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|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.
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
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
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.
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 NotesAuthor 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
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for CynsationsThe 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?
“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....”
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
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.
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
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 NotesWriting, 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.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for CynsationsScholastic Book Club will soon be offering my debut tween novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, as a diversity selection through book clubs.
Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins and Listening Library, 2001)(ages 10-up). Available as an unabridged audio download
. From the promotional copy:
The next day was my fourteenth birthday, and I'd never kissed a boy -- domestic style or French. Right then, I decided to get myself a teen life.
Cassidy Rain Berghoff didn't know that the very night she decided to get a life would be the night that Galen would lose his.
It's been six months since her best friend died, and up until now Rain has succeeded in shutting herself off from the world. But when controversy arises around her aunt Georgia's Indian Camp in their mostly white Midwestern community, Rain decides to face the outside world again -- at least through the lens of her camera.
Hired by her town newspaper to photograph the campers, Rain soon finds that she has to decide how involved She wants to become in Indian Camp. Does she want to keep a professional distance from the intertribal community she belongs to? And just how willing is she to connect with the campers after her great loss?
In a voice that resonates with insight and humor, Cynthia Leitich Smith tells of heartbreak, recovery, and reclaiming one's place in the world.Cynsational Notes
Rain Is Not My Indian Name
was an Oklahoma Book Award finalist and earned Cynthia the title of 2001 Writer of the Year from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers
“Tender, funny, and full of sharp wordplay, Smith’s first novel deals with a whole host of interconnecting issues, but the center is Rain herself. What’s amazing here is Rain’s insights into her own pain, and how cleanly she uses language to contain it.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“There is a surprising amount of humor in this tender novel. It is one of the best portrayals around of kids whose heritage is mixed but still very important in their lives. It’s Rain’s story and she cannot be reduced to simple labels. A wonderful novel of a present-day teen and her ‘patch-work tribe.'”
— School Library Journal
“…readers will feel the affection of Rain’s loose-knit family and admire the way that they, like the author with the audience, allow Rain to draw her own conclusions about who she is and what her heritage means to her.”
— Publishers Weekly
By Cynsations Readers
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
Over the past couple of weeks, children's-yA author Cynthia Leitich Smith put out a call for questions from readers on Cynsations and Twitter. Here are those she elected to tackle and her responses. A few questions were condensed for space and/or clarity.
See also a previous Cynsations reader-interview post from November 2010. Cyn Note: It's interesting how the question topics shifted, both with my career growth and changes in publishing. Back then, readers were most interested in the future of the picture book market and online author marketing.
What’s the one piece of advice you think would most benefit children’s-YA writers?
Read model books across age levels, genres, and formats. For example, a novelist who studies picture books will benefit in terms of innovation, economy and lyricism of language.
Writing across formats has its benefits, too. No, you won't be as narrowly branded. But you will have more options within age-defined markets that rise and fall with birth rates. You will acquire transferable skills, and, incidentally, you'll be a more marketable public speaker and writing teacher.
Are you in a critique group? Do you think they’re important?
Not right now, but I have been in the past.
These days, I carry a full formal teaching load. Each year I also tend to lead one additional manuscript-driven workshop and offer critiques at a couple of conferences. That leaves no time for regular group meetings or the preparation that goes into them—my loss.
For me, participation offered insights (by receiving and
giving feedback) as well as mutual support related both to craft and career.
From a more global perspective, considerations include: whether the group is hard-working, social or both; the range of experience and expertise; the compatibility of productivity levels; and the personality mix.
The right combination of those ingredients can enhance the writing life and fuel success. A wrong one can be a serious detriment. If you need to make a change, do it with kindness. But do it.What can an MFA in writing for kids do for me?
First, my perspective is rooted in my experience as a faculty member in the low-residency Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts
|With Kathi at the Illumine Gala|
You don’t need
an MFA to write well or to successfully publish books for young readers.
I don’t have an MFA. My education includes a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Kansas
and a J.D. from The University of Michigan Law School
. I also studied law abroad one summer in Paris.
Beyond that, I improved my children’s writing at various independent workshops, most notably those led by Kathi Appelt
That said, you will likely develop your craft more quickly and acquire a wider range of knowledge and transferable skills through formal study.
My own writing has benefited by working side-by-side with distinguished author-teachers. Only this week, I heard Tim Wynne-Jones
’s voice in my mind—the echo of a lecture that lit the way.
You’ll want to research which program is best suited to your needs.
Your questions may include:
- Do you want a full- or low-residency experience?
- What will be the tuition and travel/lodging costs?
- What financial aid is available?
- Are you an author-illustrator? (If so, Hollins may be a fit.)
- Are you looking for a well-established program or an intimate start-up?
- What is the faculty publication history?
- How extensive is the faculty's teaching experience?
- How diverse is the faculty and student body?
- How impressive is the alumni publication record?
- How many alumni go on to teach?
- How cohesive--active and supportive--is the alumni community?
Talk to students and alumni about the school’s culture, faculty-student relationships, creature comforts and hidden expenses.
Across the board, for children's-YA MFA programs, the most substantial negative factor is cost.
CareerIn terms of marketing, what's one thing authors could do better?
Provide the name of your publisher and, if applicable, the book's illustrator in all of your promotional materials, online and off. If you're published by, say, Lee & Low or FSG, that carries with it a certain reputation and credibility. Also, readers will know which publisher website to seek for more information and which marketing department to contact to request you for a sponsored event.
Granted, picture book authors usually post cover art, which includes their illustrators' names. But we're talking about the books' co-creators
, and they bring their own reader base with them. Include their bylines with yours and the synopsis of the book whenever possible. It's respectful, appreciative and smart business.What’s new with your writing?
I’ve sold two poems this year, one of which I wrote when I was 11. How cool is that?
I'm also working steadily on a massive update and relaunch of my official author site, hopefully to go live for the back-to-school season.What are you working on now?
I’m writing a contemporary realistic, upper young adult novel. It’s due out from Candlewick in fall 2017.
Like my tween debut, Rain Is Not My Indian Name
(HarperCollins, 2001), the upcoming book features a Muscogee (Creek)/Native American girl protagonist, is set in Kansas and Oklahoma, and is loosely inspired by my own adolescence.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to take a look at my recent contemporary realism, check out the chapter “All’s Well” from Violent Ends
, edited by Shaun David Hutchinson
(Simon Pulse, 2015).
What’s next for your Tantalize-Feral books?
For those unfamiliar with them, the Tantalize series
and Feral trilogy
are set in the same universe and share characters, settings and mythologies. These upper YA books are genre benders, blending adventure, fantasy, the paranormal, science fiction, mystery, suspense, romance and humor.
Feral Pride, the cap to the Feral trilogy, was released last spring. It unites characters from all nine books, including Tantalize protagonists.
A new short story set in the universe, “Cupid’s Beaux,” appears in Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves
, edited by Ann Angel
I don't have immediate plans for more stories in the universe, but it's vast and multi-layered. While I'm focusing on realistic fiction now, I'll return to speculative in the future.DiversityHow do I make sure that no one will go public with a problem about my diverse book?
First, you can't (and neither can I).
Second, this has become a too-popular question.
To fully depict today's diverse world, we all have to stretch
--those who don't with regard to protagonists will still be writing secondary characters different from themselves.
Writers of color, Native writers and those who identify along economic-ability-size-health-cultural-orientation spectra are not exempt from the responsibilities that come with that.
I'm hearing a lot
of anxiety from a lot
folks concerned about being criticized or minimized for writing across identity elements. I'm also hearing a lot
of anxiety from a lot
of folks concerned with "getting it right."
For the health of my head space, the latter is the way to go. My philosophy: Focus on doing your homework and offering your most thoughtful, respectful writing.
Focus on advocating for quality children's-YA literature about a wide variety characters (and their metaphorical stand-ins) by a wide range of talented storytellers.
I make every effort to assume the best.
By that, I mean:
- Assume that when people in power say that they're committed to a more diverse industry and body of literature, they mean it and will act accordingly.
