Going Gridless in June

As promised, I'm retreating from social media (blog, facebook, twitter) for the month of June to think, read, and write. You may still reach me by email, which I will check occasionally. Be back in July, friends.

Betsy, Tacy, Tib, Mitali, and YOU?

I'm beyond excited to be visiting Mankato, Minnesota this summer to be part of an author panel at the Betsy-Tacy Convention. I remember the wonder of visiting Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, which felt like home thanks to the Montgomery addiction of my youth.

Won't you join us this summer to revel in all things Lovelace? The dates are July 19-21, and here's a brief description from the convention organizers to whet your appetite:
The Convention starts on Thursday, July 19, with events and tours in Minneapolis, the setting of Betsy’s Wedding. We then board Mr. Thumbler’s hack (okay, it’s a bus) to Mankato, also known as Deep Valley in the Betsy-Tacy books, for 2 days of activities, speakers, tours, friendship and fun.
Come on, friends, carpe diem, it's going to be SO MUCH FUN, and makes a great Mother's Day present, too.

Tips on Writing Race from a Teen Writer

I received a couple of great comments on my blog from a young writer named Micala, and I wanted to share them with you. In response to a post entitled, "Hey, We Need Latino Books ... And More," she had some interesting thoughts about the statistics on multicultural books:
I find the comment about a lack of color in sci-fi and fantasy interesting. I read a lot of sci-fi, and often write it too, and always felt sci-fi writers either A) don't specify race as much, so it's your own fault if you don't catch that, and B) often include mixes of races, sometimes alien ones as well, and often set in multiple countries/planets.

However, so glad you posted this! It's a really good point, and very startling. I never realized there was such a difference. I'm African American and the reason I've started looking into race in books is because once someone asked why I write all "white" (hate that word for people) books when I'm not "white." I replied, "I don't. When did I say even half of these people are of a tan, peachy, or buttery complexion?" They were like, "Well, you didn't say they weren't either..." I don't know, it just weirded me out.  I'm sixteen, so maybe I'm just oblivious, and my parents were always good about having me read everything and anything. I'm glad I got the comment, but am disappointed that in so much of literature it is assumed everyone is American or of European decent. It's so silly.

I also wonder if this chart takes into account those people who's race is left unidentified. Are those books lumped into the "white/European" category? Left out?
In a post where I call for fresh descriptions of skin color, inviting writers to moving away from food clichés, Micala responds with a burst of  creativity:
Mmm, you bring up interesting points, and I've been reading several discussions on the issue lately. I have to say, I honestly don't understand the problem with food descriptions. Yes, they CAN get boring or be cliché, especially for African-Americans like me, but if you have a reason, I think add it. Like if the girl is young, really sweet, has a smooth skin complexion, has really fine, silky arm hair and is a teenager that the protagonist boy has been dreaming about, then maybe, just maybe, she really is "peachy" in his mind. Classy, sweet, and fresh.

Another point is this: I would avoid race. Unless you've got a reason, avoid race. Just describe your characters! Saying they were half Scottish half Irish is lazy. Saying they were a tall, lanky boy with tan skin, an ivory undertone, strawberry blonde hair and green eyes and giving them a strong accent is much more effective, and much more imaginative. Here are some words I've found for skin, by the way:

  • Rosy
  • Tan
  • Sun-kissed
  • Teak
  • Ebony
  • Rich Earth
  • Smoke
  • Rosy
  • Maple
  • Walnut
  • Oak
  • Coffee - more description required
  • Clay - add to this with more description
  • (Ornamental, Antique) Bronze
  • Caramel
  • Falu Red
  • (Chiffon) Lemon
  • Pear
  • Rose (Misty, French)
  • Papaya
  • Orchid - specify
  • Persimmon
  • Platinum
  • Puce
  • Saffron
  • Salmon
  • Xanthic
Blush Colors:
  • French Rose
  • Crimson
  • Maroon
  • Orchid - really qualify the word with extra description
  • Persimmon
  • Puce
  • Salmon
  • Sangria
  • Plum
  • Firebrick
  • Smooth
  • Silky
  • Rough
  • Moist
  • Sticky
  • Lissome
  • Satin
  • Velvety
  • Ruddy
  • Wrinkled
  • (Un)Wholesome
  • Dingy
  • Sickly
  • Pale
  • Oily
  • Ashy
  • Lush
  • Rich

