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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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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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061913122422Being the descendant of slaves gives you a clear sense of perspective. I already know that my anxiety sometimes leads me to have a disproportionate reaction to certain things, but I wasn’t overreacting yesterday when my new tablet shut off unexpectedly and I lost FOUR days of writing. That’s almost 4000 words! I managed to write 400 words last night (I’m trying to write 1K words/day) and then got up this morning hoping the tech people at work would be able to recover my lost document (they couldn’t). First I stopped at the African Burial Ground National Monument in order to participate in their Juneteenth events. I helped to read aloud the names of 1300 abolitionists and then went back outside to see some Civil War reenactors 061913123653representing the 26th United States Colored Troops. Judah encounters Union soldiers in this novel and so it was good to see an example of the uniforms, weapons, tent, and other supplies (including food) that African American soldiers would have used. By the time I got to work, I no longer had much hope that the lost document would be recovered. And you know what? It’s ok. I was on the verge of tears yesterday but today I know that in the grand scheme of things, losing a couple chapters of my novel isn’t a real hardship. Imagine those poor folks in Texas who should have been freed in 1863 but were kept in bondage for another two and a half years. They didn’t fuss and complain—they moved forward (and set up an annual party to remind them of their blessings). People suffered so much for me to be where I am today, to have the kind of life where I can dream about the past and write books that give voice to some of those who were unfairly silenced. So I will simply start over and visit the Mac store tomorrow to get the replacement laptop I should have bought a month ago…

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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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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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“If you’re depressed, you’re living in the past. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. If you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.” -Lao Tzu

imagesI just sent this quote to a friend who’s in a funk; as someone who grapples with depression and anxiety, I find it useful and thought he might too. But then I read this response on “wisdom and foolishness in social media” (which questions the quote’s authenticity) and it reminded me of a post Neesha Meminger shared earlier this week about managing depression and responding to depression in others. It’s a serious condition and one that has no quick fix. I’m fortunate that depression (thus far) has had a limited impact on my life; in fact, I think my symptoms were most severe when I was a teenager, before I even knew what depression was. In my twenties I started reading books on the subject and I discovered that a number of my friends were struggling with depression too. We started checking in on each other and we reminded one another to eat right, exercise regularly, and follow the doctor’s orders—in our little community there was no shame in taking medication and/or seeing a therapist to manage depression. And it was okay to admit when we had fallen into “the abyss.” By the time I reached my thirties, anxiety had become the bigger issue for me and I learned that staying busy kept me from dwelling on situations over which I had no control (the cause of most anxiety). I never knew my mother also had anxiety issues but in the years since her retirement from teaching, I’ve witnessed her world getting smaller and smaller as she has more time to dwell on and/or avoid the things that stress her out—like driving on the highway or traveling alone. I look at my mother and see what my future could be, which makes me vigilant about managing my own symptoms NOW.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways anxiety and depression affect my writing. The past few weeks have been a little bumpy—I finished The Deep in early March and had a week of post-partum blues before immersing myself in a demanding post-doc application. Once that was submitted, I started revising an old conference paper that some editors would like to include in a new anthology. Now I’m trying to make some progress on Judah’s Tale. The semester’s winding down; I’m preparing to go to Ghana for the Yari Yari conference in mid-May. When I get back, final grades will be due and then the summer will begin, giving me close to three months to write. That prospect should fill me with joy, but there’s a part of me that worries about having so much unstructured time. I plan to conduct research in the Caribbean and I have a conference in St. Lucia in early August, but the idea of waking up day after day with nothing specific to do is a little bit terrifying. In part because I know that if I’m not focused on a writing project, I’m likely to succumb to bouts of anxiety about the future or depression around my past. I had a dream about my older sister last night—we barely speak and though I do wish things could be different between us, I know I wouldn’t be thinking about her if I were immersed in writing another novel. So do I use my writing to anchor myself in the present? Or do I use writing as a way to avoid the unresolved issues in my life? Maybe both.

Today I’m going to see a bit of fluff—that new Oz movie. I’ve been quite social lately, which is another way of filling up my free time so I don’t sit and ruminate. A trip to the garden might be in order too…

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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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