- Assume they'll eventually overcome those who resist.
- Assume that your colleagues writing or illustrating outside their immediate familiarity connect with their character(s) on other meaningful levels.
- Assume that you'll have to keep stretching and connecting, too.
- Assume that #ownvoices offer important insights inherent in their lived experiences.
- Assume that being exposed to identity elements and literary traditions outside your own is a opportunity for personal growth.
- Assume that a wider array of representations will invite in and nurture more young readers.
- Assume that your voice and vision can make a difference, not only as a writer but signal booster, advocate and ambassador.
If only in the short term, you risk being proven wrong. You risk being disappointed. At times, you probably will be. I've experienced both, but I'd rather go through all that again than to try to effect positive change in an industry, in a community, I don't believe in.
I've been a member of the children's-YA writing community for 18 years. Experience has taught me that I'm happier and more productive when I err on the side of optimism, hope and faith.Do you think that agents are reluctant to sign POC writing about POC after Scholastic pulling A Birthday Cake for George Washington?
No need to panic. As the diversity conversation has gained renewed momentum, many agents have publicly invited queries from POC as well as Native, disabled, LGBTQIA writers and others from underrepresented communities. For example, Lee Wind at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? is hosting an interview series with agents on that very theme
I can't promise that every children's-YA literary agent prioritizes or, in their heart of hearts, considers themselves fully open to your query. But those who don't aren't a fit for you anyway.
When you’re identifying agents to query, consider whether they have indicated an openness to diverse submissions and/or take a look at who’s on their client rosters. This shouldn't be the only factor of course, but one of many that you weigh.On your blog, you feature a lot of trendy type books (gay) we didn’t have in the past.
Not a question, but let’s go for it. If I’m deciphering you as intended, I disagree with the premise. Books with gay characters aren’t merely a trend or, for that matter, new in YA literature.Nancy Garden
’s Annie on my Mind
was published in 1982. Marion Dane Bauer
’s anthology Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence
was published in 1994. Brent Hartinger
’s Geography Club
was published in 2003. One place to find recent ALA recommendations is the 2016 ALA Rainbow Book List
Cynsations coverage is inclusive of books with LGBTQIA characters. In addition, gay and lesbian secondary characters appear in my own writing.
The blog was launched in 2004. Over time, I've noticed fluctuations in social media whenever I post LGBTQIA related content. I lose some followers and gain others. Increasingly, I lose fewer and gain more. My most enthusiastic welcome to those new followers!
(Incidentally, I used to see the same thing with regard to books/posts about authors and titles featuring interracial families or multi-racial characters.)More Personally You sometimes tweet about TV shows. What do you watch?
In typical geeky fashion: “Agent Carter;” "Agents of Shield," “Arrow;” “Bones;” “Castle;” “The Flash;” “Grimm;” “iZombie;” “Legends of Tomorrow;” "The Librarians;" “Lucifer;” “Once Upon a Time;” “Supernatural.”
|Created by Rob Thomas, who has also written several YA novels.|
Comedy-wise: “Awkward;” “The Big Bang Theory;” “Blackish;” “Crazy Ex-girlfriend”
(I'm a sucker for a musical); “Fresh off the Boat;” “The Real O’Neals;” “Superstore.”
I’m trying “Community”
and still reeling from the "Sleepy Hollow"
I have mixed feelings about “Scream Queens,”
but I’m fan of Jamie Lee Curtis
and Lea Michele
, so I’ll keep watching it. Ditto “Big Bang” with regard to Mayim Bialik
and Melissa Rauch
"Lucifer" sneaked up on me. As someone who's written Lucifer
, I watched it out of curiosity as to the take. I keep watching it because it surprises me and because Scarlett Estevez
Typically, I watch television while lifting weights or using my stair-climber. I love my climber. I do morning email on it, too. It's largely replaced my treadmill desk.
While I write, I use the television to play YouTube videos, usually featuring aquariums, blooming flowers, butterflies or space nebulas, all set to soothing music.
Trivia: Probably I’ve logged the most small-screen time with David Boreanaz
due to “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,”
I know nothing about the actor beyond his performances (I’m not a “celebrity news” person), but I like to think he appreciates my loyalty. Cynsational Giveaways
Enter to win signed books by Cynthia Leitich Smith -- the young adult Feral trilogy (Candlewick) and/or three Native American children's titles (HarperCollins). Scroll to two entry forms, one for each set.a Rafflecopter giveawaya Rafflecopter giveaway
Yesterday on Twitter, Annie Pho tweeted this image:
The words in the image she tweeted are a 2016 article by Eric Jennings, titled "The librarian stereotype: How librarians are damaging their image and profession." People on twitter were, appropriately, angry that Jennings used that excerpt in the way that he did. Here's the excerpt Jennings used (shown in the image):
When I was at the 2009 Association of College and Research Libraries conference, I saw Sherman Alexie speak, and one of the things that stuck with me is that there's always some truth to a stereotype. He was talking specifically about how the stereotype for many Native Americans is that they are alcoholics. And, in fact, most of his family members are alcoholics. He even went on record as saying that the whole race is filled with alcoholics and that pretending that alcoholism is a stereotype among Native Americans is a form of denial (Alexie, 2009).I took a look at the source for that quote. It is a video. I watched it. Alexie did, in fact, say what Jennings says he did.
Was it wise for Jennings to use that excerpt in his article about stereotypes of librarians? I think not. Here's why.
Most people know a librarian. Most people probably know a lot of librarians, and know that the stereotypes of librarians don't apply.
Most people, however, do not know a Native person. So, there's no way for them--in the course of their everyday life--to know that most of us are not, in fact, alcoholics.
Let's think about that a minute.
Alexie said it is a stereotype that Native people are alcoholics.
The truth? Alcoholism is a widespread disease.
Alcoholism is a social disease. It does not exist in higher incidences amongst Native communities. Alexie tells us about his specific family. What he says is not true for my own family. We're not exceptional, either. I'm not saying "Not us" out of a holier-than-thou space.
A research study released earlier this year says it isn't true for most Native people in the US either. Holding that view, however, has costs to Native people. The news report about the article included this:
"Of course, debunking a stereotype doesn’t mean that alcohol problems don’t exist," Cunningham said. "All major U.S. racial and ethnic groups face problems due to alcohol abuse, and alcohol use within those groups can vary with geographic location, age and gender.
"But falsely stereotyping a group regarding alcohol can have its own unique consequences. For example, some employers might be reluctant to hire individuals from a group that has been stereotyped regarding alcohol. Patients from such a group, possibly wanting to avoid embarrassment, may be reluctant to discuss alcohol-related problems with their doctors."And here's another paragraph:
"Negative stereotyping of groups of people who have less access to health care creates even more health disparities," Muramoto said. "Based on a false negative stereotype, some health care providers may inaccurately attribute a presenting health problem to alcohol use and fail to appropriately diagnose and treat the problem."Several years ago, a dear elder in my tribal nation dealt with that very thing. He wasn't well. He had tests done. Doctors assumed he was alcoholic, and that alcohol abuse was the cause of what they saw in tests. He told them he didn't drink, but, they wouldn't probe further. Now, he's finally been diagnosed with a fatal disease. Just writing those words brings tears to my eyes.
Words. As I said on Twitter, words matter. They shape what people think and what people do. Words shaped those doctors who didn't believe this elder.
In a recent article in Booklist, Cynthia Leitich Smith wrote this:
I’ve had allied non-Indian librarians tell me, one way or another, that they’re committed to telling stories about “real Indians” and go on to clarify that they mean alcoholics living in reservation communities. As if, say, my tribal town and urban characters were somehow less “real.” I cringed reading her words because what she's encountering is a belief in that stereotype. They think it is real. I'm seeing it in books I've read in the last year. Writers seem to have an idea that, if they're writing a story about Native people or our communities, they better make sure to have an alcoholic in it.
