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1. Part 2–Having Students Analyze Our Classroom Library To See How Diverse It Is

Guest BloggerEarlier this month, we highlighted the impressive work happening in the classroom of Jessica Lifshitz, veteran educator in Northbrook, Illinois. Following her popular essay on how Jessica empowered her fifth grade students to analyze their classroom library for its culturally responsiveness and relevancy, she shares in this interview with LEE & LOW BOOKS why she wanted to take on this project with her students, where families and administrators fit into this process, and her hopes for her students.

LEE & LOW: What inspired you to have your students analyze your classroom library?

After the events surrounding the shooting and death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I felt compelled to find a way to bring more discussions on race into my classroom. I teach in a suburb of Chicago, where the vast majority of my students are white. There were little or no conversations about race at all taking place. I knew that if things were going to ever have a hope of getting better in this country, my mostly white students HAD to be a part of the solution. They had to recognize the bias that exists in this country and then find a way to fight against it. But that is really hard to do when the concept of race is not one that my students have had much, if any, experience dealing with. So, like with most problems, the first place that I looked to try and find a solution was with the very books that make up a huge part of the work that my students and I do together.

We began by doing a small experiment (explained here) where we looked only at the images on the covers of picture books and made predictions on what those books would be about. Based on our results, we realized that we made MANY predictions because of the race and gender of the people shown on the covers of those books. After a powerful discussion with my students, they crafted the following inquiry question: Where do the biases and stereotypes we carry around related to gender, race, family structure, religion, etc. come from?

We then set out to try and answer that question. This eventually led us to think about the picture books in our classroom and that led us to the work of analyzing our books to look at how they represented or misrepresented different groups of people.

So the short answer really is that this work was inspired by students and the conditions of the world that they are living in.

LEE & LOW: Why do this at all? This project is not a part of the curriculum or scope & sequence for fifth grade—why did you think this was important enough to use instructional time?

As teachers, we have an incredible opportunity to truly make the world a better place. Not to sit and wait for others to fix the problems, but to ask our students to join us in the powerful work of actually starting to make the world a better.

I think that a lot of times we waste this amazing opportunity because we feel limited by standards and objectives and curriculum. But what I have found is that if I begin with what work I want my students to be engaged in and then work backwards to connect that work to the standards, I am then able to do the work that I feel is most important AND meet the standards and objectives that I am asked to teach.

For example, the work that we did here was a part of our unit on synthesizing. We looked at how we could pull pieces of information together in order to gain a better, more complete understanding. So we took the issue of stereotypes and biases and that is what we worked to understand. We looked at advertisements, fairy tales, modern day picture books and novels. We pulled all of these pieces of information together to grow our understanding of how biases form. This allowed us to cover many standards and learning targets.

But more importantly, the kids were learning about their world. They were studying the problems that surround them and thinking of ways to begin to solve those problems. That is learning that will last. That is learning that will make a difference. So if I am able to help them to do that kind of work AND I am able to cover the skills I need to teach in the process, then everyone wins and the world gets better.

BiasesLEE & LOW: What foundation, classroom work, or background context do you think was imperative before leading your students through this project?

I think that one of the most important pieces of work that allowed this project to happen was that, from day one, we had worked to create a culture of trust in our classroom. We practiced making ourselves vulnerable and we practiced listening to the ideas of others without passing judgments on people. These things were absolutely necessary for our work to take place because part of our work involved sharing things about our own thinking that we weren’t necessarily proud of. No one likes to admit that they carry biases, and yet we all do. Ignoring that doesn’t help anything. Confronting that and working to dismantle those biases is what leads to real change. But that takes a lot of trust. So from the start of the school year we talked about big issues.

We began with during our unit on memoirs and on making connections to the texts that we read. These units became a chance to study the power of a person’s story. We learned the power of sharing our own stories and the power of learning from the stories of others. This work allowed my students to open up to each other about their own lives and also allowed us to practicing listening to people whose lives are very different than our own in order to learn more about them and build empathy. These were skills we needed for this project as well.

When we started to look at biases and stereotypes, we began first with gender before tackling race. We began by looking at catalogues like Pottery Barn to notice the differences in what was marketed towards girls and what was marketed towards boys. We did work that helped us to distinguish the actual things we observed from the more hidden messages that this sent. We started with gender because I think it is easier for kids to grapple with. It is more concrete. While my students had almost no experience discussing issues of race, they did have some experience discussing issues of gender. So we started with where they were and then moved on from there. That was really important because I think that if I had just thrown them in to the discussions of how races were misrepresented in the books in our classroom library, they would not have been ready. The work we did with issues of gender helped us to better understand the work we later did with issues of race.

LEE & LOW: For teachers interested in leading their students through similar thinking and analysis, what would you recommend they prepare either for themselves or their students?

I hope that others want to take on similar work and I know that so many already have. The beauty of this kind of work is that is uses materials that are already present in your classroom. We have books and we can all look more closely at those books.

One thing that I would recommend is a whole lot of communication before beginning. I had several conversations with my principal about the work we were taking on. It was never to ask permission to do the work, but instead to just let him know and make sure I had his support in case of any push back from parents. Issues of race often spark fears and concerns with parents and having administrator support makes all of that much easier. On that note, keeping parents informed of the work was also really important for me. I wanted to make sure that parents knew what we were doing so that the conversations we were having could be continued at home. I also made sure to let parents know how our work was connected to our curriculum and our standards and learning targets. Therefore, when questions were asked, I was able to refer back to the information that I had already shared. This was extremely helpful.

Other than communication, I would also just encourage teachers to not say too much. Instead, allow the students observations to drive the conversation. We began by looking at the infographic and then jumped pretty quickly into the data collection in our own classroom library. I have a terrible habit of telling my students all of the things that I want them to discover on their own. I have really had to work to stop myself from doing that because taking away that power from my students takes the learning right out of their hands. So I wouldn’t recommend preparing too much and allowing the students to really guide this work.

LEE & LOW: Is this only valuable for classrooms with a majority of students of color? What can classrooms of various demographic configurations take away from this project?

As I mentioned before, my students are mostly white. Because of that, this work is especially important for them. So often, our white students do not ever think about race. That is part of the privilege they are living with. But that makes it really easy for them to ignore what others have to deal with precisely because of their race. I believe that my students MUST be a part of a solution to the many problems connected to race in this country. But they cannot be a part of that solution if they are not even able to recognize that the problems exist.

For Further Reading:


IMG_1316

Jessica Lifshitz is a fifth grade teacher in Northbrook, Illinois and has been teaching for 13 years.  She believes in teaching her students that reading and writing can make the world a better place and is honored to learn from her students and to be inspired by them every day.  She writes about teaching and learning at crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com.

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2. Meet the Newest Cute Animal of 2016!

Red pandas? Done. Quokkas? Yawn. Pikas? Boooring. Here are six reasons why you need to know about the olinguito.

olinguito1
Smithsonian / Via insider.si.edu

1. The discovery of the olinguito was only just announced in 2013, meaning this cutie is ready to take over the internet!

olinguito2
Smithsonian / Via insider.si.edu

2. It looks like a cross between a cat and a teddy bear. ‘Nuff said.

olinguito3
CNN / Via cnn.com

3. It is an adept jumper that can leap from tree to tree in the forest canopy. Skillzzz!

olinguito4
Smithsonian Magazine / Via smithsonianmag.com

4. Scientists hope that the olinguito might serve as a charismatic ambassador for the conservation of dwindling Andean cloud forest habitats. How can anyone say no to that face?

olinguito5
Apex Expeditions / Via apex-expeditions.com

5. As Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, says, “The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed. If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science. Documenting them is the first step toward understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth.”

olinguito cover image
LEE & LOW BOOKS, illus. by Lulu Delacre / Via leeandlow.com

6. Learn even more about the olinguito and its habitat in ¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! Descubriendo el bosque nublado /Olinguito, from A to Z! Unveiling the Cloud Forest, a new bilingual alphabet book from LEE & LOW BOOKS.

Award-winning author and illustrator Lulu Delacre uses lyrical text in both Spanish and English to take readers to the magical world of a cloud forest in the Andes of Ecuador. Discover the bounty of plants, animals, and other organisms that live there, and of course help a zoologist look for the elusive olinguito!

Purchase a copy of the book here.

You can also see this post on Buzzfeed.

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3. Celebrating 25 Books Over 25 Years: Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa

Lee_Low_25th_Anniversary_Poster_2_LEE & LOW BOOKS celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and to recognize how far the company has come, we are featuring one title a week to see how it is being used in classrooms today as well, as hear from the authors and illustrators.

 

Featured title: Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa

Author: Matthew Gollub

Illustrator: Kazuko G. Stone

Synopsis: This award-winning book is an introduction to haiku poetry and the life of Issa (b. 1763), Japan’s premier haiku poet, told through narrative, art, and translation of Issa’s most beloved poems for children.

Author Matthew Gollub’s poignant rendering of Issa’s life and over thirty of his best-loved poems, along with illustrator Kazuko Stone’s sensitive and humorous watercolor paintings, make Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! a classic introduction to Issa’s work for readers of all ages. With authentic Japanese calligraphy, a detailed Afterword, and exhaustive research by both author and illustrator, this is also an inspirational book about haiku, writing, nature, and life.

