Tag Archive | #WeNeedDiverseBooks

AWP in Los Angeles

Last Saturday, I took the bus downtown to go to AWP at the LA Convention Center. AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it hosts an enormous annual conference. (Last year it was in Minneapolis! I didn’t go.)

I arrived early because a particular 9:00am panel had caught my eye: The Politics of Translation: Aimé Césaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe. La Tragédie du roi Christophe is a play I read as historical background for a college class on contemporary Haitian novels by women. I remembered almost nothing about it, but it started to come back to me at the panel. I also took literary translation in college, so I was curious to hear about the translation of the play. The panel turned out to be less of a discussion than three distinct presentations, with Aimé Césaire as the only unifying thread. One of the panelists, Paul Breslin, recently translated La tragédie du roi Christophe in collaboration with Rachel Ney, and he talked about how they chose to translate the word nègre (Negro) in different contexts. They also rendered French alexandrins with English heroic couplets (a term I did not know) and French creole with English creole. Anyway, the whole panel made me nostalgic for my days as a student of Francophone literature and made me want to reread Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

Next I wandered around the bookfair, where small presses, literary journals, and writing programs were tabling. I stopped at the booth for WriteGirl, a Los Angeles creative writing and mentoring organization that connects women writers with teen girls. I actually went back before my last panel of the day to learn more, at which point I was given a copy of an anthology they produced. Here’s hoping I can find some time to volunteer with them before I leave Los Angeles…

At noon, I headed to the We Need Diverse Books panel, entitled Shifting the Narrative Lens. Mike Jung was moderating, and I must say he was an immensely entertaining moderator. I’ve never heard so many hyperbolic descriptions of applause before. The applause was for the panelists: Audrey Coulthurst, Alicia Williams, Brandy Colbert, and Daniel José Older. I didn’t take a lot of notes, but it was a good panel. The panelists may have been preaching to the choir, but they still had thought-provoking things to say. One thing I did write down was Daniel José Older’s call for more white writers to write white characters who confront their own whiteness. White writers worry a lot about writing the Other, but it can be even harder to write the Self.

The next panel was pretty much the whole reason I decided to go to AWP, after thinking for weeks that I wouldn’t. It was Social Justice in Speculative and Fantastical Fiction for Young Readers. I didn’t really realize it till after publication, but that’s basically what Sparkers is. So is Wildings. Anne Ursu, the moderator, joked that the panel was literally the hottest at AWP since the room was packed and it was extremely warm. The panelists were Sherri L. Smith, Daniel José Older, William Alexander, and Tananarive Due, all of whom had great insights. There was a fair amount of discussion of subverting tropes like the Magical Negro or Female Villain = Bad Mother. Older also talked about different cultures’ relationships with the dead, which gave me all sorts of ideas.

At the end of the panel, I went up to introduce myself to Anne Ursu because she blurbed Sparkers. To my astonishment, she recognized me! Even in my new spectacles. So that was delightful.

From the social justice panel, I went to Non-White Authors Also Worry About Getting It Wrong: Diversity in Children’s Literature. (There was definitely a coterie of folks trooping from one diversity-related MG/YA panel to the next.) The panelists here were Rahul Kanakia, Heidi Heilig, and Day Al-Mohamed. Heidi Heilig introduced herself as “half-Chinese, half-white, hapa haole.” She grew up in Hawaii. I’d heard of her debut novel, The Girl from Everywhere, but I didn’t realize the protagonist was also white and Chinese. Another one for the TBR!

The panel was mostly about non-white authors writing the Self, grappling with having to appeal to a white audience and with feeling a responsibility not to perpetuate stereotypes about one’s own people. I was actually more interested in hearing about non-white authors also writing the Other: Is it different for us than for white authors? Perhaps not, since anyone writing the Other has to do their research? Does being marginalized along one axis make one better equipped to write characters marginalized along different axes? There was some discussion of being “given a pass” (e.g. Kanakia wrote an Indian-American girl–will his portrayal of a teenage girl receive less scrutiny because he’s an Indian-American writing an Indian-American protagonist?), but to be clear, most of the panel was not about these questions.

