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Archive for the ‘multicultural literature’ Category

I saw this illustration on Facebook today and just had to share. It’s on illustrator Tina Kugler‘s blog and she created it after discovering the abysmal stats compiled by the CCBC. This really says it all…

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The only good thing about having a summer cold during a heat wave is that it keeps me at home, which is where I get most of my writing done. Last week I was out and about every single day, but since waking with a sore throat on Monday, I’ve pretty much been out of commission. I had one day of fun on Thursday, but I’ve been housebound otherwise and that’s led to increased productivity: last week I wrote 4500 words and so far this week I’ve written 6000 words. I’m hopeful that between naps and coughing fits, I’ll be able to write at least 1500 words today and tomorrow. That would put this first draft of Judah’s Tale at 85K words. I am determined to NOT go over 90K. On Friday I got an offer for The Deep. I’m not sure how/if that’s going to work out, but I’ll keep you posted. Right now I want to get my voice back so I can read at tomorrow’s festival and plead my case for greater diversity when I meet with my publisher on Tuesday…

If you’re in Brooklyn, stop by St. Francis College tomorrow afternoon for the WORD Caribbean Book Festival. My reading & panel starts at 5:30. I’ve been listed as a Nevisian author so the first thing I’ll have to do is break that down…

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BOOK BUSINESS
2:00PM
Balancing Creativity and Commerce in Caribbean Literary Expression

 

Marva Allen - CEO of Hue-man Bookstore, and co-publisher of Open Lens an imprint of Akashic Books

Crystal Bobb-Semple – owner of Brownstone Bookstore

Ron Kavanaugh – founder and managing editor of Mosaic Literary Magazine, exploring the literary arts created by writers of African descent

Summer Edward – founder and managing editor of Anansesem, Caribbean children’s literature ezine

Victoria Brown, author, Grace in the City – Moderator  

YOUNG READERS
3:15PM
Culture Making – Literature that Defines Us  (Under 8 yrs)
Shabana Sharif (US/Guyana), “Ins and Out of Queens”
Tiphanie Yanique (Virgin Is), “I am the Virgin Islands”
Ibi Zoboi (Haiti), “A is for Ayiti”
4:30PM
Memory and Myth – Rooted in history and the fantastical
(8 – 15 yrs)
Tracey & Harmony Pierre (US/Haiti)
Clyde Viechweg (Grenada), “CaribbeanTwilight; Tales of the Supernatural”
 5:40PM
Off Island – Journeys in time and place 
(Teens – Young Adults)
Zetta Elliott (St. Kitts-Nevis), “Ship of Souls”
Devon Harris (Jamaica), “Yes I Can”
Workshops & Special Presentations
Illustration, Graphic & Costume Design, Steel Pan Demonstration; Storytelling
ADULT BOOK WRITERS
3:15PM
Where We’re From – Identity and Influence
Carmen Bardeguez-Brown (Puerto Rico), “Straight from the Drum”
Etaniel Ben Yehuda (US/Trinidad & Tobago), “The Chronicles of Air, Water, and the Source”
Anna Ruth Henriques (Jamaica), “The Book of Mechtilde”
Monica Matthew (Antigua & Barbuda), “Journeycakes:  Memories with my Antiguan Mama”
4:30PM
Memory and Myth – Our History Clings to Us

 

Keisha Gay Anderson (Jamaica)

Lynn Grange (Trinidad & Tobago),

“Freedom and the Cashew Seed”

Petra Lewis (Trinidad & Tobago), “Sons and Daughters of Ham”

Bernice McFadden (US/Barbados),

“Nowhere is a Place”

5:40PM
Off Island – Migration and Displacement

 

Elsie Agustave (Haiti), “The Roving Tree”

Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad & Tobago), “Boundaries”

Sandra Ottey (Jamaica), “Runaway Comeback”

7:00PM
Get Up Stand Up – Texts of Empowerment

 

Deborah Jack (St Martin/St Maarten)

Rosamond King (US/Gambia/Trinidad), “At My Belly and My Back”

Hermina Marcellin (St. Lucia)

David Mills (US/Jamaica), “The Sudden Country”

Ras Osagyefo (Jamaica), “Psalms of Osagyefo”

Jive Poetic (US/Jamaica)

Maria Rodriguez (US/Puerto Rico)

 

Program, schedule and writers subject to change without notice.
  