Writers who do that are damaging us, and they're damaging non-Native readers, too. They are taking a social illness and making it a NATIVE social illness. My guess is that they have read Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. That story has alcoholism in it. Because he's got it in his book, I think writers are thinking that they should make sure to include it in their stories, too.
Writers: Don't do that.
Editors: Don't let your writers do that.
Book reviewers and bloggers: Your reviews/posts influence purchasing decisions. Pay attention. See what I see, which is the overrepresentation of alcoholism as a part of Native life.
Everyone: Read the study. See for yourself.
See the news article: Study Debunks Notions about Native Americans, AlcoholRead the study: Alcohol use among Native Americans compared to whites: Examining the veracity of the 'Native American elevated alcohol consumption' belief
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
Happy New Year!
Cynsations will officially return from winter hiatus in late January.
In the meantime, consider this an invitation to query me about potential future interviews, guest posts, giveaways, book trailers, and more.
Cynsations was launched in 2004 and is considered one of the flagship blogs of the children's-YA literature industry and community.
The national Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, School Library Journal, The American Library Association and Writer's Digest have recognized it for its large, consistent readership and/or quality. On a less formal basis, the blog is assigned in various children's-YA literature classes and cited in academic papers and both national and university critical review publications. Where the number of active blogs (and readers) has slowly decreased across the board, Cynsations continues to attract a steady increase with each passing year.
Cynsations' audience is made up of a spectrum of devoted readers from children's-YA literature core community as well as layperson fans and young readers--especially teens with a strong interest in reading and writing. The tone is upbeat. Sensitive topics are welcome. Profanity is not.
Posts should be inspirational or informational with real writer/illustrator/reader/gatekeeper takeaway. My focus is the children's-YA book market only, by which I mean the international market with an emphasis on North America. While I agree that many books published for grown-ups may be enjoyed by teens, they are outside my area of concentration.
Interested contributors (or their representatives) should contact firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss possibilities.
Posts are scheduled on a rolling basis once all text, links and images are received (in the same submission) and approved.
I reserve the right to edit, largely for consistency of style, however no additions will be made without express approval of the contributor. I seldom decline a post, though it has happened, either because the topic was not a fit or the overall quality fell short. I do occasionally ask for minor revisions.
Traditionally trade published debut children's-YA authors, illustrators and author-illustrators are eligible for the New Voices/Visions interview series
. These posts involve a choice of available questions and a request for a couple of tie-in images in addition to book creator(s) photo(s) and book cover. Independently published debuts also are eligible, but require a more extensive vetting process.
I also routinely feature interviews with more established children's-YA book creators as well as agents, editors (corporate and independent), translators, critics/commentators, marketing/publicity/PR professionals, book event planners, teachers, librarians, university professors of library science and education, creative community and conference/workshop leaders, MFA educators and administrators, literacy and literacy nonprofit advocates, diversity advocates, children's-YA literature bloggers, and other book lovers/leaders of all stripes.
These interviews can be long (two-part), short (two thoughtful questions and answers) and various lengths in between. They may be conducted by me or another member of the youth literature community. For example, authors may interview each other, especially if they have, say, books with related topics or set in the same historical time period or featuring the same diversity element. A new author may interview her writing mentor (or vise versa). An established author may interview his agent (ditto). An up-and-coming illustrator may interview her art director (capiche?). The combinations are endless.
Guest posts may be submitted by those in the above mentioned categories as well. These should run approximately 500 words.
Topics related to the craft of writing, techniques of illustration, the creative life and heart, the business of publishing, and literary diversity--defined broadly--are especially welcome.
Pitches may also be submitted for a week-long or occasional series of posts on, say, YA horror or children's poetry or the faculty of an upcoming workshop or winners and honor recipients of a particular award.
In addition, the blog also features book trailers, cover reveals and giveaways for new releases as well as links to quality content similar to its own (including links to reader/teacher guides and classroom activities and various online tie-ins (like, say, an interactive map of a high-fantasy setting).
Thank you for your consideration. It's an honor to participate in the conversation of books for young readers. I look forward to rebooting in a few weeks.
A request for a blurb about a favorite book with a Native teen character prompted me to re-read Cynthia Leitich Smith's Rain Is Not My Indian Name
. I've recommended it several times, here on AICL and elsewhere, but I haven't done an in-depth review essay about it yet.
Smith is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation
. "Citizen" means that she is amongst the people the Muscogee Nation counts as a citizen. Their page on Citizenship
has a lot of useful information.
A lot of people don't know that each Native Nation has its own way of determining who its citizens or tribal members are. A lot of people claim they're Native but don't know what Nation. For them, it is more of a romantic idea based on a family story about an ancestor who someone in their family said was Indian. Often, that ancestor was "a princess." A common experience for me--indeed, for a lot of Native people--is the well-meaning person who approaches me at a lecture (or online) and tells me they are part Indian. If they reference an Indian princess, I--as gently as I can--tell them there was no such thing, that the idea itself is rooted in European's who erroneously viewed Native peoples with a European lens in which royalty was the rule. There's a lot to read about Native identity. I suggest Eva Marie Garroutte's Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America.
Quick! What comes to mind when you hear "American Indian" or "Native American"? Chances are, the image you have is one of Native peoples of the past, not present. And, that image in your mind is likely one that reflects a stereotype, not reality, in terms of who we were and who we are. Smith's book can interrupt that stereotypical imagery. Set in the present--not the past--it is a terrific story.
Let's take a look, together, at some parts of it that stand out to me.The Subtle
Cassidy Rain Berghoff is the main character in Rain Is Not My Indian Name.
When the story opens, it is New Year's Eve. Rain is minutes away from being 14. She's out with Galen--a childhood friend--but they're tentatively moving from friendship to a romantic relationship. He's got a birthday gift for her: a pouch that she immediately recognizes (p. 6):
I remembered seeing it last June, displayed on a Lakota trader's table at a powwow in Oklahoma City. Aunt Georgia had taken Galen and me on a road trip to visit family, and he had trailed after me down crowded aisle after aisle.
Later that day at the powwow, Galen had gone off to get popcorn, but clearly--he'd been observing Rain as they walked down those aisles and seen her linger over that pouch. Sweet! In her description of that pouch, Smith tells us it has seed beads. Most readers probably won't notice that detail, but Native ones do! There's a huge difference in a pouch made by a Lakota person and one you'd buy at a tourist shop that sells "Indian" beaded items. The one with seed beads is exquisite. The one from the tourist shop is tacky. Rain knows the difference; Native readers of Rain Is Not My Indian Name
will know the difference, too.
After Rain and Galen say goodnight and head for their homes, Galen is struck by a car and dies on his way home. Rain learns about it the next morning (her birthday). The phone rings, waking her. She stretches, beneath her star quilt. She's devastated when her grandpa tells her about Galen. Of course, she doesn't say more about the quilt, but it is another point that Native readers will notice. Star quilts figure prominently in Native culture. Here's one (to the right) made by a dear friend, Chantelle Blue Arm
I chose this one (Chantelle has done many) because she titled it Cotton Candy. In the moments before Galen gives Rain the pouch, she thinks back to second grade field trip when Galen had persuaded her to leave the group with him in search of turquoise cotton candy.The Explicit
Understandably, Galen's death is a blow to Rain. She pretty much retreats from life for six months, which moves the story to the end of June. Her aunt, Georgia, is coordinating an Indian Camp. Her brother, Fynn, has been hinting that he wants her to sign up for it (p. 12):
But Indian Camp? It sounded like the kind of thing where a bunch of probably suburban, probably rich, probably white kids tromped around a woodsy park, calling themselves "princesses," "braves," or "guides."
My guess is that many of you--especially if you are regular readers of AICL--are nodding your head. Indian-themed camps are a mainstay of American culture that feed stereotypes! Rain's aunt, however, is not doing a camp for white kids. This one is for Native kids. Rain speculates that her aunt is thinking about what Native kids learn in school (p. 13):
At school, the subject of Native Americans pretty much comes up just around Turkey Day, like those cardboard cutouts of the Pilgrims and the pumpkins and the squash taped to the windows at McDonald's. And the so-called Indians always look like bogeymen on the prairie, windblown cover boys selling paperback romances, or baby-faced refugees from the world of Precious Moments. I usually get through it by reading sci-fi fanzines behind my textbooks until we move on to Kwanza.
