Celebrating When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez

This post is a little different from our usual Libros Latinos features in that it focuses on the release of our very own Cindy L. Rodriguez’s debut YA novel, When Reason Breaks, which is available now. Cindy wasn’t sure she wanted us to blog about her book at all, but we persuaded her that readers would want to know more about the rock-star author whose initiative brought Latin@s in Kid Lit into the world. This post is more a celebration than a review, but we aim to celebrate in a way that’s useful to readers, teachers, librarians, and advocates of Latin@ literature. Read on to hear from Latin@s in Kid Lit bloggers Ashley, Lila, Zoraida, and Sujei!


Publisher’s Description: A Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her. Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal. Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy. In an emotionally taut novel that is equal parts literary and commercial, with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls fighting for their lives.

What We Love

Ashley: Whatever the similarity of their names, there’s an immediate outward contrast between quiet, cautious Emily and bold, impulsive Elizabeth. Yet When Reason Breaks powerfully illustrates the animosity—and, ultimately, kinship—that develops between these two as they each become more aware of the inner demons the other faces. This emerges in a rare private encounter between the two girls:

 “I see you, Emily Delgado,” she whispered. “Your problem isn’t really about your friends of Kevin or your dad. You try to hide it, but I know.” Elizabeth patted Emily’s leg. “Trust me, I know.”

In the oblique understanding of inner struggle communicated in this relationship, When Reason Breaks passes the Bechdel Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 4.12.00 PMtest with flying colors. Whereas no one can miss Elizabeth’s explosive temper and sometimes contentious behavior, Elizabeth “sees” Emily’s struggle with depression in a way teachers, counselors, parents, and friends do not. (Even Emily’s supportive and observant boyfriend Kevin doesn’t recognize what’s going on with her.) Still, for me a crucial point of drama in the novel was the question of whether Emily and Elizabeth would ultimately help each other or perhaps instead enable each other’s self-destructive tendencies.

Other highlights in the novel for me were the fabulously written group scenes–both between family members and the girls with their friends–and the graceful incorporation of Spanish.

Lila: I adore a novel that takes me somewhere I’ve never been. In When Reason Breaks, that new territory is the intricate relationship of two high school classmates whose personal styles and family backgrounds sharply contrast. They’re forced to cross the divide when their teacher pairs them in an assignment involving Emily Dickinson’s poetry. As the story moves forward, the girls’ opposite natures create conflict, but you sense that they’re somehow on intersecting paths. At one point, deep in the book, a bridge seems to form between them.

It’s a beautiful scene that takes place in the woods, framed by autumn trees. (I’m a craft geek, and one of the elements I admire in a strong work of fiction is setting.) But it gets better. In this scene, the characters exchange funny stories that somehow morph into poignant, self-revelations that reveal far more than either girl has allowed her closest friends to see. Cindy pulls off this delicate dance in such a natural, believable way, primarily through dialogue. And just when I thought the girls’ friendship was cemented, something else comes along and the tension between them ratchets up all over again.

Sujei: Cindy captures the emotional journey of the main characters through rich descriptions of what they do, think, experience, and feel. Above all, what came to my mind while reading the novel is its “New England” feeling and how it brings a new voice and view to Latin@ literature. The references to Thoreau’s Walden, Amherst College, Red Sox, the woods, Emily Dickinson contribute to that feeling as do other details. Here, Cindy brings us a YA novel that portrays a Latino family living in New England, a very real experience that is often marginal (if not invisible) in broader literary and media depictions of Latinos.

Emily D in WhiteZoraida: This is the first book I’ve read in a long time (or maybe ever) that made me choke up by the end of chapter 1. When I was in high school, I fell madly in love with Emily Dickinson and her poetry—and poetry in general. So for that, this book has a special place in my heart. I love the way each chapter starts with a short epigraph from one of Emily’s poems. I also love that both girls share the same initials, and despite coming from different backgrounds, also share the same internal struggle. Cindy deals with the strong emotions in this book so subtly that when you realize what’s happening, it hits you in the gut. Here are some of the many, many things I loved in this book:

#1 Two individual and smart girls.