Brooklyn Caribbean Youth Fest
Caribbean American Sports & Cultural Youth Movement (CASYM)
Friends of the Antigua Public Library
Mosaic Literary Magazine
NAACP/ACT-SO
St. Martin/St. Maarten Friendship Association
Tropical Fete Mas Camp

Union of Jamaica Alumni Associations (UJAA)

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anthillI never had a chance to capture the amazing anthills we saw in Ghana, but this internet image comes close. From inside the tour bus I marveled at their height—some certainly exceeded six feet—and the intricate design made from millions of grains of Ghana’s distinctive red soil. I also wondered about the unseen world within and beneath those striking mountains that dotted the countryside. Today I’m trying to write and so I’m looking inward, reflecting on the forces that built the identity I currently inhabit. It’s complex! And always “in process,” though at 40 I can say that some aspects of my identity seem fixed. I booked my flight to Nevis last night and so pulled up The Hummingbird’s Tongue today. I don’t have much so far, just fragments of memories and the opening lines of what I hope will become paragraphs or even chapters. Here’s one example: “I have never trusted the sea.” And just now I made two lists: “How I know I’m not truly Caribbean” and “How I know I may indeed be Caribbean.” I’m being facetious, of course, but issues of authenticity are ridiculous and real. As we continue to think about the future of OWWA, one thing I feel strongly about is the addition of a “D” to represent either “diaspora” or “descent,” because I don’t identity as a woman writer of Africa. I appreciate the symbolic significance of choosing “Africa” instead of “black” a few decades ago, but in this historical moment I think we need to acknowledge the difference between African women and women of African descent. When I was in Nevis last July, my host always introduced me as a writer of Nevisian descent, and that was perfectly fine with me. I am a citizen now, but that doesn’t make me Nevisian. And when I was asked to read in a Caribbean literary festival, I hesitated—mostly because I know others will question my right to participate. A colleague recently sent me a contest for Caribbean writers, urging me to submit but the rules were very clear: they want writers based in the region and published by a Caribbean press. Which means that a white woman from the UK who has lived in Barbados for fifteen years could become the recipient of that prize, and black writers born in the Caribbean but publishing in the US could be deemed ineligible. And I think I’m ok with that. What troubles me is when the focus shifts to the content of the books, as in “A Caribbean writer must write about the Caribbean.” For this one-day festival I’m on a panel called “Off Island,” which is appropriate since I haven’t yet written a story set in the Caribbean. It’s slippery, though, and it does feel as though content is ranked, with stories set in the Caribbean at the top, followed by stories about Caribbean people living elsewhere, followed by stories that don’t deal with the Caribbean at all. If a black girl wants to write poems about a unicorn, she has that right—and she’s still a black poet. That’s something I talk about with my students when we cover the Black Arts Movement. Do black artists have to make protest art? Or is anything made by a black-identified artist “black art?”  I didn’t expect to grapple with my identity as a Caribbean writer until I published The Hummingbird’s Tongue, but the book is partly about my identity so let the grappling begin…

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As promised, author Lyn Miller-Lachmann is back with a guest post on bullying—an issue addressed in her latest novel ROGUE. Take it away, Lyn!

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Earlier this month I attended an anti-bullying workshop in Albany presented by the Anti-Defamation League, the organization known for its “A World of Difference” diversity training. Combatting bullying in K-12 schools is a new initiative for the ADL, one prompted by the rise of cyberbullying and the rash of suicides of young people targeted by bullies. Even though I got into the workshop because I teach part-time in a religious school program, I was more interested in this workshop because I experienced relentless bullying as a child and teenager, and both my recently-published novel, Rogue, and the one I wrote after Rogue begin with a bullying incident.

My difference as someone on the autism spectrum made me the target of bullies. Although I wasn’t officially diagnosed until adulthood, my atypical behavior—which included crying at the slightest provocation and having full-blown meltdowns when situations escalated—gave bored classmates endless opportunities for entertainment. In between provocations, however, I mainly experienced neglect and exclusion. I received few invitations to parties and was rarely chosen for teams or for leadership positions in school activities. Once, when I did become a committee chair in my temple youth group, an officer removed me several months later to give the position to one of her friends.