Awards and honors:

  • Notable Books for a Global Society, International Literacy Association (ILA)
  • Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts, National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
  • Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, Children’s Book Council (CBC) and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)
  • Children’s Books Mean Business, Children’s Book Council (CBC)
  • Not Just for Children Anymore selection, Children’s Book Council (CBC)
  • Outstanding Merit, Children’s Book of the Year, Bank Street College of Education
  • Best Children’s Books of the Year, Bank Street College of Education
  • Books to Read Aloud with Children of All Ages, Bank Street College of Education
  • “Editor’s Choice,” San Francisco Chronicle
  • Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award finalist
  • Children’s and Young Adult Honorable Mention for Illustration, Asian Pacific American Award for Literature (APAAL)
  • “Choices,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
  • ALA Notable Children’s Book, American Library Association (ALA)
  • A Horn Book Fanfare Best Book of the Year, The Horn Book Magazine
  • California Collections, California Readers
  • Utah Children’s Book Award Masterlist
  • Children’s Book of Distinction, Poetry Finalist, Riverbank Review
  • Read-Alouds Too Good to Miss, Indiana Department of Education
  • Starred Review, Publishers Weekly
  • Starred Review, The Horn Book Magazine

From the author: “A haiku, because of its brevity, resembles a quick line sketch. It’s up to the reader to imagine the details and to make the picture complete. In a sense, we can think of a haiku as a telegraph; for example: “Should arrive Tuesday, supper time.” From this short message, we can infer that, weather permitting, the sender will arrive early on Tuesday evening, and that after the long, tiresome journey she would appreciate a good meal.

Often, haiku describe two events side by side, such as: “Plum tree in bloom—/ a cat’s silhouette/ upon the paper screen.” Does the silhouette of the plum tree also appear on the paper screen? Does the plum tree in bloom suggest the warmth of a spring day? Again, it’s up to the reader to imagine how or if the two things are related.

Haiku tend to be simple and understated, so there’s never one “correct” way to interpret them. The idea is to ponder each poem’s imagery and to discover and enjoy how the poem makes you feel.”

–Matthew Gollub, from “What is a Haiku?

Resources for teaching with Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa:

Book activity:

Expand students’ experience with haiku by having them read and discuss works by other seventeenth century and eighteenth century poets such as Basho, Jöso, Ryota, Buson, or Sanpu. Students may also enjoy reading more contemporary haiku and comparing the contemporary poetry with the more traditional.

cool melonsHow have you used Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa? Let us know!

Celebrate with us! Check out our 25 Years Anniversary Collection.

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4. Thursday Review: SPARKERS by Eleanor Glewwe

Synopsis: With cover blurbs from the likes of Rachel Hartman, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Anne Ursu, and Ingrid Law, the MG fantasy Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe should have caught my eye earlier. I met Eleanor at a conference this summer and I'm a... Read the rest of this post

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5. LGBTQ Parents in Middle Grades

Here are some tips on how to write LGBTQ parents in your middle grade novel.

http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/2016/05/writing-about-middle-graders-with-lgbtq.html

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6. Monday Review: NEVER MISSING NEVER FOUND by Amanda Panitch

Synopsis: Suspense stories that deal with kidnapping and imprisonment (consider that your trigger warning) don't always put an equally weighty focus on the aftermath of the trauma. This particular thriller suspensefully covers both the dramatic... Read the rest of this post

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7. 25 Books from 25 Years: Richard Wright and the Library Card

Lee & Low 25th AnniversaryLEE & LOW BOOKS celebrates its 25th anniversary this year! To recognize how far the company has come, we are featuring one title a week to see how it is being used in classrooms today and hear from the authors and illustrators.

Today, we are celebrating Richard Wright and the Library Card, an inspirational story for children of all backgrounds. This book shares a poignant turning point in the life of a young man who became one of this country’s most brilliant writers, the author of Native Son and Black Boy.

Featured title: Richard Wright and the Library Card

Richard Wright and the Library Card cover imageAuthor: William Miller

Illustrator: Gregory Christie

Synopsis: The true story of the renowned African American author Richard Wright and his determination to borrow books from the public library that turned him away because of the color of his skin.

Awards and Honors:

  • Notable Children’s Book, Smithsonian
  • Honor Book, Society of School Librarians International

Other Editions: Did you know that Richard Wright and the Library Card also comes in a Spanish edition?

Richard Wright y el carné de biblioteca

Richard Wright y el carné de biblioteca

Purchase a copy of Richard Wright and the Library Card here.

Resources for teaching with Richard Wright and the Library Card:

Richard Wright and the Library Card Teacher’s Guide

Learn more about Richard Wright:

Additional LEE & LOW titles by William Miller:

Have you used Richard Wright and the Library Card? Let us know!

Celebrate with us! Check out our 25 Years Anniversary Collection.

 

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8. Part 1–Having Students Analyze Our Classroom Library To See How Diverse It Is

Guest BloggerWe at LEE & LOW BOOKS are excited and honored to share the impressive work happening in the classroom of Jessica Lifshitz, veteran educator in Northbrook, Illinois. In an excerpt of her essay, Jessica describes how she empowers her fifth grade students to analyze their classroom library for its culturally responsiveness and relevancy. She provides students with background information, including LEE & LOW BOOKS’ visualization of the lack of diversity in children’s books. Originally posted at Jessica’s blog, Crawling Out of the Classroom, this excerpt is reposted with permission.

Having Students Analyze Our Classroom Library To See How Diverse It IsI truly believe that books, of all kind, play a large role in shaping how our students see the world. So often, children have little choice in what kinds of books surround them. Even in classrooms and schools where children are free to choose to read whatever books they want, they are still often limited by the choice of books that we adults have placed around them. And too often, we adults do not think carefully enough about what books, with what images of race and gender and family structure, we are surrounding our children with.

So that is where I wanted to look. At the books I was choosing to put into my classroom library. I wanted my students to join me in looking more closely at the books that I had in my classroom and how they represented and misrepresented the world they are living in.

So we began with an infographic. In fact, the majority of my students had no idea what an infographic was. So first. We had to learn. This was a good reminder to me to use these rich conveyers of information more often through the year. Anyway, we began by looking at THIS infographic, which shares the disturbing statistics on diversity in children’s literature. This, alone, led to incredible discussion about so many things.

We began with a discussion of the term, “people of color.” So many of my almost all-white students had never heard this term before and it took a while for them to grasp its meaning. We then had a discussion on the difference between white writers writing about people of color and writers of color writing about people of color. Then we entered into a discussion of how it might be harder for writers of color to get their books published in the competitive world of children’s publishing. And finally we ended up at a discussion of our own reading preferences and how sometimes we are tempted to read books that discuss lives similar to our own and how much more rewarding it can be to push ourselves to read books that teach us about the lives of others whose lives are different than our own.

All from one infographic.

The children were so eager for the discussion. We actually ended up looking at an entire series of fascinating infographics that show how different kinds of diversity are represented or misrepresented in different areas of society. That series of infographics CAN BE FOUND HERE.

img_0992And then we turned to our own books. I wanted to start in my own classroom. I have shared openly with my students that all of this work, on race and on gender, it is work for me too. I know that I make mistakes often and I wanted them to see that I, too, need to constantly do better to work past my own biases and stereotypes.

So I gave my students the chance to audit our own classroom library to find out how different genders and races are represented and how we could do better to make sure that different genders and races were more accurately represented by the books in our classroom.

I asked the students to each randomly grab 25 books. And for each book they were to look to see if there were people on the cover. If there were, they were to note if all of the people on the cover were white and if all the people on the cover were boys. They kept track on this simple data collection sheet.

img_0994Now, I recognize that this is FAR from a thorough and scientific analysis of the books in our classroom library. I recognize that just because there is not a person of color on the cover of a book that does not mean the book does not contain a person of color in it. I recognize the flaws. I am shared them with my students. And still, it was something.

Because even more important than our results was the task of looking at the images on the covers of the books that surround us. More important than the numbers that we wrote down, were the discussions we had about why book publishers make the decisions that they make about who goes on the covers of our books. More important than the percentages that we ended up with were the realizations that we all made as we learned to look at the world differently. To see who was represented and, more importantly, to see who was NOT represented. This was the important work that we were doing.

Once the students finished collecting their data, they entered their results into a Google spreadsheet. HERE ARE OUR RESULTS.  

After spending time looking closely at the books in our classroom library and after spending time looking at the numbers we collected, we had a discussion of what they noticed. Here are some charts that we used to capture our observations:

I was kind of blown away, once again, by what my students discovered. I thought I had a diverse library. I really did. In fact, I have worked over the past two years to make sure that I was buying the kinds of books that would help all of my readers to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books in my classroom.  But what I forgot is that the vast majority of my readers are white. They see themselves, in terms of race, in almost every book they pick up.

What they need is something else. They need to be able to see into the lives of others. To use books as windows so that they can gain an understanding of what it means to be a race other than white. They need books to help them grow and become more empathetic citizens of this world. And while I have tried to provide books for them that would do just that, I realized from their work that I have a LONG way to go.

I need to do better. I need to do more.

And showing my students that I can look at where I am and find ways to do better in terms of making this world more equitable and just, that is no small thing.

So together we brainstormed ways that I can work to improve our classroom library. We talked about starting with sports fiction. The students noticed that while the nonfiction sports books were filled with African-American people, the books in my sports fiction bin barely had any characters of color.  The exception was The Crossover, which just goes to show how important it was for that book to win the Newberry last year.