#2 Girls that don’t let themselves get bossed around by boys.

#3 Complicated and complex relationships between girls/girls, student/teacher, boys/girls, children/parents.

#4 Dealing with depression and anger in a way that is very real

#5 Straight up beautiful and emotionally subtly powerful writing.

#6 An incredibly diverse cast that is genuine.

#7 All the feels.

While I was reading the book I kept seeing myself in both of these girls. As a teen. As an adult. And I think that was my takeaway from this. I’m a little bit of both, and maybe so is everyone else.


When Reason Breaks has received praise all over the blogosphere and on review sites. Check out these awesome write-ups: What Sarah Read, The Lifelong Bookworm, Disability in Kid Lit, Rich in Color, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

Teaching Tips from Ashley

How I wish this book had been around back in 2007 when I was teaching a thematic unit on mental illness. As Cindy discussed here, one of the crucial contributions of the novel is that it shows depression and mental illness apart from especially traumatic circumstances. It also provides ample opportunity for discussion of the subtlety of many of depression’s symptoms.

We see Emily’s gradual withdrawal from her personal relationships and the slow creep of fatigue taking over ordinary functioning. It also powerfully illustrates the challenges of managing anger. As Zoraida notes, “I remember feeling like Elizabeth all the time as teen. I had (and sometimes still do) have this anger that I feel is overwhelming and don’t want other people to see. Yet, her acting out is a sign that she WANTS to be seen, which is the opposite of Emily who shies away from that and internalizes her feelings.”

For additional recent works that deal with depression, suicide, and mental illness, see this School Library Journal post and this post on Stacked. These are great resources for finding companion pieces to read along with When Reason Breaks.

Teachers may also find this an easy sell to students intrigued by Emily Dickenson’s life or poetry, and Cindy’s subtle incorporation of biographical details in fiction—combined with an author’s note that unpacks many of these connections—offers a fine model of the use of fiction in multi-genre research projects. For an overview of the multi-genre approach, check out this general introduction to multi-genre writing from Colorado State, and for an online workshop module focused on teaching multi-genre writing in middle school, see this site. Once you’re sold on the idea, Tom Romano’s pioneering books on the approach will become indispensible. The key texts are Writing with Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres (1995) and Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers (2000).

How an Adult White Guy Came to Write About a Latino Teen

By William Hazelgrove

17239293The first question I get is usually: “How could you write in the voice of a thirteen year old Latino boy?” I am about as far as you can get culturally from a young adult Latino just barely hanging on with his mother. But of course, if you are a writer, you are so many people that biographers will never get it straight. It is the same way I wrote in the voice of an old African American man in Tobacco Sticks and in Mica Highways.

Voice is everything. Once you have the voice you have the novel. When I started The Pitcher, I wrote it in third person but quickly realized it would not work that way. It was boring and distant. So I started over and I knew it had to be first person, but who would tell the story? The old pitcher? The mother? No. The boy, Ricky would tell the story. And so I started to play around with his voice. Then I wrote one paragraph:

I never knew I had an arm until this guy calls out, “Hey, you want to try and get a ball in the hole, sonny?” I am only nine, but Mom says, “Come on, let’s play.” This carnival guy with no teeth and a fuming cigarette hands me five blue rubber balls and says I throw three in the hole, then we win a prize. He’s grinning, because he’s taken Mom’s five bucks and figures a sucker is born every minute. This really gets me , because we didn’t have any money after Fernando took off, and he only comes back to beat up Mom and steal our money. So I really wanted to get Mom back something, you know, for her five bucks.

And I had Ricky then. I had the novel. And where that voice came from is anyone’s guess. Maybe it is that kid who messed around in Baltimore City where I grew up. Maybe it was some of the Mexican guys I worked with in security. And the hard times Ricky and his mother go through are my own hard times. And the baseball is my son’s baseball and the coaches and parents are from nine years of being an assistant coach with my son. The immigration issues are from our time.

