Mosaic Literary Magazine
Union of Jamaica Alumni Associations (UJAA)
Union of Jamaica Alumni Associations (UJAA)
Middle 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.
Bitch Magazine is running a new discussion series on their blog: “Do Girls of Color Survive Dystopia?” Asian mama Victoria Law worries that her daughter—a voracious reader with a penchant for speculative fiction—won’t see herself in the books she loves. In the comments section I left a link to our African American spec fic list of novels, and Stacy Whitman posted her list too. An anonymous teen left this comment at the end:
I’m a teenager and your daughter might like Legend by Marie Lu, which has an Asian American protagonist and love interest. It’s a dystopian retelling of Les Miserables, and it’s quite good. I read religiously and even I can’t think of a YA book with a black girl hero. When I grow up, I’ll write one.
Please do! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that The Deep, with its kick-ass black girl hero, will be out before the end of this year…
Posted in activism, bookstores, children's literature, Children's Literature Salon, equity, feminism, history, libraries, middle grade novels, multicultural literature, NYPL, race & gender, racism in publishing on March 3, 2013| 2 Comments »
If 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?
I 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!
Posted in Africa, African American Literature, Brooklyn, fantasy, history, libraries, middle grade novels, multicultural literature, religion & spirituality, speculative fiction, young adult novels on January 13, 2013| 2 Comments »
I’m 1200 words away from reaching my 10K-word goal for this month. I was a little worried that this novel, unlike Wish and Ship of Souls, didn’t have any connection to African American history. The Deep feels much more contemporary—it picks up a few months after Ship of Souls ended (in March 2011) and so I’m writing about the tsunami that devastated Japan and the mass shooting in Norway. Yesterday I worked on a scene that takes place at the Central Library here in Brooklyn; Nyla has been chosen to join The League but she resists her guide’s efforts to lead her underground. I was somewhat obsessed with ancient Egypt as a child so I don’t know why it took me so long to make the connection between the deep and the underworld. I’ve decided to name the guide Cyrus/Siris/Osiris, Egyptian god of the afterlife. Far better than Alistair, which is the name of the annoying, yappy dog in my building. My theory of Afro-urban magic requires me to incorporate African spiritual practices into contemporary urban fantasy. There isn’t much room for that in The Deep but maybe I can tweak the plot. That’s the good thing about having a third of the novel still to write—there’s plenty of room for improvement…
Posted in activism, African American Literature, children's literature, LGBTQ, middle grade novels, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, racism in publishing, young adult novels on December 10, 2012| 8 Comments »
I think my list of black-authored MG/YA novels published in the US is pretty complete—thanks to Edi and everyone on Facebook for helping me develop the 2012 list. We came up with 53 titles altogether, but 3 were reprints so that leaves us with 50 new middle grade and young adult titles. Of those 50 books, 11 were published by Saddleback Educational Publishing; the Juicy Central and Lockwood Lions series feature “hi-lo” content for teens reading below grade level. The two major romance publishers—Harlequin and Kensington—are next in line: Kensington’s K-Teen Dafina imprint published 10 black-authored titles in 2012 and Harlequin’s Kimani-Tru imprint published 3. That means THREE publishers are responsible for almost HALF (24) of the black-authored novels published for young readers this year. Scholastic and Aladdin both published 3 titles and Amistad published 2. The rest of the titles are “loners”—they represent the only black-authored MG/YA novel published by Wendy A. Lamb Books, Chronicle, Carolrhoda, Nancy Paulsen Books, HarperTeen, HarperCollins, Little, Brown, St. Martin’s Griffin, Darby Creek Publishing, Margaret K. McElderry Books, Henry Holt, Knopf, Simon & Schuster, Urban Books, Turner, Harper & Wells, and my own publisher AmazonEncore. I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out which imprints belong to the “big 5.” It would also be interesting to figure out how many first-time authors are published each year—are publishers even looking for new talent or are they happy to just wait for their “regulars” to produce a new novel? Any way you slice it, it’s not good. There are 13 million African Americans in the US and our kids have fewer than 50 novels to choose from each year…and how many do you think have LGBT content? (3, I think)
We need greater transparency in the publishing industry, which is why I compile these lists. We’re working on a new initiative so stay tuned…
Posted in African American Literature, African Canadian literature, Canada, Canadian writers, equity, middle grade novels, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, young adult novels on December 7, 2012| 22 Comments »
It’s that time of year again. Academic librarian and fellow blogger Edi Campbell predicts we’ll see a sharp drop in the number of PoC-authored books this year; Edi keeps a list of all titles by PoC authors here. This list only includes middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA) novels written by black authors and published in the US. I found only ONE black-authored YA title published in Canada in 2012, but I may have to reconsider both of my lists since Harlequin is apparently Canadian-owned and that means the Kimani-Tru titles are technically Canadian; you can find my Canadian list, such as it is, here.
