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800x600xGWN_Anthology_Invite_-FINAL.png,qbbde26.pagespeed.ic.pMn_igSOZtAfter guiding each mentee through so many of the rites of the writer’s life — creation, revision, submission, public presentation — the Girls Write Now Mentoring Program culminates with an annual anthology, in which each student and mentor showcases their best original work. Structured around this year’s overarching curricular theme, New Worlds, the 2013 anthology is composed of stories that celebrate the incredible diversity and creative fearlessness of our intergenerational community, showcasing poetry, fiction, memoir and more that surprise us and stretch our understanding of the world and ourselves.

The Girls Write Now anthology has been recognized as Outstanding Book of the Year in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and has earned additional honors from the International Book Awards, the National Indie Excellence Awards, the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and the New York Book Festival.

This event is open to the public so stop by and support these amazing young women!

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Rogue_JKT_FINALMiddle grade fiction is hot right now and a bold new novel came out this spring—ROGUE by Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Lyn and I go way back so I asked her to stop by and share some author insights about her latest book for young readers.

1. I recently had a teacher object to the mention of addiction in my author talk—even though she read BIRD with her students. I was struck by how daring ROGUE is; a meth lab is central to the story, and there’s also teen drinking in this middle grade novel with an undiagnosed autistic protagonist. Can you talk about your approach to writing for contemporary adolescents–how do you gauge just what is and is not “age-appropriate?”

I originally wrote the novel as a YA, but my editor, Nancy Paulsen, suggested I revise it for an older middle grade readership. The revisions were substantial, going much further than cleaning up the language and sexual references. I had to learn what is considered “age-appropriate” for middle school readers—an even more difficult challenge because, as someone on the autism spectrum myself, I have trouble understanding social rules and conventions. In fact, my YA novel Gringolandia broke a lot of the rules of the genre in its honest depiction of the effects of dictatorship and torture, and I received a lot of critical praise for my willingness to trust teens’ ability to appreciate hard truths.

In fact, the middle grade genre is full of outstanding books that take on tough subjects. My editor is also the editor of Jacqueline Woodson’s award winning After Tupac and D Foster, which takes on some of the same issues along with foster care and homosexuality, and more recently, Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s powerful debut novel One for the Murphys, the story of a foster child that also deals with child abuse, alcoholism, and bullying. Alcoholic parents regularly appear in fiction for this age group. In Rogue, Chad, the boy that Kiara wants to be her friend, is heading toward alcoholism, which might make the story a bit edgier because it’s a peer and not an adult. On the other hand, Kiara does not drink, and Chad is widely seen as a “bad” boy. It takes someone like Kiara—herself an outcast from society—to see the good in Chad and to work toward finding a place in the world for him as she also struggles to find such a place for herself.

2. Speaking of age-appropriateness, I was struck by the fact that Kiara is thirteen or fourteen, but she tends to act much younger. How does that affect the age level of the novel’s potential readership?

The rule of thumb is determining the age of potential readers is “one year younger than the protagonist.” However, autism is a developmental disability that affects the person’s social interactions and ability to communicate with others. So Kiara may be a young teenager, but she often acts like a child. Children and adolescents on the autism spectrum often feel more comfortable interacting with adults, as Kiara does with her neighbor, Mrs. Mac, or with much younger children. Even though Kiara at first only plays with six-year-old Brandon because she wants his twelve-year-old brother to be her friend, her relationship with Brandon turns out to be closer and less rocky than with Chad, who’s almost a peer.

Because Kiara doesn’t fit easily into age categories, the novel may well appeal to a wider age range, particularly for young people with special needs. When ROGUE was a work-in-progress, I read the first chapter and spoke about the novel at an alternative high school for boys who had been expelled or excluded from their neighborhood schools. Even though the boys ranged in age from fourteen to seventeen, they could all relate to Kiara and what she does.

