughter said the words no mom ever wanted to hear…

“I wanted to talk to you first, before the police called.”

It seemed that the girls had hiked to the water tower on the top of the hill. The chain link fence was broken and despite the “No Trespassing” sign, they trespassed. I’m not sure which one had the brilliant idea, but they dared each other to climb to the top of the water tower.

Guess who volunteered to go first?

When I raised my daughter to be brave and embrace challenges, this was not what I had meant. Nevertheless, she began her ascent. She was halfway up before she realized that not only were none of the other girls following her, but they had company. The police ordered her to come down, but panic set in and instead of coming down, she kept going up until she reached the top.

When I heard this, I thought of all the things that could have happened to her. What if she had slipped? What if she had fallen? What if… What if… What if… it was after midnight, and she was wearing a bathrobe, and the police thought she was suicidal, and that she wasn’t a girl, but a boy, and… and… and that’s where the idea for The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How Ruin Your Life in Seven Days came from.

When I began to write the novel, this was what I knew. That at the end of the book a boy, a senior in high school who was scared of heights, would be trapped on the top of a water tower, with the police down below. Oh, and he’d be wearing a pink bathrobe.

My latest YA chronicles the last seven days of Chinese English Jewish American high school senior Higgs Boson Bing — Harvard-bound, prom king, valedictorian, boyfriend to the most popular girl in school. But someone is trying to bring him down and succeeding. As his once idyllic life crashes and pain, chaos and confusion set in, Higgs is faced with the question: What if the person you are meant to be, is not the person you want to be?

As for my daughter? Well, I’m pleased to say that her life of crime ended there. Well…except for that one thing. She graduated from college and is now an editorial assistant in New York. In the acknowledgements of The Kidney Hypothetical, it reads, “To (my daughter) who climbed the water tower and lived to tell about it. I love you, but don’t ever do that again.”


 Lisa Yee’s debut novel, Millicent Min, Girl Genius, won the first Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Since then, she has written ten more novels including Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, Warp Speed, and Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), plus books for American Girl. She has also written for Huffington Post, NPR and Twitter (those these are mostly photos of food). Lisa’s most recent YA is The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How To Ruin Your Life In Seven Days. Accolades include Chinese American Library Association Best Book of the Year, Fox Sports Network’s “American in Focus” for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, and USA Today Critics’ Top Pick.

Visit Lisa at www.lisayee.com or catch her procrastinating on Facebook.

The Kidney Hypothetical is available for purchase here.

Not Otherwise Specified

Hannah Moskowitz writes about her personal experience with eating disorders, which informed some of the experiences of the main character of her new YA novel, Not Otherwise Specified.

By Hannah Moskowitz

moskowitz-nototherwise

“I don’t think I have an eating disorder,” I told my therapist on Tuesday, after an hour of listening to the nutritibitch talk about my food issues and telling me that my way wasn’t the healthiest to lose weight.

She said, “Oh yeah?”

“I’m not thin.” I shook my head. “And I eat. I eat pizza and ice cream and rice krispies. I don’t think I have an eating disorder. I think I’m an attention whore.”

“Why does that have such a negative connotation?” my therapist said. “Wanting attention? Everyone wants attention.” She sighed. “Let’s check the book.”

She took out her DSM and searched the index, read for a minute, and said, “If I had to diagnose you, I’d say–”

And I could have mouthed the words along with her.

“Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.”

She said, “Look, Hannah, you don’t do things halfway. You say you’re going to have to write a book, and you get it published. You want to be thin, and you get an eating disorder.”

I didn’t tell her that EDNOS is totally the definition of halfway.

I’m Hannah Not Otherwise Specified.

I wonder how it happened.

I started laughing in the nutritionist’s office because I forgot, for a second, that this was my life.

One thing they don’t tell you is that you have to remember every morning.

Thoughts upon waking up.

Ghhhh.

Goddamn, it’s early.

That was a weird dream.

I have an eating disorder.

The nutritibitch tried to play the guilt card. She had my mother come in and talk about how this was making her feel.

As soon as my mother left the room, I cried so hard even plastic skinny nutritibitch felt bad.

* * *

I wrote that when I was seventeen, the same age as Etta in Not Otherwise Specified. I’m almost twenty-four now, so that should probably seem like longer ago than it was.

Eating disorders are not exactly uncharted territory in YA. They’ve been done incredibly and painfully and accurately—Wintergirls—as well as every Lifetime-movie issue-of-the-month. The thing is, though, that you’d be hard-pressed to find a girl who had an eating disorder like I did, and I’m actually part of one of the most common groups of eating disordered people.

