Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Words That Wake Us

By Ashley Hope Pérez

perez-outofdarknessMy third novel Out of Darkness takes the 1937 New London, Texas, school explosion as the backdrop for a secret romance between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. It’s a book about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

When I began Out of Darkness, my goal was to write a historical novel that would capture the imagination of even my toughest, most reluctant readers and expose them to experiences largely excluded from the sanitized historical accounts in Texas history books. I wanted to approach the past in a way that would also prompt my readers to engage in a fuller consideration of the present and the shape of the world around us.

Growing up one county over from New London, I heard powerful stories of loss and of survival related to the explosion, and I felt that a school disaster offered considerable dramatic possibilities for a YA novel. But the most important reason for choosing this particular period, community, and event was what I didn’t know, the stories I didn’t find collected in the archival materials on the disaster. Because New London school was intended to serve white children, historical accounts of the explosion focused on the tragedy as the white community experienced it; no one had recorded how people of color in the area had responded or how they viewed the disaster.

New London School after the explosion
New London School after the explosion

Still, I wondered, for example, what the event meant for African American teens who were spared from the explosion precisely because they’d been denied access to the better-funded white school in the first place. Because I wanted to explore this question, I knew from the start that there would be an important African American character in my novel. Then, early in my research for the novel, while reading through a list of the children who had died in the explosion, I came across a name that surprised me: Juanita Herron. I found a photograph of Juanita and studied it. I imagined her name as it would have been written in Spanish: Juanita Herrón. I wondered, could a Mexican American child have attended the school?

It was possible, at least. Larger cities in Texas with established Latino populations had three-fold segregation: white schools for white children, “colored” schools for black children, and “Mexican” schools for Mexican Americans and other Latinos. In New London, however, there were only white and “colored” schools. This made it more plausible that light skinned Mexican American families—likely new arrivals attracted by jobs related to the oil boom—could have enrolled their children in the New London school. And it would have been an attractive option, especially in comparison to the grossly underfunded and overcrowded “Mexican” schools in other parts of Texas. From there, I began to imagine what it would be like for a Mexican American teenager to enter the black-and-white community of New London.

The gaps in the historical record on the New London school explosion catalyzed my imaginings of the two characters whose fictional story is at the center of Out of Darkness: Washington Fuller and Naomi Vargas. Having always lived in East Texas, seventeen-year-old Wash prides himself on knowing his way around both the woods and the prettiest girls from Egypt Town, where most of the black community lives. Wash’s days as a womanizer come to an end when he meets Naomi Vargas, a beautiful and painfully shy high school senior who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). Until the opening of the novel, the three of them have lived in San Antonio, but Naomi’s white stepfather convinces the children’s grandparents to send them to live with him in East Texas so that the gifted twins can attend the New London School. The light-skinned twins quickly settle into their new life in New London, but Naomi encounters hostility because of her darker skin and struggles with the demands of living with a stepfather whose own needs trump any concern for his children. Time spent with the twins and Wash is a welcome relief, and Naomi and Wash fall in love through secret meetings in the East Texas woods. They know that they can’t hide forever. What they don’t know, though, is that the worst school disaster in U.S. history awaits, threatening to shatter the school, the community, and their hopes for a future where they can be together.

Given that Out of Darkness is set in the South during the 1930s, it will come as little surprise that racism shapes the direction of the story. In San Antonio, for example, Naomi and the twins are forced to attend “Mexican” schools with overcrowded classrooms and low-quality teachers. Almost invariably white (as college education was very difficult for Mexican Americans to access), many of these teachers found theirs an “undesirable” placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students. Naomi may be able to attend a better school in East Texas, but in the absence of stores that cater to Mexican Americans, she faces blatant hostility when she tries to buy groceries at the one New London general store. Wash attends a “colored” school with a shorter school day and year, not to mention the absence of critical materials and resources.