When I was thinking about writing The Pitcher, I was reading what was going on in Arizona at the time with immigration and the whole stop and ask people for their papers to deport them back to Mexico. When I wrote the mother character Maria I wanted her to have the same outrage that I felt reading about this practice of stopping people and demanding to see their papers. I wanted her to draw the conclusions that this was fundamentally un-American and I wanted her son Ricky to pick up on that especially since he was facing off with a Tea Party mom and her son.

I read a lot of accounts about Dream Kids in this country and how they had made their lives and then were in danger of being deported. That was really how I got the idea of making Ricky a Dream Kid. His mother did come over and make a life and now she was in danger of being deported.

Culturally, I knew Ricky because I know how it feels to be an outsider and to have all the odds stacked against you. Ricky’s dream of becoming an MLB pitcher is my own of becoming a novelist against immense odds.

Then again, maybe it was just Ricky flying around out there waiting to be born. But when The Latina Book Club made it their Monthly Selection or LatinoLA did a story on the immigration issues in the book or I stand up on a stage at the Latino Book Festival in Chicago and read my book that has to be translated to Spanish so the audience can understand what I am saying is…even I wonder how a I came to write a Latino novel.

 I guess I just did.


DSC_0020William Hazelgrove is the author of five novels, Ripples, Tobacco Sticks, which hit the National Bestseller List, Mica Highways, Rocket Man and The Pitcher. He was the Ernest Hemingway Writer in Residence where he wrote in the attic of Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace. He has written articles and reviews for USA Today and other publications. He has been the subject of interviews in NPR’s All Things Considered along with features in The New York Times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun Times, among others. His most recent novel, The Pitcher is a Junior Library Guild Selection. He runs a political cultural blog, The View From Hemingway’s Attic.



Book Review: Saving Baby Doe by Danette Vigilante

Saving Baby DoeBy Cindy L. Rodriguez

On Monday, author Danette Vigilante wrote about dream seeds and how she turned a teacher’s comment into a challgenge to become a better reader. Today, we celebrate her latest novel Saving Baby Doe.

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Lionel and Anisa are the best of friends and have seen each other through some pretty tough times–Anisa’s dad died and Lionel’s dad left, which is like a death for Lionel. They stick together no matter what. So when Lionel suggests a detour through a local construction site on their way home one day, Anisa doesn’t say no. And that’s where Lionel and Anisa make a startling discovery–a baby abandoned in a Porta-Potti. Anisa and Lionel spring into action. And in Saving Baby Doe, they end up saving so much more.

MY TWO CENTS: Danette Vigilante pulls the reader right into this novel from the opening scene of a scared young woman is giving birth to her child in a Porta-Potti on a construction site. Soon after, Lionel and Anisa discover the baby, after playing in the closed-off site, and they decide to save “Baby Doe.” This is a middle grade novel that addresses some tough issues. In addition to the abandoned baby, the author explores the effects on children of absentee fathers and drug dealing. At the heart of it all is Lionel, who tries to do the right thing in the worst of situations.

While the issues are serious, Lionel responds to them as only a middle-schooler would. The real possibility of severe consequences doesn’t prevent him from launching into an ill-conceived plan to retrieve the baby from the hospital so that she doesn’t end up in foster care. While reading, I caught myself thinking, “Lionel, what are you doing? This is a bad idea!” Of course, he knows this, too, but he goes ahead anyway. In this way, Vigilante perfectly captures the middle school mind and creates tension through the narrative.

Then, there’s the end of Chapter 10, which I totally did not see coming. I probably should have, but I was wrapped up in Lionel’s plan to steal the baby and sell drugs to support her and then…chapter 10! Whoa! Well played! I’m not going to spoil it, but the story takes an important turn. That’s all I’ll say about that.