Here we have taken an area of our society that is rather diverse and the books that I have purchased that have fictionalize that area of society have completely sucked all of the diversity right out of it.  So I must do better.

In the same area, we saw how few girls were represented in our sports fiction books. I have so many girls in my classes who don’t just play sports, but whose lives revolve around their favorite sports and still, we could only find one book, The Running Dream, in our sports fiction books that had a female main character. I must do better.

And then, we moved on to my fantasy and science fiction books. This was an area that was also very much lacking in racial diversity. And so I will now be on the lookout for books with characters of color in these two genres. I must do better.

And one of the most powerful observations that a student made was that while he did see books with African-American characters on the cover, he did not see many other races represented. He did not see any Native American characters, Asian American characters or Middle Eastern characters on the covers of the books that he looked at. Again, I must do better.

These suggestions came from my students and I am so proud of the work that they have done. As I shared with my students, I continue to be proud of our classroom library. I am proud of the choices that I have made in the books that I have put into our classroom library AND at the same time, I know now that I can and must do better. I shared with my students how grateful I am for the work that they have done to help me to see this.

After our counting books, we then used the following pages to look more closely inside of our picture books in order to see how races, genders and families were being represented. The kids chose one of these types of diversity to focus on and then pulled a few books to record their observations and evidence.  Here are the sheets that they used for:

Race

Gender Roles for Children

Gender Roles for Adults

Family Structure 

Again, the students had time to discuss their observations and I was blown away by what they were picking up on.

Finally, we headed to our school’s library, to again count books. We collected the same type of data, but this time for our school library. HERE WERE OUR RESULTS. 

We realized that many of the trends that we saw in our classroom library, also existed in our school library. One of the greatest parts of this work was listening to the students talk to our school librarian (who is amazing) about the changes that we were hoping to make to our classroom library. This led to other powerful conversations between the librarian and me and I was so grateful for her input and her support.

This work has been incredible. It has, at times, left me feeling doubtful. Doubtful of myself, of this world we live in, of the way we misrepresent so many of the people who surround us. But ultimately, after watching and listening to my students, I was left hopeful. Hopeful because once my students began to see what was around them in new ways, they couldn’t un-see things anymore. They couldn’t not see. They were running up to me when they came across stereotypes that were perpetuated in their books. They had their parents send me pictures from bookstores when they noticed books that either reinforced or fought against stereotypes in some way. They noticed things on the news, on TV shows, on social media. And I believe that noticing is one big step towards making change.

There were times during this work when I felt like I had to rush through. There were times when I questioned if I really had time to be spending on this work. But the truth is, there is no way that I don’t have the time. This world we live in needs changing and the students that I am teaching must be a part of that change. And so though it feels like there is never enough time to do things that we most believe in, this work has showed me that we must find a way.

I am grateful, yet again, for what my students have taught me. And grateful, even more, for the hope that they give me for this world of ours.


IMG_1316Jessica Lifshitz is a fifth grade teacher in Northbrook, Illinois and has been teaching for 13 years.  She believes in teaching her students that reading and writing can make the world a better place and is honored to learn from her students and to be inspired by them every day.  She writes about teaching and learning at crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com.

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9. HeroesCon starts tomorrow…but you can help support equality tonight

A lot of lucky comics folks are headed to Charlotte, NC for HeroesCon which kicks off tomorrow with its usual stellar guest list, informative programming and unmatched hospitality. Unfortunately due to political machinations beyond HeroesCon’s control — or the control of the many good folks who live in NC including a bunch of my family […]

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10. No More “Illegal Aliens”

guest blogger iconFrom the US presidential candidates to the current situation in Europe, immigration is a hot topic. In our last blog post, we looked at the battle that’s currently going on in the Library of Congress over the term “illegal alien.” Many activists argue that the term is outdated, yet the Library of Congress chose to let it stand. In this guest post, Children’s Book Press author René Colato Laínez talks about his own experiences coming to the US from El Salvador and the label “illegal alien.”

At the 2016 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, librarians passed a resolution urging the Library of Congress to change the subject heading from “Illegal Aliens” to “Undocumented Immigrants.” As the author of the new picture book, Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre, I totally agree. Undocumented Immigrants is a better subject to describe the people who arrived from other countries to live and work in the United States. They are undocumented because they don’t have the right papers to come to this country via an airport or through a border checkpoint entrance. They are also immigrants because they were born in another country. So the term Undocumented Immigrant fits the status of this group of people.

mama the alienThe term “Illegal Aliens” definitely is confusing to many, just like it was to me. Yes, I was an Undocumented Immigrant, and when I arrived in this country, I was called an “Illegal Alien.”

Since I was a small child in my native country of El Salvador, I was taught by my family and teachers that I needed to be a good boy. Especially during that time! There was a civil war in my country. Teachers and priests had been killed and many people would disappear from one day to the next. It was a scary time to grow up, and I always tried to be a good boy.

One afternoon, my fifth grade teacher said, “Soon, you will be teenagers and you have to know that ‘illegal acts’ only take people to jail or the cemetery. You need to do only ‘legal things’ in order to be safe.” Then he asked the class to make a list of “illegal acts” and to write a promise that we would be good citizens to have a better society. In my list I included among other things that using drugs, stealing, and not following the rules were illegal acts. Then I proudly promised never to do anything illegal.

As a result of the civil war in the 1980’s, many Salvadoran families left the country looking for a better life and opportunities. My family was not the exception. My mother left the country at the beginning of the war. In 1985 it was my turn to come the United States.

Soon after I arrived, some children in my new school called all the children who only spoke Spanish “illegals.” I did not understand why they were calling us “illegals.” I asked my father and he explained to me that they called us that because we did not have the right papers to come in an airplane or through the bridge in Tijuana.

I began to understand the term, but it did not make sense to me. In my country only people who had money were able to get papers to come to the United States. Poor people like my family did not have the privilege to get these documents. I did not understand why it was illegal to escape a civil war to look for a better life and opportunities in a country that was safe from war.

As I learned English, I remember our social studies teacher asked us to read the newspapers to write class reports. It was there when I first encountered the term “Illegal Aliens.” I kept reading the article and discovered that people who arrived to this country without the right papers were not only illegals, but were aliens too.

mama the alien
illustration from Mamá the Alien

Every night, after I saw the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, I remember looking at the stars wondering if there was life on another planet. It was the 1980’s and, like everyone, I loved that little alien who wanted to go home. When I saw the stars, I wondered if there were aliens like E.T. and how it would feel to be lost on another planet.

Imagine my surprise to learn that I was also an “alien” and that “aliens” were not only from outer space, but from other countries, too. The word “alien” could have more than one meaning—it was also a synonym for foreigner. But when I looked at both words, even though foreigner was a longer word and harder to pronounce in English, it sounded much better to me than alien. I touched my hands and looked at my face in the mirror. Yes, I spoke another language but I had a face, arms and body just like the other children at school. I did not look like a strange creature from out of space. But being an alien implied that I could not be like other “normal” persons, because I was so different from them.

Years later, thanks to the Amnesty Program in 1989, my family had the opportunity to obtain the right papers to live and work in the United States. When I got my pink resident card, I read the blue words at the top of the card: “RESIDENT ALIEN.” “Wow,” I said to myself, “I am now a resident, but I am still an alien!”

I became a teacher and I was assigned to a bilingual kindergarten/first grade classroom. All of my students spoke Spanish. Many of them were born in the United States and others were like me, from other countries. My goal as a teacher was to teach them to read and write, but also to teach them to be smart children who are proud to be bilingual. In the country where I grew up— and almost everywhere around the world!—speaking other languages and being bilingual is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, it is a wonderful achievement.

juan felipe herrera collectionI began to read bilingual books to my students, especially Friends from the Other side/ Amigos del otro lado by Gloria Anzaldua, The Upside Down Boy/ El niño de cabeza and Super Cilantro Girl/ La Super niña del cilantro by Juan Felipe Herrera, My Diary from Here to There/ Mi diario de aquí hasta allá by Amada Irma Pérez, A Movie in My Pillow by Jorge Argueta and the poetry collection such us Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Spring Poems / Jitomates Risueños: Y Otros Poemas de Primavera by Francisco X Alarcón. My students loved these books because they were able to see their faces, lives, language and culture in the pages of these books. I began to write stories myself and my students began calling me, “The Teacher Full of Stories.” At the turn of the new century, I decided to follow the advice of children’s book authors like Alma Flor Ada, F. Isabel Campoy and Amada Irma Pérez who suggested that it was time to submit my work for publication. Since the first moment that I typed the words of my first book, Waiting for Papá/ Esperando a Papá, I knew I wanted to write books about children of color. My first book was published in 2004 by Piñata Books, an imprint of Arte Público Press.

 My goal as a children’s books author is to produce strong multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they see themselves as heroes, and where they dream and hope for the future. I wanted to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States.

These were the books that I had wanted to read when children called me “Illegal” at school.

from north to southSoon, I was receiving emails and letters from parents, librarians, and teachers on how my first book was helping them in homes, libraries and the classrooms. Next I wrote about the importance of being bilingual in Playing Lotería/ El juego de la Lotería. In From North to South/ Del norte al sur, José and his father need to go south to cross the Mexican/ US border to be reunited with his deported mamá in Tijuana. I also write about the importance of living in two cultures and speaking two languages in books such as The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez, Juguemos al Fútbol and Football/ Let’s Play Fútbol and Football and in my two sing-along books, Señor Pancho Had a Rancho and ¡Vámonos! Let’s Go!.

