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Represented by Erin Murphy

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Book du jour: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

By E.K. Johnston               

“I swear to God, Leo, if you throw one more sock, I am going to throw you in the lake myself!” I shout, knees sticking to the vinyl as I turn to face the back of the bus.

Wow, this book. It’s a riff on Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. It’s about cheerleading and community and a young woman navigating the aftermath of rape. (I wish every real survivor had Hermione’s support system, but this portrait shows ways to be that friend, or that caring adult.) The book is funny and honest and fierce, sometimes all in the same sentence. It has gotten tremendous reviews and comparisons to teen classics like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.

The author’s note starts, “I was very angry when I sat down to write this book,” which I appreciated reading. Anger is useful, when it inspires us to reject injustice. For writers, revising is the process that refines that ore into fiction gold. The heat of the author’s anger fuels the action, but it’s not an “angry” book—it’s dramatic, funny, powerful and touching. I read it in one sitting.


Book du jour: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

by Genevieve Valentine  

"By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess."

Confession: I have a 12 Dancing Princesses novel in the trunk—it’s one of my favorite fairy tales, so I tend to be critical of retellings. No worries here—so many details are integrated, but in upredictable ways. The story plays like a wild riff on the original, very jazzy.

The writing beautiful, the characterizations sharp—not easy to do with twelve sisters, but I believed it. The plot whips along, all speed and lightness and fancy footwork on top, but desperation bubbling just underneath. Or really close to the surface, actually. And so often you’d glide along until you hit the sharp sting at the end of a sentence. Wow. I so enjoyed this book!

One surprise: to find it published as an adult title—I would have thought a YA editor would have snapped it up! Highly recommended for teens or adults.




Book du jour: A Creature of Moonlight

by Rebecca Hahn     

All summer long the villagers have been talking of the woods.

A lovely YA fantasy in the Patricia McKillip vein. Magical from the beginning, with a heroine fierce and true. And a dragon.

I don’t want to say a lot about the plot, because the unfolding of events is so delicious. Just read this book, OK? Pull it over you like a quilt and come out, blinking, when you’re done.

Then we’ll talk.


Continuing the "diversity" conversation

“Diversity” commentary has bloomed all over my Twitter feed lately, with so many smart and interesting voices contributing. I had planned a big follow-up post with links. Librarian Kelly Jensen beat me to it, so how about I just send you over to Book Riot?

Her comprehensive post, with links: We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kid Lit

Plus a few other posts not captured in her excellent list:

-- Jim McCarthy, The R Word  His response to the NYC Teen Author Fest panel that prompted my previous post.   Snippet: "I actually don't have any answers-just more questions."

-- Veera Hirandani, What I Learned from Lisa Bonet  Snippet: "I never read about someone like me in a book and I read a lot of books. I found ways to identify with the characters, but I always felt like something about me had to be altered to fit."

 -- Diversity in YA blog, Malinda Lo on Diversity in Publishers Weekly 2013 YA bestsellers  Snippet:  "I’ve taken a look at the 2013 figures to determine how characters of color, LGBT characters, disabled characters, and authors of color are represented in these bestselling titles."

-- IW Gregorio, My Writing Process: #diversity and #amrevising edition    snippet: "I’ve always found empathy to be the driving force of all my writing. I write because I care about my characters. Step 2 of my process, research, flows naturally from this."

-- Zoraida Córdova, What we talk about when we talk about diversity in YA  snippet: The thing is, we need to feel uncomfortable, and like Jenny [Han] said, "That's the risk."



NYC Teen Author Festival 2014

I really enjoyed the NYC Teen Author Festival symposium (Saturday, 3/22). Lots of great conversation and insights by the assembled authors.

The moment that sticks with me, though, was the panel and crowd response to the “where’s the diversity?” question posed by my seatmate in the audience. She reflected on the preponderance of white authors on Friday and Saturday’s panels, and asked how the presenters approached the issue in their books.

One author spoke with evident sincerity (I’m paraphrasing here, since I didn’t take notes at the time) about how she felt that as long as her characters were grounded in authentic experience and evoked universal human emotions, their race wasn’t important; readers of different backgrounds could and did identify with them. The audience responded with a spontaneous round of applause.

Underneath the clapping was a murmur, which I parsed as disappointment. That was my reaction, anyway. I heard a partial truth, a response informed by fear.

Fear says, “You can’t write what you don’t know, what you haven’t directly experienced.”

When does listening to fear help us grow as writers? Don’t young readers deserve our best efforts? Deserve that we push ourselves to be aware of gaps in our knowledge, and try to address them?

True, you don’t have to be a pig or a spider to appreciate the friendship that blossoms in Charlotte’s Web. And yet, the position that when a writer conveys her authentic experience it will be relevant to everyone (so quit bringing this up, already), strikes me as too pat, too defensive, too dismissive. Especially when a white person is saying it.

Can you write for teens in 2014 and refuse to acknowledge that excluding people of color from your fictional landscape is hurtful? I’m talking about all genres, here: contemporary, historical, fantasy, sf, action, mystery.

Novels are fictional because we make them up, right? Often, based on what we’re interested in knowing. We can’t travel backwards in time, and yet that hasn’t stopped anyone from writing historical novels. I’m no expert on falconry in Renaissance France, the origin of the Hope Diamond, or harvesting southern California’s edible native plants. But when I need that information for a project, I expect to research it, not absorb it from the ether. I try to read widely, maybe interview an expert in the field. When I’ve gotten things wrong, I try and accept correction gracefully, strive to do better the next time.

I don’t presume to think, “If I don’t already know this, it must not be important to my work.”

Respectfully, I would submit that as writers, it’s our job to think about aspects relevant to a novel-in-progress and then make every effort to remedy our ignorance, wherever that journey takes us. If we decide we owe it to our readers (and to ourselves) to portray diverse fictional worlds, we have a writer’s usual tools for creating authentic characters: observation, imagination, empathy, research. Why not use them?


For those interested in more practical advice, here are some links I’ve found useful on the subject of “Writing the Other”:

CBC Diversity committee, resources for writers 

Cynthia Leitich Smith, Writing, Tonto & the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die,  snippet: “Truth is, all authors worry about doing our best work and connecting with readers. Or at least we should. I know I do. I write both within and across. My latest story, a romance-friendship short, is told from the perspective a black, male, gay guardian angel. We all must stretch to some degree.”

Nisi Shawl, Transracial Writing for the Sincere,    snippet: “Cultural background is data. If you want it, and you don’t have it, it’s valuable; treat it that way.”

Zetta Elliott, Decolonizing the Imagination,  snippet: “If we do not create stories that expose the beauty and complexity of our varied realities, we will indeed remain trapped by the “fictions” created by those outside of our cultures and communities.”