This was the panel where I took the most notes, and I appreciated that the panelists weren’t afraid to voice uncomfortable questions. For instance: the idea that diversity is a trend is anathema to advocates for diversity in kidlit, but even so, some gatekeepers may well conceive of diversity as a trend, and (according to Kanakia) there’s a perception that straight white authors are “cashing in” on diversity. The question is, what if marginalized authors are too? Even if unwillingly? The idea is disquieting. Personally, I wonder if it doesn’t really matter; as long as a story that wasn’t getting told before is now being told, who cares if the gatekeepers picked this story because they thought it was “trendy”? To give another example, when the A Birthday Cake for George Washington incident came up, Kanakia asked his fellow panelists point blank if they would tell their agents to stop shopping subsidiary rights for a work that had been criticized to the extent that they (the author) had come to believe it was genuinely harmful.

There was also discussion of sensitivity readers. A sensitivity reader is someone who reads a manuscript and offers feedback on the portrayal of a character with an identity that the reader shares but the author does not. For instance, I asked two Deaf readers to comment on Caleb’s portrayal in Wildings. The panelists talked about paying sensitivity readers, the possibility of their telling you not to move ahead, and the importance of getting input early so you don’t pour years into a book only to have someone recommend you shelve it.

I think asking sensitivity readers to give you feedback on your manuscript can be delicate. There’s an inherent power imbalance in the relationship between an author and a sensitivity reader, particularly if the author already has a contract for the manuscript in question. Although I did not offer to pay my Deaf readers, I think offering to pay sensitivity readers is actually the right thing to do (in other words, I was wrong). In particular, you shouldn’t put the reader in the position of having to ask to be paid because they probably won’t ask. You the author should offer from the start. Also, you should recognize that your sensitivity reader may not feel comfortable critiquing your portrayal as much as they’d like to. This is probably exacerbated if your sensitivity reader is also your friend. Either way, the reader can’t force you to change your manuscript or halt the publication process. They risk offering you their feedback only to be ignored or even attacked, so in some ways they don’t have much of an incentive to be honest in their critique. That’s why we as authors can’t use the fact that we consulted sensitivity readers as a defense against later criticism of our portrayals.

The last panel I went to was Writing Sex in YA: Choices and Consequences, with Elana Arnold, Corey Ann Haydu, Brandy Colbert, Carrie Mesrobian, and Terra Elan McVoy. The panelists, all of whom write contemporary fiction, talked about realistically portraying teenage sexuality, books they’d recommend, and things they’d like to see more of in YA (e.g. asexuality, boys saying no). They were very funny and entertaining.

All in all, it was a great day, and I’m so glad I got to go. Next up: the LA Times Festival of Books this weekend!

On Naming and Diversity, Part I

Last week I read the transcript of an NPR interview with Louis Sachar, author of the incredible Holes. His new book Fuzzy Mud just came out. In the interview, Sachar discussed his main character’s name:

[ARUN] RATH: I’m curious about the name of our female protagonist here ’cause you – arguably, your most famous character was Stanley Yelnats. His name’s a palindrome.

SACHAR: Right.

RATH: I was wondering if there was something I was not getting about Tamaya Dhilwaddi.


RATH: Sounds vaguely Indian (laughter).

SACHAR: Right. It was – I didn’t want to name like Sarah or Vanessa or – you know. The world’s getting much more diverse. And I wanted her to sound more ethnic, but I didn’t really have any specific ethnicity in mind. So I made up a name that, like you said, sounded vaguely Indian. It could be vaguely Japanese. It could be a lot of things. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Sachar’s response bothered me. He starts out by implying that he wanted his main character to contribute to diversity in children’s literature, which is all well and good and very in the spirit of We Need Diverse Books. But then he says he “wanted her to sound more ethnic,” where ethnic obviously means non-white/Anglo-American (because of course only people who are not white/Anglo-American have ethnicity). I don’t like this wording, but I wouldn’t have minded if Sachar had then decided to make his main character Mexican-American or Vietnamese-American or some such and given her a name accordingly.