In 2016, my newest picture book Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre will be published by Lee & Low Books. In the story, Sofía discovers a Big Secret. She finds a card that belongs to her mother. It has mamá’s picture and the word alien on top of the card. Sofía cannot believe it. Her mother is an alien.

Sofía feels just like me when I discovered that I was also an alien. I am excited that Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre will soon be in the hands of parents, teachers, librarians and children. In this book readers will find out in a humoristic way that we are all children of planet earth. There are no aliens among our families. We can be from different countries but are all human beings.

Come meet René Colato Laínez at ALA this year. He will be signing with LEE & LOW (Booth #1469), as well as participating in a REFORMA panel on bilingual books. You can see our full ALA schedule here

About René Colato Laínez

rene colato lainezKnown as “the teacher full of stories,” René Colato Laínez is the Salvadoran author of more than a dozen picture books including ¡Vámonos! Let’s Go! (illustrated by Joe Cepeda, Holiday House), Señor Pancho Had a Rancho (illustrated by Elwood Smith, Holiday House), and The Tooth Fairy Meets El Raton Pérez, (illustrated by Tom Lintern, Random House). His new picture book, Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre (illustrated by Laura Lacamara) will be available this summer.

In 2015, René was awarded the Premios Actitud El Salvador Award. He has received many awards and honors including International Latino Book Award, The Américas Award Commended Title, International Reading Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and Tejas Star Book Award List.

René is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults and a faculty member of Sandra Cisneros Macondo Writers Group. He is a bilingual elementary teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School, one of Los Angeles Unified School District’s most innovative schools. He is also a columnist for LA BLOGA, the Latino literature blog and LOS BLOGUITOS the blog for children learning to speak Spanish. He has appeared on Univision and Telemundo, and is a regular participant at conferences and book festivals in the United States and Latin America.

Visit him on the web http://www.renecolatolainez.com, or follow him on twitter @renecolato

More reading

Diversity 102: The Library of Congress Battle Over “Illegal Alien” 

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11. New Books Haul

I was good. You'd be proud of me. I limited my book buying spree to merely THREE.This was at the Mixed Remixed Festival, which took place over this past Friday and Saturday at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A. (Read a great... Read the rest of this post

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12. Celebrating 25 Books from 25 Years: Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree

Lee_Low_25th_Anniversary_Poster_2_LEE & LOW BOOKS celebrates its 25th anniversary this year! To recognize how far the company has come, we are featuring one title a week to see how it is being used in classrooms today and hear from the authors and illustrators.

 

Featured title: Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry TreeZora Hurston

Author: William Miller

Illustrators: Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

Synopsis: The true story of the famous African American writer, Zora Neale Hurston, who as a young girl learned about hope and strength from her mother.

Awards and honors:

  • Reading Rainbow Selection, PBS Kids
  • Choices, Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
  • Pick of the List, American Bookseller’s Association
  • Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, NCSS/CBC

The story behind the story:

Since 1994, William Miller has published nine picture books with Lee & Low, in addition to several titles with other publishing houses. He made his picture book debut with Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree, which was a “Reading Rainbow” selection, and which Booklist praised as being “lyrically told.”

“I started out as a poet who wrote poems about famous African American writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Frederick Douglass. My high school English teacher, who is also a children’s book author, encouraged me to write a picture book based on my poems. I expanded a poem on Hurston’s life and simplified the language for children. I sent the manuscript out when I felt I had written the best possible, most poetic story I could tell.

I’ve taught African American literature for many years at York College in Pennsylvania. Personally, I am drawn to the themes of struggle, renewal, and celebration in the literature I teach. No matter how many times I teach the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, I find something new, something that inspires me to live my life on a higher level.”

(from an interview with William Miller)

Resources for teaching with Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree:

Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree Teacher’s Guide

Learn more about Zora Hurston:

 Additional LEE & LOW titles by William Miller:

 Book activities:

  1. Pretend you are Zora’s friend. Write her a letter encouraging her zorato remember her dreams and to find a way to keep her promise to her mother.
  2. After students have read the story, arrange them into groups of four. Explain to them that the members of each group will take turns adding leaves to a “Tree of Dreams.” Provide each group with a large sheet of butcher paper on which you have drawn the outline of a tree. Tell students that they will take turns drawing leaves on the branches of the tree. Inside each leaf, they will each write a dream. The students may take turns until they have run out of ideas or class time. Use the trees as a “Forest of Dreams” to facilitate a discussion of dreams and aspirations. Be sure to display the “Forest of Dreams” in the classroom.

Have you used Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree? Let us know!

Celebrate with us! Check out our 25 Years Anniversary Collection.

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13. Come Meet LEE & LOW BOOKS at ALA 2016!

It’s that time of year again! The annual ALA conference is just around the corner and we would love to meet you! We’ll be in at Booth #1469!

ala annual conferenceSee below for our signing schedule as well as a few other events we’ll be participating in:

SIGNINGS AT BOOTH #1469

Friday, June 24

Lee Bennett Hopkins (Amazing Places), 6:00-6:45 PM

Saturday, June 25

G. Neri (Chess Rumble), 10:00-10:45 AM

Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore (Prairie Dog Song), 11:00-11:45 AM

René Colato Laínez (Mamá the Alien), 1:00-1:45 PM

Kimberly Reid (Perfect Liars), 2:00-2:45 PM

Sylvia Liu (A Morning with Grandpa), 3:00-3:45 PM

Sunday, June 26

Monica Brown (Marisol McDonald and the Monster), 9:15-10:00 AM

Lulu Delacre (Olinguito, from A to Z!), 11:00-11:45 AM

Karen Sandler (Tankborn Trilogy), 12:00-12:45 PM

Gwendolyn Hooks (Tiny Stitches), 1:00-1:45 PM

 

PANELS

Join LEE & LOW representatives at the following panels:

Saturday, June 25

Director of Marketing & Publicity Hannah Ehrlich at the Library for All panel: Diverse Books from Across the Globe, 10:30-11:30 AM, Hyatt Regency Orlando, Room Regency Ballroom T

Publisher Jason Low at Ideas Exchange: Increasing Diversity in the Publishing and Library Workforce, 2:45-3:30 PM, Convention Center, Room W414CD

 Sunday, June 26

LEE & LOW Book Buzz: Diverse and Fabulous Books from LEE & LOW, 3:30-4:15 PM, Convention Center, Room Exhibit Hall – Book Buzz Theater

Monday, June 27

Pop Top Panel on Bilingual Books: The  State of Bilingual Children’s Books, 9:00-9:50 AM, Convention Center, Room Exhibit Hall – PopTop Stage

Hope to see you there!

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14. The Diversity Gap in the Tony Awards, 1982-2015

Guest BloggerThis year’s Tony Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, June 12, 2016. We posted our first infographic and study on the Diversity Gap in the Tony Awards in 2013. In 2014, we did a brief follow-up post. In 2015-2016, there was such a pronounced uptick of diverse productions on Broadway that we felt it was worth updating our infographic and taking another look at diversity in the theater industry.

This year, Broadway megahit Hamilton—which almost exclusively stars actors of color—broke Tony records with a whopping 16 nominations. Add to that nominations for The Color PurpleEclipsed, and Shuffle Alongand we’re in a year where conceivably all the main acting Tonys could go to people of color.  But is this year’s diversity a sign of lasting change, or an anomaly? To find out, we touched base again with award-winning writer, actor, and director Christine Toy Johnson to get her take on the current state of diversity in theater. Welcome, Christine!

The Diversity Gap in the Tony Awards infographic
The Diversity Gap in the Tony Awards infographic (click for larger image)
  1. With the critical and commercial success of Hamilton, do you feel that this play will have a “rising tide lifts all boats” effect on theater and will result in more opportunities for diverse actors and actresses?

Of course that’s the great hope. The thought that has been repeated and repeated year after year—that audiences will not buy tickets to see a show in which the lead storytellers are not household names or who are people of color, or that audiences won’t buy tickets to see a show that is about people of a cultural background other than their own—is now irrelevant. Try to buy a ticket to Hamilton.

Still, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of our challenges, by a long tony-quote1shot. I think that we, as a nation, are at this profound crossroads of sorts. On one hand our society has become more inclusive than ever in our laws and policies. On the other hand, it has become more divisive than ever with fear based hate rhetoric making it clear that many view inclusion as a threat to the status quo, instead of an opportunity to expand and enrich the status quo. Even in the most subtle and subconscious ways, I think that this trickles down into every corner of our lives, including how we make art, how it’s perceived, and how it’s produced. I think we should celebrate this season with a cautious optimism, and use it as inspiration to keep working toward raising that tide and lifting those boats!

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote about Hamilton that expands on some of my thoughts on the show’s impact.

  1. While years of vigilance and activism has been a contributing factor in more diverse casting, what has been your take on why so many productions in 2016 were diverse?

I think it’s been the perfect storm of programming and casting that happened to converge this season. From most reports, next season does not look nearly as diverse. So though I’d love to think this season is so diverse because the tide has changed for good, I think it’s diverse because the tide has turned for some creative teams and/or this is the year they’re getting their shot and we’re lucky enough to see the fruits of their labor right now.

