Friday, October 28, 2016

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member Martine Leavitt, who also an alumna, for winning the Canadian Governor General's Award. Peek: "Told in spare, beautiful prose, this transcendent exploration of reality and truth is funny, frightening and affirming. Calvin (Groundwood Books) is an astonishing achievement.” — #GGBooks Jury Statement.

(Re)Igniting the Writer's Life by John Vorhaus from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "We want to write but we fear to write. If you’re in this bind, my heart goes out to you, and I really want to help you over the hump and into, or back into, your active practice of writing."

Why People Forget Your Character & How to Prevent It by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "...too many times I find myself struggling to remember details of a character in a novel I read last year. Give your characters longevity and notoriety with these techniques."

The Rejection Tug-of-War from Uma Krishnaswami. Peek: "...we brood. Was that editor or agent right? Is the work dead? Is is any good? Is there something there worth salvaging?"

What to Expect from an Agent by Mary Kole from Peek: "What will an agent do for you? What might an agent do for you if they have certain specialties? What is unreasonable to expect of an agent? First, I’d like to discuss what an agent won’t do." Note: Agents also get paid a percentage of royalties.

Using Family Stories to Write Historical Fiction by Helen Maryles Shankman from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...I couldn’t run away from my parents’ stories. As I grew up, I began to understand that they weren’t just memories that could be dismissed and forgotten; they were the origin stories for our own scarred and imperfect lives."

Planning Great Book Events by Sophie Masson from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Launches are especially good for debut books; for bespoke, collectible books; and for group books, such as anthologies and collections."

Decolonizing Nostalgia: When Historical Fiction Betrays Readers of Color by Sarah Hannah Gomez from The Horn Book. Peek: "I may have done the work to tease out the parts of the girls I read about that matched my own identity, but I became increasingly aware that the books themselves did not recognize me, a biracial (black and white) adoptee in a bicultural (Mexican American and Ashkenazi Jewish) family." See also Hannah on 5 YA Books Inspired by Real-Life Murderers from BNTeenBlog.

The Need for More Diversity Within LGBTQIAP Children's-YA Literature by Ashley Herring Blake from CBC Diversity. Peek: " the end, I only had one book to put in that mother’s hands. After talking with this mother, the children’s book manager at my store found some more books about trans kids for younger readers and ordered them, and that is excellent, but we need more options."

Writing and Parenting from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: "99% of the posts that dads write on parenting and writing are different–they don’t seem to have the guilty undertones. In fact, these dads usually feel they’re spending better quality or more time with their kids."

The Complex Principles of a Picture Book from Chronicle Books. Peek: "How much abstraction for artistic intent is acceptable? What needs to come across in information? What needs to come across in feeling?"

Cynsational Giveaways

This Week at Cynsations

A four-part series:
Cynsational Event

With Shelli Cornelison & Christina Soontornvat at Donna Janell Bowman's Book Launch
See Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness from Cynsations.

More Personally

Happy Halloween weekend, Cynsational readers!

First, my thanks to author-illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina for joining me here this week for an in-depth, four-part dialogue on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

On Monday, I attended Laurie Halse Anderson's author event and signing at BookPeople in Austin. She spoke with great passion and compassion about the American Revolution, historical research, the creative life and the importance of diversifying children's-YA literature--all the while book-talking and centering diverse voices. Inspiring!

This week I am praying for the Water Protectors and for all children being inundated with the Cleveland Indians mascot. See The Great Failure of the Indian Mascots Debate by Sterling HolyWhiteMountain from ESPN, which reflects on both. Also, go Cubs!

Personal Links
Moderating & Signing Nov. 5

Join me Saturday, Nov. 12
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Author Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing, Speculative Fiction, Community & Growing Into Herself

Wherein Belle and I discuss books and gender empowerment.
By Ambelin Kwaymullina
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The fourth of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia.  

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

Don't miss Ambelin on Ethics, the Writing Process & Own Voices or an Interview with Ambelin on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family. See also Cynthia on Why Kayla, Not Eartha & Other Stuff I Think About.

Spoiler alert for Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007).

As a spec fic writer, I’ve so often been told that it's "unusual" or even "strange" for an Indigenous person to be writing in this genre. Why do you write speculative fiction? Do you think there’s advantages to the genre that aren’t found in other genres?

Yes, the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color.

We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.

For example, Ambelin, can you get Joseph Bruchac's dystopian YA novels Killer of Enemies and Trail of the Dead (Tu Books) in Australia?

If not, you may want to look into ordering online for international delivery. (Or check out the e-novella, Rose Eagle--should be an easy download.)

As for me, I take the advice we so often give to beginning writers. I write what I know. I write what I love to read. I saw “Star Wars: A New Hope” (before it was called "A New Hope") 384 times in the theater. Of course I write speculative fiction.

My Tantalize-Feral universe is genre bending, incorporating elements of Gothic fantasy, urban fantasy, mystery, suspense, humor, and science fiction.

The fantastical offers writers the ability to speak to our real world at a slant. At that slant, you can—ironically enough—hit the real-world themes harder.

Let’s say I wrote a realistic novel about a teenage girl who gets involved with an older guy who plies her with red wine, takes over her family’s business, socially segregates her, kidnaps her, imprisons her, assaults her, frames her best friend for murder and kills her best friend's dog. Yes, his dog. Overkill? (Possibly. I'm still getting distraught reader mail about the dog.)

On the other hand, if he’s a vampire, the reader is far more likely to buy into the story. (And, thankfully, I had the discretion to subvert genre expectations and make it a girl-empowerment story.) With spec fic, we can dig deeper into the theme without seeming heavy handed.

Earlier, Ambelin, you mention using a dystopian context to convey the societal consequence of historical social injustice. I did much the same, albeit within a different construct and a contemporary focus.