Rain's got some attitude--and I love it!
See the baby-faced refugee to the right?! Rain is obviously indignant at having to deal with this sort of thing year after year.
She has a way to cope, but let's step into reality for a moment. Native kids in today's schools have to deal with this every year. Why should they have to deal with that at all?!
What Rain did was check out. She disengaged. I'm using "disengaged" deliberately. The word is in a 2010 report
from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, about Native youth and their experiences in school.And the complexities of African American and American Indian history
Now let's take a look at a racial issue Rain struggles with.
The character, Queenie, is African American. Prior to the time of the story, Rain and Queenie were good friends. That started to shift when Rain learned that Galen and Queenie were interested in each other, romantically. In one of her journal entries (they open each chapter), Rain recounts a conversation she and Galen had about dating African Americans (p. 28):
Galen's bangs fell forward: "Would you go out with a black person?" he asked.
Somewhere in my memory, I'd been told it was okay to be friends with black people, but not more than friends. "I guess," I answered. "Worried about your mom?"
Later (but still in the time before the story opens), Rain and Queenie's friendship ends when Rain learns that Queenie has hurt Galen.
Rain ends up going to Indian Camp--not as a participant--but as a journalist. Her assignment is to take photos of the camp for a news story about the camp. She is surprised to see Queenie there. The reporter, Flash, asks Queenie a question (p. 69):
"What brings you here?"
Queenie squared her shoulders and asked, "Don't you mean 'Why is an African-American girl at a Native American program?"
"Sure," the Flash answered, pen perched, "that's exactly what I meant."
The three Native kids at the camp and Rain observe this interaction, which suggests they have the same--but unspoken--question (p. 70):
Queenie spoke clearly, like she wanted to make sure the Flash didn't misquote her--like she'd have a lot to say about it if he did. "My aunt Suzanne has been tracing our family tree for the reunion next month at her place in Miami," she explained, "and, come to find out, one of my great-grandfathers was a Native American."
The word cousin sneaked onto my tongue, and I didn't like the way it tasted. As if stealing Galen hadn't been enough, now Queenie was barging in on my cultural territory. Granted, she was no guru-seeking, crystal-wearing, long-lost descendent of an Indian "princess," but still...
Then, Flash asks her (p. 70):
"What tribe, Nation, or band?"
We'll come to find out that Queenie's great grandfather was Seminole. The Black Indian thread in Rain Is Not My Indian Name
is important. It speaks to Black readers with similar family stories, but it does so with integrity. Rain could so easily have been dismissive of Queenie, but Smith went elsewhere, smoothly describing what-to-do with that family story: research. Queenie's aunt is doing research.
More and more stories about Black Indians are appearing in the news media and taken up in museums and documentaries. Read, for example, Gyasi Ross's Black History Month, Indian Style: Natives and Black Folks in This Together Since 1492
. See, too, the National Museum of the American Indian's exhibition, Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas
All of this makes the Black Indian thread in Smith's book especially important in today's society.
Coming out this year (2015) are two books in which writers take on Black Indians. I read--and love--Gone Crazy in Alabama--
by Rita Williams Garcia. I'm waiting for the published copy to review it.
Already out is The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage
by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. I haven't read it yet, but what I can see online indicates that Mildred Jeter is identified as "part African-American, part Cherokee."
In my initial research about Jeter, I saw her described as Cherokee, but I also saw her described as Rappahannock. In my second round of research, I read a chapter about her in That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia
by Arica L. Coleman, an assistant professor in Black Studies at the University of Delaware. I'll say this for now: in that chapter, Coleman chronicles the way that race and racial identity are put forth, used, and manipulated by the justice system and the media. It is astonishing.
I opened this post by noting that someone's question prompted me to re-read Rain Is Not My Indian Name.
I read it when it came out in 2001. It won Smith distinction from Wordcraft Circle
as one of 2001 Writers of the Year in Children's Prose.
That same year, Smith wrote an article for Book Links
that offers incredible insights about developing Rain and Queenie, and about insider/outsider perspective. It is online at ALA: Native Now: Contemporary Indian Stories
. In 2011, Smith wrote a reflection on the books tenth anniversary: 10th Anniversary of Rain Is Not My Indian Name.
Rereading it now--14 years after I first read it--I want to shout from the rooftops to everyone about Rain Is Not My Indian Name.
If you don't already have it on your shelves, get a copy and read it. And share it. It is exquisite and has something in it for every reader.Updating to include books I'll use as I research this topic more:
- Chang, David. The Color of the Land
- Forbes, Jack. Africans & Native Americans
- Krauthamer, Barbara. Black Slaves, Indian Masters
- Littlefield, Daniel. The Cherokee Freedmen; Africans & Creeks; Africans & Seminoles
- Miles, Tiya. Ties that Bind
- Miles, Tiya and Sharon Patricia Holland (Eds). Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: Diaspora in Indian Country
- Naylor, Celia. Africans and Cherokees
- Purdue, Theda. Slavery & the Evolution of Society
- Saunt, Claudio. Black White & Indian
Blog: The Children's Book Review
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Cory Putman Oakes is a children’s book author from Austin, Texas. Her middle grade debut, DINOSAUR BOY, hits shelves in February, 2015 with its sequel, DINOSAUR BOY SAVES MARS, to follow in February, 2016.
As many of you already know, the 7th annual Kidlitosphere Conference is taking place this coming weekend, in Austin, Texas. This weekend, Meredith Maresco published a lovely article about KidLitCon on the YA Interrobang site. The article includes quotes from this year's keynote speaker, Cynthia Leitich Smith, as well as from Charlotte Taylor, Sheila Ruth, and Allie Jones. And from me, representing this year's organizing committee.
I especially liked what Sheila said about KidLitCon:
"It’s different from other conventions: the relatively small number of attendees and the close-knit nature of the Kidlit community make this more like a family reunion than a convention. I’m looking forward to seeing people that I’ve known for years and meeting new people, all of whom share a passion for children’s and YA books, literacy, and infecting young people with the reading bug,”
I love "more of a family reunion than a convention." So true! And that quote ended up going well with something that I said, about KidLitCon "turning virtual friends into real world friends" (here I was somewhat paraphrasing Leila's post at Bookshelves of Doom).
Pam Coughlan posted about the YA Interrobang article this morning at MotherReader. She said:
"It's too important a conference for our online community to not have it. Even if it's difficult or running behind schedule. Even if room selections fell through, leaving us wondering if maybe we could just quietly set up shop on the grounds of the capitol. Even if arranging a block of hotel rooms was more like getting an IRS audit. Even if we found that we were conflicting with another event in the morning targeting our exact potential attendees. It hasn't been easy.
But this week, I hope that I'll have a chance to turn more virtual friends into real world friends. We're keeping registration open, and I hope that you'll consider joining us. Visit the KidLitCon website for more information and register today."
And there you have it. Attend this family reunion of a conference. Even if you've never attended KidLitCon before, you'll find friends there. I know that it's tough to book flights on short notice, but if you are in or near Austin, and have some time to spare this Friday and Saturday, we would love to see you at KidLitCon.
Many thanks to Meredith Maresco for her well-researched piece on KidLitCon. See you all in Austin!
© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate.
I'm back after spending four days in Austin for KidLitCon. I lived in Austin for 3 1/2 years a while back, and I am always happy to have an excuse to visit. Of course I would go almost anywhere to attend KidLitCon, but it was a bonus that it was held somewhere that I wanted to visit anyway. An extra bonus was that I got to spend some time with close friends who live there.
For me, and I've stolen this idea from Leila at Bookshelves of Doom, what sums up the KidLitCon, and the Kidlitosphere in general, is the phrase: "kindred spirits". I go to KidLitCon every year so that I can hang out with my children's book-loving tribe. Something that became clear during this year's conference is that what distinguishes the Kidlitosphere from other book blogger communities is that, much as we love the books, most of us are out there blogging, week after week, because we think that it's important to connect kids with great books. We share a common passion for children's books and literacy.