One of the many things I loved about this novel was the diversity within Lionel’s community. They all struggle financially, but they’re all individually-drawn people. Some work hard at “regular” jobs, while others choose quick money. Some are ultra-religious, while others are not. Some of the kids go to public school, while others go to the “genius” private school. Characters vary in terms of age, race, ethnicity, and experience, all of which creates a rich, real setting for Lionel and Anisa story to unfold.

TEACHING TIPS: In addition to all of the expected language arts lessons, this novel would work well in a health class since it deals with sex education (a lecture given by Lionel’s mom), child birth, the possible results of not seeking medical care, and the Safe Haven laws. Fiction is often reserved for language arts classes, but this type of realistic novel is ideal for blending fiction and nonfiction in health, where teachers and students tackle these serious issues.


Danette_Vigilante_head_shot_high_resAUTHORDanette Vigilante grew up in the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, New York. She now resides in Staten Island with her husband, two daughters, two puppies and a cat with a bad attitude. Danette is the author of THE TROUBLE WITH HALF A MOON, a 2012-2013 Sunshine State Young Readers award nominee, and SAVING BABY DOE.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Saving Baby Doevisit your local library or book store. Also, check out IndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.


Book Review: Caminar by Skila Brown


By Cindy L. Rodriguez

On Monday, we interviewed first-time author Skila Brown about her novel in verse, Caminar. Check out the Q&A for information about her research and writing and her decision to tackle a subject outside her own racial/ethnic experience. Today, we celebrate her debut.

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet–he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist.

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her…Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

MY TWO CENTS: Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse tells the heartbreaking story of Carlos, who is forced from his devastated village and treks up a mountainside to save his grandmother and her neighbors from a similar fate.

One thing that struck me most was Brown’s ability to create a touching coming-of-age narrative set in such tragic events. The novel is not graphic, although the topic is brutal. And while it is a civil war, fueled by politics, Brown does not support or condemn any side. Instead, more than anything, it’s about the ability of the human spirit to survive and persevere even after an unexpected, horrific loss.

A moment that grabbed me by the heart was when Mama tells Carlos to go into the woods and then find her later. He does so, obediently, but we just know there won’t be a later, that this is her last protective act as his mother. Another was when the children wave at the passing helicopter, as children will do when they see something interesting, but they don’t grasp the imminent danger signaled by this flying machine’s presence. From the novel:

They flew

over our village many times, searching the mountains for

something. We didn’t care,

just reached our arms as high as we could, stretched

toward the sky, wanting

to be seen.

We did not know to be

afraid, did not know they were a storm

of death, searching

for a place to rain.

Brown brilliantly combines history, fiction, and poetry in this novel, which she dedicates to the “memory of the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996.” These numbers are staggering, and I often questioned while reading Caminar why I didn’t know more about this 36-year civil war. This is definitely a book I will have on my classroom shelf and recommend to my middle school social studies and language arts teacher-friends.

TEACHING TIPS: Caminar would fit perfectly into a middle school social studies or language arts curriculum. Students could read this in addition to nonfiction articles or essays about the war and its effects on Guatemalan villages. Students could then compare the nonfiction pieces to Caminar to determine what’s history in the novel and what’s fiction.

In a social studies class, this book could be used in a unit about the causes of war and its effects on a country. Students could read other, similar novels or essays and compare the experiences.

Any of the individual poems could be read closely multiple times to discuss word choice and the use of figurative language in poetry.

Students could write a short story in poems to learn first hand the difficulty involved with writing individual poems that also tell a story when read together.


skilaAUTHOR: Skila Brown has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Caminar is her debut novel. She lives in Indiana with her husband and their three children.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Caminar, visit your local library or book store. Also, check out Candlewick PressIndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.


We are giving away two copies of Caminar!! Go to a Rafflecopter giveaway to enter for free. You can enter once per day through this week. Two winners will be selected Saturday morning.