That said, I also write realistic fiction. My current YA novel in progress is contemporary realism. I’ve also published three realistic books--Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all HarperCollins)—and several realistic short stories.

My latest realistic short fiction, "All's Well," appeared as a chapter in Shaun David Hutchinson's Violent Ends (Simon Pulse, 2015), which is centered on a school shooting.

Coming up, I'll have a poem written as a child featured in "Dreams to Write" in Our Story Begins: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum, 2017). I do a little creative nonfiction, too. Basically, I have either great range or a complete lack of focus.

You put time and effort into promoting the work of other writers. Why is this important to you?

When I decided to write full-time rather than practice law (or work as a journalist), it was more of a heart decision than a head decision.

You mentioned that you came to both the law and writing to seek justice. I came to writing for young readers out of a personal appreciation for the good that books can do for kids. Out of a love of Story.

I arrived as a one-time child whose mother took her on every-Saturday-morning trips to the public library.

As a one-time tween who took refuge from bullies in the school library, who found comfort in the books when the Queen Bee chased away her friends.

That said, I remember shying away from any book with a hint of Native content in the title, on the cover. A self-protective instinct.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton Mifflin, 1958) was my favorite book as a child, but it never occurred to me to crack open her novel Sign of the Beaver (1983). Think about that.

By the time I was eight or nine years old, as an avid reader, I'd learned that I never wanted to open a book with an American Indian on the cover (or any hint of Native content), even if it was by the author of my favorite novel.

Still, the landscape has improved since my childhood. Yesterday, I talked about writing as an outsider and highlighted examples of that done well. But I want to emphasize how deeply heartened I am by the growing presence and success of Native writers like Eric Gansworth, Tim Tingle, Richard Van Camp, Arigon Starr, and Jenny Kay Dupuis (to name a few). And we have new voices on the horizon like Traci Sorell and Kevin Noble Maillard. This is such an exciting time!

While we have far to go, I’ve seen progress and felt the pride in community that comes with it. 

Books are where I belong. Story is what has always helped me make sense of the world and find my place in it. And my place in it is informed by media and the law--a longing for justice bolstered by the education and tools to help achieve it.

I want to do what I can to ensure that children’s-YA literature welcomes all kids in a positive, nurturing way. That's not just about me. It's about what we do as a community of book creators, publishers, gatekeepers, booksellers, child care givers... The team effort.

Light a candle. If that doesn't work, light a bonfire.

How did I get here? By the standards of the time, I entered children's-YA publishing as a very young author.

This was the late 1990s, and I was in my late twenties/early thirties. It's different now. Debut authors younger than I was then are no longer unusual. But back then, editors weren't taking many chances on new voices. There weren't as many younger voices writing either. (Hello, Potter effect.)

Almost everybody I knew was at least 15 years older and had much more experience. People frequently commented to me that I was their children's age.

And I was perpetually starstruck.

I got to meet the writers I'd read growing up--
Paula Danziger, E.L. Konigsburg, and Jane Yolen (who was so nice to me). Judy Blume encouraged me at my first SCBWI national conference in LA.

(Of late, I see Katherine Paterson all the time at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Actually working up the courage to speak to her is still a work in progress.)

My inner fourteen-year-old was--still is--spinning over the moon.

What I did have to offer the community was enthusiasm, a commitment to what then was called "multiculturalism," and a background in journalism. I embraced the possibilities of the Web and began signal boosting in a big way.

Now, I've been in the business nearly 20 years and am finishing my fifteenth book. Though I still have much to learn, I'm honored to share what I do know, especially with Austin and Texas authors, my VCFA family, new voices, diverse voices and of course Native writers and illustrators.

Along the way, I keep believing, signal boosting, mentoring, teaching, writing and cheerleading.

Spreading the word that good books matter.

Does law influence your storytelling in any way?

Definitely. Law gives me an analytical skill-set that is priceless for plotting and world building. If you look, for example, at the Feral trilogy, the legal status of shape-shifters plays a significant role in the story construct.

By that, I don’t mean that my characters are citing case law or pontificating on legal history but rather that the socio-political-legal structure in which they struggle has been thought out and fully integrated.

On a more obvious level, I’ve written lawyer characters—Cousin Elizabeth from Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) and, in my current work in progress, the protagonist’s mother is a law student.

When I write Native stories in particular, that heightened awareness comes into play because of the role of law in our nations’ histories and its ongoing importance to our survival today and beyond.

You’ve written that you felt compelled to write for young readers in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Why for young readers rather than adults?

Yes, I shifted my career focus to writing for kids after the attack on the Murrah Building. Remember what you said about young readers and hope?

Ambelin's guest post & interview
I feel that hope, too. That faith. I believe in it enough to invest my life’s work.

It’s not that I don’t think adults can grow and change. Of course we can.

But when I close my eyes and imagine a world of heroes, most of the faces I see are those of elders and the young.

Maybe that's because I was raised close to my grandparents, my great aunties and uncles. They faced Indian boarding school, the Great Depression, the second World War.

My first heroes were my elders, starting from the time the were young. Their influence is defining.

What’s the story you’re proudest of, and why? 

I want to say that I don’t process my books and shorts in terms of pride, but only moments ago I was telling you about the pride I feel in the progress we’ve made in children’s-YA literature.

So, okay, I’ll close my eyes and keep typing and resist the urge to edit afterward.

Here goes:

I’m most proud of my novel in progress, tentatively titled "How to End a Date" (Candlewick, fall 2017), by which I mean I’m proud of the protagonist.

How she navigates, less and more successfully, all the crap that’s routinely tossed at Native teens and, for that matter, at girls on a day-to-day basis and how she takes refuge in her sense of humor and her loving family and her community and, most of all, how she fights, true to her heart, even when her biggest obstacle is herself.