What this means when we come together for a conference is that we're not having sessions about how to "monetize" our blogs, or retire from our day jobs, or get our hands on more sought-after ARCs. No, what we talk about is:
- Community (welcome speech by Pam Coughlan from MotherReader)
- Authenticity, and understanding your own mission and philosophy of blogging (keynote by Cynthia Leitich Smith).
- Overcoming burnout by getting back to your blogging roots (Sarah Stevenson and me).
- Ways that you as a blogger/reviewer/author can work to increase diversity in children's publishing (Lee Wind).
- Ways that you as an author can build relationships with people who may help you to spread the word about your books, rather than trying any "hard sell" tactics Molly Blaisdell).
- The difference between writing a negative review and writing critical reviews, and why critical reviews are important (and exhausting) (Kelly Jensen and Kim Francisco from Stacked)
- Things authors and illustrators need to know about digital art (Laura Jennings).
- How authors and illustrators can become involved in the online community of children's and young adult literature (MotherReader)
- How to spice up your blog with HTML and CSS (Sheila Ruth).
- Reviewing middle grade books when we, the reviewers, are not the target audience for said books (Charlotte Taylor, Melissa Fox, and Katy Manck).
- The past, present, and future of the Kidlitosphere, and how we can keep our community a welcoming, connected space (Sarah Stevenson, Jen Bigheart, Leila Roy, Sheila Ruth, and Lee Wind).
Instead of taking notes during the sessions that I attended, I was live-tweeting the conference. While I could theoretically share all of those tweets with you here, I prefer to send you off to follow the #KidLitCon13 hashtag on Twitter. Just set the view to "all" instead of "top" and scroll down to November 9th, and read upward. You will find many useful tips, like:
For more details about the sessions and events around KidLitCon, here are some excellent recaps:
- Charlotte at Charlotte's Library says: "The main thing I learn every time I go to Kidlitcon is how much fun it can be to talk to people. Sure, I talk to my family and co-workers and friends in real life, but rarely do I talk to them with passionate interest about really interesting things like children's books and blogging and candy crush."
- Kelly at Stacked says: "If I had to give three words that summed up the biggest themes talked about during the event, they would be diversity, authenticity, and burnout."
- Sherry from Semicolon shares 10 things she learned at KidLitCon. My favorite: "Sheila Ruth (Wands and Worlds) and Charlotte (Charlotte’s Library) are NOT the same person in disguise, but they are both authorities on fantasy and science fiction".
- Sarah says at Finding Wonderland: "You are all the most lovely people. We have such an amazing community, I can't believe it sometimes, but Kidlitcon always reminds me how incredible it is."
- ... more to come
My session with Sarah on overcoming blogger burnout was well-received. We could perhaps have spent a bit less time on the reasons for burnout, and a bit more time on our tactics for overcoming it, but we did share a nice little one-page handout (compliments of Sarah). When our schedules allow, we'll turn that into an Infographic. I'll also share more details about the session (including our recommended burnout-recovery tactics) later this week.
While I found all of the sessions that I attended interesting and rejuvenating, the real reason I go to KidLitCon is to spend time with kindred spirits. (See photo to the left, which Sarah took, of Pam and me manning the registration table.)
Highlights from this year's conference included meeting Leila, Sherry, Jennifer, Katy, Maria, Kim, and Rosemond for the first time, after visiting with them on blogs and Twitter over the months and years. I also enjoyed meeting new blogging friends, like Daniela, Allie, Emilia, Jen, Holly, Julie, Molly, and Heather, and finally meeting authors that I've wanted to meet, like Margo Rabb, P.J. Hoover, and of course Cynthia and her husband, Greg. (Photo is of the entrance to our Friday night function room at El Mercado.)
But what brings me back to KidLitCon year after year, is spending time with my peeps, like Pam, Sarah, Lee, Sheila, Charlotte, Maureen, Melissa, Camille, Paula, Chris, and Kelly. Especially Pam, without whom this year's KidLitCon would never have gotten off the ground. I can't say it enough. Spending time with people who "get it" -- who share my passion for getting the word out about great children's and YA books, and getting each of those books into the hands of the right reader at the right time -- is a gift.
Stay tuned for more KidLitCon recaps. And before you know it, we'll be planning for KidLitCon 2014. I hope to see you all there!
© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate.
A few hours ago, my daughter called to tell me she'd finished her last exam of the semester. With joy and enthusiasm, she said she was finished with Year One of law school.
I was happy to hear her voice as she described that last exam and reflected on the year. I carried her joy through my day. And then, a hour ago, I was on Twitter when a colleague tweeted a photo from Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that I talk about that book more than any other. It is the one I wish I'd had when my daughter was a three year old and dancing for the first time at home. Our dance, by the way, is like prayer. Not entertainment, and not performance. Prayer. Everyone helps get ready for that first dance. Smith depicts that in Jingle Dancer.
But the particular page that I'm thinking of right now is this one:
That is Jenna on the left. On the right is Jenna's cousin, Elizabeth. At that point in Smith's story, Jenna is visiting Elizabeth. Elizabeth can't be with Jenna on that special day. She's got a big case she's working on. You see, Elizabeth is a lawyer.
Need I say more about why that page is special to me today? Your book continues to give to me, Cyn. Thank you.
Who am I to pass up an opportunity to link to a guest post Jenny wrote at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations blog — especially when the topic involves me?
Jennifer Ziegler on How to Live Happily Ever After With Another Writer
…I think what people are specifically wondering about is how does it help or hinder our writing – and our marriage?
Upon reflection I’ve come up with some underlying “rules” that make our partnership work.
1) We celebrate each other’s triumphs – even if it’s “Yay, you worked out that thorny section in chapter nine!” Because we are fans of each other’s work, each other’s victories feel like our own.
But also, we know that because other rewards, like honors, critical acclaim, and, yes, money, are fleeting in this business, we need other ways to measure our success. And a hard-fought victory over a tricky section is every bit as worthy of commemoration as a major award.
In addition to complimenting each other…
Thank goodness someone finally had the opportunity to explain to Cyn what it’s like being married to another author.
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This morning, I suddenly realized that one reason I don’t do as many informational posts any more is because I post what I find on Facebook. Please, feel free to follow me there!
Have you had a chance to read “Against YA”? I’ve read pretty lively attacks directed at the thoughts expressed in the article and interesting to note they all came from authors of YA and kidlit, librarians and others with a unique relationship to the industry. Did bankers pay this any attention? How do plumbers and astronomers react to news of so many adults reading books written for those years or decades younger? The decades? That would be me. I honestly doubt I would fill my world with YA if I were not a librarian who works in the field. I know I wouldn’t. Perhaps I would pick up a YA books now and then, but I wouldn’t have the steady diet. I don’t like a steady diet of any gene, any ethnicity or any one thing when I read. I really like this from BookRiot on reading beyond your depths. I feel a constant back and forth in my reading, from stretching my imagination with a good YA spec fic to relaxing into an adult romance to expanding the bounds of my knowledge with professional nonfic. #INeedDiverseBooks
Yesterday, I finally made it back to the gym and as always, I used my time on the treadmill to get some reading done. I’m reading Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Feral Nights at home but prefer reading on my Nook when I’m on the treadmill. So, I began reading Shieldwolf Dawning by Selena Nemorin. As works of speculative fiction, both of these books require world building. The writers had to create myth, place, names, and problems that do not exist in their day to day life. I looked at Cynthia’s blog to get an idea how authors tackle such a project and found Malinda Lo discussing Ash (Little Brown, 2009). Cynthia asked Malinda how she goes about building worlds in her writing.
I was an anthropology graduate student when I began working on Ash, so I approached the world-building from an anthropologist’s perspective. I thought a lot about the rituals that mark the turning points in life–birth, marriage, and especially death.
