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I’ve got some catching up to do…but will try to use “awe” as a central theme/ recurring experience of the past few days.  Saturday was the Brooklyn Museum Book Fair and once again, it was an intense, fantastic experience.  I arrived 15 minutes late and the pavilion was already packed with families…and that was my first moment of awe: how do parents do it?  how do you wake at dawn (because that’s when kids get up, even on the weekend), feed your kids, take them to swimming/soccer/art class, get them lunch, and THEN spend up to 4 hours at a book festival?  I was exhausted and I was SITTING the whole time!  Each child was collecting stamps from authors, so the kids were circulating, the parents were keeping up, browsing books, buying books, pushing strollers, and chatting with us.  I had the good fortune of being paired with Emily Goodman, horticulturist and author of Plant Secrets.  She gave me some helpful tips for my Xmas storybook, and also brought crayons so the children could draw pictures of plants.  In this age of digital everything, it was amazing to watch children’s faces light up at the sight of new crayons and white paper…then they drew so intently, with such detail.  One child, Zora, came back 3 times just to draw more pictures!  Kids amaze me.  I’m in New Orleans right now, courtesy of PEN American Center—thank you, thank you Fatima Shaik and everyone else at PEN who made this possible.  The MLK Academy is in the lower Ninth Ward, and on the way home today my fabulous hostess, Karen Ott, drove me down the street where Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project is building eco-friendly homes for (and with) residents.  The Ninth Ward is a patchwork quilt—lots of different colors, textures, and homes in various conditions.  I haven’t taken any photos because I don’t want to act like a tourist in someone else’s neighborhood.  This community has been through enough.  The kids are *great*—will have to write about them tomorrow; today we did writing workshops based on Bird, and tomorrow we’ll move on to Wish.  These kids are survivors…but they’re also kids—regular kids.  I want to make sure I remember that.  Last night my hostess took me to the House of Blues—tonight we’re going out again; I’m trying not to be my usual homebody self.  It’s New Orleans!  But I don’t feel like a tourist.  I feel lucky…in so many ways.

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It’s that time of year again…and books are the perfect gift for the holidays!  I’ll be at the Brooklyn Museum this coming Saturday for their annual Children’s Book Fair.

CHILDREN’S BOOK FAIR
Saturday, November 13, Noon – 4 p.m.
The Rubin Pavilion

Meet your favorite Brooklyn authors and illustrators. Featuring storybooks, picture books, and graphic novels Author readings, a game for children, and cafe service will be offered.

Readings
1 p.m. Randall de Seve, author of Matilda and the
Orange Balloon

2 p.m. R. Gregory Christie, illustrator of Black Magic
3 p.m. Artie Bennett, author of The Butt Book

Participating Authors and Illustrators
Artie Bennett, Cathleen Bell, Sophie Blackall, Peter Brown, Lauren Castillo, R.Gregory Christie, Nina Crews, Randall de Seve, Zetta Elliott, Buket Erdogan, Emily Goodman, Melanie Greenberg, Lisa Greenwald, Jenny Han, Mike Herrod, Isabel Hill, Paul Hoppe, John and Wendy, Nancy Krulik, Diane Landolf, Alison Lowenstein, Laura Ljungkvist, Meghan McCarthy, Leslie Margolis, Diane Muldrow, Roxie Munro, Johan Olander, Claudia Pearson, Sean Qualls, Sergio Ruzzier, David Stein, Scott Teplin, Lauren Thompson, Robin Wasserman, Jacqueline Woodson, Dwight Zimmerman

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Doret posted an interesting video over at Color Online; author Elif Shafak discusses the trouble with circles—if you enclose yourself in one, you’ll wither from insularity and the lack of exposure to diverse people.  But if you think of yourself as a compass, then one foot will remain rooted in your own world while the rest of you circles the globe—or whatever part of the world is within reach.  And the point is, you SHOULD reach for what you don’t know.

I have trouble with circles.  In a way, they represent closure and I could definitely use some of that in this struggle to create greater diversity in publishing.  But most days I feel like we’re just going around and around, not really making any progress.  When I read this PW article by Diane Patrick, I was heartened and put out.  Heartened because I love it when a marginalized person refuses to be pushed offstage.  Kwame Alexander was sick of authors of color being excluded from the National Book Festival in D.C. and so he started his own festival, Capital BookFest.  But Alexander didn’t stop there:

Next year’s festival schedule will expand again to include Richmond, Va.; New Orleans; and an as yet undetermined city in the Caribbean. Alexander’s goal is to have festivals in 15 to 20 cities in the next five years. “We are targeting cities that do not have a proper book festival, and have a strong or emerging arts/literary scene,” he said, emphasizing, “This is a community-based effort, and we are bringing our expertise. So we build it from the community up; it’s not us telling them what to do.”