Although I encountered physical and emotional bullying, my protagonist in Rogue, Kiara, mainly experiences exclusion—first from the popularRogue_JKT_FINAL girls who push her lunch tray from the table, and then from the school that suspends her because she fights back.  For much of the story, she sees herself on the outside, with her nose pressed to the glass of a world she cannot enter. While much of modern-day bullying occurs on the Internet, Kiara is so disconnected from her peers that she remains unaware of what they might be saying about her, at the same time as she trolls websites anonymously for advice on how to make and keep friends and information about a world she doesn’t understand.

At the ADL workshop, the presenters introduced us to the social norms approach as a way of reducing the incidence of bullying in schools. This approach was first developed in the late 1980s as a way of reducing binge drinking in colleges and universities. The idea is to counteract the belief that “everyone does it” with actual statistics showing a small minority of students engaging in this dangerous practice. Once students see that binge drinking is an infrequent and extreme activity, peer pressure to drink will turn into peer pressure not to drink.

Adapted to counteract bullying in K-12 schools, the social norms approach leads to informational posters that read, “DID YOU KNOW, 96% of us think we should always try to be friendly with students who are different from us,” “Get the News! In the 30 days before the survey, most of us have not teased others in a mean way,” and “GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE! A majority of Middle School students would tell an adult at school if they were being bullied.”

6-8_crowdAnd then there was this one: “Join the crowd! 84% of us agree that the teachers and other students care about us.”

I raised my hand, and when the ADL presenter called on me, I said, “But what if you’re in the other 16%? That is an extremely isolating place to be.” I spoke about my own experience with exclusion because of my weak social skills and atypical behavior, and added, “And what if the 16% happens to be all the students who have disabilities? Or all the students with limited English proficiency? Or all the students who happen to live in a mobile home park in an otherwise wealthy suburb?”

One of the other people in the workshop answered, “If you see the poster about binge drinking, and you’re one of the 20% who binge drinks, that’s a sign that you need to get help. It’s the same in this case.”

But it’s not the same. To begin with, the individual takes action to drink while being an outcast is something others do to the individual. And while using social norms to rein in problem drinking has proven effective, social norms are part of the problem in dealing with individuals and groups who have already been put out of the pack.

My different perspective on the subject of social norms comes from personal experience—the kind of personal experience that went into the writing of Rogue. This different perspective is important if we want to eliminate bullying in schools and in society.  A social norms approach is not the answer, unless we also include an understanding of and appreciation for diversity—including neurodiversity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurodiversity )—and a commitment to giving everyone a place of dignity, respect, and importance.  And that means a genuine commitment, not giving an answer that the person doing the survey wants to hear but reaching out to people who may be isolated and difficult to reach. For that person who is different may be the one with the special talent to offer, or the solution to the problem.

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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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32085_1486219798451_7799156_nI’m not on Twitter much but on one of my recent visits I discovered a young black woman who’s doing her best to promote diversity in the Canadian children’s publishing industry. I recently had an unproductive exchange with a book festival director in Toronto so I’m very pleased to share this interview with Léonicka Valcius.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a young black woman with fabulous hair. I have many passions: some serious (social justice, economic inequality, oppression) and some frivolous (food, fashion, entertainment). I just started my career as a publishing professional and I have two commitments: to be the authors’ advocate and to promote diversity in publishing. (These are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.)

As a black child growing up in Toronto, I never saw myself in Canadian books and knew nothing about opportunities in the arts. Describe your evolution from a girl who loved reading to a book blogger and publishing professional.

It was such a long, winding path. Very much a case of growing into who you were meant to be.

I am Haitian-Canadian. I was born in Montreal but grew up in Florida, and I didn’t see much of myself in books either. The sad part is I never thought to look. I have always loved historical fiction and SFF, so somewhere along the line I took it for granted that people like me were never princesses, or warriors, or explorers. It didn’t bother me at the time because I didn’t realize it was a problem. I lived and went to school in a predominately white area and was used to being the only black girl in the room. In that way, the books I read reinforced that reality. Even when I wrote my own stories they featured blond-haired protagonists.

In high school and university I practically stopped reading books for fun—I had so much school reading to do! But I stayed connected to other readers by joining FictionPress.com. Though I am not much of a writer, I had been editing for my peers for years and continued to do so online. So when I hit that point where I had to decide what to do with my life, I took a look at what I was doing with my free time. Working in publishing was just the logical extension of my passions.

