By Cindy L. Rodriguez
The Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in New York is kind of like a massive family reunion, with all 1,000+ people having a love of children’s literature in their blood. It’s very cool for me to break away from my full-time day job as a middle school teacher and attend this annual gathering of creative people who all want to be published or work in some capacity with kid lit. While this love of children’s literature is the common denominator at the conference, the attendants are diverse people with myriad interests. Because of this, my ears naturally perk up when speakers address diversity in publishing.
The SCBWI did not have a specific panel or break-out session dedicated to diversity in children’s publishing, but speakers included Raul Colón, Shadra Strickland, Jack Gantos, and Nikki Grimes. Also, the topic of diversity popped up throughout the conference as writers, illustrators, and editors offered great advice about craft.
During her Saturday session, Anica Rissi, an executive editor at Katherine Tegen Books, outlined seven essential things to remember about writing contemporary fiction.
- Just do it: write regularly. Make time for this in your life. Be fierce in protecting your writing time.
- Give the reader something to wonder about.
- Start with the story, not the back story. Throw us into the action.
- You need both external and internal tensions, a plot arc and an emotional arc. You need that emotional growth.
- Details should matter. Ask what is this book really about? Is every scene a part of that? When in doubt, take it out.
- You need to bring out relatable truths through your characters. Create timeless and timely essential relationships and show how the relationships change the character. During this part of her talk, she said, “Please don’t just write about white people and please don’t just write about straight people.” She added that diverse characters should not always be the “token best friend.” A writer should make every person in the novel “a real person,” she said.
- World building exists in contemporary fiction, too. Setting needs to be a character.
Later, Nancy Siscoe, a senior executive editor with Knopf Books for Young Readers, discussed seven essential things about writing the classic middle grade novel. They are:
- Audience: middle grade fiction is for readers 8-12 years old. It’s an age of independence, of becoming a person separate from your family. It’s an age of enthusiasm, optimism, and openness.
- Plot: Put your kid character in charge. Let them solve their own problems, keep them moving, keep the stakes high.
- Hope: You don’t need a happy ending, but you do have to have hope.
- Likeable characters: You want a main character your readers would want to be friends with, someone they will care about.
- Voice: Make it distinctive. It’s the quality that sets the tone and sets your book apart from others.
- Read it aloud: The writing should be smooth, clean, and clear. Middle grade books are often read aloud, so try it while writing.
- Heart: The quality that makes your own heart feel bigger and wiser and stronger for having taken the journey.
During her talk, Siscoe was asked about diversity. She responded by saying she is always on the lookout for diverse main characters. In fact, she said a “selling point” for the novel Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, a middle grade debut by Kelly Jones set to release in 2015, was its Latina protagonist.
The final panel on Saturday was about book banning rather than craft. Susanna Reich, chair of the Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee for PEN American Center, floored me during this session. She said children’s and young adult books make up the vast majority of books on the ALA’s list of banned and challenged books. While I knew children’s books were often challenged, I didn’t realize that on the most recent list of the “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books” from 2000-2009,” 72 of the top 100 are children’s and young adult books, with Harry Potter at the top of the list.
Reich also made the point that censorship isn’t only about removing books from shelves. Censorship also occurs when so few diverse titles make it onto the shelves. “It’s a form of censorship when the amount of multicultural kid lit published hasn’t increased in twenty years,” she said.
But what about those books that do make it onto the shelves? Well, it’s up to us to buy them. Reich quoted poet Alexis DeVeaux, who said, “Buying a book is a political act.” Reich challenged each of us to think about the books we choose to buy and read. Do we censor our book buying in any way? Do we make a conscious effort to read beyond our comfort zones? Do parents and teachers select books for their children and students that include diverse characters?
“Multicultural books can speak to all kids, not only kids of color,” said Reich.
Hear, hear! More details from Reich’s talk can be found here on the SCBWI site.
At the end of an SCBWI conference, I am always exhausted in a good way, with a thousand things to consider as a reader, writer, parent, and teacher. This year, the speakers in the sessions I attended reinforced the idea that I can help to promote diversity in children’s literature in each of these roles. Not only can I broaden my own reading interests, but I can expand reading choices for my daughter and my students. By doing this, I will support diversity in kid lit and the members of my SCBWI familia who write, illustrate, edit, and publish books with diverse characters.