Although forced segregation of schools may be a thing of the past, the effects—and reality—of segregation linger on. Unfortunately, racism is not just an unfortunate artifact from our past. The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride—to cite just two examples—make plain the continued relationship between racism and violence in America. In both cases, attackers claimed to feel threatened by unarmed teens. The rationale for that “threat” seems to hinge on the notion that black bodies should not be in (what the killers consider) white spaces. Those who defend the aggressors in these situations tend to focus on the shortcomings of the victims, as if to suggest that their poor decisions were responsible for putting them “in the wrong place at the wrong time” (note the scare quotes).

Readers of Out of Darkness will recognize that the same logic behind the actions of angry white men who feel threatened by Wash’s very presence at the site of the New London explosion. He’s there because the superintendent has hired him to do an afternoon’s work on the grounds, and he rushes into the school, saving several children from being crushed when the building collapses. Instead of being met with gratitude, though, he encounters the suspicion of those who think he has no business being near the white school—or their children.

Rescue workers at the site of the New London School explosion
Rescue workers at the site of the New London School explosion

Factual details influenced how I imagined the fictional events in Out of Darkness, especially Wash’s experiences after the explosion. For example, during my research I learned that an angry mob converged on the school superintendent’s house, hungry for someone to blame for the deaths of their children. In real life, they were turned away by mounted Texas Rangers charged with protecting the school board members from vigilante violence. The crowd dissipated, and no one was harmed. In the fictional world of Out of Darkness, however, this is the point when the mob turns its energies against a scapegoat not granted such protection.

As a black American, Wash experiences the heightened vulnerability that still characterizes the lives of many today. This vulnerability and its terrible consequences have deep roots in our history. Upwards of four thousand people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and of that number, 3,445 were black. In contrast to the long-overdue mainstream media attention to killings of unarmed African Americans in recent years, news coverage of lynchings—as well as other discrimination endured by African Americans—was either altogether absent or sensationalized and justified the violence against black community members. According to Dr. Richard Perloff, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, news accounts of violence against black Americans generally assumed without question that the victim was guilty of a crime. Newspaper stories often used dehumanizing terms like “wretch,” “fiend,” and “desperado” to refer to the victims.

This historical pattern informs how Wash Fuller’s mistreatment is portrayed in newspaper stories within the world of Out of Darkness. But if I’ve done my job as a writer in Out of Darkness, the whole of the novel refutes the racist narratives perpetuated in the white press, both in how it details Wash’s encounter with those who seek to harm him and in how it portrays his beautifully imperfect and perfectly valuable life.

James Baldwin once noted that, in the U.S., “words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not wake him up.” Reading fiction is no substitute for engagement with the world around us. I hope, nevertheless, that Out of Darkness confronts readers with words that wake them to the need for change. Perhaps knowing Wash—knowing his brilliance, his sense of humor, his human character, and the tremendous love he has for the people in his life—will lead readers to consider more deeply the human cost of violence against African Americans.

ashleyhopeperezIn addition to Out of Darkness (September 2015), Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two other YA novels: What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Out of Darkness has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and both What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on YALSA reading lists. She has a PhD in comparative literature and is currently a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University. She teaches topics that range from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their sons, Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés. Visit her online at http://ift.tt/1hryVm1 or find her on Twitter at @ashleyhopeperez.

Out of Darkness is now available.

Small Countries

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann

millerlachmannn-survivingI write novels that take place in small countries. In a publishing industry that encourages writers to appeal to the widest possible audience, setting a novel in Chile, a long, narrow country in South America with scarcely more than ten million people and only a few thousand immigrants in the United States, seems like a spectacularly bad career decision. Writing a novel about a small country earns me the same reaction that authors of diverse books often hear about their protagonists of color, protagonists with disabilities, or LGBTQIA protagonists: “Your books have limited audience, and we can’t publish/acquire/stock them, because they won’t sell.”

These kinds of comments ignore the fact that teens read plenty of books set in distant places with distinct cultures. Science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian novels dominate the list of best sellers. These genres are popular because they present complex and interesting worlds that transport readers away from their everyday lives. Characters grapple with life-and-death conflicts that, hopefully, most of us will not have to experience in our own lives.