This was particularly important for Ash because the story begins when Ash loses both her mother and father. I studied funerary rituals in China when I was in grad school, and I relied heavily on that knowledge when I wrote about Ash’s parents’ funerals, and when thinking about how people in that world think about death and dying.
Another of the most significant aspects of the Cinderella story is the fact that the stepmother wants her daughters to make wealthy marriages. I read a lot of analysis of fairy tales, and discovered that many tales included stepmothers because mothers often died in childbirth, and fathers were forced to remarry because they needed a wife to help raise the children.
These family structures might set up a situation in which a stepmother is forced to raise both her own children and another woman’s, and in a world of scarcity, this naturally sets up a kind of competition.
For girls, marriage was basically their ticket to freedom–a girl had to marry in order to support herself later in life, and it was to her advantage to marry well.
If a stepmother is raising both her daughter and her husband’s daughter from his earlier marriage, and there are few eligible males around, it might not be surprising that she would favor her biological daughter.
Obviously not all stepmothers are like this! But doing this research helped me to understand why a stepmother might act this way.
So, I guess I thought about the worldbuilding in a fairly intellectual, anthropological way! But then when I wrote, I kind of just loosened my focus and allowed it to become the background–the motivator for characters’ actions. I didn’t bother describing all the rituals or reasonings behind decisions; I focused on how those rules and practices would influence a character’s behavior. source
As with any writing, authors bring what they know and how they’ve come to view the world into their creation process.
Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here didn’t have to involve world building, but I think when Eric considered his audience, he realized he’d have to build his world for them to enrich the story. How skillfully he did that! He took us right inside his character’s world and made us feel as though we were accepted.
I wonder which is more difficult, writing about a newly created world or one we intimately know. How does one become aware of things they’ve come to take so much for granted and know they need to be described to an audience?
Some of the following have recently been posted on my FB page.
Saturday 16 August is the date of this year’s International Children’s and Young Adult Literature Celebration: Muslim Journeys. This one day workshop will feature authors Ali Alalou, Saideh Hamshidi, Rukhsana Khan and Naheed Senzai. “This year the celebration will focus on Muslim Journeys by exploring new and diverse perspectives on the people, places, histories, beliefs, and cultures of Muslims around the world, through presentations on literature, media, history and social organizations.”
Creative Child Magazine, published by Scooterbay Publishing (a company that doesn’t appear too focused on diversity), focuses on “helping parents nurture their child’s creativity”. Yesterday, they selected Chinese Fables: The Dragon Slayer and Other Timeless Tales of Wisdom (Tuttle Publishing) as the Book of the Year, kid’s books category.
Works of many outstanding authors appeared on this year’s Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year List, including the following authors. Congratulations! Lists were created for a variety of genre for under 5, 5-9, 9-13, 12-14 and 14 and up. I did not look at the 5-9 list.
Margarita Engle The Lightening Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Poet (HMH) (12-14 Historical Fiction and 12-14 Poetry)
Margarita Engle Mountain Dog (Henry Holt)
Rita Williams-Garcia: P.S. Be Eleven (Amistad Press/Harper Collins)
Lesa Cline-Ransome: Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret (Jump At The Sun)
Jewell Parker Rhodes Sugar (Little Brown Books for Young Readers)
Diana López Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel (Little Brown and Co.)
Andrea Cheng The Year of the Baby (Houghton Mifflin)
Andrea Cheng Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet (Lee and Low)
Cynthia Kadahata The Thing About Luck (Atheneum)
Angela Cervantes Gaby, Lost and Found (Scholastic Press)
Farhana Zia The Garden of My Imaan (Peachtree)
Eric Gansworth If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine0
Crystal Allen The Laura Line (Balzer + Bray)
Nikki Grimes Words With Wings (Wordsong)
Shaun Tan The Bird King: An Artists Notebook (Arthur A. Levine)
Andrea Davis Pinkney Peace Warriors (Scholastic)
Tonya Bolden Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty (Abrams)
Matt de la Peña The Living (Delacorte Press)
Patrick Scott Flores Jumped In (Christy Ottaviano Books)
Carol Blythe Revenge of a Not-So-Pretty-Girl (Delacorte Press)
Gene Luen Yang Boxers (First Second)
Gene Luen Yang Saints (First Second)
Lynn Joseph Flowers in the Sky (Harper Teen)
Alaya Dawn Johnson The Summer Prince (Arthur A. Levine)
Sherri L. Smith Orleans (Putnam Juvenile)
Swati Avasthi Chasing Shadows (Alfred A. Knopf)
Walter Dean Myers Darius & Twig (Amistad)
I am really enjoying the BrownBookShelf’s Making Our Own Market series. Not only am I learning how African Americans are succeeding in various areas of the book industry, but I’m learning more and more about the industry itself. Most recently, Kirsten Cappy of Curious City discusses marketing African American titles. Here, she talks about how her work to promote Terry Farish’s The Good Braider (Amazon Children’s Publishing).
In “creating partners for the book by finding commonalities,” I reached out to a young Sudanese hip hop artist and shared a galley of the book with him. A few months later OD Bonny told me the book reminded him of his flight out of South Sudan alongside his brothers. I asked if we could pay to use one of his songs as the audio for a book trailer. He responded, “Why wouldn’t you want a song of your own? I’ll write it. Tonight.”
When I heard his song, “Girl From Juba,” I realized that it was not just marketing, but a reader’s genuine tribute to a work of fiction. An author can have no greater gift. I also realized that I did not need to be the one to produce this trailer. I transferred the book trailer funds to OD and the music video/book trailer was created with an all Sudanese American cast (save one Irish kid), crew, and director. The video had 1000 hits within a week, not of book professionals, but of Sudanese and African American young adults that follow OD’s music.
Ok, I have some writing of my own to do!
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I wrote in my newsletter last week about my new project with BookPeople. “Our hope,” I wrote, “is that by leveraging the longstanding popularity of Margaret Wise Brown, for instance, Modern First Library will get more great new books representing an increasingly broad swath of our society into more homes and into more readers’ hands. If this grassroots approach works, we hope that other booksellers will emulate it in their own communities and that it will encourage publishers to create and support more books reflecting the diversity in our world.”
Today, I’m pleased to share the Austin indie bookseller’s blog post officially launching the initiative:
Under the banner of this program, we will be featuring a broad range of books, new and old, that we think belong on the shelves of the very youngest readers.
BookPeople is committed to helping all kids find books that broaden their idea of what’s possible, provide fresh perspectives, and open windows to new experiences: all the things that great children’s books always do. And because we live in the vibrant, global society of the 21st century, our book suggestions have been purposefully designed to reflect the diversity of that experience. After all, a child’s first library offers his or her first glimpses of the world outside the family’s immediate sphere, and we think that view needs to reflect a reality that’s broad, inclusive, and complex, just like the world we all live in.
Please have a look at what BookPeople’s children’s book buyer has to say about Modern First Library, and stay tuned for guest posts on the subject by Austin authors Cynthia Leitich Smith, Don Tate, Liz Scanlon, Varian Johnson, and me. In the meantime, check out the Modern First Library starter sets — the folks at BookPeople have worked hard to put those together, and it shows.
title: Feral Nights
author: Cynthia Leitich Smith
date: Candlewick; 2013
main character: Yoshi Kitihara
Yoshi is a high school senior being raised by his grandmother in Oklahoma well, until grams catches him with this girl he brought home for the night. Gram has a strict “No Company Allowed” policy that she enforces with a shotgun. Yoshi is given the boot and he decides to head to Texas in search of his sister, Ruby. Oh, they’re a werecat family.
Feral Nights is told in multiple voices. While I’ve had enough of multi voiced books to last me a lifetime, Leitich Smith carries it off quite well. The voices are unique and easy to distinguish.
There’s Clyde, a werepossum with 4 younger siblings. He sees ghosts.
Travis, whom Ruby is suspected of killing. He’s a ghost.
And there’s Aimee, a human who genuinely likes werepeople.