3. I thought a lot about gender as I read ROGUE. Desperate for friends, Kiara finds a way to belong by filming boys who do BMX and skateboarding stunts. At times I worried that she was taking on a passive role yet at the same time I was happy to see a girl occupying space normally reserved for boys. Why did you decide to immerse your female protagonist in a very male world?

To the best of my knowledge, Rogue is the only novel for young readers with a protagonist on the autism spectrum, written by someone on the autism spectrum. As a child and teen growing up on the spectrum—but not diagnosed until adulthood—I tended to hang out with boys rather than girls. The girls consistently excluded me, while some of the boys tolerated my hanging around because I knew about sports and superheroes even though I was completely uncoordinated and didn’t actually play. In high school, I got my license to be a radio engineer, and several boys, who were less technically adept than I—had a comedy show that I produced. So when I did have the opportunity to spend time with kids my age, they were almost always boys. I also spent a lot of time hanging out with my younger brother and his friends, because I had a nice brother whose friends were generally nice too. (And if not, I was a lot bigger than they were.)

While boys often teased me and sometimes beat me up, I also fought back and in doing so, gained a bit of respect. The girls in my school were flat-out cruel. In addition to the incident that begins Rogue, when the popular girl pushes Kiara’s lunch tray to the floor because she tries to sit at their table, I experienced many other instances of exclusion and bullying. One of the girls’ favorite things to do was invite me to a party that either didn’t exist or was a set-up for them to tease and humiliate me while I was stuck at their house without a ride home. I was so desperate for friends and so clueless socially that I fell for the trick long after anyone else would have figured it out. Oh, and I have a hair story too, but that’s an essay unto itself.

I know that you’re very much a feminist, Zetta, and I regret to admit that I’ve always distanced myself from this type of activism because of the cruelty that I experienced from the other girls when I was younger. And when I look at my writing over the years, most of the stories are either written from a boy’s point of view, like Gringolandia, or feature a girl who by choice or necessity ends up in a very male environment.

That said I don’t want to romanticize boys, because there are many children and teens afraid to go to school because they have become the target of violent male bullies and live in fear of assault every single day. In fact, the YA novel I wrote after finishing Rogue portrays a fifteen-year-old boy whose dreams of academic stardom end at the hands of a trio of bullies.

Stay tuned! Lyn will be back later this week with an important guest post on bullying. You can learn more about Lyn at her website.

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IMG_1767There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”

IMG_1753I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re IMG_1754leaving a record behind.

IMG_1759During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…

IMG_1745The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…

The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.

Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…

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imagesThe park was beautiful this morning but I’m paying for it now–the tissue box is nearly empty and my nose is sore from constant blowing. I’ve decided not to venture back out, which means today is the day I *finally* sit down and start working on my latest round of revisions. For the past month I’ve been working on three academic articles, all of which are to be published this year. One essay (on Richard Wright) was actually written while I was in graduate school in the late ’90s! I worked it into my dissertation and then recycled it again when they held the centenary conference on Wright in 2008. And now, in 2013, the essay is going to be included in an anthology on the brilliant but problematic (for me) African American author. Revising something you wrote more than ten years ago is hard, and converting a conference paper often means taking out all the conversational bits that personalized your point of view. Preparing these essays for publication reminds me why I don’t like academic writing, yet in my profession it’s a necessary evil so I’ve refrained from reminding my editors that “the personal is political.” The other two essays are on children’s literature, which also feels odd since that’s not my area of expertise, but once they’re published I will close that chapter and return to critiquing adult lit. I’m waiting on a contract for The Deep and another offer may be on the way…or not. So instead of ruminating on the possibilities I’m trying to remember what my agenda was when I first wrote these essays. I know I had a different voice in the ’90s, but was I a different person last summer? I don’t think so, but I was writing under duress after accepting a last minute invitation to contribute to a different anthology. Those editors wanted me to act like I wasn’t the author of my own books so I withdrew the essay and now have a chance to expand it for a Canadian journal. That also makes me a little uneasy, considering the cool reception I’ve received as an author in the Great White North. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Back to work…