I have *such* respect for that rationale, and yet I wonder what these “alternative” literary events do to increase the involvement of authors of color in the big mainstream festivals.  How many festival organizers now say, “We don’t have to have more than one or two authors of color because they have their own events to attend.”  And round and round we go…Authors of color can’t afford to wait for publishing insiders to “act right,” yet when we establish our own awards, our own conferences, our own anything, does it send the message that we’d rather be on our own?  I like to say, “Things wouldn’t need to be separate if they were equal.”  Ideally, we’d all work together, right?  But when doors are closed again and again, some of us get tired of knocking.

On a related note, how do we get bookstores to carry more titles by writers of color?  Because if bookstores carry the books, they have a better chance of selling, and if they DO sell, publishers will have to admit there’s demand for stories with multicultural perspectives.  Right?  Stop by ShelfTalker to read Elizabeth Bluemle’s post on “Selling Color in a White Town.”  I’m getting dizzy just thinking about all of this…good night!

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As I mentioned before, when you’re agitating for change you’ve got to walk with suggestions.  So we made our list; we now know that about 50 MG/YA novels by black authors were published in the US this year.  Here’s what I’d like you to do NEXT:

  1. READ THESE BOOKS!  I had a lot of help putting together this list and there were many titles I’d never heard of, which is precisely the problem:  publishers don’t put much marketing money behind books by writers of color.  So now that we know about these books, we need to give them a chance—and if you find a title you like, recommend it!  See what else that author may have written.  Shine some light on books that are too often left in the dark…
  2. Go through the list of MG/YA titles and see how many of these are available at your local and/or school library.  If these titles aren’t in the system, consider asking your library to acquire them.
  3. Take the list to your local bookseller—indie or big chain—and see how many of these titles are (or were ever) in stock.  Many books by black authors don’t sell well because they never even make it onto the shelf…
  4. Print out the list and visit your ten favorite book blogs.  Scan the archives and see how many MG/YA novels by black authors were featured, mentioned, or reviewed on your favorite blogs.  Another challenge black authors face is invisibility in the blogosphere; consider asking your favorite book blogger to add (more) writers of color to their review list.
  5. The next time you attend a book festival or reading at your local library/bookstore, check to see how many authors of color are included.  In 2010, it’s not acceptable for a literary event to exclude authors of color—especially when the exposure could help sales, which would then strip publishers of their excuse that “black books don’t sell.”  If you’re a parent, make sure your child’s teachers use a diverse selection of books in the classroom (and not only during various heritage months).

If you have other suggestions, please share them by leaving a comment or taking up this issue on your own blog.  Maybe we need our own designated week/month…what I’d really like to see is sustained support for MARGINALIZED WRITERS!

Ok, I’m 300 words shy of the 50K mark, so I gotta get back to my novel-in-progress…

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In my Book Smugglers guest post, I talked about the extra burden some writers of color bear when we decide to become author/activists.  Neesha Meminger recently articulated this form of privilege in relation to the rising Islamophobia in this country, making the point that choosing NOT to speak out is in and of itself an exercise of power.  If you haven’t read Shine, Coconut Moon YET, now’s the time—seriously.  I wish parents and educators and librarians understood that stories told from diverse perspectives can help to preempt at least some of the misunderstandings that lead to conflict in our society…

Doret shared this PW article with me: “Where the Boys Are Not.”  Is it a problem that “85% of employees with less than three years of experience in the industry are women”?  I don’t see gender as the (sole) problem here—it’s also that these women are generally the same race, class, and sexual orientation.  It’s also a problem that the remaining 15% are men who also aren’t an especially diverse group. What do you think?  Would more men in the industry produce more books for boys?  I think more publishing professionals with the same corporate/profit-first mentality will produce exactly the same results—regardless of their race, gender, class, or sexual orientation…we need people with diverse VALUES, not just a Benetton ad (different-looking people wearing the same darn clothes).  I always go back to my favorite Stuart Hall line: that’s “a kind of difference that doesn’t make a difference of any kind.”