The history of many places throughout the world is, sadly, full of the same life-and-death conflicts. Throughout history, most people have lived under oppressive regimes. Many writers of dystopian fiction have based their works on real places throughout history, from ancient Rome to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Like its predecessor, Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago is set in a real-life dystopia of the past — Chile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Until he and his allies shot and bombed his way to power in a military coup on September 11, 1973, Chile had enjoyed many decades of democracy and peace. Afterward, the name Pinochet became identified with political prisons and torture. The small faraway country of Chile became a cautionary tale of how quickly freedom can be lost, and, once lost, how hard it is to get back.

In the days after the 1973 coup, hundreds of thousands of people like Marcelo Aguilar, the father of my protagonist of Surviving Santiago, suddenly became enemies of the state. Many of those who survived the early wave of violence chose to leave the country, and some ended up in the United States. Others, including Marcelo, stayed to fight the dictator.

Sixteen-year-old Tina hasn’t seen her father in many years. After his arrest, she fled to the United States with her mother and brother while he remained in prison, tortured so badly that he suffers permanent physical and emotional damage. Ever since his release, he has neglected his family to work underground against the dictatorship. But he still wants to see Tina, and she maintains a grain of hope that he’ll be the old father she remembers from before his arrest and imprisonment.

Tina arrives in Santiago just before the dictatorship’s end, when many of its supporters didn’t want to let go. They feared the exposure of their misdeeds, or they saw these final months as an opportunity to punish the people who defeated them. It was a time of secrets, betrayal, and life-or-death situations, particularly for returnees like Tina who were basically strangers in their own land.

When Tina’s father ignores her, she finds companionship with a mysterious local boy, Frankie. They seem to have a lot in common: a love of Metallica, motorcycles, and action movies — and fathers who are alcoholics. She denies signs that Frankie may not be telling the truth.

Small country, but big conflicts with equally big stakes.

These are also universal conflicts that prompt further thought and discussion. When faced with a huge injustice, do you walk away or fight? What comes first — being there for your family or making the world a better place? How do you know when someone is really a friend? If a friend wants you to do something that you think is wrong, would you do it anyway to keep the friendship? And how would you help a friend who has made a bad decision and is now in danger because of it?

These questions arise in contemporary realistic novels, science fiction, fantasy, dystopian fiction — and historical fiction set in countries throughout the world. They are questions young people face whatever their background. Teen readers already know that a great story is a great story, whatever the setting. So why not publish more diverse books, books that highlight characters who may not be in the “majority” (whatever that is in our increasingly diverse society), and characters who live in, or travel to, small countries? Why assume that these books “have limited audience” and treat them differently from books set in the foreign worlds of science fiction, fantasy, and dystopia?

lynmillerlachmannLyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Gringolndia (a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults) and Rogue. She has an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin. She is the former editor of MultiCultural Review, and has taught English, social studies, and Jewish studies. She is the assistant host of Vientos del Pueblo, a bilingual radio show featuring Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history. She grew up in Houston and currently lives in Albany, NY, with her family.

Surviving Santiago is now available.

A Kaleidoscope of Inspiration

By Martha Brockenbrough

brockenbrough-gameofloveOne of the most common questions I get at school visits is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

For some reason, a lot of writers grouse about this question and give glib answers, which I hate. But I get it. It can be a tough question to answer, because for me there is never one point of origin or moment of inspiration. There are a million, a kaleidoscope of people and places and songs and experiences and stories … the list is endless.

The Game of Love and Death owes its origins to many things: the Hindenburg broadcast I heard when I was in sixth grade. The Enigma Variations I played in an orchestra when I was in high school. To Picasso’s “Guernica” painting, which I first saw when I was 16.  To books I read in my early 20s, including Passing by Nella Larsen, about light-skinned black people who were able pass as white, as well as the books of David Leavitt, which helped me understand and empathize with the gay male experience.

All of this, plus the Greek mythology and philosophy I devoured, as well as my love of Seattle and jazz music, and finally a real-life love story between teens who’d loved each other since childhood made its way into the book.

But one character—one vital character—came into being because of this woman. This is Bessie Coleman. Just look at her.

The picture on the right was taken in 1922, two years after women finally won the right to vote, the year radio first arrived at the White House, and the year Annie Oakley blasted a record-setting 100 clay targets in a row. So, ages ago, in another world, really. But Bessie Coleman was proof to me—and then some—that my character Flora could have been a pilot in 1937.