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imagesIf you were at the NYPL yesterday for Betsy Bird’s Children’s Literature Salon then you know that we had a full house (all 80 seats were filled!) and people came ready to both listen and share their insights and experiences. Betsy is an expert moderator, which made it easy for those of us on the panel to share our thoughts on diversity in children’s literature. I met editor Connie Hsu for the first time, and learned about how her experience growing up in Alabama continues to influence her decisions as an editor. Connie’s aware of the importance of tradition but she’s also looking for what’s new, which is encouraging. I was *so* excited to finally meet Sofia Quintero, fierce author/filmmaker/activist and cancer survivor—I had to stop myself from reaching over to high-five her every time she made a brilliant point about the coded terms (“mainstream,” “cross-over”) used to conceal racialized power dynamics in publishing. Sofia works with Book Up and she told us about an experience taking a group of kids from the Bronx into the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca. “Why are there more pictures of zombies on book covers than people of color?” After the panel ended, I met Allie Jane Bruce, a children’s librarian at Bankstreet College of Education who let me know that she works with children who are just as outraged about the lack of diversity in publishing. I’m hoping to meet those young people and hear about their strategies for creating change. During the Q&A session we revisited the issue of David Levithan’s Teen Author Festival, which continues to be overwhelmingly white despite repeated complaints. So how DO we create change?

makers_women640_mediumI watched Makers: Women Who Make America last week and at the end of the 3-hour documentary on the women’s movement found myself feeling rather blue. A couple of black feminists were included in the film and one Latina, but no Asian Americans and no American Indians. It was basically white middle-class women talking about white middle-class women. One scholar was asked to identify the movement’s limitations and she said that the feminist movement had failed to address the needs of working-class women, which has only increased the suffering of women and children living in poverty. White middle-class women have a long history of working with people of color to create change (abolition, the civil rights movement), but there have also been times when white women chose to throw people of color under the bus in order to preserve their own privilege. White middle-class women seem to dominate the children’s publishing industry, and so it was heartening to have several white women approach me after the panel to share their activism and/or to ask about where to start. When white women rise up, they’re a formidable force so I do hope we can stir them out of complacency and into action. We need more allies!

Speaking of allies, it was great to see Lyn Miller-Lachmann at yesterday’s event. Lyn is an award-winning YA author and core committee member of See What We See, the social justice advocacy group that generated a lot of interest during the panel. She’s got a new book, Rogue, coming out next month and I was thrilled to get a copy yesterday. Please support the writers who are fighting for change!

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IMG_1716My good friend Gabrielle says an artist must learn to “cultivate selfishness.” This is particularly difficult for women of color artists, but my friends and I are actively working at making space in our lives for our art. I wrote 1500 words this weekend and spent part of today cutting sections of The Deep that no longer work with the constantly evolving narrative. I’ve completed eight chapters, which means I have just three to go (according to my outline, which also changes), and last night I had a vision of the novel’s conclusion—yes, I *saw* it and only hope that image stays in my mind *and* works with the unfolding chain of events. Creating time to write means leaving plenty of time in each day for dreaming, and that means I’ve had to learn to say NO even when part of me wants to say YES. Last November I was set to moderate a panel at the second A Is for Anansi conference at NYU when I received an invitation to conduct a writing workshop for Girls Write Now on the exact same day. I accepted the invitation and in the middle of the conference dashed up to 34th St. to talk about how I write historical fiction. Today I made it until 4pm before a chronic condition required me to lie down. I’m on a twelve-hour cycle it seems, because the same pain woke me up at 3:30am this morning. When the pain subsided, I decided to run some errands. The store was just two train stops away so I decided to walk home and I’d only gotten two blocks up Flatbush Avenue when a breathless young white woman popped in front of me and asked, “Are you an author?” I nodded and she told me that she and her mentee had attended my writing workshop at Girls Write Now last fall and they had used my definition of sankofa (“there is no shame in going back to retrieve something of value you’ve left behind”) as the opening line of their short story. That made my day and I told Samantha (the mentor) how much I respected her commitment to mentoring a young woman—I was there for just 45 minutes, but she’s doing the real heavy lifting, showing up week after week to help that young writer grow. I do worry that some of my NOs will catch up with me someday, and Scorpios do tend to have an “all or nothing” approach to life. I’ve given up cake for Lent, which is good, but that seems to have increased my consumption of caramels. I’m aiming for balance—I bought two bags of caramels at the store *and* two snack packs of fruit (with no sugar added). I took the train to the store but walked home. I had friends over for Downton Abbey‘s finale last night but managed to enjoy a sumptuous tea without breaking my cake fast. I pulled out of a faculty writing group but found a faculty mentor who shares my scholar/novelist identity. I’m withdrawing from an advocacy group but will continue to contribute until a replacement can be found. It’s all about balance and making sure that I continue to do for others even as I reserve dreamspace for myself…