  1. Obviously, diverse decision makers are key to hiring and casting more diverse casts. Has there been an increase in diversity among directors, playwrights, and producers in theater? Are there new creators breaking into Broadway who we should be aware of?

tony-quote2It pains me that some people have assumed that the lack of diversity and inclusion on Broadway is due to the lack of directors, playwrights, and actors of color, or to the lack of female directors, playwrights, and actors. We exist! But the truth is, it has not been an even playing field. Of course this is multi-layered, as is every other issue we’re discussing here. Taking a chance on someone who hasn’t had an opportunity to have a big commercial success yet is of course full of great financial risk. But I think this becomes a vicious circle. How do you get the opportunity to have a commercial success if you aren’t allowed the opportunity in the first place?

I also think that on a deeper level we are running up against a problem of narrowed perceptions, which lead to what certain producers expect writers of color to be writing about. And if we don’t fit their expectation or profile for us then we’re just not part of their equation. And while there might be a half dozen (or more) shows per season that fail that are written by/directed by/starring all Caucasian teams, there is never an assumption that the reason they failed was because there was a Caucasian team behind it or a Caucasian story line. But if the numbers are poor for a show featuring a non-Caucasian cast/writer/director, many will be quick to make an assumption that these kinds of stories/writers/directors/actors just don’t sell tickets and aren’t worth the risk.

There are so many writers of color who deserve to break through in a bigger way than they already have: Timothy Huang, Adam Gwon, Nikkole Salter, Leah Nanako Winkler, Jason Ma, Lloyd Suh, to name just a few. As for Asian American producers, I know there are several who are doing great stuff on Broadway, especially Lily Fan and Jhett Tolentino.

  1. Following Hollywood’s #Oscarssowhite controversy, do you know if there are any efforts underway to recruit more people of color to join the various organizations that are eligible to vote on Tony Award nominees? (Note: this year, according to our research, the Tony Awards Nominating Committee was 86% white and 70% male).

Tony voters are largely made up of the elected leaderships of various tony-quote3arms of the industry (i.e. Dramatist Guild, Actors’ Equity Association, SDC, etc., as well as many producers and presenters) and I do believe that there is an ongoing effort to diversify those memberships. But it goes beyond that, since we are talking about the Tony nominators and voters coming from within those ranks. In other words, yes, it’s great to increase the diversity of these memberships, but it’s not a simple solution to increasing the make up of Tony voters or Tony nominators.

  1. More diverse casting and storylines will result in more diverse theater audiences. Seems to us this is an opportunity for the theater industry to grow. Do the powers that be really get it or is 2016 an anomaly when it comes to the spike in diverse productions?

We have been having this same discussion for more than a decade, citing the same philosophies and reasoning. I can only hope that the numbers this year help to reinforce the idea. Time will tell.

ChristineToyJohnson-croppedCHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON is an award-winning writer, actor, director, and advocate for inclusion. Member: Dramatists Guild Council, Actors’ Equity Association Council (and national chair of the union’s EEOC), Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project (founder), Executive Board of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, founding steering committee member of AAPAC. She is also an alumna of the BMI Workshop and a member of ASCAP, AEA, and SAG-AFTRA.

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15. 2016 Diverse Summer Reading Lists Grades PreK-8

Memorial Day Weekend has come and gone, which can only mean one thing. The end of June is right around the corner (hang in there teachers!).

Now, we are all well aware of the importance of having access to books and the harmful effects of the slippery slope that is the summer slide.

So, to keep the kids reading all summer long, LEE & LOW has put Diverse Summer Reading List 2016together a Diverse Summer 2016 Reading List for Grades PreK-8 and printables which you can freely download here or find listed below. Each list contains books that not only highlight different grade-appropriate interests, such as sports, music, sci-fi/fantasy, and the environment, but also explore diverse cultural backgrounds and traditions.

These lists are not only an excellent tool to help you include diverse books in your summer suggested reading lists, but a way to begin diversifying the books available to students in your classroom libraries. It is important to remember that diverse books are not only for diverse readers. Reading books featuring diverse characters and communities mirror experiences in their own lives, allowing children to see themselves reflected in the stories they love, but they also provide windows into other life experiences to understand and be more accepting of the world around them.

Finally, there are many great organizations compiling and creating Summer Reading Book Lists and offering free, exciting programs for the summer. Be sure to check out your local library as well as the following groups for additional summer reading tips, suggestions, and ideas:

veronicabioVeronica has a degree from Mount Saint Mary College and joined LEE & LOW in the fall of 2014. She has a background in education and holds a New York State childhood education (1-6) and students with disabilities (1-6) certification. When she’s not wandering around New York City, you can find her hiking with her dog Milo in her hometown in the Hudson Valley, NY.

 

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16. Honoring Memorial Day with LEE & LOW BOOKS

Memorial Day weekend is upon us and we can’t think of a better way to remember and celebrate than with some of our award-winning books!

Teachers- Looking for a way to talk to your students about war this Memorial Day?

Parents- Trying to make your kids understand the importance of remembering those who gave their lives for our country?

We have some great titles that will get your kids interested and help them understand the great sacrifices made by our men and women at arms, what really makes someone a hero, and the impact of war on a level they can relate to.

Heroes by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee

Set during the ’60s with the Vietnam war going on and World War II popular in the media, Japanese American Donnie Okada always has to be the “bad guy” when he and his friends play war because he looks like the enemy portrayed in the media. When he finally has had enough, Donnie enlists the aid of his 442nd veteran father and Korean War veteran uncle to prove to his friends and schoolmates that those of Asian descent did serve in the U.S. military.

Check out the Teacher’s Guide for additional discussion ideas! Purchase the book here.

Quiet Hero: The Ira Hayes Story written and illustrated by S.D. Nelson

A biography of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who was one of the six soldiers to raise the United States flag on Iwo Jima during World War II, an event immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

Don’t miss out on the interview with S.D. Nelson, or the accompanying Teacher’s Guide. Purchase the book here.

When the Horses Ride By: Children in the Times of War by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist

Through rhythmic words, photos, and original art, this collection of poems about children throughout history focuses on their perceptions of war and how war affects their lives. A great way to introduce the topic of war into discussion with your children and the ramifications they may not have considered.

For some insight from the author, take a look at this interview with Eloise Greenfield. Purchase the book here.

Be sure to leave comments below on how discussions about war went in your classroom or with your own children; we’d love to hear from you!

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17. Giveaway: Signed Copy of Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie & Yuyi Morales

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win one of two author-signed copies of Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Little Brown, 2016). Obtained from BookPeople. Cynsations sponsored. Eligibility: North America. From the promotional copy:

Thunder Boy Jr. is named after his dad, but he wants a name that's all his own. 

Just because people call his dad Big Thunder doesn't mean he wants to be Little Thunder. He wants a name that celebrates something cool he's done, like Touch the Clouds, Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth, or Full of Wonder.

But just when Thunder Boy Jr. thinks all hope is lost, he and his dad pick the perfect name...a name that is sure to light up the sky.

National Book Award-winner Sherman Alexie's lyrical text and Caldecott Honor-winner Yuyi Morales's striking and beautiful illustrations celebrate the special relationship between father and son.

See below the book trailer, followed by the giveaway entry form. See also Towards a Common Understanding of Native Peoples in the U.S. (or, Why Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr. Needs a Note to Readers) by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature.



a Rafflecopter giveaway

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18. New May Releases from LEE & LOW and TU BOOKS

We can hardly believe how fast the year is flying by! Memorial Day weekend is just around the corner, which means summer is officially here. We’re looking forward to nice weather, beaches, and of course, our new titles out this month!

We’re very excited to introduce our new May releases – there’s sure to be something for everyone!

A Morning with Grandpa

a morning with grandpa cover

By Sylvia Liu, illus. by Christina Forshay
$17.95, 978-1-62014-192-2
Hardcover, 32 pages
Ages 5 to 8

A curious and active Chinese American girl spends the day learning tai chi from her grandfather, and in turn tries to teach him how to do yoga. Winner of our New Voices Award.

“Debut author Liu scores with a sweet story about the joys of intergenerational relationships. The love between the two shines through in both text and illustrations. A fine example of contemporary multicultural literature.” —Kirkus Reviews

Buy the book here.


Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

tiny stitches cover

By Gwendolyn Hooks, illus. by Colin Bootman
$17.95, 978-1-62014-156-4
Hardcover, 32 pages
Ages 7 to 12

The life story of Vivien Thomas, an African American surgical technician who developed the first procedure used to perform open-heart surgery on children.

“Beyond the crucial message of perseverance and spotlight on prejudiced attitudes that still resonate today, this middle-grade picture book illuminates the life of little-known man whose innovations continue to be essential to modern medicine.”                       —Booklist, starred review

Out next week! More information here.


Perfect Liars

perfect liars cover

By Kimberly Reid
$19.95, 978-1-62014-273-8
Hardcover, 384 pages
Ages 12 and up

Andrea Faraday, a society girl with a sketchy past, leads a crew of juvie kids in using their criminal skills for good.

“Crime, intrigue, and deceit abound in this novel about a biracial teen embracing her criminal instincts in order to thwart a treacherous plot. Gripping, suspenseful, and refreshingly diverse.”     —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Buy the book here.