Instead, Sachar admits that he “didn’t really have any specific ethnicity in mind” and so “made up a name” that he thought could be “vaguely Indian” or “vaguely Japanese” or “a lot of things.” I’m uncomfortable with this. First, the name itself: Tamaya Dhilwaddi. Tamaya doesn’t strike me as Indian or Japanese or anything particularly, though it suggests a non-white character more than Sarah or Vanessa does. It also sounds like a name that real people probably have, and indeed, a Facebook search shows there are Tamayas out there. Dhilwaddi, on the other hand, immediately looks Indian to me. If Sachar hadn’t said he’d made it up, I would have assumed it was an actual Indian last name. It’s mainly the initial dh, which looks like it represents a voiced aspirated stop, a type of sound that’s common in Indian languages and not so common in other parts of the world. There is no way that Dhilwaddi could be construed as Japanese to anyone with a passing familiarity with Japanese names. I can’t imagine what else it could be construed as either. Googling reveals that Dhilwaddi is truly made up; the name doesn’t exist except in Fuzzy Mud.

It’s notable that the NPR host, Arun Rath, says the name Tamaya Dhilwaddi “sounds vaguely Indian” because, as far as I can tell, Rath is himself Indian-American. He may have said “vaguely Indian” because he knew Tamaya Dhilwaddi wasn’t a real Indian name. Someone like me, on the other hand, would have believed that Dhilwaddi, if not Tamaya, was an actual Indian name. This suggests to me that Sachar’s imagined audience is “non-ethnic,” i.e. not Indian-American or Japanese-American, among other things. If he wanted his protagonist’s name to sound “vaguely” X or Y to readers, those readers must necessarily not be X or Y themselves or they would recognize that the name is not real.

I find it puzzling that an author would try to contribute to diversity in kidlit by making up an ambiguous but “ethnic” name. Sachar clearly took inspiration from Indian names, but the problem with trying to make up a name from a particular language/culture instead of selecting a real name is that you might be perceived as having gotten it wrong, either because the name doesn’t exist or because it’s actually phonotactically (linguistically) wrong no matter what language you claim it comes from. Or perhaps it somehow violates the naming practices of the culture you think the name “vaguely” comes from. You may end up insulting people.

I also don’t understand why an author would try to make a character “broadly ethnic” instead of specifying their ethnicity. The fact that Sachar thinks Tamaya could be a lot of things indicates that he doesn’t know what her ethnicity or heritage are, but there’s no such thing as being generically ethnic in the real world. The interview makes it sound like Tamaya’s name is the only thing that marks her as “ethnic,” but if she were actually Indian- or Japanese-American, that should affect more than just her name. (I have not read Fuzzy Mud, so I can’t be sure Tamaya’s background, whatever it is, doesn’t affect her worldview or her family life or the foods she eats, but I’d be surprised if it did.) If Tamaya’s name is the only thing that makes her not a white/Anglo-American character, then naming her Tamaya Dhilwaddi isn’t contributing much to diversity in children’s books; it’s mostly window dressing.

It sounds to me like Sachar hopes “ethnic” readers (whatever that means) will see themselves in Tamaya or somehow feel more represented because she has an “ethnic-sounding” name, but I’m not sure this will happen. Most readers won’t recognize her name as being like theirs; certainly no Japanese-American child will think Tamaya might be Japanese-American too. And Indian-American children might think her name sounds sort of like theirs but be disappointed that it’s wrong or made-up. Why not just choose a specific ethnicity and an authentic name for the character so that some children see real representation of themselves and everybody else knows exactly what kind of person is being represented?

To be clear, I think all this matters because Fuzzy Mud is set in our world. It’s different in fantasy, in which there are different considerations; I’ll talk about this in Part II tomorrow. I also understand that parents make up names for their children in the real world and that you can write a book with characters whose names reveal nothing about their ethnicities, but I don’t believe either of these is Sachar’s intention in Fuzzy Mud.