Everyone knows anorexia and bulimia, and at least some people know binge eating disorder, but EDNOS—Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified—rarely gets mentioned. The simplest explanation is that it’s an eating disorder that doesn’t quite fit in the extremely stringent diagnostic criteria of the named disorders. You don’t purge often enough to be bulimic, or eat enough calories at once for it to be a textbook binge, or weigh little enough that you no longer get your period (and if you’re a guy, until very recently you couldn’t get diagnosed anorexic at all, because of that whole have to stop getting your period thing).

That last one was me, and it’s Etta, and it was the scariest part of writing this book, and it’s the scariest part of its release.

I think a lot of people shy away from writing diverse books because of that fear of messing up the “other.” It’s easy to be annoyed by this, and that’s okay, but it’s also important to keep in mind that these people are trying to be respectful. But the idea of “otherness” can be very intimidating, whether you’re inside of it or out of it. If you’re a white Jewish girl, like me, writing about a black girl. If you’re a girl who couldn’t even spell plie before she started the book, like me, writing about a ballerina.

So it’s kind of funny that even before I started doing all of the research into the worlds I didn’t know, the part of this book that terrified me the most was an illness that I know more intimately than I’ve ever known a person. An illness that makes seven years feel like absolutely nothing.

I don’t talk about it with people. It’s in my past. We talk around it. We don’t mention treatment. We don’t mention self-injury. We don’t mention the time I tried to run away.

I dreamed two nights ago that my mother read the book and called me crying, saying she didn’t realize I was still in “that place.” It was the first time we’d talked about it since the nutritionist’s office, except that was real and this wasn’t.

I wrote about my eating disorder in the Dear Teen Me anthology a few years ago. We got edits back and they wanted me to add the line, verbatim: “But there is hope.” I wouldn’t do it, because that is a ridiculous sentence.

But I think in a lot of ways that’s why I wrote this book. The rest of Etta’s diverse characteristics—her race, sexuality, rich background—have been with her since the very first time I tried to put her in a book six years ago (back when I didn’t realize the girl demanded her own book, none of that split-POV nonsense). But the eating disorder aspect was something I intentionally gave her, and I wanted to show the weird kind of hope that is there.

I’m not recovered 100%, and I don’t think many eating disordered people ever are, and Etta, though she’s deep in recovery for the entire book, probably won’t be. But her life is still okay, and it will keep being okay. It’s something she’ll have to fight on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes that will feel astronomical and sometimes it will be feel like nothing. We look too often at eating disorders as catastrophic events—the bit of writing I posted above is from an essay I wrote called Notes on a Scandal—when really they’re chronic illnesses. And chronic illnesses need more visibility, perhaps mental illness most of all. And I like writing about intersectionality way, way too much to include it with a cisgendered heterosexual white girl.

So, sorry about that, Etta. I wanted to write about a character with an eating disorder and I knew you could handle it.

We’ll be okay.


hannahmoskowitzHannah Moskowitz is the author of over half-a-dozen books for young adult and middle grade readers, including BREAK, a 2010 ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adults, ZOMBIE TAG, TEETH, and GONE, GONE, GONE, a 2012 Stonewall Honor Book. She lives in New York city and tweets a lot as @hannahmosk.

Not Otherwise Specified is now available.

The Heart of the Story

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

rodriguez-whenreasonbreaksMy first teaching job was as an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher in a small Connecticut town. I was the only Latin@ teacher in the middle school, quite possibly in the district. I had a single student who was an English Language Learner, and the entire school contained only a handful of students who identified with racial, cultural, or ethnic minority groups.

Meanwhile, next door was a city whose residents were majority minority. This is Connecticut’s reality; drive a few miles in any direction and the landscape changes significantly.

Fast forward many years later to when I was drafting When Reason Breaks. While writing, I envisioned the setting as a similarly small, not-so-diverse New England town. Drawing on my experience, the English teacher, Ms. Diaz, was the only Latina in the story. Ms. Diaz being the lone representation of diversity in the original manuscript wasn’t a case of me white-washing my novel intentionally or accidentally. Instead, Ms. Diaz’s situation represented a reality for people of color who live in states like Connecticut where racial and ethnic diversity varies tremendously town to town. Sometimes there’s only one of us in the room.

I was okay with Ms. Diaz being the lone Latina in the story because it was a conscious decision, but then my editor asked if I’d consider making one of the main characters Latina. Huh. I didn’t see that coming. So much has been said and written about the lack of diversity in children’s books and publishers’ general tendencies not to push for, seek out, or champion diverse stories. In worst case scenarios, we’ve heard about the white-washing of novel covers, even when characters are explicitly stated to be people of color, or authors being asked by editors to revise characters the other way—to make them white or heterosexual.