What are you looking forward to reading in the coming month?

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19. How to Use Family Diversity and Family Structures to Teach Empathy

Guest BloggerIn this interview with The Open Book, guest blogger Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas, Director of Not in Our School, shares the organization’s latest video release about families and family structures. Not in Our School is part of the larger organization of Not in Our Town and focuses on empowering students to create safe, inclusive, and empathetic communities. 

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” from “Human Family” by Maya Angelou (listen to Maya Angelou read the poem here)NIOT 2

At Not In Our Town, we are extremely pleased to be sharing our film, “Our Family,” with the Lee & Low Open Book Blog community. Our hope is for our film to become part of the growing collection of resources that educators are using to create identity safe classrooms where children of all backgrounds feel a sense of belonging. These classrooms should not be colorblind spaces, where differences are ignored or where students must leave their identities, stories, and experiences at the door. It is our belief that belonging is created through drawing on the diversity in every classroom as a resource for learning. And quickly, we learn that, as Maya Angelou so aptly pointed out, we are more alike than different.

LEE & LOW: What inspired you and your team to create this video focusing on family configuration and family diversity? Put another way: Why create a film about family configuration and diversity from an organization that fights prejudice, bullying, and discrimination?

Part of fostering a sense of belonging for children is creating an environment where they feel fully accepted for who they are. Even from a young age, children are aware of and have many aspects that make up their social identities. That includes: how they look, the language(s) they speak and the way they express themselves, as well as their culture, religion, race, and gender identity. Their families, a huge part of their lives, form a crucial part of their identities.

Children need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, on the walls, and throughout their school life. They need to see others like them and they need to learn to appreciate those who are not like them. That does not always happen. My daughter announced at age four that she wanted a sex change operation to become a boy. At that time, we had no idea where she heard about this (she is now 33) because nobody was talking about transgender issues and back then. She did get strange reactions at preschool when she told people she was a boy. I remember she loved doing Mexican dancing, but when they insisted she wear the girl’s outfit, that was the end of her preschool dancing career. As she grew up we did not counter her feelings or ideas. However, now, married and openly a lesbian, she says she does not feel that way anymore, but that she always knew she was different in some way.

Some children grow up and never see a family like theirs celebrated in any way. They may be teased for being adopted, for having two moms or two dads, or for having a mixed-race family. A child whose mother has different color skin than he or she does may experience rude comments or stares. I raised my oldest daughter, who was from my husband’s first marriage. She had dark skin and we got many stares and she heard some rude remarks as people looked from her dark skin to my light skin and asked, “Is that your mother?”

We are approaching Mother’s Day. I wonder about all the children who don’t have mothers. How do they feel when their classrooms are making gifts for their mothers? (At Not In Our Town, we suggest that you celebrate Caregiver’s Day and children can honor those who care for them.)

We made this film for elementary students to see themselves reflected and hear the voices of children like themselves, and to see validation of those who might be different. They also can see how all these families can join together and be friends, and have fun. We kept the film short so teachers can show the film and then open a discussion with the students. We also have our Lesson Guide with activities for students at different grade levels to celebrate their families.

Our organization features communities of all backgrounds who come together to stand up to bullying, hate, prejudice and intolerance. We have always been proactive in seeking to create safety, acceptance, and inclusion. For this film, we partnered with a wonderful organization, Our Family Coalition, which focuses on supporting schools and communities to create acceptance for LGBTQ families. Our shared goal with the film is to support children from all kinds of families.

The best way to address hate and prejudice is by creating identity safety, and preventing hate and prejudice before they rear their ugly heads. Researchers have known for a long time that getting to know people who are different from you will reduce prejudice. New research has shown that it also will reduce implicit biases—the unconscious attitudes we all pick up from living in a society that has much underlying racial bias. According to the article, “Long-term Reduction in Implicit Race Bias,” fostering empathy is another way to reduce prejudice and implicit bias. Children can learn to be empathetic, but it will only stick if they also see empathy and acceptance expressed and modeled by all the adults in their world on a regular basis.

LEE & LOW: How can schools encourage children to appreciate their own family’s configuration and diversity?

The best way to celebrate families is to open the doors of the school and invite all the families in. Other activities include times where students invite their caregivers to volunteer or share expertise in one area or another. Also, students can write about their families, read books (like the excellent collection from Lee & Low), and use family diversity lesson plans and materials from the organizations Welcoming Schools and Teaching Tolerance. In our Lesson Guide we suggest having a Family Diversity Extravaganza where students organize an event and everyone gets involved and has fun together. When students experience acceptance of all kinds of families, they feel pride in their own families and their awareness is built for others.

Not in Our Town blog postLEE & LOW: What is at stake if parents, educators, and administrators do not purposely model tolerance and inclusion for children?

We are at a frightening moment in our nation’s history. While many gains have been made to promote equity in our country, our current climate and electoral process is rife with hate rhetoric. In a recent online survey by Teaching Tolerance, educators shared that many of their students—especially immigrants and Muslims—have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election. Educators also reported they have witnessed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment in their schools.

Additionally, according to the National Crime Prevention Council, youth ages 15-24 commit half of all hate crimes in the United States. In The New York Times op-ed, “White, Bigoted and Young: The Data of Hate,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explored the demographics of Stormfront, the most popular U.S. white supremacist website. His findings revealed that the most common age of Stormfront members is 19. He also found that the most venomous hate was displayed against African Americans and Jews, often with tremendous ignorance about those targeted groups.

Much is at stake for all of us if we do not make it a priority to teach empathy, and model positive attitudes towards those who are different from ourselves. We need to openly discuss and work together to find ways to address all forms of intolerance. We made our film freely accessible on Youtube in hopes that it goes viral and the voices of children are shared. PLEASE SHARE WIDELY! I close with the wise words of young Nathan, a student in our film:

“It is important to have diverse children, to have diverse families in a school so you know how to include everyone… you don’t just go to the people who are like you, you reach out and embrace everyone.” —Nathan, student, Peralta Elementary School, Oakland, CA in “Our Family


 

DSC_0427Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas is the co-author, with Dorothy Steele of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn published by Corwin Press. Currently as director of Not In Our School, she designs curriculum, coaches schools and produces films on models for creating safe and inclusive schools, free of bullying and intolerance at the national non-profit, the Working Group. She presents internationally at conferences and provides professional development in schools and districts. Dr. Cohn-Vargas began her 35-year career in early childhood education at the Multicultural Center in Sonoma County, California. She did community service in the Guatemalan Highlands and produced educational films for the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education. She returned to California and worked as a teacher and principal in Oakland, a Curriculum Director in Palo Alto, and as Superintendent in San Jose. In each setting, she focuses on educational equity and effective strategies for diverse populations. Dr. Cohn-Vargas and her husband live in El Sobrante, California and have three adult children. With her husband, she is developing an environmental research center on their private reserve in the Nicaraguan rain forest.  

Family Diversity Book Collection from LEE & LOW BOOKS

Further reading and learning from Not in Our School:

Additional resources on family diversity and family structures:

1 Comments on How to Use Family Diversity and Family Structures to Teach Empathy, last added: 5/3/2016
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20. New Voice: Kathryn Tanquary on The Night Parade

Discussion Guide & Common Core Teacher Guide
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kathryn Tanquary is the first-time author of The Night Parade (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016). From the promotional copy:

"I thought you might sleep through it." The creature smiled.

Saki's voice was little more than a whisper. "Sleep through what?"

It leaned over. She stared into its will-o'-the-wisp eyes.

"The Night Parade, of course."

The last thing Saki Yamamoto wants to do for her summer vacation is trade in exciting Tokyo for the antiquated rituals and bad cell reception of her grandmother's village. Preparing for the Obon ceremony is boring. Then the local kids take interest in Saki and she sees an opportunity for some fun, even if it means disrespecting her family's ancestral shrine on a malicious dare.

But as Saki rings the sacred bell, the darkness shifts. A death curse has been invoked...and Saki has three nights to undo it. With the help of three spirit guides and some unexpected friends, Saki must prove her worth-or say goodbye to the world of the living forever...

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach "edgy" behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

Though my protagonist certainly isn’t the most “edgy” in terms of behavior, she does start the story with a pretty big chip on her shoulder.

Saki’s act of rebellion is the catalyst that sets off the main events of the plot, so it had to be significant enough to provoke consequences without losing too much sympathy for her character.

To find this balance, her motivation was the key. From the beginning, Saki is a flawed hero with a lot of internal conflict; she’s trying to manage a toxic adolescent social life and her own need for acceptance from her peers, so it’s understandable when she caves to some of that pressure and makes a few bad decisions.

Making a big mistake may seem like the end of the world to a lot of people—and Saki certainly thinks so in the story—but I decided right from the concept stage that I wanted to deconstruct that idea. A lot of the books I read growing up had a protagonist with a very strong sense of self, but Saki doesn’t have that yet. Her weaknesses are very human, and sometimes even a little petty. She’s still getting to know the person she’s becoming and that’s okay. Another key theme of the story is forgiveness, and Saki’s journey is all about second chances.

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

Writing longhand in Osaka
The theme certainly evolved as the characters found their voices, but a sense of duality was there from the very beginning: city and country, young and old, modern and traditional, humans and spirits.

Anytime these things are put side-by-side there’s a tendency to pit them against one another. Go one step further and people start to separate themselves based on these perceived qualities.