The witty dialog and use of present tense writing keep the story moving at a brisk pace. Leitich Smith smoothly packs in a unique, descriptive backstory as she builds an incredible world of werepeople, vampires, deities and humans. Wereanimals (werecats, wereorcas, werebears, werelions…) are at the core of the story with a werecat accused of killing a werearmadillo. More than that, they’re Ruby and Travis. While everyone has animal characteristics, they each also have fully developed human personalities. That Leitich Smith manages to do this all in 290 pages is amazing. Just as the reader has gotten familiar with the characters and the relationships they’re building, everything flips on its head. Needless to say, this is not a predictable story.
This review is really doing the book little justice because Leitich Smith so flawlessly weaves her tale. It’s like watching anyone who does something well: you don’t want to pick it apart because you just want to enjoy the artistry.
Feral Nights is the first book in the Feral Series. Feral Curse was released this past January and Feral Pride is forthcoming. All books are published by Candlewick. Cynthia Leitich Blogs at Cynsations. She’s the best selling author of the Tantalize series, Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins) and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins) and number other books.
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This month, several of us Austin authors are guest-blogging for BookPeople’s new Modern First Library program. The latest to do so is Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of the Feral series and Tantalize series for young adults as well as several picture books, including Jingle Dancer.
Here’s a little of what Cyn has to say:
When we talk about diversity in books, we often mention the concept of “windows and mirrors.”
I ached for a mirror. Books, for all their blessings, had failed me in this regard. However, I saw Star Wars in the theater over 380 times.
For the rest, pop on over to BookPeople’s blog.
Cynthia Leitich Smith has a second guest post for BookPeople’s new Modern First Library program, and it’s about the one negative experience she’s had in the store. Check it out.
And then check out the latest episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, in which hosts Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman discuss which picture books they’d include in their own Modern First Library. Thanks for featuring the program, Ann and Michael!
Besides, if you like books (and I’m pretty sure you do), and you like podcasts (I know I do), why wouldn’t you want to listen to a podcast about books? I just this moment subscribed to Books on the Nightstand, and I can’t wait to hear more.
I’m guest-blogging over at Cynsations today with a behind-the-scenes account of how the Modern First Library program came about. Here’s a taste of what I’ve got to say:
A widespread urge to Do Something About This led to lots of conversations among authors, editors, librarians, and other champions of children’s literature. It led to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. And it led me to email Meghan Goel, the children’s-book buyer at my beloved local indie BookPeople, to discuss a new spin on the notion I’d had on that recent walk.
Wait — email Meghan in what capacity? As an author? Yes, but also as a BookPeople customer, and as a dad, and as a member of the community. Of various communities, in fact, large and small. What’s important is not whether I felt especially qualified to lend my voice but rather that I had an idea that I thought might be worth trying, and I decided not to keep it to myself. Sharing an idea was the least I could do.
Thank you, Cynthia Leitich Smith, for inviting me to share that story. And thanks to Meghan and the BookPeople staff for the fact that we have this story to share in the first place.
I was back at Cynsations as a guest blogger last week, sharing my thoughts on a new book that’s now become my go-to gift for graduates — but which is also quite relevant to those of us in the business of making books for young readers:
[W]hen I heard comedian and TV writer Carol Leifer (“Seinfeld,” “Modern Family”) on a podcast several weeks ago talking about the attitudes toward professionalism and creativity that have come in handy during her four-decades-and-counting career, those reflections sounded to me like they could have come from an experienced, successful children’s/YA author.
And when Leifer mentioned her new book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying: Lessons From a Life in Comedy, I suspected it was one I should read.
I’ve now read it twice. Let me tell you: Its applicability to the kid lit career that I and so many of my friends have chosen far exceeds my expectations. Plus, it’s really funny. You should read it.
Seriously — whatever your professional or creative path, this entire book is worth your time. But in case your not-yet-finished reading pile resembles mine, I’d like to share some of the especially resonant parts of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying…
You can read those selections over at Cynsations.
Thank you, Carol Leifer, for writing such a helpful, enjoyable book, and thanks a bunch to Cynthia Leitich Smith for giving me the space to share some of my favorite lessons from Leifer’s book.
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I’m a few days late to the party, thanks to my participation in the YALSA and ILF events, but I’m happy this morning to share with you this recently recorded interview I did for Katie Davis’ kidlit podcast, Brain Burps About Books.
In addition to discussing Shark Vs. Train and Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!, Katie and I talked quite a bit about my email newsletter, Bartography Express, which I wrote about earlier this year for Cynsations. And in fact, while I was listening to our interview, I was actually putting the finishing touches on this month’s edition.
The November edition includes, among other things, a Q&A with K.A. Holt and a giveaway of her new book, Rhyme Schemer. If you want to receive this issue in your very own inbox and get in the running for the giveaway, you can sign up on my home page.
The protagonist of Cynthia Leitich Smith's Feral Curse
is named Kayla. Her parents are white. She is black. She was adopted. From Ethiopia.
There's more. Lots more. And though it might seem like a lot for any story to take on, Smith pulls it off.
Kayla is a senior in high school. She is dating a guy named Ben. He's white, and deeply religious.
A bit more about Kayla. She's a werecat. A shapeshifter. For those who might be weirded out by that, Smith bats it down, making space for the existence of shapeshifters, with this:
Shifters aren't magical or demonic. Many of the Lord's creatures can transform. Frogs can change their gender. Snakes can change their skins. So what if we can change on the cellular level? Creation is ever the more glorious for its variety. Ever more miraculous.
Isn't that cool? People in the world Kayla lives in know about shapeshifters. She's going to meet other shapeshifters in this story. That's cool, too. Some people don't like them. Others don't know what to do about them. And others don't care. But that's changing, and not in a good way for the shapeshifters.
Early on in the story, Kayla decides to reveal her shifter self to Ben. He is glad for her having trusted him enough to do that but he's also unsettled by it and tells her that he will help her find a cure for her condition. They argue. He takes off. The things he does next unleash the story. That carousel you see on the cover? Woah!
I'll leave you to read it yourself to get why I said 'woah.'
Among Kayla's friends is a girl named Jess Bigheart. Jess is Osage. The two girls were best friends for awhile. Kayla went to powwows with Jess and her family, had sleepovers, all that good stuff. That was before Kayla knew she was a shapeshifter. She was thirteen when she first experienced a shift in her body. It scared her and she withdrew from friendships, becoming somewhat of a loner. Jess, though, remains a steadfast friend. That's going to matter. A lot.
Reviews note that the end of the book is a cliffhanger. It is. And it makes me want to read the next one right away, but I'll have to wait. I will say this about that ending. I like anything--well-written, of course--that takes me to Indian Country, because it reflects a segment of society that isn't often seen out there in the land of children's and young adult books.
Published in 2014 by Candlewick Press, Feral Curse
is the second book in Smith's "Feral" series. Here's the cover of the first one. I wonder what the third will be?! Can't wait!
is the third book in Cynthia Leitich Smith's Feral
series. She is Muscogee Creek. Books in the series consists of a series of chapters, each one told from the point of view of one of the characters.
Prior to this and her Tantalize
series, Leitich Smith wrote three books I highly recommend: her picture book Jingle Dancer
, the early reader chapter book Indian Shoes
, and her young adult novel Rain is Not My Indian Name
. Each one is a terrific story featuring Native kids and their families. All three are set in the present day.Feral Curse
, the second book in the Feral series, introduces a Native character. Her name is Jess. She is Osage. Kayla, one of the main characters in Feral Curse,
is a shapeshifter. Kayla and Jess grew up together and are good friends. In her early teens when Kayla realized she is a shapeshifter, she started to keep to herself, afraid of what people and friends will think about her, and afraid that she might inadvertently hurt or frighten them.
Some people in the world Leitich Smith creates are fine with shapeshifters; others aren't. It is that facet of the story that stands out to me as a Native women. The world Leitich Smith creates--and the attitudes of people in it--reflect the real world. Here on AICL, I've written about U.S. assimilation policies. Some of those laws and policies took land from Native peoples as a means to destroy our nationhood, and others sought to "kill the Indian and save the man." Those laws and policies were driven by attitudes held by people who did not want 'other' in the U.S.