And since it's loosely based on my own adolescence, I guess I have to say that I'm finally proud of my own inner teen.

So there, Cindy Lou. I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes

Author Interview: Joseph Bruchac on Killer of Enemies from Lee & Low. Peek: "...what really helped me begin to develop this story was the combination of seeing the ways in which building technology into people has become more and more of a reality and the idea that then came to me about how those modified people would be affected if electricity (including circuits implanted into human bodies) suddenly stopped working."

Native American Children's Literature Recommended Reading List from First Nations Development Institute. See also American Indians in Children's Literature.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Writing Across Identity Elements: Why Kayla, Not Eartha & Other Stuff I Think About

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The third of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia.

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

Don't miss Ambelin on Ethics, the Writing Process & Own Voices or an Interview with Ambelin on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family.

Spoiler alert for Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2013).

Lately, I’ve been talking to Ambelin Kwaymullina, “an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people” of Australia, about own voices, representation, appropriation and writing across identity elements.

At first glance, when it comes to protagonists and point of view, we may seem to be on opposite ends of a spectrum--her advocating against writing as an outsider and me in favor.

It’s more complicated than that. As we compared notes, we found ourselves agreeing or at least empathizing more than you might assume.

I’m a Muscogee Nation citizen, and I’ve written protagonists who share that identity as well as those who, unlike me, are respectively Chinese American, Mexican American, Italian American, English American, Seminole, and Cherokee. The non-Indians appear in alternating point-of-view novels.

(I’m a Cherokee descendant, not a Cherokee Nation citizen. That translates to shared ancestry and cultural touchstones, but there's a difference. To clarify: I'm likewise Irish American. However, I am not a citizen of Ireland. I am Muscogee and American, a citizen of both Muscogee Nation and the United States of America. Native identity is about culture and heritage, but it's also about law and political status.)

More broadly, when it comes to race, religion, culture, gender, age, orientation, body type, and socio-economics, I write inside my personal experience.

Likewise, I write outside my personal experience. I speak on and teach the subject of writing, including writing across identity elements, on a regular basis.

As I’ve mentioned before, the question of writing outside one’s lived knowledge and most immediate stakes with regard to protagonists (or, in the case of nonfiction, focal subjects) is a very personal one.

Today I’m going to share a glimpse into my own, nuanced process for deciding who and what to write and why. Yes, of course your mileage may vary. It may evolve. Mine has evolved.

Michigan Law School Reading Room
Two points to address first:

(1) I’m well aware of my First Amendment rights. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from The William Allen White School of Journalism at The University of Kansas, which included coursework in Media Law. I also hold a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, where my studies largely focused on Constitutional Law and the First Amendment in particular (it was the topic of my third-year independent study with Lee Bollinger).

I’ve committed quality time, scholarship and tuition dollars to Freedom of Speech.

I’m well aware that rights come with opportunities, costs and responsibilities. And I'm well aware that restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.

I'll restate that:

Restricts on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.

Sometimes I exercise my right to speak. Sometimes I exercise my right not to speak.

As a one-time Native child who couldn’t watch “Super Friends” every Saturday morning without also seeing “Elbow Room” every Saturday morning, I fret the impact of erasure (to a cheery tune) and of the single story (in that case, the “helpful Indian”).

Watch this and, if it's not your inherent perspective, try to do so--with your writing cap on--from a Native or POC point of view.

(2) The vast majority of children’s-YA authors must, to varying degrees, write outside our own experience—at least with regard to secondary characters and major historical events or societal topics. This is necessary to reflect the full range of our humanity in the past, present and future.

In a sweeping book about the U.S. Civil War or The Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution, I’m looking for inclusion when it comes to the participation of and impact on Native people, people of color, women, etc. Ditto that contemporary realistic chapter book set in a minority-majority nation or that YA dystopian novel.

Ducking that content isn't a neutral decision. Again, effectively writing Native people off the continent--out of the past, present, and future--isn’t a neutral decision. Over the body of literature, it’s a minimizing one. An erasing one. Silence speaks. It contributes to adverse real-world impact.

After every U.S. election, we actually have to educate the new Congress about our continued existence. Please don't make it harder for us to protect our nations, our land, our children. Remember, we are still here. And we should be reflected in the pages of children's-YA literature.

So, to recap: (1) I'm well versed in freedom of speech. (2) Every children's-YA writer must, to some degree, write outside our immediate frame of reference. Still with me?

Back to protagonists and nonfiction topics. Bookstores vary the titles they stock. Libraries vary their collections. Publishers vary their manuscript acquisitions, and agents vary their clients.

Otherwise their books would compete with each other, and they wouldn’t be able to offer the selection necessary to stay in business.

Choices that heavily favor slender, straight, able-bodied white kids are the norm. Those books are viewed as standard. Viewed as universal. There’s no industry predisposition to limit them.

But every day, other well-written stories are rejected for being “too similar” to an already stocked, purchased, acquired or signed project that’s perceived as similar enough to compete.

Let’s say there’s already one middle grade with an Asian boy protagonist. Will another one be turned down for potentially competing?

Quite possibly.

“I just acquired an Asian boy middle-grade novel, and, unfortunately….”

Writers get rejection letters to that effect all the time. I’ve read them. Quite a few of them because I teach and mentor and so other writers come to me to discuss such things.

And, granted, stories won’t be rejected just because of common identity elements. It could happen because they’re deemed “too similar” in other ways.

My kitty, Gali-Leo
“I just acquired a novel about soccer, and, unfortunately....”

Now, consider:

What is the societal impact of limiting to one book about soccer?

What is the societal impact to limiting to one book about Asian-American boys?

Or one book about Asian Americans--period? Especially since "Asian American" is an umbrella term.

Heaven forbid two Asian-American boy characters in two different stories both happen to play soccer.