One of the major themes of Saki’s story is finding the balance. Part of her journey towards self-discovery is recognizing that she can be dynamic and adaptable, and that she can inhabit more than one world at a time. In a world that seems increasingly divided in its thinking, I believe that’s a quality we should all aspire toward.

On a more concrete level, the story speaks to the issues of age, multi-generational families and tradition. Saki understands on some level why some of the rituals her family performs during the Obon holidays are important, but until she has an experience of her own she doesn’t feel as connected to the tradition.

Younger generations worldwide are facing similar experience gaps. The world we live in now is simply not the same as the world our parents and grandparents grew up in, so unless we invest some of our time in communication there is a lot we risk losing. Fittingly, this was one of the themes that took the longest to mature.

In both fantasy and reality, understanding the past is usually the surest way to help prepare for a brighter future.


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21. Guest Post: Greg Leitich Smith on Hapa Characters: Asian-White Biracial Representation

By Greg Leitich Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

As with a lot of aspects of creative media these days, Disney movies have been criticized for their lack of diversity.

While such criticism is necessary, I think it’s important as well to give praise where it’s due and acknowledge things done right.

So I want to hand it to Disney for featuring resonant Asian-white characters in several of its recent animated movies, something you rarely see in any media.

The characters Hiro and Tadashi from "Big Hero Six;" Wilbur Robinson from "Meet the Robinsons;" and Russell from "Up" are all Asian-white (this in a field that's largely #whitewashedOUT, and note that all of these films were financially successful).

One of the things about these portrayals that I particularly liked, too, was that while the characters are clearly the products of their backgrounds, their ethnicities were not the be all and end all of their existences.

In other words, they are fully developed characters – persons – with individual wants and needs that have nothing to do with their heritage.

Being of German and Japanese descent myself, I tend to notice this sort of thing.

Portraying Asian mixed-race characters as mainstream with idiosyncratic wants and needs is something I've striven for in my books.

My first novel, Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo, pokes some fun at the “caught between two worlds” motif: Shohei O’Leary (one of three co-protagonists) is of wholly Japanese descent and has been adopted by parents of Irish descent. Still, he is first and foremost a kid who has to deal with his specific wacky parents.

By Blake Henry from Chronal Engine
In Tofu and T.rex, the protagonist, Hans-Peter Yamada (whose family owns a German delicatessen and butcher shop), has to deal with a vegan cousin who comes to live with them.

Although both Shohei and Hans-Peter are Japanese American, their ethnicity informs their background rather than wholly defines it (like their being Chicagoans informs their backgrounds rather than wholly defining them).

Similarly, the protagonist, Max Takahashi-Pierson, and his siblings in Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time (both Clarion) are, like Hans-Peter, hapa. They're Asian and white. (Their friend Petra is Mexican-German American.)

Max is focused on surviving encounters with Tyrannosaurus rex and surviving being caught between the contemporary world and the world of dinosaurs (literally),  as opposed to being "caught between two [ethnic] worlds."

This is all to say, when it comes to animated hapa boys: Good job, Disney.

Now about live-action kids, other identities-intersections, and hapa girls...

Cynsational Notes


Check out the educator guides for Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time. See also the Chronal Engine Activity Kit.

Greg is currently booking for fall 2016 and the 2017-2018 school year. Contact The Booking Biz to invite him to your event.

Greg uses the term hapa to refer to someone of biracial (Asian) heritage. He learned it from his mother, who is Japanese-American, originally from Hawaii.

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22. Guest Post: Mary E. Cronin on Writing Children & Teens with LGBTQ Parents

Mary E. Cronin and Bonnie Jackman
By Mary E. Cronin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Life is just different for kids of LGBTQ parents.

They navigate awkward questions, tricky social situations, and hetero-normative language on a daily basis.

My wife Bonnie Jackman and I shared sparks for inspiration as well as seeds of conflict for writers in "Re-imagining Families: Writing about Characters with LGBTQ Parents" at the New England SCBWI Conference on May 1.

Here are a few points from our presentation:
  1. Kids of LGBTQ parents have to explain their existence all the time. Who's your real mom? Where's your dad? What do you mean your dad’s a she? There are many dissonant moments our kids deal with as a matter of course in their daily lives. How does this affect their character, their quest, their relationships, their resilience? This is rich material for character development.
  2. In a diverse country such as ours, with LGBTQ rights and protections shifting in real time, geographical setting is critical to any story with LGBTQ characters. Setting can be an antagonist, a support, a mix of the two. Think about where your character/family lives and consider the political/social climate for LGBTQ people there. There are wide variations, and it will have an impact on the landscape of your character and his/her family.
  3. How “out” is the family? Are the parents activists, or do they tend to be more low-key? Where are their children on this spectrum? Age is critical here. A kindergartner may delight in having her two moms come into the classroom for a celebration; an older kid might ask to be dropped off two blocks from school.
  4. Writing about LGBTQ-parented families gives us the opportunity to portray socio-economic diversity. Not all “gay families” have furniture from Pottery Barn and lots of disposable income, as often portrayed in mass media. Consider widely-known statistics about women’s earning power in the U.S. in relation to men’s, and then think about the impact of that on families parented by two moms. Trans adults are at a greater risk of discrimination at the workplace; this may impact a family greatly.
  5. School is a place where kids of LGBTQ parents may experience all kinds of dissonance. Mother-daughter book clubs, father-daughter dances, forms with mother/father blanks on them, questions and misunderstandings from teachers, administrators, the school nurse… this is rich territory to explore in character development. How does your character respond to these “micro-aggressions,” when the world around them seems to constantly make hetero-normative assumptions?
  6. Statistics have shown that same-sex couples (with or without children) are much more likely to be interracial or inter-ethnic. This presents writers/illustrators with the opportunity to portray very diverse families and to consider the concept of intersectionality.  

Our New England SCBWI session was dynamic, punctuated by great questions, comments, and resource sharing.

Bonnie is a seasoned therapist and school counselor with lots of anecdotes, developmental info, and insights to share. I brought the craft perspective to the conversation.

It was a fun and lively session, and I’m happy to share the high points with Cynsations readers.

Cynsational Notes

For more insights, Mary recommends:


See also Mary’s blog.


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23. Video: Grace Lin on Windows, Mirrors & Children's Books

From Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

"What your child reads sets the path for their own self-worth as well as how they see others. Grace Lin is a children's book author/illustrator whose book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown), received the Newbery Book Honor. She shows how the books that are not on your child's bookshelf are just as important as those that are.

"Grace is an author and illustrator of books for children and teens. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was a NY Times Bestseller and a Newbery Honor Book. Ling & Ting, was honored with the Theodor Geisel Honor.

"Grace's books typically focus on the Asian-American experience. She believes, 'Books erase bias, they make the uncommon every day, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal.'"

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24. Interview: Author Carole Boston Weatherford & Illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford

By Carole Boston Weatherford
& Jeffrey Boston Weatherford

From Carole

Set during World War II, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (Atheneum, 2016) follows the training, trials and triumphs of the U.S. military's first African American pilots.

The book pairs my poems with scratchboard illustrations by my son, Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.

The title is our first collaboration and Jeffery's publication debut. The book, which includes a detailed timeline and links to primary sources, connects to both the language arts and social studies curricula.

You Can Fly had a long incubation period. The egg may have been laid during a family trip to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The earliest version of the text was for a picture book written in second person.

After I was unable to sell that manuscript, I sat on the egg for a few more years. Then I began re-envisioning and reshaping the manuscript as a poetry collection for middle grades-up. I switched the point of view to first person under the title "The Last Tuskegee Airmen Tells All." Still not satisfied, I changed to third person. Finally, I settled on second person.

Around that time, Jeffery came on board. During a summer internship in children's book illustration, he created digital art to accompany my poems. We sold the package, but just before the book was about to hatch, the flight got cancelled.

Carole & Jeffery in 2000
I began to wonder if the book would ever leave the nest. I continued to revise the manuscript and to add poems. Jeffery and I decided to scrap the digital art in favor of scratchboard illustrations.

Armed with a revised manuscript and sample drawings, we sold the package to Atheneum.

In the subsequent year, Jeffery completed the illustrations and I added a few new poems.

In mid-April, Jeffery and I received our comp copies.

Our first book together finally has wings.

Fly, little book, fly!

Author & Illustrator Interview

Jeffery and I recently interviewed each other about You Can Fly.

Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?

Carole: The Tuskegee Airmen's saga moved me personally. It is powerful—historically, politically and emotionally. I thought the story begged for a poetic treatment.

Carole: You were a serious gamer growing up. Did gaming influence how you illustrated the battle scenes?

Jeffery: Yes, absolutely. I had lots of residual visual references from battles across galaxies. I played everything from Halo to Call of Duty.

Jeffery: When did you first notice my artistic talent?

Carole: Your kindergarten teacher prodded you to finish coloring and work up to potential. By third grade, I was concerned that you were doodling planes, cars, weapons and anime characters in your notebook rather than paying attention.

Around middle school, I realized that your drawings were good. I put you in studio art classes, starting with cartooning. By high school, you were taking private art lessons with the assistant principal who became a mentor.

Carole: What is your favorite illustration from the book?

Jeffery: My favorite is of the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. It's a closeup scene from their historic rematch.

Jeffery: What's yours?