Coleman was the first black woman to become a pilot, and the first black American to receive an international pilot’s license, which she earned in France because programs here wouldn’t take her. Even male black American pilots refused to teach (gasp!) a woman.

After two training stints in Europe, Coleman became a stunt pilot in the U.S., and used her celebrity to oppose segregation, even as people complained about her for being a showboat. She also had plans to found a school for young black aviators. Alas, she never did. She died in 1926 after falling out of a poorly maintained plane that spun out of control during a rehearsal.

Despite her story’s awful end, I was thrilled to discover it, not just because her life is breathtaking, but because it made my book feel possible—even probable.

In a small homage to Coleman, I had Flora learn from a French pilot as well, which was also historically possible because in World War I, French soldiers served alongside African American ones.

Martha Brockenbrough is the author of two books for adults and five books for young readers. She’s the founder of National Grammar Day (every March 4), and she’s written game questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit. The former editor of MSN.com, Martha has been published in a variety of places, including The New York Times. She also wrote an educational humor column for the online encyclopedia Encarta for nine years. She lives in Seattle with her family.

The Game of Love and Death is available for purchase.

The Cowgirl and Cowboy Behind “Under a Painted Sky”

By Stacey Lee

lee-underapaintedskyThe idea to write a story about a Chinese cowgirl came about more through inspiration than thought.  It was only after writing the story that I examined why I had written it.  I realized that the reason was bifold: mother, and father.  For many Chinese people, family history is important, which might explain why dinners with extended family take so long.  Elders in my family are introduced by their relationships. (“This is your mother’s, father’s second wive’s cousin’s eldest daughter’s first son.  Don’t forget.”.  It could also explain why we eat such elaborate banquets, because by the time we get to the food, we’re starving.

My mother’s first recorded ancestors in the United States came during the late 1800s.  I was intrigued by the attitudes towards Chinese people during this time.  Back then, to catch a glimpse of a “Celestial” was a rarity.  If you saw them at all, they probably would have been sailors, tea merchants, or the occasional circus act.  China at the time had only recently opened its doors to trade, and so not much was known about China by the average American.

My father immigrated to the United States in the 1950s when he was only 11. He came by boat with his brother, who was 14, to a country which didn’t necessarily want two more Chinese kids.  Many people don’t know that up until 1964, the United States was still a segregated society.  Like many who immigrated, the 1950s were a time when the movie western was in its cinematic heyday.  My father loved John Wayne movies, and would often play cowboy music for my sisters and I, so that was essentially the music of our childhood.  I think, like many immigrants of that generation, the western appealed to him because in westerns, the hero is faced with an often-hostile country, and must go it alone.

This is the central problem in Under a Painted Sky.  The heroines Samantha and Annamae quickly realize that they won’t get very far on their own, especially Sammy, who has always been a bit of a city girl.  Their survival is in their own hands.  Not only do they face the problem of being girls, and all the restrictions that go along with that, but they are racial minorities and fugitives.  I think that’s what makes this story quintessentially American, the idea that in America, we are in charge of our own destinies.  And that it helps to have friends.


Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys.  She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul.  A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.  She plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes YA fiction. Her historical YA, Under a Painted Sky, debuts March 17 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Follow her on twitter @staceyleeauthor.

Get a copy of Under a Painted Sky here.

Writing Diversity in Dialogue

By Y. S. Lee

lee-rivalsinthecityOne of the delights of the written word is the power — in fact, the necessity — of creating your own mental pictures and soundtrack. Only you know just what the heroine looks like when she’s angry; only you know the precise music of her nemesis laughing. Setting plays a huge role, too: contemporary America vs. medieval France vs. a planet far, far away. As readers, we are our own casting directors, cinematographers, and composers. I’m here today to argue that we should be our own dialogue coaches, too.

As a genre, historical fiction — which I love, and which I write — is prone to spelling out accents. Often, it’s not enough to mention in passing that a character is a stableboy or a visiting German aristocrat; the characters’ words are spelled out so that we can see, on the page, just how outlandish their pronunciation is. And that’s not all. The real problem is that historical fiction is especially prone to spelling out lower-class accents.