Debut Author Skila Brown’s Novel in Verse Centers on Guatemalan Civil War

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

CaminarI recently interviewed debut author Skila Brown for the Fearless Fifteeners site, which helps to highlight our debut author friends in the OneFour KidLit group. Most of the interview is reprinted here, but I added the final question in particular because of our audience and our mission. Skila is not Guatemalan, yet she wrote a moving narrative about a young Guatemalan boy in 1981 caught in civil war. The last question addresses the concern about writing with authenticity outside of one’s own ethnic/racial experiences.

First, a little about her novel, Caminar, which was released March 26.

Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet—he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist.

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

“Exquisitely crafted poems are the basis of an unusually fine verse novel…”

–Horn Book, starred review

“…a much-needed addition to Latin American-themed middle grade fiction.”

–School Library Journal, starred review

Me: Your bio says you lived in Guatemala for a bit. Did your experience there spark interest in this topic? Did anything else inspire you to write this particular story?

Skila: We moved to Guatemala after I’d finished the novel, though I revised it some while we were there. This novel actually came out, reluctantly and painfully, after I’d spent about a decade reading about Guatemala’s history, especially the history of the violence there that peaked in the early 80s. I had no intention of writing about it, but that’s what ended up happening. I certainly felt inspired by accounts of survival that I read, but also felt a real desire to make sure other people knew about what had happened there.

Me: How extensive was your research? Did you run into any roadblocks when seeking information?

Skila: My research started out very organically—I was reading for pleasure and interest, not with the intention of gathering facts to write a story. When the story began, I had some pointed research to do, specific questions about language and geography and other details that I hadn’t already absorbed. It was hard to track down first person accounts of rural Guatemala during this time.

Right away I faced a tough decision about language. Although Carlos would have spoken Spanish in school, it wouldn’t have been his first language; it’s not what he would have spoken at home with his mother. In an earlier draft I envisioned using an indigenous language in the text, as well as Spanish—which would have likely been the way that Carlos could have spoken to someone like Paco, for example—but I was worried about being able to maintain accuracy and authenticity if I wrote the story that culturally specific. I also felt that an English speaking reader might struggle with the mixture of over four different languages in the same story. Definitely trying to balance authenticity with a reader’s connection was a constant struggle.

Me: Is your protagonist Carlos linked to anyone you came across during your research or does he represent the young men who survived that time?

Skila: Carlos isn’t based on any one person. In fact, I had the story down before I had a character at all, but I knew early on the main character was a child, that this was really, at its core, a coming of age story. In violent conflicts all over the world, it’s not uncommon for a handful of people to survive an attack on a village such as this, having scattered away during the chaos. I’d read about children who survived and felt really drawn to that story—how scary it must for a child to be on his or her own, how resourceful that child would have to be.

Me: The physical layout of the poems adds to the narrative. I’m glad I read this one on paper instead of listening to it on audio. The visual really complements the content. Is that something you consider in the writing phase or is that developed in editing?

Skila: This was something I worked a lot on in revision. I wrote this story while I was a grad student and while I was working with poets Julie Larios and Sharon Darrow. Sharon, in particular, encouraged me to play around with shape and the placement of lines on a page. White space is a poet’s tool, and I liked thinking about how I could use it. Typically I draft a poem by hand and it has no shape or form in the beginning, I’m just thinking about the content and the words themselves. But as I revise that poem and before I’m ready to put it into the computer, I try to think about what shape would serve it best. It’s easy to play around with form and shape; it’s harder to use those both deliberately.

Me: Tell us about your publication journey. Some people get deals while still in grad school, while others query for years. What’s your story?

Skila: While I was in grad school, Candlewick was kind enough to offer me a scholarship award for a picture book text I wrote called Slickety Quick. It’s a non-fiction/poetry blend about sharks and it’s scheduled to be out with them in 2016. This really opened a door for me with them, as they also asked to see my novel. I think the key for writers is to submit away—but then put it out of your mind and dive into the next project. Good news comes faster when you’re looking the other way.