This morning I wrote to the NYPL, which—I have to say—consistently responds to my concerns about diversity.  They’ve got an event featuring Julia Alvarez up in the Bronx this Thursday—you can find details here.  My concern was the Fall Teen Author Reading Nights, which I misnamed previously, but which nonetheless feature a racially homogeneous list of authors.  Here’s some of the rationale behind my complaint:

As you know, diversity in publishing is an important issue for me; the NEH is also tackling this problem, and in anticipation of their fall convention, I’m trying to think of ways to create “crossover appeal” for writers of color.  Generally, kids of color will pick up Twilight but I’m not sure how often white teens grab a book by/about a person of color.  Which leads me to the problem of “niche marketing”–having authors of color visit communities of color only, while white authors present in centralized venues.  It’s similar to the situation in bookstores: should there be a separate section for black-authored books (what Bernice McFadden calls “seg-book-gation”), or should they be displayed throughout the store according to genre, release date, etc.  My answer is BOTH…when an event lacks a theme and excludes writers of color…it does indeed feel like segregation…

If white teens will go see a film starring Will Smith, and if they’ll avidly consume music produced by black artists, what’s stopping them when it comes to black authors?  I’m hoping the NYPL can play a part in *shaping* new markets–and that means working to disrupt the status quo.  Writers of color face so many challenges on the path to publication–when they’re also excluded from public events, it makes it that much harder for their books to succeed.  Pairing authors of color with established and emerging white authors would help a lot, I think.  Rotating the venue for the Teen Author Night might also encourage a broader audience.

Every advocate knows that you’ve got to walk with solutions—because as soon as you point out a problem, YOU will be asked to solve it.  Never mind that that’s not YOUR job—you’ve got to give them a list of authors of color with upcoming releases or you run the risk of having your concerns swept aside with a shrug.  I knew Doret would know about upcoming releases so I went to her first—is there an author of color you would add to this list?  We’re looking for those who have books coming out during the fall (or spring) months.

Karen L. Simpson ~ ACT OF GRACE

Shelia P. Moses ~ JOSEPH’S GRACE

Derrick Barnes ~ WE COULD BE BROTHERS

Dia Reeves ~ SLICE OF CHERRY

B.A. Binns ~ PULL

Philana Marie Boles ~ GLITZ

Sarah Jamila Stevenson ~ THE LATTE REBELLION

Malindo Lo ~ HUNTRESS

Christopher Grant ~ TEENIE

Caridad Ferrer ~ WHEN THE STARS GO BLUE

Adeline Yen Mah ~ ALONG THE RIVER

Bettina Restrepo ~ ILLEGAL

LA Banks ~ SHADOW WALKER

Travis Hunter ~ AT THE CROSSROADS

Nnedi Okorafor ~ AKATA WITCH

Cindy Pon ~ FURY OF THE PHOENIX

Victoria Bond & TR Simon ~ ZORA & ME

Linda Sue Park ~ A LONG WALK TO WATER

Allison Whittenberg ~ TUTORED

(thanks to Gbemi for these upcoming MG titles)

Crystal Allen ~ HOW LAMAR’S BAD PRANK WON A BUBBA-SIZED TROPHY

Danette Vigilante ~ TROUBLE WITH HALF A MOON

Guadelupe Garcia McCall ~ UNDER THE MESQUITE TREE

Jerdine Nolen ~ ELIZA’S FREEDOM ROAD

Kekla Magoon ~ CAMO GIRL

At the end of the year I’m going to compile a list of YA titles released in 2010.  Think we’ll hit 20?  Twenty YA novels by writers of color?  I wonder…

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On Saturday I made sure I packed my digital and Flip cameras before leaving the house; I planned to attend a talk between Mitali Perkins and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and wanted to record the experience for this blog.  I spent the morning applying for jobs, then got myself ready to meet a friend at the Brooklyn Museum at noon.  I never watched Work of Art, the reality show where actual artists compete to have a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.  But I’m glad my friend introduced me to Abdi Farah‘s work:

He’s a very skilled artist, but the images—and these charred sculptures in particular—were kind of grim.  If you’re in the city, do check it out.  Usually when I go to the museum I head straight for one particular exhibit and then leave because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a lot of art—too much stimuli for an HSP.  But I wasn’t alone, and so after the Farah exhibit we went to the Andy Warhol show, which is actually on two floors.  We stopped by the feminist gallery, too, and my friend assured me that the curators of the Kiki Smith show finally changed their opening write-up to acknowledge the presence of a black woman slave; they basically said, “She’s in the picture, too,” and not “the unpaid labor of this enslaved black woman made it possible for the white woman in the center of the image to pursue her artistic interests.”  But I guess we could call that progress.  By the time we reached the lobby, I was ready to step back into the sunlight.  It was nearly two, and one member of our party of three suggested lunch.  And this was the moment of truth—would I go to lunch and talk about the art we’d seen? would I go to the book festival to see my friend? or would I go downtown for the 9/11 rally at City Hall?  Ultimately, two of us chose option #3.  And I’m glad that we did.  But our preparation for the rally wasn’t ideal: we’d seen some rather edgy art and we did stop at the farmer’s market for a snack (maple syrup caramel corn for me).  Then my friend and I got on the train, reached our stop, and came up from the subway to find just one young white man railing against Islam.  My friend spotted a young black man with a placard advocating for religious tolerance, and we asked him where the rally went.  He pointed us in the right direction, thanked us for coming, and we headed for the marchers moving off in the distance.  Almost immediately we ran into a man I work with; during orientation last week, he and I realized we used to move in the same activist circles “back in the day.”  But as we joined the protestors marching toward City Hall, I was keenly aware of my age and all that had transpired in my life since I last attended a political rally in the ’90s.  I took some snapshots of the many placards, but I wasn’t holding one myself.  There were many elders in attendance, and I wondered whether they were Sixties radicals still fighting the good fight, or simply concerned citizens standing up for their beliefs.  My friend was wary of the many photographers because she’s a professor and some right-wing group now keeps track of “Anti-American academics.”  She has a right to be at that rally, but one photograph in the wrong hands could make her professional life quite difficult.  I was thinking these things as we reached the stage and listened to a number of different speakers articulating their commitment to the principles of religious freedom and economic justice.  We ran into another friend, met her friends, and there were hundreds of people around us…but I felt quite detached.  And inside, like something of a failure.  And I wondered, is it wrong to prefer the museum? the library? my desk at home as the site of my resistance?  As we headed back to the train, my friend assured me that we can be activists in different ways, but sometimes you need to put your body on the line.  I didn’t feel like I’d done that by attending the rally, and I didn’t feel we were truly united; the moment felt symbolic and important but impersonal.  Maybe unity demands that.  I try to advocate for justice in my writing, but is that enough?  In the museum there was a quote from Booker T. Washington that I thought about for quite a while:  “The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppress the weak means little.”

The next day I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival and listened to Mitali Perkins, Francisco X. Stork, and Kate Milford read from their books and talk about the survival instinct in young adults.  They’re not fearless, and they’re often the most vulnerable, but they take risks more readily than many adults.  More than this adult…

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Sometimes I try to get out of things.  And sometimes the universe says, “Quit trying to dodge the work/gift I’m sending your way!”  You can’t avoid your destiny.  So yesterday I was talking to a friend who was upset over being left out of the loop; she learned some major news via Facebook, and felt she ought to have been notified personally.  Another friend was upset when she learned someone very close had opted to have a “family only” wedding.  I was full of sage advice, of course, but then had to follow it myself b/c I, too, fuss over moments of exclusion.  You’ve heard me complain about festivals that exclude writers of color—just last spring I met with the NYPL to discuss their teen author festival that always seems to be mighty white.  Well, here’s their fall lineup:

Fall Teen Author Reading Nights!

September 13 – B&N Back to School Bash, featuring Tiger Beat, with special guests David Levithan, Eliot Schrefer, and Eireann Corrigan (6:30-8, B&N Tribeca, 97 Warren St.)

October 6 — Teen Author Reading Night (6-7:30, Jefferson Market Branch of NYPL, 425 6th Ave, at 10th St.)

Maria Boyd, Will
Matt de la Pena, I Will Save You
Kirsten Miller, The Eternal Ones
Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall
Samantha Schutz, You Are Not Here
Suzanne Weyn, Empty
Lizabeth Zindel, A Girl, A Ghost, and the Hollywood Hills

November 3 — Teen Author Reading Night (6-7:30, Jefferson Market Branch of NYPL, 425 6th Ave, at 10th St.)

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares
Sarah Beth Durst, Enchanted Ivy
Barry Lyga, Archvillain
Lena Roy, Edges
Kieran Scott, She’s So Dead to Us
Scott Westerfeld, Behemoth

I’m done.  My agent and I have discussed the heap of manuscripts I dumped on her desk, and her suggestion is that I leave the world of YA.  And when I see crap like this, over and over again, I have to agree.  Not that the world of adult lit is so much more egalitarian.  I’m just sick of the lily-white clique.  I’ve started writing again, so will focus on my own work instead of getting worked up over this b.s.