See the bias here? Everybody has an accent; that much is obvious. But in novels where lower-class accents are spelled out, the upper-class accents are rendered in standard English spelling. The not-so-subtle subtext is that upper-class accents are “normal,” while lower-class accents deviate from an invisible, correct norm. Add to this the fact that working-class accents are most frequently used to provide comic relief or create pathos, and what we have is proud and unexamined social snobbery written openly on the page. We should be embarrassed. We should repudiate this. We should complain, bitterly, so that writers and editors re-think assumptions about class, accent, and the ways we report speech.

When I wrote the Agency novels, which are set in Victorian London, I solved the problem by representing dialect (irregular grammar) but not accent. I might write a character who says, “I don’t know who done it.” I might even write, “Dunno” instead of “Don’t know,” on the grounds that everybody, across the social spectrum, uses contractions in speech. But I assume that my readers can imagine what “I don’t know who done it” might sound like, spoken aloud. I won’t write, “I daown’t knaow ‘oo dunnit!” It’s patronizing, it’s ugly, and it’s an invitation to readers to feel superior to that character.

But whether they were mudlarks or monarchs, all these characters of mine were native speakers of English. When writing my new novel, Rivals in the City, I found that I had a fresh problem: how to write dialogue for a character who speaks imperfect English. A character, in fact, who spoke only Chinese until a couple of years prior to the action of the novel, and who speaks with a distinct Chinese accent.

I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spelling out his pronunciation. Still, I felt stuck as to how to convey his accent. Stereotypes of Asian accents in English are usually patronizing and ugly. While French accents are heard as charming, and British accents register as classy, Asian accents are fodder for the unfunniest kinds of jokes. How many times have you heard a French or British person congratulated on speaking “without an accent”? Yeah. Asian accents are the stableboys of the accent hierarchy.

In the end, after a lot of deliberation, I wrote this Chinese character’s dialogue as I would that of any other. His vocabulary is more limited, because he’s relatively new to the language. Figures of speech perplex him. But for me, the clearest and most respectful way of signaling his difference was in giving him words, hearing him speak, and having him articulate his confusion and discomfort with London life in the year 1860. I think that was enough.

I’m curious, though: have you tried or run across other respectful, effective strategies for signaling difference through accent? I’d love to hear them. With any luck — because we’re going to keep reading and writing about diverse casts of characters, right? — this problem will be with us for a long time yet.

ysleeY. S. Lee is the author of the award-winning Agency novels (Candlewick Press), a quartet of mysteries featuring a mixed-race girl detective in Victorian London. She is obsessed with the gritty side of history and often blogs about it at www.yslee.com.

Rivals in the City is now available.

Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas

This month, Texas Tech University Press is publishing a special 25th anniversary edition of Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, a story rarely told in YA.

By Jay Neugeboren

neugeboren-poliWhen Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas was originally published in 1989, the Hispanic population of Texas numbered some four and a half million people and represented thirty-two percent of the state’s population. Now, a quarter of a century later, when a 25th anniversary edition of Poli is, happily, being issued, the Hispanic population numbers more than ten million and represents nearly forty percent of the state’s population.

Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas is based on the memoirs of José Policarpo Rodriguez, a Mexican-American—and Texas Téjano—who was central to Texas history during its formative years in the nineteenth century.  With his father, José Policarpo Rodriguez—the “Poli” of our story—came north from Zaragosa, Mexico, to the Republic of Texas in 1839 when he was ten years old, and he and his father settled in the Hill Country near San Antonio. Poli grew up with Comanches, surveyed territory for the Republic of Texas and the United States Army, fought against warring Indians, and mapped settlements for nineteenth-century German settlers in Texas.

He was the first non-Indian to discover the Big Bend Country and Cascades Caverns, and during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, he was Captain of the San Antonio Home Guard. Caught between the three main elements that made up early Texas—Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos—and often shown contempt both for his age and his Mexican origins, Poli struggled to decide where his true loyalties lay, and his decisions—which, among other elements in his life and character, inspired me to turn his memoirs into a book—showed a kind of courage that was rare in those days, and remains rare.