Me: Did you have any additional considerations while writing about something outside your racial/ethnic experience? Did you do anything in particular to “get it right” or did you approach it the same way you’d approach any other book project?

Skila: I was very concerned about this, Cindy. This concern kept the story in my head for two years, before I felt brave enough to put it on paper. This concern kept the finished manuscript on my computer for some time before I was ready to send it out to query. It’s something I’m concerned about still. Writing outside our cultures is a very risky thing for writers to do because it’s so easy to get it wrong.

However. Everyone this month is talking about The Study. And if only 6% of books published for kids in 2013 starred a character of color, then it’s past time for us to think about how to remedy that. If writers are going to play our part in addressing this problem, we need to look hard at how we can do this responsibly.

I approached this with a lot of research, a goal of authenticity, and a strong dose of humility. I had multiple people vet my story and offer suggestions. I thought hard about stereotypes and language and how best to portray the story with the most respect I could give it. I also tried to balance the “otherness” of Carlos with what will connect him to a reader today, what makes him the same as a twelve year old boy, reading this story in Chicago, for example. As adults we tend to notice the differences in characters and cultures, but kids are great about finding what’s the same and really connecting to the character. I hope they are able to do that with Carlos.

skilaSkila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana.

Come back on Thursday, when we will spotlight Caminar in our Libros Latin@s section!

We are giving away two copies of Caminar!! Go to a Rafflecopter giveaway to enter for free. You can enter once per day through this week. Two winners will be selected Saturday morning.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity in YA

Or, what does that even mean?


By Zoraida Córdova

Brace yourselves. Here’s another blog post on the lack of diversity in YA. When we bring up these topics the common words I see are FEAR, UNCOMFORTABLE, GUILT.  If a white person brings up the subject then, “who are they to talk about it?” If a POC does it, we’ll be seen as a bunch of angry people. So, Catch 22. I get it. Writing these posts is HARD, but they should be written. Recently one of my favorite authors ever, Jenny Han, tweeted about diversity in YA. The thing is, we need to feel uncomfortable, and like Jenny said, “that’s the risk.”

Screenshot 2014-03-26 16.39.47

ecsaHere’s what you need to know about me. I was born in Ecuador. I moved to Queens, NY when I was 6. Being in America for 20 years makes me American. My public school experience is American. Yet, when people look at me and hear me speak, they are perplexed. Why? You got me.  The “Your English is so good!” “What are you?” “My friend is from Ecuador, do you know LUIS PABLO ESTEBAN SANTIAGO?” Spoiler alert: I don’t.

This difference wasn’t apparent to me from the beginning. Between grades 1-4, I was in bilingual classes. (My Little Mermaid Spanish didn’t get me to the top of the class right away.) All of my classmates had either emigrated from a Latin American country or had Latin American parents. Salvadorian, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, you name it. Guess what, we spoke English. We listened to the Spice Girls. We cut up our bangs like Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. We watched TRL and taped the music videos. We learned the awesome moves to Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle (She’s half Ecuadorian, BTW). At home, sometimes I’d eat Chef Boyardi ravioli, sometimes I’d have rice and steak and beans.

So when I got to 5th grade, I was placed into the “regular” kids class. English only. Suddenly my friends also included Guyanese, Jamaican, African-American. Guess what, we still listened to shitty New photo 4 (1)Millennium pop and idolized Harriet the Spy.

Junior high school and high school were also the same thing. Look at all the shades of brownness! Here are some pictures from my high school yearbook. Spoiler alert: I am still a nerd.