And here was my editor asking for more diversity.

Nice!

Okay, then. I could have created an angry Latina Goth—which would have been cool because how often do we see that character—or a reserved, depressed Latina who slowly unravels. After a bit of research, I decided on the latter because, according to the CDC, significantly more Hispanic females in grades 9-12 reported attempting suicide than their non-Hispanic female classmates. So, Emily Daniels became Emily Delgado after much revision and consideration about what it means to be a depressed Puerto Rican teen struggling to manage a politically ambitious father and socially ambitious friends.

Then my editor wanted to know more about Tommy Bowles and why he and Elizabeth Davis, the other main character, spend time in cemeteries, beyond Elizabeth’s general curiosity about death. After much thought, I revised Tommy’s character to be half-Mexican. When he and Elizabeth first meet, Tommy is in the cemetery with his mother, honoring the dead during El Día de los Muertos. Years later, Elizabeth joins Tommy’s family as they decorate sugar skulls. This change not only provides meaning for Tommy and Elizabeth’s visits to the cemetery, but also shows the survival of a holiday in a bicultural family.

When my editor wanted to know more about Kevin outside of school, I decided right away that he’d have two dads, one of whom was Chinese. Here’s why: as each of the teen characters was fleshed out by introducing their home lives, I didn’t want all of the adult relationships to be the same. So, the Delgados are married and dysfunctional, the Davis household is divorced, and the Bowles and Wen-Massey homes have differently bicultural, happily married couples.

Interestingly, as diverse as it is, my novel is not about being Latina or bicultural or the child of same-sex parents. It’s about teen depression and attempted suicide. It always has been. The heart of the story didn’t change even though the manuscript went through multiple revisions.

And when the revision notes specifically asked for more diversity, I didn’t want to just swap last names and declare, “Voila, diversity!” The changes needed to have purpose—to make sense for the characters and the plot—and I needed to approach them with thoughtful intention. Otherwise, the changes would have felt hollow to me—diversity for diversity’s sake—and I would never want to do that.

All of this made me wonder about all of the novels I’ve read without a single character representing a racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious minority, a disabled person, or a member of the LGBTQIA community. Was that intentional as well? Or was it a case of “default” writing? Or perhaps the writer didn’t want these “issues” to alter the story? My advice to writers is to reconsider this. You can diversify your cast of characters, with purposeful intention, and not drastically alter your story. I did, and I’m glad for it.

In the end, Ms. Diaz was no longer the sole representation of diversity in the story, no longer the only person of color in the room. They represent a different reality, someplace between the almost all-white town I previously worked in and the almost all-minority city that bordered it. It’s a place I’d love to live in, actually, a place that represents a richly diverse happy medium.


cindylrodriguezCindy L. Rodriguez was a reporter for the Hartford Courant and a researcher for the Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She now works as a middle school reading specialist and community college adjunct professor. She is also a founding member of Latinos in Kid Lit. She lives in Connecticut with her young daughter and rescue mutt. Her debut novel, When Reason Breaks, releases February 10, 2015 from Bloomsbury Children’s Books. For more information, visit cindylrodriguez.com.

When Reason Breaks is now available.

Home Is a Complicated Place

By Renée Watson

watson-thissideofhome“Wow, there are black people in Oregon?”

“Are the people in Portland really like the characters in Portlandia?”

These are the questions I get when I tell people where I’m from. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which means I know the necessity of carrying an umbrella at all times. It means I know the beauty of majestic mountains in my rearview mirror as I drive through the city. It means I know the sour taste of huckleberries and the smell of marionberry cobbler baking in an oven. It also means I know the evils and violence of Skinheads, how to swallow my tears when a white teacher is surprised at how smart I am because I live “over there” on the northeast side of town. It means home, like for so many others, is a complicated place. People know Portland to be a haven for hippies and cyclists. It’s known for its clean air and rolling mountains, but the painful parts, the experiences of blacks in Oregon — our arrival, treatment, and contributions — are often missing.

For Maya Younger, the main character in This Side of Home, home is complicated because everything she’s known is changing. Abandoned storefronts are being renovated, houses are getting facelifts and new faces — white faces — are showing up more and more in her community. Maya isn’t so sure these changes are for the best, but her twin, Nikki, is all for the urban renewal that’s taking place.

I see myself in both twins. I started noticing changes in my neighborhood my junior year in high school. Gentrification was not a word I knew at fifteen but I knew the feeling of not belonging. There was something about the changes that made it seem like they weren’t for the people who already lived there but for the people who were coming. Yet, even with that feeling, I still wanted to go out and enjoy these new places. So for me, I have both of their perspectives — I want the change, appreciate it even, but I question the push out that often comes with it.