The memoirs were given to me by a teacher I worked with at the Saddle River Country Day School in New Jersey, Gladys Spann Matthews, who had taught Poli’s grandchildren in Austin, Texas. One of his grandchildren wrote a composition titled, “The Most Famous Guide in Texas History.” One day while Gladys Matthews and I were having lunch together in the kitchen of the estate that served as the school’s makeshift cafeteria—it was the school’s first year of existence—she plunked a fat brown envelope onto the table next to me. “I once tried to make a book out of this and couldn’t do it,” she said. Along with a copy of the memoirs, Gladys Matthews gave me drafts of the book she had tried to write, transcriptions of anecdotes she’d heard from his grandchildren, and a loving admonition: that I use the materials as the basis for a fictionalized biography of Poli.

And so I did, and I trust that Poli and his story will inform and enchant readers in the way I was when, once upon a time, I came to know this extraordinary Texas Téjano.

JayNeugeboren-125x125Jay Neugeboren is the author of 21 books, including award-winning books of fiction and non-fiction, along with four collections of prize-winning stories. A new novel, Max Baer and the Star of David, will be published in the fall of this year.

Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas is now available.

Inspiration From Unexpected Places

By Sharon G. Flake


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.

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.

What I Learned About Writing Characters Who Aren’t Like Me

By Robin Talley


Here’s me: A 35-year-old white cisgender openly gay woman who lives in a major U.S. city in 2014.

Here’s the protagonist of my first book: A 17-year-old black cisgender closeted gay (or maybe bisexual or maybe questioning) girl who lives in a small southern town in the U.S. in 1959.

In many ways, identity is everything. Being a 35-year-old white woman is very different from being a 17-year-old black girl.

Context is also everything. It’s very different to be a woman who’s attracted to other women in 2014 than it was to be a girl who was attracted to other girls in 1959.

My book, Lies We Tell Ourselves, is set during the school desegregation movement in Virginia. My protagonist, Sarah, is one of the first black students to integrate a previously all-white high school. In the middle of all the turmoil she endures there, she also forms a cautious friendship with a white girl who’s a staunch segregationist. Slowly, their relationship develops into something more.

To write this book, I had to do a ton of research about the people who served on the front lines of the school integration battles. I took fervent notes as I pored over every memoir I could get my hands on, trying to read between the lines and pick up on what might’ve not been spelled out in the text. I watched video interviews, hanging on every word, every breath, trying to understand what those students must’ve felt as they crossed that line.

But there was another layer of work beyond the research: trying to imagine myself in their positions. Thinking through how I would’ve felt if I were them, going through what they did.

Which, of course, is impossible. I’ve never been them. I never could be them. I’ve never suffered anything close to what they’ve suffered.

Nor was I raised the way they were ― with the post-World War II, mid-twentieth-century values that were instilled in American children growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.

And yet, whether it’s possible or not, it’s necessary. That’s how writing works. You have to envision what it would be like to do what your characters are doing. Whether they’re sneaking through Mordor, or gazing at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, or integrating an all-white school in 1959.

Last week, my wife and I were waiting to meet a friend at the mall. We were leaning against a wall by the entrance, and I had my arm around my wife. Lots of people walked past us on their way in or out of the mall. Half of them ignored us and kept walking. The other half stared at us openly as they passed.

This was in Bethesda, Maryland, a fancy suburb of Washington, D.C., where we live. It was a reminder that even in fancy suburbs in 2014, there are still people who feel totally comfortable staring at people who are different. It was also a reminder that the vast majority of the time, I don’t have to worry about this. I’m not a visible minority. Unless I have my arm around my wife or am wearing my “I <3 Pro-Choice Girls” T-shirt, people usually aren’t going to assume I’m gay at a glance.

Writing a book from the point of view of a character of color ― a character who is relentlessly persecuted due to her race ― meant I had take what I know, what it feels like to get stared at by strangers, and try to imagine what it would feel like if that happened every single day, everywhere I went. I had to imagine what it would be like to know that next time, staring might not be the only thing I had to worry about. Next time, the strangers staring at me might say something. Or shout something. Or throw something. Or worse.