My experience growing up in neighborhoods that are already diverse gives me a different perspective. Could I have used more diverse characters in my current books? Yes. My trilogy centers around a white merman from Brooklyn. His love interest is mixed. His friends are mixed. Merpeople in my world come in all shades. But the answer is still yes. You can always add diverse characters into your books.

photo 3 (1)When people say they’re “afraid” they’re not going to give their “Other” character justice by writing from an experience other than an Anglo-American experience, I call bull. It is scary writing about an experience other than yours. However, unless your character has just moved to Kentucky from a remote town in Panama, then why are you afraid to write the experience of an otherwise straightforward character? Your character can still be named Danilo Cordova and the only research you have to do is “What does a teenage boy like?”

If your character is Nuyorican, then you’d have to do more research. Stereotypes need not apply. Because, here’s a little known secret, not all Latin experiences are the same. No matter where we were born, when we immigrated, where we were raised, we can’t be lumped into the same experience. This is not to say that every YA author should write a novel about how hard it is to grow up being brown, because I did it and my adolescence was pretty “average.”

If you’re writing a fantasy/sci-fi novel and there is not a single non-white person to be found, then my only question is “how come?” Here you have a chance to create a whole new world, where our carefully constructed American ideal of white-only beauty need not apply. When I read YA fantasy novels and the only time race is mentioned is when a new character comes in and has “chocolate” or “earth colored” skin, I just cringe. This mean everyone else I’ve been reading about is white. Not only is that lazy writing, it’s a limited way of thinking about a world that is supposed to be fantastical.

Screenshot 2014-03-26 17.01.57

So how do we fix this? Well, lets talk about it. Let’s be friends. Reach out to someone who has a different experience as you. READ. I  to this date have yet to read a YA about a teenage Ecuadorian girl. Not even a slice of life story about a girl who falls in love and there’s a nice cover of them at the beach, or lying down on a lawn. I am, however, excited about Diana Renn’s upcoming YA thriller Latitude ZeroThe book takes place in Boston and in Ecuador. Diana is not Ecuadorian, but she wrote an exciting novel with diverse characters. She reached out and did her research. latitudecover

Here we go back to this FEAR concept. If you throw in a character named Chiquita Bonita in the middle of the scene, and she has hoop earrings and says “Ay, mami,” then you should be afraid because you’re propagating a stereotype. If you describe your Latina girl as “exotic,” “curvaceous,” “spicy,” or “saucy” then you are propagating a stereotype, or making gumbo IDK. If you’re like Britney Spears and equate a Latin male with “the bad boy type,” then you should be afraid because you’re propagating a stereotype. If you as an author can go on Google and research “how to kill someone and get away with it” because “your protagonist needs to know” then you can also try Googling about other American communities that are not your own.

There is a difference between being afraid to write about a culture that is not your own, and consciously creating a two dimensional stereotypical character.

Romeo and Juliet0001

One of my favorite retellings of Romeo & Juliet is the most recent one on Broadway, partially because Orlando Bloom is shirtless but also because Juliet is black. They aren’t divided because of their skin color. This isn’t West Side Story. It’s not that one is brown and from the wrong side of the tracks, and the other one is nice and white, so they can’t be together. This is a story of feuding families that have been feuding so long they can’t even remember why or how it started. It’s that simple.

If you’re worried you’re still propagating a stereotype, then reach out. You’ll make a friend. You’ll learn something new. I am extremely lucky to have had diverse friends. I know that’s not the case for everyone and I know that if you’re not in a big city, chances are the POC in you neighborhood are marginalized. I’m not in Arizona where they’re trying to wipe out Mexican studies. I’m not in a tiny town in Ohio where there is one black kid in the class. I’m in NYC, which isn’t perfect and has a history of putting away their low income minorities to make room for gentrification. But my eyes are extremely open (and I got new glasses today) as to the future we need to create for Young Adult literature. It’s a team effort.

Maybe if we keep making it a point, when we talk about diverse characters in the coming years, it will be more than just a trend; it’ll be the new norm.


Edited: 3/31/14

*** Representation of Latin@s in media has been a personal focus for me.  This is not to say that “diversity” to me means only adding Latin@s to literature. The conversation extends to all marginalized people. Like I said, lets talk about it.