Carole: The one where two planes on a mission have bombed an enemy aircraft. The explosion is so animated; like a comic book.

Jeffery: What is your favorite poem from the book?

Carole: It's "Head to the Sky," the first poem in the book and also the first that I wrote—early on when the project was envisioned as a picture book. "Head to the Sky" reflects the power of a dream fueled by self-determination.

Carole: Tell me about your first flight.

Jeffery: I had a window seat and was looking outside. As the plane sped down the runway, I said, "We're blasting off!"

Carole: That was hilarious. Well, your career as a children's book illustrator is off to a flying start. How did it feel when you first saw the printed book?

Jeffery: Like a child at Christmas.

From the promotional copy:

I WANT YOU! says the poster of Uncle Sam. But if you’re a young black man in 1940, he doesn’t want you in the cockpit of a war plane. Yet you are determined not to let that stop your dream of flying.

So when you hear of a civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, you leap at the chance. Soon you are learning engineering and mechanics, how to communicate in code, how to read a map. At last the day you’ve longed for is here: you are flying!

From training days in Alabama to combat on the front lines in Europe, this is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the groundbreaking African-American pilots of World War II.

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25. Interview: Kimberly Reid, author of PERFECT LIARS

kimberly reidSometimes to save the day, a good girl’s gotta be bad.

White Collar meets Oceans 11 in our new YA novel, Perfect Liars. We interviewed author Kimberly Reid on how to craft the perfect heist novel, her writing tips, and breaking stereotypes.

Why was it important to you to depict an interracial relationship in your story?

In the real world, interracial relationships exist. I’ve been in one with my Korean husband since college. Teen readers may not think this is a big deal, but when we met in the late 1980s, long before K-pop, K-dramas, and Korean fusion food trucks made the culture more accessible to Americans, it was kind of a big deal. Back then, as Koreans immigrated and settled into traditionally black neighborhoods of large cities, relations between our communities were tense. I wasn’t quite as young as the characters in Perfect Liars, but I remember what it was like to be young and in a relationship for which I had no model, one that was seen as “exotic” at best and flat-out wrong at worst. The world has shifted a lot in thirty years, and kids have more models now but it’s still important to me that my books reflect the real world. And unfortunately, we’re often reminded how little shift there has been. Just last week, people lost their minds over an interracial Old Navy ad.

What research did you do to create a convincing heist novel?

That aspect of the book probably took the least research since the heist isn’t a huge player in the story, though I had to do a lot of Googling on the high-end antiques business. I didn’t want the target of the thieves to be the usual things—money, jewelry, art—though that’s in there, too. So I decided to go with fine antiques. The legal aspects took up most of my research time. Luckily, I come from a law enforcement family so it was fairly easy to ask any question that popped into my head. When I was writing the book, my much younger sister had recently passed the bar exam and she’d also been an English major in undergrad, so she was the perfect person to help. The law was really fresh for her, and she didn’t get bored with all my writerly talk of plot and motivation.

Who are your favorite heist writers? What are some of your favorite heist movies or shows? pull quote 1

I don’t really have a favorite heist writer, but I have watched many heist movies, like The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven (the original and the newer versions), Rififi, The Score, and Inside Man. But it was actually a TV show called Leverage that gave me part of the inspiration for Perfect Liars. The main premise came from an alternative school in my town that is run by a juvie court judge and was once housed in our city’s justice center, along with courtrooms and the sheriff’s office. But I needed to turn that into a story and decided to have former juvie kids use their criminal skills for good. In Leverage, a band of criminals, led by a former investigator, use their various talents to help people in need.

How is writing fiction different than writing a memoir (No Place Safe)?

The biggest difference is telling the truth versus making stuff up. With fiction, you can make the story go the way you want. Writing memoir is all about the truth and sometimes the truth hurts. No Place Safe is the story of growing up during the two-year-long Atlanta Missing and Murdered Children investigation, on which my mother was a lead investigator. I was thirteen when the murders began, and I wrote the story from my thirteen-year-old’s perspective, but with the insight of an adult looking back on that time. It was my first published book, and writing it helped me figure out what I wanted to do from that point on. I like writing from a teen point of view (but I find it more difficult than writing for adults!). Though I write crime fiction, I prefer using humor in my stories rather than a darker voice. Most importantly, I’d much rather invent stories than tell the truth.

What advice would you give to writers that want to write heist novels?

In a heist novel, the entire book is about the planning and execution of a heist, and then how the characters deal with the fallout. There is some of that in Perfect Liars, but it isn’t really a heist novel. Publishers Weekly calls it “a socially conscious crime thriller” and I like that description. The heist more or less sets up the story; it isn’t the story. If I had to give it a subgenre, it’s probably more con artist than heist. But I’d give the same advice I’d give a writer of any genre: do your research. I do lots of research and still miss something every time. And your readers will call you on it every time. I can be a little Type A and used to think, “Oh, no! How did I miss that?” Now, I realize I can’t change the book once it is out in the world, so I view it as, “I have some really smart and observant readers. They’ll keep me on my toes as I research the next book.”

A few months ago, LEE & LOW released the Diversity Baseline Survey, which revealed that a significant percentage of publishing staff is comprised of white women. Were you shocked by these numbers? What is a way publishing might be able to improve these numbers?

pull quote 2I’ve been black all my life, and a traditionally published writer for nearly a decade, so no, I wasn’t surprised. More surprising—and heartening—was the response to the survey from the participants. I was glad to see Big Five publishers participate. As sad as the numbers are, I think being truthful about them and willing to contribute honest data is a good start. As far as improving the numbers, I think decision-makers need to make an aggressive effort to recruit diverse employees. I don’t mean run job ads on sites focused on minorities or maybe participate in diversity job fairs for new college grads. I mean start early, show marginalized high school students the possibility of publishing as a career through education and internships. The science disciplines are doing this through STEM program education and recruitment as early as middle school. Another suggestion is to let go of the idea that everyone must work in Manhattan, which puts a publishing career out of economic reach for most. The film industry has figured that out. While Hollywood may always be the headquarters, lots of movies are being made in studios in lower cost cities like Atlanta and Vancouver, and using local production talent. Maybe have self-contained imprints, from acquisitions to sales reps, as field offices. I think this would also help publishing become less New York-centric and keep publishers in closer touch with what’s going on in the rest of the country in terms of demographics, cultural trends, and social movements. And to loop back to my first suggestion, publishing needs more decision-makers from marginalized backgrounds. It’s hard to acknowledge there’s a problem when you’ve never experienced the problem, and you can’t fix what you don’t perceive as broken, or at least, fully understand how broken the thing is.

Many of the juvenile delinquents that Drea works with challenge her assumptions about what they are truly like. Why is it important to challenge Drea’s (and the reader’s) assumptions about these characters?

I won’t lie—I can be judgey. A big part of being a writer is watching the world and trying to understand people, and hopefully, attempting to empathize with some of what we see. It’s hard to do that if you aren’t willing to see there’s more than one perspective. So I brought a lot of that to Drea’s character. I also wanted to show that we are not monolithic. Of the relatively few books that are published with brown or black leads, the odds favor us being depicted as broke, oppressed, undereducated, and in need of salvation. Drea is the opposite of these things despite being a racial minority. And also despite that, she views the world from a place of privilege. Part of her evolution is seeing that she has obtained her privilege in a questionable way, and also that, when it comes down to it, some people will always see her the way they want, no matter her money, class, or education. She learns this by seeing how others like her are treated and eventually realizes she has the means to help correct some of that.

The push for more diverse books has increased in the past two years. What do you hope to see from forthcoming books?

I’d like to see more fun books with racially marginalized characters. While these things are huge aspects of our past and, unfortunately, what still lies ahead, we aren’t always trying to throw off the yoke of oppression, dealing with the legacy of slavery or the marginalization that comes with being immigrants. Books from white writers with white leads don’t carry this burden. They can be fun for entertainment’s sake, and that’s just fine. Historically, publishing hasn’t given the same freedom to writers of color. We have had to come with the deep and profound, or not come at all. Kids of color should have a variety to choose from, should be able to walk into a library or store and pick the thing they’re dying to read, not the thing an adult (publishers, teachers, librarians, parents) has deemed they should read because of what they look like or where they came from. That choice can include a history of their people, but let them also have a fun mystery, an interracial romance, a fantasy in which a kid who looks like them is the slayer of dragons. Every young reader deserves that.

What’s one of your favorite sentences, either from your own writing or from someone else’s?

Can I give a few? I love this description of a season’s change from Toni Morrison’s Sula:

“Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.”

I bow to Ms. Morrison.

If you were putting together your own team to pull off a heist, who would be on it and why?

I’d need a computer genius. I once worked in the tech world—which is increasingly becoming the world—and computer geeks make it go round. I’d want a great con artists or two because I wouldn’t want to use brute force. If I’m going to be a criminal, I’d rather manipulate people into giving me what I want rather than physically hurting them into doing it. They’re both bad, but for some reason, the con seems less bad than the violence. Certainly I’d want someone who could break into anything, probably two thieves—one high tech, one old school because you never know if you’re going to run into an antique safe or something. Those would be the minimal requirements. Nice-to-have additions would be a chemist, physicist, and an engineer. They are like the MacGyvers of the world. Between them, when all else fails, they could probably figure a way out of any jam.

Perfect Liars releases next week!

perfect liars cover

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