That history is in my head as I read Feral Pride
, or any book. It doesn't matter what I read. I see gaps. And misrepresentations. But as I read Feral Pride
, I see Leitich Smith filling those gaps, meeting them head on.
Here's an example from early in Feral Pride.
It picks up where Feral Curse
left off. Feral Pride
opens with Clyde. Like Kayla, he is a shapeshifter. Clyde, Yoshi, and Kayla are on the run. Both Clyde and Yoshi have more experience with being hunted than Kayla does. Jess is driving them in her dad's squad car. He's a sheriff in the small town in Texas where Kayla and Jess are from. They're headed to the Osage reservation. Here's their conversation (p. 3):*
"None of this makes sense," Kayla says from the backseat of the squad car. "It's not illegal to be what we are. Why would federal agents be gunning for us?"
"Why wouldn't they?" answers Yoshi, who's beside her.
They're both right. It's not illegal to be what we are. But whenever anything goes wrong, anything bloody and brutal, shape-shifters are presumed guilty.
As I read "It's not illegal to be what we are" I thought about all the young people in the US today who some segments of society think of as "illegal." I thought about them being hunted, living in fear of being deported. I thought about how they are unfairly blamed for one social ill after another. Those who aren't branded "illegal" may not notice the work this particular part of Feral Pride
is doing, but you can be sure that those who are considered "illegal" will note that passage. It speaks to them, as does Jess, on page 9, when she says:
"Shifters are people. There are terrific people. There are terrible people. Most fall in between."
I keep reading Jess's words. The list of peoples in the world that have been dehumanized and demonized by terrible people is astounding. Feral Pride
pushes us--if we're willing--to think about that and why it happens.
Weighty topic, I know, but Leitich Smith lightens that weight with the banter the teens engage in as they drive. They're into superheroes and science fiction characters.
And! The parts of the story where characters shift or are talking about clothes? Well, I find those parts exquisite and they make me wish I could see all of this on a movie screen. And the parts where characters from the Tantalize series join the characters in the Pride series? Well done!
There are other tensions throughout the novel that provide opportunities to think about, for example, relationships across race. Characters who experience these tensions reflect on the ways that their own flaws and experiences shape what they say, do, and think. Their reflections and conversations give them space to revisit what they think, say, and do--and of course, provide those opportunities to us, too.
Elsewhere, reviewers note some of what I did above, and they call Feral Pride
compelling, action-packed, sexy, campy, and wickedly funny. I agree with all that, and am happy to recommend it.
is due out this year (2015) from Candlewick.*
I read an advanced reader copy of Feral Pride
. Page numbers I noted above may not correspond to the book when it is published.
Then another feline is up for grabs for the totz in your life. Pookie Pop Plays Hide-and-Seek is illustrated by Jannie Ho. Too cute, right?
Watch for these felines, readergirlz!
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candlewick Press, Feb. 24, 2015
illustrated by Jannie Ho
Nosy Crow, Feb. 24, 2015
By: Vicky L. Lorencen,
Photo by Vicky Lorencen
In 2013, I was fortunate to receive a critique from the lovely and ever-encouraging YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith. After reviewing the opening chapter of my second middle grade novel, Cyn told me humor was my super power. Me? I have a SUPER power? Well, if I have one, I know for certain you do too.
Maybe your super power is . . .
- Writing realistic dialogue
- Riding that fine line between sweet and sentimental
- Creating rich, other-worldly settings
- Weaving intricate, suspenseful plots
- Concocting quirky, but believable characters
- Being just plain funny
- None of the above–it’s your own proprietary blend
It’s always easier to pinpoint someone else’s super power, isn’t it. My friend Lisa Wheeler is a whiz with rhyme. Catherine Bieberich and Kelly Barson are able to strike a perfect balance between heart and humor. Jennifer Whistler crafts novels with a highly visual, cinematic quality. Others, like Monica Harris, are grand researchers who cull little-known tidbits from old texts to make even snoresville non-fiction topics intriguing.
What’s the point in knowing your super power? Well, as with a lot of things, it’s empowering to have a “go to”—like that perfected dish you can always whip without worry or that compliment-winning outfit in your closet. You can’t make lemon chicken piccata or wear that same suede jacket every day, but when the time is right, it’s confidence-building to know it’s there when you need it.
You can’t lean on your superpower for everything. (Even Superman had his day job as Clark Kent.) That’s why it’s important to read widely, request critiques, participate in workshops and stretch yourself by writing outside your comfort genre. Because my super power is humor, it’s easy for me to write in silly sound bites and let my characters make clever asides. While being funny can be engaging and amusing, overuse of humor can lapse into what I call “snarkasm.” Chronic quipping distances readers and makes otherwise 3-D characters seem shallow. A clever boy can become what political consultant David Alexrod described as a “congenital smart aleck.” There’s nothing super about that.
So, how about you? What’s your super power? (You may even have more than one!)
Spot Your Super Power Quiz
- When someone critique’s my work, the first positive thing I most often hear is:
- You’re so ___________________________.
- Your writing is ________________________.
- I feel most at ease writing ____________________.
- If I had to compare my work to someone else’s, it’d have to be:_____________________ and his/her work is known for ____________________________.
- Three words I’d use to describe my work:
- Text/call a fellow writer and ask for three words to describe your work:
- Is there an overlap between the answers to questions 4 and 5? If so:_______________________.
My super power is:__________________________.
Super! Please use your super powers for good. And remember to pick up your cape from the dry cleaners.
We must be careful with our words – we’re like superheroes and words are like our super powers. Super powers should always be used to help others. ~ Dianna Hardy
By: Jen Robinson
Blog: Jen Robinson
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There are two important deadlines in the Kidlitosphere today. First of all, nominations for the 2013 Cybils close tonight, October 15th, at midnight PST. This is your last chance to give props to the well-written children's and young adult titles that you think will most appeal to kids. Don't know what to nominate? Bloggers from all around the Kidlitosphere have been publishing lists of titles that they would like to see nominated. Start here and here for links. Many thanks to everyone who has nominated, suggested titles, and/or generally spread the word about the Cybils this year!
Second of all, today is the deadline to obtain our group discount for the KidLitCon hotel (the Sheraton in downtown Austin). You can still register for the conference until October 24th, but you may find it harder to find a hotel nearby. MotherReader (who negotiated our hotel discount) adds:
"Yes, other hotels around will be cheaper but this one is about .5 miles from the conference site, and is between the conference and dinner location. It looks lovely and has a lounge where we can hang out! I'm sorry, I mean where we WILL hang out."
I have to tell you that one of my very favorite parts of KidLitCon is sitting around a hotel lobby or lounge late into the evening, with a glass of wine in hand, talking with my peeps about all things books (and life). If you'd like to join us, today is the day to sign up, and lock in the discounted hotel rate. Contact me if you need more details.
We've also finalized some details about the conference, and the Friday pre-conference event. See the beautiful flyer below for details (with thanks to Tanita Davis and Sarah Stevenson).
In case you're having trouble viewing images, here is some of the key information in text form:
Join keynote speaker Cynthia Leitich Smith, readers, bloggers and
friends at the 2013 Kidlit Con at Austin. Kickoff meetup will be held Nov. 8 at the UT-Austin iSchool Campus, Tocker Lounge 1-4 p.m. The main conference will be held November 9, with coffee starting at 9:15, and the keynote at 10 a.m. Rekindling Your Love of Blogging. Panels and discussion,
catered luncheon. Round out the day with a buy-your-own group meal at Scholz
Beer Garten in downtown Austin. Conference Fee: $65. Registration deadline: October
24. See Kidlitosphere Central
for more information. Register here.
So, get your Cybils nominations in, and book your hotel room for KidLitCon today. And don't delay registering for KidLitCon, because that deadline is approaching soon, too. I hope to see you there.