Sure, even with mainstream heroes, there are limits:

"Unfortunately, we're already publishing a half dozen dystopians..."

Here's the thing: Writers often panic over new releases that might be "too similar" to our own works in progress, particularly if our own manuscript is well along. We anguish over whether to read the competing title to gauge whether our project is in the clear or not. With nonfiction writers, you'll often hear talk of "getting there first" in the marketplace.

Remember when I mentioned the right to speak and the right not to?

This is what I personally do with that reality:

Halloween decoration that inspired my novel, Feral Curse
I love cats. I love carousels. I’m intrigued by cryptids.

In the Feral series (Candlewick/Walker), I write about werecats, demons, magic and furry cryptid hominids.

The stories take place in Austin, in a nearby small town, in the suburbs, at a resort, and on a tropical island.

These YA books are heartfelt, funny, action packed and teeny bit sexy (if I do say so myself).

The trilogy metaphorically tackles diversity, social justice, and what it means to be human.

No way would the entire cast look like it had been raised by Carol and Mike Brady. Or be depicted simply as white kids from different social groups a' la "The Breakfast Club" (remember when that was a diversity ground-breaker?).

The Feral series' question is: "What does it mean to be human?" My answer isn't: "Let's check in with the all-white heroes to find out." (Although white co-protagonists are certainly included in the mix.)

The series is told in alternating points of view by four co-protagonists, including Kayla, a werecheetah, who presents as Black American, and Yoshi, a werecougar, who presents as a biracial (Japanese-white) American. They’re homo shifters rather than homo sapiens, and they live among us. Within the genre bending, it's a sci-fi-ish fantastical construct.

Now imagine this. An editor reads my manuscript and says: “Too bad! I just signed a story about a smart, small-town, Black Texas teen--the daughter of the mayor--who’s able to turn into a werecheetah, and is being haunted by her ex-boyfriend’s ghost, which is trapped in a carousel. And, wouldn’t you just know it? Both stories feature a Eurasian co-protagonist/love interest, raised in an antique mall by his homicidal grandmother.…”

Really? If another author also independently came up with that specific idea, we are soulmates.

But only one of us is probably going to sell that oh-so-similar book to that one YA fantasy editor at that house. Or sign with that manuscript to that one genre-bendy and cryptid-loving agent.

Libraries and bookstores will stock one or the other. (Unless there’s a major motion picture involved.)

We’re safe to say the Feral series (Candlewick) is an idiosyncratic, diverse spec-fic YA adventure. This is a benefit of a quirky writing nature (Werearmadillos, for example. I may have invented them. That level of quirky.)

Kayla, as one of four co-protagonists, isn’t going to knock a book with another Black girl hero out of contention for anything. And the lived experience that’s most on point is what it’s like to “pass” or not. On that point, I do have lived experience to bring.

Nifty. Green light.

Now consider this: I love the music of Eartha Kitt. I am fascinated by Eartha Kitt.

I believe that Eartha Kitt was the best Catwoman.

The. Best. Catwoman.

Nobody could purr like Eartha Kitt.

She was inspiring, talented, formidable. For years, I’ve longed to write a biography about Eartha.

But Eartha wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ella Fitzgerald.

She’s not a household name or an automatic tie-in to the Black History Month curriculum.

There might be room for one Earth Kitt biography for kids (or teens). I could see that getting published. I can imagine some bookstores and libraries stocking it.

As much as I love Eartha, I can’t imagine them embracing two or more.

So I’m not writing it. But if I weighed all that and moved forward, I would talk to Eartha’s family first for permission and consult with Black author friends, too.

Magazine cover of Eartha in my dining nook
All the while owning that my book could be blocking one by a member of Eartha’s own community.

Would I love that reality? No, but I couldn’t ignore it or dismiss it or explain it away either. And I couldn't wrap myself in the First Amendment and leave it at that because I have the right not to speak, too.

I would have to hold myself to the highest possible writing standard and expect others, especially those with a closer kinship, to do the same.

What's more, I'd have to acknowledge that I was starting at a serious deficit. There are writers with so much more to bring to that manuscript--Black writers, especially those with a strong background in singing and acting, who'd have knowledge and insights to illuminate the awesomeness that was Eartha in important ways that I'd never imagine.

I'm not planning to write that biography of Eartha. But up until a year or so ago, I was seriously considering it.

Now, what about a subject closer to home?

I’ve also considered writing a biography of Chickasaw astronaut John B. Herrington.

He and I have more in common. We're both mixed-blood citizens of southeastern Native Nations now based in Oklahoma. I want Native kids to learn about him, to be inspired by his story. I want non-Indian kids to learn about him and rethink the “primitive savage” stereotypes they’re fed.

Still, writing about John would’ve required me to write as an outsider.
I've met him in person in Oklahoma!

I’m not Chickasaw. “Native American” and “American Indian” are umbrella terms. Again, being Muscogee doesn't make me Chickasaw.

Are there shared ties and history between some Native/First Nations people and nations? Yes, more so within regions. But we're not not one in the same.

I hate to say it, but, as with Eartha, there’s probably not room in the market for more than one nonfiction picture book about John Herrington.

Native people are not meaningfully included in the U.S. curriculum. To the extent we're mentioned, the focus isn't on our achievements in space exploration. (Cough.)

There’s no way I would've put down a word of John’s story without his permission. As a First Amendment student, I know that I have the right to do so. As a Native woman, I believe in cultural property but, more to the point, as a human being, I believe in respect and courtesy.

John’s story is not my mine to take. It’s certainly not mine to take for profit.

Besides, to do a good job with it, I would’ve needed not only John’s blessing but also his assistance because the greatest living authority on John is of course John himself.