That's a very small selection of words compared to how many I have saved on the Word Doc I've made for imaginative terms for skin, but there are a few. I just got tired of clichés. Some of the ones I didn't mention are words refering to minerals such as bronze or gold, trees such as oak or maple, or other abiotic factors such as clay or rich soil. Even using flower colors, really study the flower. Does it sparkle in the light? Is it multi-toned because of its specs? Sand can be used to describe someone with ivory and bronze mixed skin, with freckles of a seppia color mixed in.
Race is almost always going to offend someone. Just describe your characters and let their interests and dialect "speak" for itself. Also, in a more racially diverse world, it's really hard to tell races from one another. Rather than try, just let your character be. Unless their lineage or social standing is affected by it, and important enough to be mentioned, why qualify it? 
Now that's creative. Micala's comments lifted my spirits after several recent sessions with adults  where the issue of writing race was discussed with some tension in the room. After reading her thoughtful comments and suggestions, I'm bullish on the next generation of writers, aren't you?

Why Ashton Kutcher's PopChips Ad Did Not Offend Me

A recent ad featuring Ashton Kutcher was pulled by PopChips after it was labeled as "racist." Did it deserve the outcry? I don't think so. Could the writers of the ad have wielded the caricature with a bit more finesse? Definitely. Here are my three "ground rules" when it comes to the intersection of race and comedy (explored in the introduction to my forthcoming young adult humor anthology, OPEN MIC, published by Candlewick, Fall 2013):

1. Poke fun at the powerful, not the weak. The PopChips ad did this because Kutcher's character names himself as a Bollywood producer—representing an extremely powerful elite in India.

2. Build affection for the “other” instead of alienating us from somebody different. Basically, in the ad, the producer's a likeable guy—he's jolly and fun.

3. Be self-deprecatory. Here's how the commercial could have been improved: if Kutcher had poked fun at his real self at the end. For example, as he's sitting in his chair, he could have glimpsed an appropriately arrayed gorgeous girl strolling by with each of the characters (it might have been even funnier if they had mixed and matched styles, so the Indian girl was with the French guy, and the trucker girl was with the Bollywood guy, etc. ...  he could have even played the girls.) Meanwhile, the real Kutcher is left alone, waiting for his cellphone to ring—implying that the other three are actually confidently expressing their true selves, while he's a celebrity, which is essentially a caricature.

Because the ad didn't break rules 1 and 2, it didn't offend me. The real reason it didn't work is because of rule 3. What do you think?

2012 Jane Addams Children's Book Awards

Since 1953, the Jane Addams Children's Book Award honors books published in the U.S. during the previous year that engage children in thinking about peace, justice, world community, and/or equality of the sexes and all races. The books also must meet conventional standards of literary and artistic excellence.

Congratulations to the 59th Jane Addams Children's Book Awardees: Susan Roth, Cindy Trumbore, Winifred Conkling, Anna Grossnickle Hines, Calvin Alexander Ramsey, Bettye Stroud, John Holyfield, Kadir Nelson, and Thanhha Lai.

Winner of Books for Younger Children

The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families
by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, Illustrated by Susan L. Roth
Lee and Low

Dr. Gordon Sato, a survivor of the Japanese internment camp Manzanar, is a biologist committed to ending hunger throughout the world. In the village of Hargigo in Eritria, local women provide the labor to plant mangrove trees which supply them with much needed income. The trees turn carbon dioxide to oxygen, attract fish, and feed goats, sheep, and children.
Winner of Books for Older Children

Sylvia and Aki
by Winifred Conkling
Tricycle Press | Random House Books for Children

Young Sylvia Mendez moved into Aki Munemitsu’s home when Aki’s family was relocated to a Japanese internment camp. Sylvia and her siblings weren't allowed to register at the same school Aki attended, but were sent to a “Mexican” school. Sylvia’s father challenged the separation of races in California’s schools by filing the suit that ultimately led to the desegregation of California schools and helped build the case that would end school segregation nationally.

Honors for Books for Younger Children
Peaceful Pieces: Poems and Quilts about Peace
by Anna Grossnickle Hines
Macmillan | Henry Holt

In her collection of poems illustrated with her handmade quilts, Anna Grossnickle Hines explores peace in familiar and unfamiliar forms, leading young readers to find their own way to peace, and then act upon it.

Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend
written by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, illustrated by John Holyfield
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | Hachette

Waiting for his mother in Gee’s Bend, young Alex spots a mule running loose and eating crops from someone’s garden. When he asks about the mule, Alex learns about the famous Belle and her connection to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Honors for Books for Older Children
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Balzer and Bray | HarperCollins

The story of African and African American history from Colonial days to the day the aging narrator casts her vote for the first African American president.

Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
Harper | HarperCollins

As the Vietnamese war reaches ten year-old Ha’s family in Saigon, she and her mother and brothers flee for America. Told as a series of free verse poems, Ha finds her footing through her first year as a refugee.