All that and more happens to my character, Sarah, when she enters a previously all-white high school in the first chapter of Lies We Tell Ourselves. Her race has made her a target her entire life, but it’s magnified a thousandfold when she dares to cross the line that her society has declared uncrossable.

The courage it takes for her to take that stand is something I can only imagine, too. But Sarah isn’t willing to cross what was then an even more rigid boundary: she can’t let anyone to find out she’s interested in girls. If that ever happened, she’d be a target on two fronts.

Writing Lies We Tell Ourselves forced me to think about race and sexual orientation in ways I never had before. Just as writing my next book, which centers on a genderqueer character, forced me to think about gender identity in new ways. Similarly, writing about a character who uses crutches and suffers from chronic pain in another story I’m working on made me think about disabilities much more deeply than I had before I began writing from that character’s point of view.

It’s become one of my favorite things about writing. None of us can ever truly experience what it’s like to be someone else, but if you’re writing from a character’s point of view, you have to climb inside their head and try to see the world through their eyes. You have no choice but to think deeply, very deeply, about how your character’s experiences have shaped who they are and how they see the world. I’ve learned so much through writing all of these stories ― both from the research and from the mental work that goes into imagining each character’s inner life.

And through all of it, I’ve also learned that it’s essential to stay humble through the process. To accept the possibility that something you’ve always believed might very well not be the truth. There are some things you can only learn from someone who’s actually had the experience you’re trying to depict, and those are the most fascinating lessons of all.

It’s not that I think anyone’s obligated to teach me anything, of course. It’s that writing is about empathy. Writing a story forces you to think in ways we don’t typically do in everyday life. When you have no choice but to empathize with someone who’s different from you day in and day out, when writing your story requires that kind of thinking, you can’t help but learn along the way.

Writing hasn’t just made me understand books better. It’s made me understand people better. Writing different kinds of characters has made me more compassionate, more interested in exploring the depths of individuals’ experiences, more interested in the wider world around me.

It’s taught me that writing isn’t just about what you produce. It’s about what you learn along the way.

And it’s reminded me that it isn’t polite to stare.


Robin Talley grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, writing terrible teen poetry and riding a desegregation bus to the school across town. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.

Lies We Tell Ourselves is available 9/30/14. Order it here.

5 Things I Learned While Writing A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR

In A Death-Struck Year, 17-year-old Cleo Berry volunteers with the Red Cross in 1918 Portland, Oregon, during the deadly Spanish flu pandemic.

By Makiia Lucier

lucier-adeathstruckyear1. Sometimes, five drafts just doesn’t cut it.

A Death-Struck Year was the first book I’d ever written, and when I submitted an early draft to agents, I thought it was beautiful and perfect and that it would sell immediately. I was so proud of myself; I felt like Tom Hanks in Cast Away when he finally started that fire. But it was far from perfect. Before being sent off to the printers, the manuscript would have to go through six full rewrites and several additional copy edits. Even the original title, A Beautiful and Death-Struck Year, was chopped up. It was a shock, but now that I think on it, I’m glad I didn’t know in the beginning how much work was involved. A part of me wonders if I would have been too afraid to even start.

You can see a horrific, graphic example of an early draft here.

2. Patience really is a virtue.

There’s an incredible amount of waiting involved in the publishing business. Who knew? Certainly not me. Once you submit your queries and/or manuscripts to literary agents, you have to wait for their response. Later, when your agent submits to various publishing houses, there’s even more waiting. And every time you send a draft off to your editor, you have to bide your time, sometimes for weeks, sometimes more. There are many words I can use to describe my road to publication: thrilling, eye-opening, surreal, awesome. But speedy? Definitely not.

3. Stealth writing; I did what worked for me.

There are writers who are perfectly comfortable discussing every stage of their process in real time, but I’ve found that I’m not one of them. When I began writing Cleo’s story in the fall of 2010, I told no one except my husband and one friend. My daughter only found out because she lives with us; little pitchers have big ears, after all. I did it because I had never written a book before. I had no idea if I would finish the manuscript, let alone publish it. And much as I love them, I didn’t want to field questions from well-meaning family and friends — Did you find a publisher yet? When is your book coming out? If there was the slightest chance that I was going to fail, I wanted to do it as quietly as possible. Keeping my story close until it was finished is a decision I’m still happy with.