It’s not exactly encouraging to hear everyone screaming “publishing is dead!” when you are in publishing school. And after being surrounded by people of color at Florida Atlantic University and then University of Toronto, returning to a predominantly white environment was jarring. But I didn’t know any of that before going in. Perhaps if I had, I would have been more reticent and assumed that “people like me” didn’t belong in the industry. My ignorance worked to my benefit in this case.

I am also incredibly blessed. I was only able to afford publishing school and six months of internships because I live with my parents. I don’t pay rent. I don’t pay for food. My parents signed for my loan and covered my transportation costs when money was super tight. For people without those luxuries, getting into publishing is especially difficult (but not impossible).

Getting my job was a combination of hard work, support from my network, and divine intervention. My job is fast-paced and sometimes stressful but I love every bit of it. And how could I not? I get to share books with kids! I work for Scholastic Book Fairs Canada. I am the Junior Product Manager for their French division, Festival du Livre. I’m essentially a book buyer and marketer rolled into one. I purchase French children’s books, which are then sold in French book fairs hosted by schools across Canada, and I promote these books and the fairs through print and web marketing.

I fell into children’s publishing by accident. In fact I distinctly remember actively avoiding it. I thought it was too specialized, too idiosyncratic and that it was not the place for a beginner like me. But of course, God’s plans were greater than mine. Even though I love children’s books personally, and I loved my visit to the Scholastic offices, I still said “probably adult fiction” when people asked what type of books I wanted to work with. Then Ali McDonald, the children’s literary agent at The Rights Factory (where I had my first internship,) took me to the Festival of Trees. I’m forever in her debt.

I still try to blog here and there but I’m not nearly consistent enough to call myself a book blogger. I just try to engage with people who love books, both online and in real life.

You seem to be connected to the US children’s literature community. Compare the diversity and activism you see in the US to that in Canada. Are the challenges and/or solutions the same?

I’m only as connected as the internet allows me to be, though I am trying to learn as much as I can. Like in many industries it is useful to watch what the US is doing in terms of kidlit in order to get a heads up on upcoming trends.

Insofar as the challenge is to increase diversity in all levels of publishing (from the characters in the books, to the writers, to the people working in the pub houses) then yes, the challenges seem the same to me.

The differences emerge in visibility. The conversations about diversity in US kidlit are easy to find on various social media platforms. In Canada it seems to be considered a non-issue, especially because Canada clings to this rosy reputation for being open and multicultural. I have initiated every conversation about diversity that I’ve had in Canada. That said, there are many groups who are quietly doing the work to fix the problem.

What would you say to a black child in Toronto who has a vague interest in leading a “literary life”? 

Read! Read everything, question everything, then read some more. Use the library at your school or in your city to look for black writers who write books similar to those you already like.

And write! I’m especially fond of fanfiction because it can be a great writing exercise. You already have the foundation of a story so you can be creative. What would happen if the protagonist was black? Was a girl? Was poor? Rich? Lived in the past? Lived in the future? The possibilities really are endless.

Finally, talk to your friends about the books you read the same way you’d talk to them about a movie you saw. Sharing your ideas helps you solidify your opinions or consider another point of view.

You can follow Léonicka on Twitter (@Leonicka) and you can find her blog here.

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Last week I interviewed Kelbian Noel, a YA spec fic author that I met while I was up in Toronto. Yesterday Kelbian returned the favor by featuring me on her blog, Diverse Pages. Here’s one of the questions I was asked to consider:

DP: Have you always written about characters of color? What challenges (if any) have you faced in doing so?

ZETTA: When I took a creative writing class in high school, I wrote a picture book that featured white characters. Fortunately, I was failing that class and so wound up dropping it. In college I had my first black professor and he introduced me to the work of Jamaica Kincaid; that changed my academic focus and as I discovered more black authors, I began to write about people of color. I went through a process of “decolonizing my imagination” and it did take some time for me to develop authentic characters that came from the community where I lived. For a while I worried that readers would feel my characters weren’t “black enough,” but the more I traveled and the more widely I read, the easier it became to create credible, diverse black characters.

On Monday I met with a group of amazing young poets at the Brooklyn Public Library and one young writer showed me a picture book she had self-published–all her illustrations showed white children. I hope she finds a “mirror” for her black female self in my books. You can read the entire interview here.

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