 

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pd-06The Next Big Thing Hop: the traveling blog that asks authors whom they consider the NEXT BIG THING, and then has them pass along the questions for those authors to answer in their blogs.

Thank you, Aker @ Futuristically Ancient for tagging me! Read hers here.

Rules: Answer ten questions about your current Work In Progress on your blog. Tag five writers / bloggers and add links to their pages so we can hop along to them next.

What is the working title of your book…

The Deep. I’ve already got the cover designed in my mind and hope to collaborate with illustrator John Jennings (that’s one of his afrofuturistic images above).

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My last novel, Ship of Souls, was set to be published in February 2012 and my editor asked me to consider writing a “Kindle Single” to help promote the book. I wrote a scene in which the female teen protagonist was nearly raped and that later became the foundation for a book told from Nyla’s point of view. I always knew that I wanted to write a trilogy—three novellas about the three friends (D, Nyla, and Keem) from Ship of Souls. Before I even finished that novel, I woke up one morning and heard someone ask, “Are you sure you’re fully human?” And I knew that The Deep would be about “the gift” Nyla inherited from the mysterious mother who abandoned her as a child.

What genre does your book fall under?

Urban fantasy.

MV5BMjIyMzU1Mjg5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQ2Mjc2NA@@._V1._SX214_CR0,0,214,314_Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s hard—I think in a couple of years Willow Smith could play Nyla. I don’t see enough young black men on screen to be able to cast Keem or D, but I see kids on the train everyday who could fill those roles.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Nyla find herself at the center of a battle between good and evil, she must learn to wield the astonishing power she inherited from the mother who abandoned her as a child.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’d like to keep working with Amazon Publishing. My last two novels were published by AmazonEncore but my editor has moved to a new imprint and there’s a new children’s/YA editor here in NYC whom I haven’t met yet.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I don’t have a finished draft—I’m at 32K words and expect to wrap up by 35K. I don’t really write drafts. I take notes and write bits and pieces for a few months and then I sit down and pull everything together. I went to London for Xmas and wrote two thousand words, then I returned to Brooklyn and wrote 20K words in January. I’m hoping to finish up by the end of February. I revise, of course, but the manuscript gels fairly quickly.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t know if I’ve read anything like this. I guess the mother-daughter dynamic could be compared to Parable of the TalentsThe Deep shares that complex issue of legacy.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Nyla’s a fun character—she was my favorite in Ship of Souls, though I really tried to write an appealing male protagonist. Her feistiness, the way she questions her attraction to boys, her unique history (she was raised on a military base in Germany), all made me want to feature her in another book.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is perhaps my most explicitly feminist novel for young readers, and I suspect some will say it’s too dark for teens. But I love to write about the way teens handle power, and I want readers to see Brooklyn in a way they’ve never seen it before.

Below are my tags of other authors:

Ekere Tallie

Neesha Meminger

Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Courrtia Newland

Sofia Quintero

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