And if John thought it was a wonderful idea for me to write the story, I would’ve been honored and proceeded from there. (Yes, I would touch base with Chickasaw children’s writers, too.)

Many of the best books written by outsiders come from a place of deep connection and respect, prioritizing impact on young readers--both those directly reflected by the book and those who're not.

Consider, for example, Bethany Hegedus's excellent Grandfather Gandhi picture books, written with Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Even Turk (Atheneum).

These titles were born in the wake of the September 11 attacks after Bethany, a 911 survivor, heard Arun give a speech and found personal solace and healing in it. Later, they worked together to share Arun's stories with kids.

As writers, we succeed when we set aside the self-absorption of intent and entitlement in favor of respect and commitment.

We succeed when we come from a deeply felt place, like Bethany did after 911 and like she does every day when she cradles her own Indian-American baby son.

Bottom line: I never actively began writing the manuscript about John Herrington. It was merely an idea. I had other projects to finish first. I hadn’t yet contacted John to discuss it.

I was thinking I’d do that early next year.

Click this link to watch the book trailer!
But now I’m absolutely delighted that John’s children’s book, Mission to Space, was recently published by Chickasaw Press.

Imagine if bookstores and libraries didn’t pick it up because another children’s writer (like me) had already gotten there first and with a publisher that has a larger, more powerful industry presence.

Ambelin mentioned that she doesn’t want to see outsiders writing first- or deep third-person point of view. She’s told me that she feels that way in part because she hasn’t seen it done well and in part because of the systematic exclusion of Indigenous voices, own voices.

She doesn’t “want anyone occupying that space until there's something resembling parity of representation of Indigenous writers (and other own voices).”

I’m deeply sympathetic to her perspective and a strong  own voices advocate myself.

At the same time, when it comes to Native content, I’m more open to outside voices than Ambelin.

I suspect that’s because—despite far too many problematic books by outsiders—I have seen it done well. I appreciate high-quality titles like Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name Is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, 2011) and Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gone Crazy in Alabama (Amistad/HarperChildren’s, 2015).

It’s a blessing for Native kids, all kids, that books like those are published, and I’m thrilled to champion them whenever I can.

Moreover, as a southeastern American Indian, considering our history and current ties with Black Americans, I particularly long for more of their voices in the related conversation of books, especially with regard to the intersection of Black Indian tribal citizens. 

Big picture, being open to outside writers is no small or unqualified leap of faith.

There is a long and damaging history of outsiders telling "Native" stories, having approached us in the guise of ethnographer, of anthropologist, of writer, of friend. A long and damaging and ongoing effort to mislead, gain trust, and then misrepresent Native lives and narratives. Usually for profit, power or both.

When I  say "damaging," that’s not hyperbole. I’m talking about real-world legislation, persecution, and impact on the daily life of every Native person. We are peoples of Nations defined by sometimes hostile law and profoundly affected by that law. Public opinion, education and miseducation affects the making and enforcement of those laws. And then there's the psychological impact on citizens of our Nations, especially on our children and teens.

If you don’t know enough to understand why we’re skittish, suspicious and/or non-responsive, please step back and do more homework before starting that manuscript. Our feelings, actions and sometimes silence are based on real-world experience and concerns.

Begin by reading 100 books by Native American children's-YA authors. Do your homework with regard to each community your writing might reflect like you did your homework to enter the field more globally.

Of late, I’ve heard a lot of folks speaking in broad terms about the question of who writes what. We talk too often in broad strokes when brushstrokes apply.

It's a much bigger, broader conversation than race, though of course that's a critical component. It's also persistently framed as primarily about white writers' fear and failures.

As if no white writers weigh the responsibilities and costs of appropriation and respectfully seek the appropriate permissions and insights like Debby, working with her husband to share his story.

As if diverse writers can't stretch to successfully write across identity markers like Rita, who can certainly be trusted to respectfully conceptualize, research, frame and integrate story elements and, for that matter, feedback as needed to revise. 

As if diversity conversations should default to focus on white, able-bodied, cis-gender, straight folks. That's taking the idea that this isn't all about them and responding with, "But wait, what about them?"

Of course all writers belong in this conversation, but own voices must be prioritized and centered. Meanwhile, the question of "which ideas are right for me?" is something every writer must consider.

By the way, even when you're writing within identity elements, you still need to do research and engage in thoughtful related conversation. My work in progress is quasi-autobiographical, and I have a three-inch thick (and building) research binder. I've consulted with several friends and colleagues about the content and how it rolls out within the context of the story.

When I’ve cited, say, Rita and Debby among my go-to examples with regard to Native content, often the reply is something to the effect that I’m setting the bar sky high. And, yes, that’s true.

The bar is and should be sky high. Maybe we’re not all at Rita and Debby’s level of craft (yet), but we must emulate their gracious humility, their conscientiousness.

We must strive to create the best books for all kids.

Cynsational Notes

Writing, Tonto & The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who is the First to Die by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations. Peek: "For those who write within and/or outside personal experience, how do we honor and craft stories for the young readers of today and beyond?"

Native American Children's Literature Recommended Reading List from First Nations Development Institute. #NativeReads See also Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature and American Indian Graduation Rates: Stereotypical Images On and Off the Field from The Good Men Project.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Author-Illustrator Interview: Ambelin Kwaymullina on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family

Sample chapter from Candlewick Press
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The second of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia.  

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

Yesterday, Ambelin spoke on ethics, the writing process and own voices.

We have children’s-YA literature and the law in common. That’s actually a pretty common combination here in the states. Why do you think there are so many people involved in both?

Well, I’ve had some of my law students suggest the law is so horribly dry that it drives people to being creative in order to escape its clutches (these are generally the students who are studying law because their parents thought it was a good idea).

But for me at least, I think the reason I studied law and the reason I write are the same. In both realms, I am seeking justice – and justice, in Aboriginal societies, generally equates to balance, not just between human beings but between all forms of life (and everything lives).