Author Makiia Lucier
Author Makiia Lucier

4. Research can be fun. No, really.

One of the great pleasures of writing A Death-Struck Year was in the amount of research required. Does that sound strange? It’s true. I think research plays a critical role in the creative process. You never know when some obscure historical fact will send your imagination spinning. An article about a theater being turned into an emergency hospital, for example, or an old photograph of a house with windows shaped like giant keyholes. But what I also learned is that I can get so caught up in the research, I put off the actual writing. It’s something I have to constantly work on, remembering that research is necessary and fascinating, but the only way to actually finish a book is to, you know, write it.

5. Public speaking will not kill you.

How does an introvert make peace with book publicity? School appearances, bookstore readings, webinars where hundreds of people have registered to hear you speak — these can be nerve-wracking for writers who, like myself, are largely solitary creatures.

What I’ve learned is that preparation is key. Several days before I was scheduled to appear before a group of students, I invited some friends over to the house, opened a bottle of wine (okay, two bottles) and practiced, practiced, practiced. A walk through does wonders for shaking off the jitters. Not all of them, of course. I think public speaking for me will always cause the occasional sleepless night and shaky voice and sweaty palm. But it does get easier as time goes on, the more you prepare, and it absolutely will not kill you.

Makiia Lucier grew up on the Pacific island of Guam, not too far from the equator. She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a master’s in library studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she studied literature for children. She’s had plenty of jobs, mostly in libraries, and currently resides in the small college town of Moscow, Idaho.

A Death-Struck Year is now available.

10 Diverse YA Historicals About Girls

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are 10 diverse young adult historical novels about girls. Descriptions are from Worldcat.

Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis (Alfred A. Knopf)

Teens Octavia and Tali learn about strength, independence, and courage when they are forced to take a car trip with their grandmother, who tells about growing up Black in 1940s Alabama and serving in Europe during World War II as a member of the Women’s Army Corps.

Wildthorn by Jane Eagland (Houghton Mifflin)

Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove is locked away in the Wildthorn Hall mental institution, where she is stripped of her identity and left to wonder who has tried to destroy her life.

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In free verse, evokes the voice of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, a book-loving writer, feminist, and abolitionist who courageously fought injustice in nineteenth-century Cuba. Includes historical notes, excerpts from her writings, biographical information, and source notes.

Willow by Tonya Cherie Hegamin (Candlewick Press)

In 1848 Willow, a fifteen-year-old educated slave girl, faces an inconceivable choice – between bondage and freedom, family and love – as free born, seventeen-year-old Cato, a black man, takes it upon himself to sneak as many fugitive slaves to freedom as he can on the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman (Arthur A. Levine Books)

When Jade Moon, born in the unlucky year of the Fire Horse, and her father immigrate to America in 1923 and are detained at Angel Island Immigration Station, Jade Moon is determined to find a way through and prove that she is not cursed.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano (Scholastic)

It is 1969 in Spanish Harlem, and fourteen-year-old Evelyn Serrano is trying hard to break free from her conservative Puerto Rican surroundings, but when her activist grandmother comes to stay and the neighborhood protests start, things get a lot more complicated–and dangerous.

Anahita’s Woven Riddle by Meghan Nuttall Sayres (Amulet)

In Iran, more than 100 years ago, a young girl with three suitors gets permission from her father and a holy man to weave into her wedding rug a riddle to be solved by her future husband, which will ensure that he has wit to match hers.

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman (Penguin)

In India, in 1941, when her father becomes brain-damaged in a non-violent protest march, fifteen-year-old Vidya and her family are forced to move in with her father’s extended family and become accustomed to a totally different way of life.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion)

When young American pilot Rose Justice is captured by Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp, she finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her fellow prisoners.

Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang (Delacorte)

Emmajin, the sixteen-year-old eldest granddaughter of Khublai Khan, becomes a warrior and falls in love with explorer Marco Polo in thirteenth-century China.