I also question the silencing of a people’s story. No one ever talked with me about how African Americans got to Portland, or how The Vanport Flood impacted the black community. When I was in the fifth grade, Skinheads beat an Ethiopian man to death with a baseball bat. Only one of my teachers talked about it in class. I wanted to talk about all of it — needed to know my history, my story. I needed a space to process what was happening in my neighborhood.

In high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Christensen, introduced me to myself through novels and poetry. We read Zora Neale Hurston, BeBe Campbell Moore, Alice Walker, and Lorraine Hansberry.  We studied the poetry of Martín Espada and Sherman Alexie, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton. We watched excerpts from Eyes on the Prize and learned about the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. I was able to connect the dots and see the bigger picture of the world I was living in. I was able to see myself on the continuum of social change. I learned about white allies and had meaningful conversation with white classmates about race and class.

In our English class, books were not just something to read for entertainment, not something to skim through just enough to be able to write a book report or pass a quiz. Books became essential to our growth as human beings. They were the catalyst for debates and discussions. They were mirrors, sometimes showing me my world, validating its existence. Sometimes books were windows, giving me opportunities to learn about someone else’s experience. I hope This Side of Home does for students and educators what the books I read in Mrs. Christensen ’s class did for me.

It is my hope that readers of This Side of Home not only learn about Portland but that they investigate and find out about their own home towns, that they celebrate and critique the places and people they were raised by, that they tell their stories and learn the stories of others.

Maya learns the history I wish I’d known when I was her age. She gives us all permission to ask questions, to find our beginnings, to hold on to our story.


reneewatsonRenée Watson is the author of This Side of Home (Bloomsbury 2015) and Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House 2012). Her work has received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Her one woman show, Roses are Red Women are Blue, debuted at the Lincoln Center at a showcase for emerging artists. One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues. Her picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), is based on poetry workshops she facilitated with children in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and was featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Renée has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers through out the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. Renée has given lectures and talks at many renowned places, including the United Nations Headquarters and the Library of Congress. Renée grew up in Portland, Oregon and currently lives in New York City.

This Side of Home is now available.

Fundamentally Screwed

In Playing by the Book, 17-year-old Jake Powell deals with coming out, falling in love, and his religious faith while spending a summer in New York City.

By S. Chris Shirley

shirley-playingbythebookWe often hear how “angst-ridden” the teenage years are,” but “angst” hardly begins to cover it when you keep hearing your preacher say from the pulpit that anyone who acts upon same-sex urges is going to hell. So what do you do if these are the only sexual urges you feel? And the preacher making these claims is your father?

At the very least, I’d say we have the premise for a novel, one that took me eight years to write.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household in a small Southern town, I was tortured by my same-sex attractions. There was such shame associated with these urges that I couldn’t discuss them with anyone—not my parents, not my preacher, not my best friend and not even my identical twin, who was having the time of his life in high school, having jumped headlong into the heterosexual dating pool.

So I turned to God, believing with all my heart that if I prayed and fasted and studied the Bible enough, He’d take these urges away. My heart aches for my younger self, who struggled in this way for nearly two decades without anyone to guide him.

And my heart aches for gay kids today who grow up in fundamentalist religious communities (of any faith) where homosexuals are lumped together with murders, adulterers, drunkards, fornicators, the greater populace of Sodom and Gomorra and everyone else who’s destined for hell.

Seeing so many well-adjusted gay high school students on Glee might convince these closeted gay fundamentalist teens that the secular world accepts homosexuality, but these kids are also taught that most of the secular world is going to hell. No amount of well-adjusted secular gay characters from Hollywood or elsewhere will persuade them that they aren’t going to hell too. Theirs is a spiritual journey, one that all too often ends in withdrawal, self-loathing, severe depression, self-destructive behavior, and, all too often, all of the above. They need a spiritual story or at least one that includes the spiritual aspect of this journey.

I wrote Playing by the Book so these kids might at the very least be entertained by the often-humorous story of Jake Powell, boy preacher, who successfully navigates this treacherous spiritual journey by the skin of his teeth and becomes a well-adjusted young man with a very bright future and an incredibly hot Jewish boyfriend in the process. My hope is that Jake will help these kids reconcile their faith and sexuality and come to realize that they are not fundamentally screwed.


schrisshirleyS. Chris Shirley is an award-winning writer/director and President of the Board of Lambda Literary, the world’s leading non-profit organization that nurtures, celebrates and preserves LGBTQ literature. He was born and raised in Greenville, Alabama, and now resides in Manhattan. Playing by the Book is his first novel. Visit Chris online at schrisshirley.com.

Playing by the Book is now available.