I recently heard the news about Scholastic pulling the newly released book A Birthday Cake for Washington written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. The picture book has come under fire as sentimentalizing slavery. There are over 350 very passionate customer reviews on Amazon that attest to the controversy. This incident has caused me to ponder how very layered the notions of race and diversity remains in children’s book publishing and society in general.
If the creators had been white it may have been tempting to think the misrepresentation of the brutality of slavery resulted from their distance outside of African American culture. However, this is not the case. The author, illustrator, and editor are all women of color.
As a writer of color writing about the experiences of people of color it is crucial that I keep in mind my point of view. Many of us may share a collective experience of being part of the African diaspora, however that does not make any of us an authority on all things “black”. For me, there are unique experiences and nuances that come from being a Canadian woman of Jamaican heritage living in America. Other examples are an African American woman with southern roots, or a Guinean man living in France, or a young Haitian boy living in the Dominican Republic.
As writers of color, we may be working to uplift the image and collective psyche of “our people”. However, if we are not intimately familiar with a particular part a history or an experience we can end up doing as much damage as someone from the outside misrepresenting us. If any author of any color, gender, etc. chooses to write about a group of which they are not a part, it requires extra care.
The news of this regrettable publishing decision has reinforced my belief that I must ask myself some hard questions if I’m going to attempt to write about an experience that is not uniquely my own. Questions like:
What is my point of view?
What images, stereotypes and ideas have I internalized?
What images, stereotypes and ideas have my readers internalized?
Why am I writing this story?
Who’s story am I telling? Why?
Have I done my research?
Is this story true/authentic?
The publishing industry still has a long way to go in giving writers of color equal access and opportunity. However, once we get our shot we need to represent...NOT misrepresent.
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children. You can visit her website at carolhl.weebly.com
We celebrated Chinese New Year early by reading two books that open a window into Chinese culture. Naomi, James and Sydney each share some thoughts on these books below.
Review by Naomi
Bowls of Happiness, written by Brian Tse, Illustrated by Alice Mak, and translated by Ben Wang.
Bowls of Happiness is published by China Institute, a company dedicated to supporting Chinese culture and Buddhist philosophy. It's about a little girl named Piggy. Her mommy made her a beautiful porcelain bowl. The book explains how Chinese porcelain bowls have a lot to do with the rituals and traditions of Chinese culture. I learned quite a lot, including the fact that yellow porcelain bowls were only for the emperors in the Forbidden City.
Bowls of Happiness was very enlightening and I loved to learn so much about Chinese culture and porcelain bowls.
One part of this book that I really liked was the illustrations. There were many illustrations and images of traditional porcelain vases and bowl patterns.
This is a vase that shows an imperial kiln. The imperial kiln is where the entire process of porcelain production is documented, from the selection of the materials, to the production of molds, to the application of glazes and polychrome, the firing process, and court officials approving and collecting the works.
Overall, I learned a lot from this book and would recommend it to anyone who would like to learn more about Chinese culture and porcelain bowls.
Review by James
What was it like Mr. Emperor? by Chiu Kwong-chiu was very enlightening. I learned a few things about China and the emperors. Such as, the last emperor of China was throned when he was only three! Then he only reigned for 3 years, and then got kicked out of the palace. He was also interested in western culture. It was a little slow, but there were a few interesting facts. The grammar mades no sense, but it was translated from Chinese, so you have to cut it some slack. Overall, If you are interested in Chinese culture this book is for you.
And Sydney wanted to add: "I noticed that a real authentic book from another culture can be very different from the books I'm used to. I learned that princes had to go to school from 5 am to 3pm and they only get 5 days off in the whole year. I also learned what an Eunuch is and that the color yellow is only for emperors. You should read this if you're interested in China!"
So, if you're looking to learn more about the forbidden city and China, definitely read these books. They're packed with information, bright lovely illustrations and they are written in a way that makes a different culture more real. What could be better than that?
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out December 2013 with Character Publishing. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus, and Kids are Writers. She co-coordinates Reading for Research Month, a challenge for picture book writers who use mentor texts to improve their writing skills. If you visit her house, you’ll likely find her reading or writing. You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com
Trends. You see them everywhere you go. By definition a trend is " the current style" and/or anything that is "in vogue". So basically, what's IN at the moment is the trend for the week, the month, or the year.
For example, the trend of long hair. Or maybe short hair. Clothes have lots of trends: colorful, patterned, one color only, long sleeves, short sleeves, wide pants or narrow. Cars have trends: from really big SUVs to medium sized family cars, to small and eco-friendly speedy ones.
What we as writers care most about, however, are the trends in children's publishing. What type of books are being published?
If you haven't seen the article by Elizabeth Bird in School Library Journal's January 2016 issue titled "What’s Trending? What Is, What Was, What’s Soon to Be in Kid Lit", you should.
You can take a peek here: http://www.slj.com/2016/01/industry-news/whats-trending-what-is-what-was-whats-soon-to-be-in-kid-lit/
As you will see, Elizabeth gives a fantastic wrap-up of the trends of 2015 with a "crystal ball"-like look into 2016. She offers her opinions on trends that might happen in 2016 and more importantly for us writers, trends she'd like to see. It's a great summation and prediction of things to come.
The thing is, if you are a writer, what do you DO with this information? Should you write to a trend?
If you've gone to any writing conferences or followed writing blogs, you have heard everyone from editors to agents to other authors say: DON'T write to the trends.