A couple of days ago I was asked to participate in a tribute to the late Virginia Hamilton at the upcoming A is for Anansi conference.  I was honored, but tried to dodge the job…then woke to find this email in my inbox.  It’s from another elder:

Now I will start Labor Day weekend on A Wish After Midnight.
I ordered Bird from Barnes and Noble.
It is the best children’s picture book I have read recently.
I shared it with two nieces and a great nephew–each reading a page with me reading the ending pages.
I love its poetry, its ethnic relevant references, its environmental new facts about birds, its ginger depiction of a young boy with his grandfather and older men, its poignant stark realism, and its artistic illustration (those Pinkney “boys” got competition and so has James Ransome and Tyrone Geter, the latter out of South Carolina where I used to teach)
I left it for my 51 year old brother, who works construction everyday and still pays the crack dealer!
I got all excited to take it with me for an 8 year old friend Elijah to read to the therapy dogs in the local library. But he wasn’t home…
Thanks, Dr. Elliott for writing in the “vein of the late Virginia Hamilton!”
She was brave enough to write about a young girl’s fascination with Africa and a black older girl way back in the early sixties in a children’s picture book format.
You were brave enough to tackle drugs and double deaths in a children’s picture book…

No more dodging for me…

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…because Amy Bodden Bowllan is asking folks to send her photos of their favorite book by an author of color.  If booksellers like Borders think there’s no demand, let’s prove them wrong and show just how much we enjoy books with diverse perspectives.  I just started Grace Lin‘s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and was thrilled to find a profile of Ms. Lin over at Color Online–check it out!

I was *not* thrilled to hear that Ellen Hopkins was disinvited from a teen lit festival in Texas; it is heartening, however, that her fellow authors withdrew in solidarity.  Read more about it over at Chasing Ray

I’m not an Eat, Pray, Love kind of girl, but the book/film phenomenon has at least provided yet another occasion to critique Orientalism.  Check out Dr. Mia Mask’s NPR segment on the subject, and follow up with Ah Yuan’s fabulous guest post over at Reading in Color…enough is enough!

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I’m not sweet.  When people are asked to describe me, “sweet” is not a word that comes to mind.  I know that—I own it.  I’m a Scorpio; sugar just isn’t part of our chemical makeup, which might explain why I crave sweets so often…

When life hands you lemons, you’re supposed to make lemonade—but what if you have no sugar?  The Brooklyn Book Festival is coming up in September, and while the schedule of events hasn’t been posted yet, there’s a list of invited authors on their website.  It’ll be great to see Sofia Quintero, Torrey Maldonado, Mitali Perkins, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich at this year’s event!  I had hoped Rita Williams-Garcia would be on that list…and Kekla Magoon…and Tonya Cherie Hegamin.  All live in the city, and all have won major awards for their books.  Since we’re coming up on Hurricane Katrina’s 5th anniversary, it would have been nice if Renee Watson or Jewell Parker Rhodes were included.  And, of course, I had hoped to be invited—I live in Brooklyn, I write about Brooklyn, and my novel even concludes in the very plaza where the festival will be held!

Fortunately, I bought some honey last week and figure daily doses will keep me from becoming bitter.  I’m also making lists—of all the writing projects I need to finish this month, and all the research I need to do for Judah’s Tale.  Today I head to the BK Museum to take a closer look at their exhibit on the Sanitary Fair of 1864.  I’m trying to find out whether or not it was segregated—could ALL women contribute, or only white ladies?  I did some online research last night and found this interesting article—we all know Harriet Tubman served as a spy during the Civil War, but who was Richmonia St. Pierre?  She served as a spy in the South, went to Liberia, and then worked with the AMA to educate freed blacks after the war.  She concludes her 1865 address to a mixed crowd by insisting upon justice for her race.  She’s tired of visiting abolitionists and being told they are “not at home” to colored visitors…helps me put things in perspective for sure!

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Friday started out strong: I ran some errands and then got to Penn Station in time to meet Edi (right) and Doret (center)—two of my favorite bloggers and longtime online friends!  They were in town for the National Diversity in Libraries Conference at Princeton University; visit Amy’s SLJ blog to learn more.  This was our first time meeting in person, but as we talked about books over lunch at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too in Harlem, I felt like we’d known each other forever…next stop: Hue-Man Bookstore on 125th, then the Studio Museum where the clerk kindly took this photo for us.  Then the heat started to take its toll, and I was nauseous by the time I reached work; fortunately, my stellar TAs agreed to let me leave early, so I was home before the migraine came on…

Next day I went back up to Harlem to read at the Young Reader’s Pavilion organized by the publishing power couple, Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson.  Their son, Stephan, is a talented photographer and he captured the various authors as we each took our turn on stage.  Do visit Stephan’s website to see more of his work!

It’s always great to see a familiar face in the audience—in this case, Tonya Cherie Hegamin…below, cartoonist Jerry Craft showing kids how to draw:

CEO of Just Us Books, Wade Hudson

Cheryl happily signing books for young readers

yours truly in action

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