If my math is correct, we’ve got just over 40 new titles (the Clubhouse Mysteries by Sharon Draper appear to be reprints). In 2011 we hit 45; you can find that list here. It’s my understanding that 3000 MG/YA titles are published in the US each year. If you spot any errors or omissions on this list, please leave a comment.
Black Boy White School by Brian F. Walker (HarperTeen)
Mesmerize by Artist Arthur (Harlequin/Kimani Tru)
The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (Wendy A. Lamb Books)
The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards (HarperCollins)
Best Shot in the West: the Adventures of Nat Loveby Patricia C. McKissack, Frederick L. McKissack, and Randy Duburke (Chronicle Books)
Marnyke: Keepin’ Her Man (Juicy Central) by Shay Jackson (Saddleback)
Nishell: Holding Back (Juicy Central) by Jada Jones (Saddleback)
Stars in the Shadows: The Negro League All-Star Game of 1934 by Charles R. Smith, Jr. (Atheneum)
No Crystal Stairby Vaunda Michaux Nelson (Carolrhoda Lab)
The Clone Codes #3: the Visitor by Patricia C. McKissack, Fredrick McKissack, and Pat McKissack (Scholastic)
Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books)
DJ Rising by Love Maia (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
On the Flip Side: A Fab Life Novel #4 by Nikki Carter (K-Teen Dafina)
Ship of Souls by Zetta Elliott (AmazonEncore)
Bad Boy by Dream Jordan (St. Martin’s Griffin)
Cali Boys: a Boyfriend Season Novelby Kelli London (K-Teen/Dafina)
The Space Mission Adventure (A Clubhouse Mystery)* by Sharon Draper, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Aladdin) *REPRINT
The Wiley Boys by Hill Harper (Harper & Wells Books for Young Readers)
All the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers (Amistad)
The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson (Margaret K. McElderry Books)
Creeping with the Enemy: A Langdon Prep Novel #2 by Kimberly Reid (Dafina)
37 Things I Love (In No Particular Order) by Kekla Magoon (Henry Holt)
Burning Emerald: The Cambion Chronicles #2 by Jaime Reed (K-Teen/Dafina)
Happy Families by Tanita Davis (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Download Drama by Celeste O. Norfleet (Kimani Tru)
Always Upbeat: Cheer Drama/All That: Baller Swag by Stephanie Perry Moore (Saddleback)
Lone Bean by Chudney Ross (Amistad)
Dork Diaries 4: Tales from a Not-So-Graceful Ice Princess by Rachel Renee Russell (Aladdin)
Keep Jumping: Cheer Drama/No Hating: Baller Swag by Stephanie Perry Moore (Saddleback)
The Backyard Animal Show (Clubhouse Mysteries)* by Sharon M. Draper, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Aladdin) *REPRINT
Back to Me by Earl Sewell (Kimani Tru)
No Boyz Allowed by Ni-Ni Simone (Dafina Books)
End Zone by Tiki & Ronde Barber (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books)
A Certain October by Angela Johnson (Simon & Schuster)
Fire in the Streets by Kekla Magoon (Aladdin)
Yell Out: Cheer Drama/Do You: Baller Swag by Stephanie Perry Moore (Saddleback)
The Cruisers 3: a Star Is Born by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic)
Charly’s Epic Fiascos by Kelli London (Dafina)
Denim Diaries #6: Lying to Live by Darrian Lee (Urban Books)
Stars and Sparks on Stage (Clubhouse Mysteries)* by Sharon M. Draper, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Aladdin) *REPRINT
Settle Down: Cheer Drama/Be Real: Baller Swag by Stephanie Perry Moore (Saddleback)
Kiki Doin’ It (Juicy Central) by Ayshia Monroe (Saddleback)
Marnyke: the Fake Date (Juicy Central) by Ayshia Monroe (Saddleback)
Tia: Diva (Juicy Central) by Ayshia Monroe (Saddleback)
Sherise: Stalked (Juicy Central) by Ayshia Monroe (Saddleback)
Nishell: Tempted (Juicy Central) by Ayshia Monroe (Saddleback)
The Diary of B.B. Bright by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams (Turner)
Hollywood High by Ni-Ni Simone and Amir Abrams (Kensington)
Dork Diaries 5: Tales from a Not-So-Smart Miss Know-It-All by Rachel Renee Russell (Aladdin)
Pinned by Sharon Flake (Scholastic)
Time to Shine by Nikki Carter (Dafina)
Crazy Love by Amir Abrams (Dafina)
Fading Amber: The Cambion Chronicles #3 by Jaime Reed (K-Teen/Dafina)