You are to : Come up with your own ideas
Stay true to the topics that are near and dear to your hearts
Write what you know
While I whole-heartedly agree with these ideas, I also wonder if they are totally realistic. I mean, why not write to a trend? What if your trend-following manuscript happened to be the one that caused you to break into the business? It's certainly possible.
If you plan to write to a trend, the key is to get in on the upswing.
How do you do that?
Watch blogs (like Fuse #8) and others for past trends and predictions of future ones. You will want your manuscript to fit into the "future" list, not really the "past" trend list. You have to figure that it may take 1-2 years for your manuscript to be accepted, edited, and published so a trend you see now -- particularly a past one-- may not still be 'in vogue' at that time.
If you decide to follow a trend, find one that fits you, your writing, and most importantly the voice that you have in your head-- "your narrator". If the trend you are trying to follow is completely different from what you are writing or your voice or even a topic you aren't interested in, then don't try it. Anything that is forced will read that way to the editor or agent and they will pass on it.
Take a current trend and flip it on its side. Think outside the box. Take a trend, like say the Evil Hummingbirds section in the Fuse #8 post and make the animal something completely unexpected. A whale. A sloth. A seahorse. Something unexpected and yet totally works for your story. Need ideas? Look no further than the "weirdo" trends Elizabeth has listed in her post. I bet no one could have predicted those trends this year. In other words -- START YOUR OWN TREND.
The best way to use a list of trends, or even to look through the amazing award winners just recently announced, is to see what has been successful and to apply that to your own writing. Get ideas from what is out there. Don't steal them, of course. But read widely and if you can spot a trend and it fits you GO FOR IT!
You never know. Maybe your book will be the next one that is "in vogue".
Jennifer is the award- winning author of over twenty nonfiction and fiction books. Her books include BRAIN GAMES by National Geographic Kids (2015) , Forces and Motion by Nomad Press (2016) , and SUPER GEAR: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up by Charlesbridge Publishing (2016). She is an instructor at the Children's Book Academy and a two-time workshop presenter at the Highlights Foundation. She is now proudly represented by agent Clelia Gore of Martin Literary Management .
You can find Jennifer at www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com
Last month I dashed off a few thoughts on revision techniques and offered you one of them to consider. Then I considered it and decided there was more to be said.
The technique I suggested was all about replacing “He thought he would read the paper” with “He would read the paper” (if he can’t read it right now), or simply “He read the paper.” In other words, write as if life is right there on the page, breathing, rather than about to happen.
Hesitant writing, which is how I think of it, can creep in while I’m finding my way through a story. I do my best to remove it from my work because I like to put my readers as much in my characters’ place as possible. Even if I weren’t writing for kids, I’d probably do that.
But a writer might easily choose to use what I’m calling hesitant writing if it was their intent to distance the reader from the character’s most interior self. Suppose the character is the villain of the piece, but your reader isn’t supposed to know that yet—we decide to keep the reader at arm’s length.
Revision is all about making the right choices.
That said, streamlining is always a good idea, and always leads me to further streamlining. I use the search feature to find words I can eliminate. First to go are the lazy writing words: “very” is a common one. “But” and “and,” as the first word in a sentence, are good words to remove when you find them, then reread to see if that clarifies your statement or makes it ambiguous. Ambiguity demands that you put the word back.
Too general descriptors like “some” or “most” and “thing” can help keep us moving right along as we’re chasing a thought, but it helps to be more specific in revision mode.
You might be thinking this is superficial stuff, and it is. But editors see a lot of it, and it’s refreshing for them to come across a manuscript that isn’t bogged down with a lot of words that will have to be edited out or that inspire questions like “What kind of thing?” Today’s editors are busier than ever, and a clean manuscript tends to rise to the top.
My favorite search is “said and.” As in: “Not for me,” Tim said and passed the pup to Miller, who wanted to pass it along too. This can be abbreviated to “Not for me.” Tim passed the pup. . . It’s a favorite because it’s one of the run on phrasings that is easiest for me to fix, and to see good results on the page: a cleaner, more free-flowing text.
I also watch for unnecessary commentary on my part. This usually shows up in dialogue tags, like these, plucked out of a handful of romance novels:
. . . “I thought so,” she said, with a smug smile.
“. . .and that’s why you were late,” he said, satisfied to have made his point.
. . . “I knew it had to be something,” she said, in an outpouring of sympathy.
. . . “Never again,” he said, making the words an angry snarl.
Occasionally, this commentary is useful and even well written. It’s sometimes a necessity if your characters aren’t face to face, but are talking on the telephone or texting. But if I find it springing up all over the place, I worry that my dialogue is getting lazy.
Start by removing the comments and read the scene for how the text might express the sentiments just removed. Sometimes a physical gesture is more telling. Here’s a fix for the smug smile: “I thought so.” She minced away, telegraphing superiority in every click of her heels.
You get the idea. Can you fix the other three?
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but most of us have our own set of lazy words, oft-repeated bad habits, and you probably already know what yours are.
Of course, there are deeper revision techniques, but I find these are a good place to start. A streamlined manuscript makes for a livelier read, and makes it less of a slog to rewrite when the time comes.
Because, of course, there’s (drum roll) time in the drawer.
It’s the hardest technique to use.
But what we do after “time in the drawer” is what I’d like to talk about next month. Till then, happy new year. If you missed Miranda Paul's blog from the holiday week, read on. She has a list you shouldn't miss.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore.
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