I write speculative fiction because I want to write about the possibility of defeating injustice; to write about the terrible things that were (and are) while imagining what could be.

The oppressive law I wrote about in the Tribe series divides people into three categories: those without an ability (Citizens); those with an ability (Illegals); and those whose ability is considered benign (Exempts).

This is not an invented law. It is based on the Western Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944, a piece of legislation that purported to offer Aboriginal people ‘citizenship’ by exempting us from racially-based restrictions that only applied to my ancestors in the first place because they were Aboriginal.

In the Tribe series, this law is ultimately defeated by an alliance of the marginalised and the privileged, and by a heroine whose power is to identify and sustain the connections between all life.

And in writing of connections, I am writing of something that is central to the law in Aboriginal legal systems where (at its broadest) law is the processes of living in the world that sustain the world.

You clearly articulate the impact of white privilege on writing and writers, noting the negative impact on the work of Native voices and POC voices. What would you say to those Native and POC writers who may find themselves angry, frustrated, hurt or discouraged by these dynamics?

First: it’s not you. Exclusion is not something you are inventing in your head and you are neither unlucky nor unworthy.

It helps in this context to form connections with other Indigenous writers as well as with writers of colour, LGBTI writers, and writers with a disability.

You are likely to hear stories of authors getting similar comments across different contexts (e.g: you’re not writing to the Indigenous experience … this story is too Asian … gay books don’t sell … we’ve already published a ‘disability book’ this year).

It matters to have a network of people with whom to share both the good and bad experiences; and perhaps most importantly, to understand that you are not alone.

Second, never forget how to laugh. Some of the comments I’ve listed above have been part of the experience of other writers that they’ve laughed about with me – not because these comments are not discriminatory and hurtful, but because laughter has always been one of the ways in which marginalised peoples have dealt with pain.

Third, define success in your own terms. We all know what ‘success’ is supposed to be in literary industry terms: book sales and/or critical acclaim (preferably both). I’m not saying we shouldn’t aspire to that. But I also think that if marginalised writers define our success solely in the terms set by an industry that consistently privileges white, straight, cis-gendered people who don’t have a disability, we are also buying into an underlying lie.

The lie is that if we can just prove we are good enough we will be treated equally. But once equality has to be earned, it is no longer equality.

So I think it’s important that each of us define success according to what matters to us – and for me, it’s being a person that my ancestors would be proud of.

Book sales wouldn’t overly interest them. But honouring who they were, and who I am; treating cultural knowledge with respect; helping other Indigenous writers whenever and wherever I can – these are the kinds of things they’d be concerned about.

Fourth: be hopeful. I am. I locate my hope in people, and there are many, many people working towards a world in which all voices have an equal opportunity to speak and all stories are equally heard.

I think change will come, and in the meantime, I’m proud to be a part of a global community of voices, marginalised and privilege alike, that are speaking out for justice.

While you don’t feel it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous writers to reflect your community in first person or deep third, you are open to them writing secondary characters. Why does your opinion differ depending on how centered the character’s perspective is in the story?

Ambelin's desk
I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous people to speak as if they are Indigenous, especially given the operation of privilege which means that non-Indigenous voices will be heard in a way that Indigenous voices are not.

For me, writing from an ‘outsider’ perspective (so not in first or deep third) is to respect boundaries; to accept there are limits on what we can know of others and how we should represent others in our own work.

When I write of experiences of marginalisation not my own, I do it from an outsider perspective – reflecting that this is much as I can understand and that understanding may of course be wrong; I am not suggesting that I know what it is to see the world from an ‘insider’ view of a group to which I don’t belong. I think the spaces must be created for everyone to speak to their own worlds, and I want to be part of making those spaces a reality.

What advice do you have for non-Indigenous writers in crafting those secondary characters?

I think something you’ve said is the best place to start – you’ve spoken of the need for writers to read 100 books by Indigenous people before writing about us.

I agree. No one should be writing an Indigenous character without being familiar with Indigenous stories (not the ones told about us but the ones told by us).

It’s also important to ensure that any stories people are reading are ethically published because there is a vast body of Indigenous stories that were taken by anthropologists and others and are now in the public domain without the informed consent (or sometimes even the knowledge) of the Indigenous peoples concerned.

The easiest way to check that a story is appropriately published is to see who holds the copyright; where Indigenous peoples hold copyright in their own stories it is at least some indication that they control the text.

In addition to reading stories, I’d say, become familiar with representation issues. Engage with the online dialogue happening around representation and children’s literature as it relates to Indigenous peoples. There are no shortage of voices speaking in this space.

And finally: words spoken about marginalised peoples have a weight and a cost. But if you are not a member of that group, then it’s a weight that you don’t carry and a cost that you don’t pay.

So don’t measure the impact of your words by how they will be read by people like you. Measure them by how they’ll be read by the people you’re writing about.

How did you learn your craft as a writer and illustrator?

By doing! I have no formal training in writing or illustration. But nor do a lot of Australian Indigenous writers and illustrators, and we have been storytellers for thousands of years.

So to learn craft I look to the work of Indigenous writers and artists, both within Australia and elsewhere, as well as to the ancient teachings of my people.

What inspired you to direct your talents toward creating stories for young readers?

In my YA series, I was writing about a superhero, so it had to be about a teenager. I don’t believe grown ups have it in us to save the world, because we are spectacularly failing to do so.

But in the young I see all the hope for the future – they are more interconnected, quick to embrace new ideas, and passionate about fighting anything they perceive as an injustice.

They’re also more honest, especially the children for whom I write picture books. When they like a book, they write me lovely letters telling me how they sleep with the book under their pillow and begging me to write more. When they don’t like it they’re equally forthright.