I’m curious what others think. Am I off base? Does Sachar’s reasoning about the name Tamaya Dhilwaddi make sense to you? How do you approach character naming and diversity?

The Oscars of Children’s Literature

Well, actually, I wouldn’t know because I’ve never watched the Oscars, but I saw someone refer to them that way. I am talking, of course, about the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards, announced on Monday at the ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Chicago. (I heard there was a lot of snow!) The Youth Media Awards include household names like the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, as well as many more prizes. The unveiling of the winners is broadcast live on the web, and this year I decided to watch.

I watched once before, in 2013, sitting at my desk on the third floor of a Minneapolis office building. I believe ALA Midwinter was on the West Coast that year because I followed the live announcements at a reasonable hour, after arriving at work. This year, the awards started at 6:00am my time. That means they started at 8:00am in Chicago, which strikes me as awfully early in the morning even for people attending in person. But I just went to bed early, got up at 5:50, and made myself a mug of hot chocolate before settling down in front of my computer.

There were no huge surprises. Mostly the awards just reminded me of books I’ve been meaning to read and gave me another reason to get around to them. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, winner of the Morris Award for a debut YA novel, and I’ll Give You the Sun, winner of the Printz Award for best YA novel, are cases in point. Also, I really have to pick up Brown Girl Dreaming soon, seeing as it’s now won the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and a Newbery Honor.

The only surprising moment for me was when This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, won a Caldecott Honor because the Caldecott is typically awarded to picture books and This One Summer is a graphic novel for young teens (it also got a Printz Honor). I’ve wanted to read it for a while, along with the Tamakis’ earlier graphic novel, Skim.

People have been talking about how much recognition graphic novels and poetry got this year. In addition to This One Summer, the graphic novel El Deafo (which I have read!) received a Newbery Honor. Brown Girl Dreaming is written in poems, and the winner of the Newbery Medal, The Crossover, is a novel in verse. People have also been talking about the diversity of the winners. The Laura Ingalls Wilder and Margaret A. Edwards Awards, each of which honors an author’s career/oeuvre, both went to African-Americans, and all three Newbery books are diverse books (not a term I love, but it has its uses). All in all, it was a satisfying YMA. Now, back to my pile of books…

We Need Diverse Books Campaign

Today marks the beginning of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, an initiative that involves making a splash on social media, engaging in discussion about diversity in children’s and YA literature, and taking action by buying books by and about people from marginalized communities. You can learn more about the campaign in the original Tumblr post here. I first heard about We Need Diverse Books through the wonderful Diversity in YA, and I decided to join in, so here goes:


This conversation is not new, but it’s one we can’t stop having. Not when people of color are vastly underrepresented in children’s books and among children’s book authors relative to their numbers in the United States. Not when book covers are being whitewashed in the 21st century. Not when kids and teenagers have trouble finding books featuring characters like them, characters who are disabled or mixed race or queer or working class or…

I think we need books for young people that portray authentically, not stereotypically, characters of all races, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, body types, sexualities, gender identities, and so on. When children discover characters who are like them in books, they feel recognized and acknowledged and understand that they matter. When children read about characters who are unlike them, they are exposed to the true diversity of the world they live in, and they develop empathy.

I was lucky in that I didn’t grow up feeling like there were no books starring people like me. I read the Little House books and The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials, but I also had In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson and Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear and The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang. I read Laurence Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles. I can’t remember ever reading, as a child, a book about a character of mixed European-American and Chinese heritage, except for maybe one, but I wasn’t bothered by it. I don’t actual recall being very aware of race as I devoured books, and I never felt invisible. Like I said, I was lucky, and I was privileged.

But it’s heartbreaking to know that there are children in the U.S. today who believe that someone like them isn’t worthy of being the protagonist of a story or that someone like them can’t grow up to be a writer. And that’s what we need to change.