People ask sometimes whether its difficult as an author to deal with bad reviews, to which I say: try writing for six-year-olds. Every once in a while, children send me letters about one or the other of my picture books that begin something like this: “My teacher made me read your book. I didn’t like it.”

I’ve had a few of these letters that went on for ten pages or more, and since that length is like War and Peace from a six-year-old, it means I’ve had kids hate my work enough to send me the child equivalent of Tolstoy.

Adverse reviews from grown-ups are nothing in comparison.

What was your initial inspiration for The Tribe series?

Sample chapter from Candlewick Press
My brother Blaze. He came up to me one day and said, “I’ve got an awesome title for a book. It’s called The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.”

I said, “That’s a pretty good title – what’s the story?’

To which Blaze replied, “Oh, there’s no story. Just the name, and I can’t be bothered writing it so I’m giving to you.”

Having bestowed the title of the novel upon me, he wandered off, leaving me to start thinking about the story. (And for anyone who’s read any of the Tribe series, the character of Jaz is very like my brother Blaze).

What were the challenges—literary, research, psychological and logistical—of bringing the stories to life?

I think the primary challenge is this: in so many ways, I wasn’t writing fiction. A post-apocalyptic world is not a fantasy for Indigenous peoples; the colonial apocalypse has already happened and much of The Tribe series is drawn from Australian colonial history.

Much of it too is drawn from the experiences of my ancestors and that is why hope runs so strongly through the narrative. They held on to hope through hard, cruel times when all their choices were taken away from them.

Indigenous peoples are so often spoken of as victims and I certainly don’t wish to minimise the suffering and the multi-generational trauma inflicted upon us by the colonial project. But the very fact that the Indigenous peoples of the world survived determined efforts to destroy us demonstrates our great strength.

I think the ability to hold onto hope is part of that strength and its something I try to honour.

You’ve created several picture books with Sally Morgan. Could you tell us about your work together?

Ambelin with her creative family
So, Sally is my mum. I’ve also done books with my two brothers, Blaze and Zeke, and the four of us have written together as a family. We’re all authors and artists, and we always give each other an honest opinion – sometimes this results in one of us storming off (usually me or Zeke, we’re both excellent stormers).

Generally, once we’ve had a chance to think about the criticism we come creeping sheepishly back and agree that yes, actually, that particular portion of the narrative (which we were previously so proud of) does indeed need more work.

I think from the outside our working process probably looks chaotic; we all talk at the same time and over each other; generally, the person with the best story gets to hold the floor until they get boring and someone else interrupts. If you want a place in the conversation in my family, you have to be prepared to earn it.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I’m working on three YA novels right now, but the one I’ll finish first is a book I’m writing with my brother Zeke.

It’s a mystery with fantasy elements that’s told from the perspective of three Indigenous female protagonists. It’s been a difficult book to write in places because terrible things happen in it, but its ultimately a story about the power of young Indigenous women and how they find their way home.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Guest Post: Author-Illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina on Ethics, Process & Own Voices

By Ambelin Kwaymullina
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The first of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia. 

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

I am an Aboriginal author, illustrator and law academic who comes from the Palyku people of Australia.

And I am an Own Voices advocate, by which I mean, I promote the stories told by marginalised peoples about our own experiences rather than stories told by outsiders.

I’ve written before that I don’t believe the absence of diversity from kids lit to be a ‘diversity problem.' I believe it to be a privilege problem that is caused by structures, behaviours and attitudes that consistently privilege one set of voices over another.

Moreover, the same embedded patterns that (for example) consistently privilege White voices over those of Indigenous peoples and Peoples of Colour will also work to privilege outsider voices over insider ones, at least to some degree.

The insider voices, of those fully aware of the great complexities and contradictions of insider existence, will always be more difficult to read and less likely to conform to outsider expectations as to the lives and stories of ‘Others’.

Insider stories can therefore be read as less ‘true’ or trap an insider author in a familiar double-bind – if we write of some of the bleaker aspect of our existence we’re told we’re writing ‘issues’ books; if we don’t we’re accused of inauthenticity.

I would like to think that as an Indigenous woman, I have some insight into marginalisation not my own. I have always thought that any experience of injustice should always increase our empathy and push us towards a greater understanding of injustice in other contexts.

But that does not mean my experiences equate to that of other peoples.

In an Australian context, I have said that I do not believe non-Indigenous authors should be writing Indigenous characters from first person perspective or deep third, because I don’t think a privilege problem can be solved by writers of privilege speaking in the voices of the marginalised.

And I apply the same limitation to myself in relation to experiences and identities not my own.

Ibi Zoboi recently wrote powerfully to the perils of the desire to ‘help’, noting that White-Man’s-Burdenism is not limited to White people. I run writing workshops for peoples who come from many different backgrounds of marginalisation, and as a storyteller, it is tempting to enact that instinct to ‘help’ into a narrative, to highlight the struggles of workshop participants in one of my own stories.

But between the thought and the action must come the process by which I determine if I am really helping at all.

So I ask myself, is the story mine to tell? The answer is no, of course; their stories are their own and their pain is not my source material.

The only way in which I would write from someone else’s perspective is in equitable partnership with someone from that group (where copyright, royalties and credit are shared).

This would not necessarily mean we each wrote half a novel. The other person may not write a word; their contribution could be in opening a window onto insider existence and correcting the mistakes an outsider inevitably makes.

I’ve had people tell me that this is the job of a sensitivity reader. But I am cautious about the boundaries of that relationship because I think there are cases where the input of an insider advisor infuses the narrative to such a degree that they are really a co-author and should be treated as such.

I don’t think the question is who wrote what words, but whether the story could have been told at all but for the contribution of the insider.

Someone once told me that I was restricting myself as a storyteller. I don’t believe I am.

I am acknowledging boundaries, but boundaries do not necessarily limit or restrict. Boundaries can define a safe operating space, for myself and for others, and respect for individual and collective boundaries is part and parcel of acknowledging the inherent dignity of all human beings.

I have begun co-writing a speculative fiction YA novel that is told from the perspectives of two girls: one Chinese, and one Indigenous. I am writing the Indigenous girl, and Chinese-Australian author Rebecca Lim is writing the Chinese girl.

The original idea for the story was Rebecca’s, but already it is changing as we each negotiate our own identities and experiences.

This is not a story that is restricted by boundaries; it is one that would not exist without them. In the writing of it, Rebecca and I are creating something that is greater than the sum of both of us – and in such stories, I see the future.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Suspense or Manipulation? by Claudia Mills from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek: "Vary chapter endings so that some can offer, e.g., satisfying closure on a scene, or a humorous or serious reflection."

Synopsizing Your Way to Success by Vaughn Roycroft from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "What I mean is, the words came pouring out, in a way they hadn’t in weeks. Much more so than they would be if I’d plunged in cold, or if I’d started a scene chart."

Smarter Not to Rhyme My Picture Book? by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Peek: "That’ll give you the read-aloud quality you’re probably aiming for, but without the challenges inherent in trying to tell a story while maneuvering the rules of rhyme."

Finding Your Way Into a Story by April Bradley from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Character is a writer’s lodestone, and we enter our stories in various ways through them: what they want, what they’re doing, how they look, what they think, how they feel."

What's Your Character's Hook? Does Your Hero or Heroine Have A Special Skill or Talent? by Angela Ackerman from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "What you choose for your character doesn’t have to be mainstream–in fact, sometimes unusual talents add originality (like knowing how to hot wire a car…especially if the character happens to be a high school principal!)"

Interview: Mark Gottlieb, Literary Agent at Trident Media, by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "So it really depends but I try my best to leave creative decision matters ultimately up to the author and/or editor in order to avoid stepping on any toes." See also Top Children's Literary Agents, 2016-2017 (YA, MG, PB). Note: based on reported, not total, sales.

On Writing the American Familia by Meg Medina from The Horn Book. Peek: "That’s an experience familiar to fifty-four million people — seventeen percent of our population — who identify as Latino in the U.S. today. So it’s fair to say that I’m writing about the American family."

Got a ‘reluctant reader’? Try poetry, says author Kwame Alexander by Julie Hakim Azzam from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Peek: "Sports, he said, 'is a great metaphor for life,' and a lure to talk about other things such as family and friendships." See also Teen Read Week by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children.

Revise or Give Up? by Mary Kole from Peek: "If there are weaknesses to your manuscript that you or someone else has identified, or if it’s in a very crowded category (zombies, for example) and you just don’t know if you can make a dent, I would really dig in to the area that needs work."

How Your Hero's Past Pain Will Determine His Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "In real life, who we are now is a direct result of our own past, and so in fiction, we need to look at who our story’s cast were before they stepped onto the doorstep of our novel."

Thoughts on Stereotypes by Allie Jane Bruce from Reading While White. Peek: "The fact that (most) people don’t believe that any one of these stereotypes applies to the entire population of Black women doesn’t mean that they’re not stereotypes."

Things Boys Have Asked Me by Joe Jiménez from Latinix in Kidlit. Peek: "Sometimes we might even forget they are there. Other times, we let these questions stick to us, like splinters, buried in our hands and feet."

Managing Crowds of Characters from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: " tricks this time didn’t seem to work that well, at least for this particular regular reader. As well, I didn’t use as many of my reminder tags/dialogue clues."

Character Motivation Thesaurus Entry: Stopping an Event from Happening by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "(Inner Motivation): safety and security."

Writing a Series: How Much Do We Need to Plan Ahead? from Jami Gold. Peek: "...for those who write by the seat of their pants or for those who like experimenting with ideas even as plotters, the story of their current book might be a mystery, much less the stories of future releases."

Do Your Settings Contain Emotional Value? by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "...even though time has passed, an echo of that old hurt and rejection will affect him while in this restaurant."

Windows & Mirrors: Promoting Diverse Books for the Holidays & Beyond by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Last fall children’s booksellers in the Northern California Children’s Booksellers Alliance and the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council challenged each other to see which region could sell the most diverse books in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This year that challenge is back."

Character Rules by Yamile S. Méndez from Project Middle Grade Mayhem. Peek: "I've compiled a list of ways in which I can explore my characters' traits to understand their desires, goals, and motivations from which all my stories enfold."

Cynsational Giveaways
This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Wow! I'm honored that my picture book Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins)(discussion guide) is highlighted on the Native American Children's Literature Recommended Reading List and Discussion Guide from the First Nations Development Institute in celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

Peek: "First Nations partnered with Debbie Reese, Ph.D. (Nambé Pueblo)... The idea is to encourage a 'national read' and discussion about these important Native narratives." See also Ten Ways You Can Make a Difference. #NativeReads

What else? In the wake of the recent presidential debates, I've been thinking about gender-power dynamics with regard to joint public speaking events.

Male authors frequently interrupt or punctuate female authors' answers with their own opinions. The one male author on a panel, for example, may say more than his three female co-panelists put together, never mind their efforts to graciously participate or the fact that they don't interrupt him. Moderators too often serve only to reinforce these predispositions.

This is so common that women children's-YA writers frequently joke about the symbolism of the microphone. It's humor that comes from pain, plus truth, plus a determination to prosper anyway. It's a coping device that shouldn't be necessary.

At this moment in the national dialogue, let's clean our own house and do better in the future.

Are you on Instagram? Find me @cynthialeitichsmith. See also Instagram for Authors by Stephanie Scott from Adventures in YA Publishing.

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