Lessons from Charleston

Posted June 22nd, 2015

Bronx MasqueradeAn unarmed black person dies at the hands of, or in the custody of, white policemen, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?”

Nine black souls are massacred in a house of worship, in a state where the Confederate flag, symbol of hatred, flies proudly, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?”

I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I certainly can suggest a few, the most important of which has nothing to do with gun control, and everything to do with empathy. We need to teach our children empathy. It’s a lot harder to murder someone you have empathy for than someone you don’t.

The perpetrator of this latest atrocity was not mentally ill, as some wish to suggest. (Please don’t insult me by suggesting every white person who kills a black person is mentally ill. I grew up with a parent who was genuinely mentally ill, so I, for one, know the difference. Oh, and, I should note: she didn’t kill anyone.) Nor was this perpetrator born with hate in his heart. No one is. Hatred is a seed that must be planted, watered, fertilized, and nurtured. The ugly fruit of hatred is not produced in a single, sudden moment. Rather, it ripens over time. It is not inevitable. I repeat: race hatred is not inevitable.

As a seedling, hatred can be uprooted early on. Or, it can be left untouched in its own environment and allowed to produce a head and heart both poisoned, and poisonous. While children are yet children, and still under our care, we adults get to influence which of those two things happen.

Instead of looking the other way while hatred takes root in young hearts and minds, why not try this: Plant the seeds of empathy. Teach the young to feel the heartbeats of races and cultures other than their own. Replace any possible fear of the unknown, with knowledge of the knowable. Teach them the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are different. Teach them that the most important common denominator is the human heart. Start with a book.

Give young readers books by and about peoples labeled “other.” I’m not talking about one or two books, here and there. I’m talking about spreading diverse books throughout the curriculum, beginning in elementary grades, and continuing through to high school. Why? Because racism is systemic and teaching empathy, teaching diversity, needs to be systemic, too.

You say you want to change the dynamic of race relations in America. Well, here is a place to begin—unless, of course, you’re not really serious. In that case, by all means, keep running around like your hair is on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?” every time an unarmed black person is killed by a white policeman, or a group of innocent black people is massacred. Just don’t expect me to keep listening. I’ve already told you where to begin.

The Gift of Story

Posted October 21st, 2014

A recent blog by Sally Lloyd-Jones got me thinking about a question we authors hear some version all the time: Where do you get your ideas, or how do you come up with ideas for your stories? The question would suggest that there’s a treasure trove, somewhere, packed with stories ready for the taking. Or that there’s a place one could go, a repository one can simply dip into, at will. But, the truth is, story ideas are more elusive than that. Their source is far less predictable, more a matter of magic, or of serendipity. An idea might spring from a period of fasting, or flash of insight during a meditative state, or result from literally tripping over an object that brings that idea to mind. No matter the origin of an idea, or the vehicle that brought it to you, that idea, that story, is a gift.

Chasing FreedomI’ve been thinking about my newest title, Chasing Freedom, releasing in January 2015, and trying to trace it’s origins. The initial idea came to me while I was busy working on something else. The something else was a series of dramatic monologues for a theater production to be performed in China, in 1988. The theme of the show was American History, and so I chose as my subjects Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony. In the midst of researching their stories, and crafting their monologues, I became excited to learn that they not only lived at the same time, but all knew each other. One day, while thumbing through these histories in the stacks of the Doheny Library at USC, I suddenly thought, “I wonder what it would be like if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony sat down for a talk.” That notion was the seed that eventually led to my writing Chasing Freedom. I wasn’t looking for an idea, mind you. It simply arrived of its own! A gift.

Words with WingsI turned my thoughts to Words With Wings, a novel-in-verse about daydreaming, and I tried to trace the origins of that story. This task was more difficult, because the genesis of the idea was much less straightforward. Over the years, I’d read or heard comments by teachers about the importance of nurturing the imagination; read or heard Steve Jobs bemoan the fact that children are no longer encouraged to daydream; read or heard nameless others comment on this subject, in one way or another. Somewhere along the line, this train of thought stuck, and I began thinking about my own childhood, and how important daydreaming had been in my own formation, and later success, and I realized how much I wanted that for the children I serve through my work. Out of this thick soup of essays, articles, off-hand commentary, and personal memories grew the idea for a novel about a daydreamer. So there.

The origin of the idea for my next book, Poems in the Attic, out next spring, is a bit clearer, but not much. I watch the nightly news as much as anyone, and I’ve noticed a barrage of stories about our military over the recent years. With troops in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, especially, this last decade has produced miles of videotape about soldiers. I especially noticed the preponderance, of late, of images on television of soldiers returning home, snuggling with their children after long tours away, images of both fathers and mothers in uniform, nearly wrestled to the ground by children so excited to have them home, again. These images stuck. Then, there was the show Army Wives, which brought these themes into my living room weekly. Besides the above, there’s the fact that several of my friends regularly share childhood stories of growing up as military brats. At some point, a couple of years ago, I started thinking about the increasing number of children who have to negotiate the uncertainty of life with a parent in the military, and I wondered if I might offer some small collection of poetry that would speak into that. Hence, the story-in-verse book, Poems in the Attic.

The answer to the question of where stories come from is rather random, isn’t it? It’s mysterious. It’s magical. It’s simple: a story, and the idea that gives birth to it, is—a gift. Yeah. That sounds about right.

Mister Cellophane

Posted September 11th, 2014

A Good Long WayI recently read a blog post by author René Saldaña, Jr., that got me wondering—and not for the first time—how much effort teachers and librarians, especially, go to when searching for books by authors of color. It is a question worth asking.

The other day, out of curiosity, I Googled myself. I found a whopping 1, 470,000 results listed under my name. These include bios, videos, interviews, periodical features, photos, and, of course, books and audio-books. Wow. And yet, I regularly meet teachers and librarians who are wholly unfamiliar with my work. How is that possible?

Talkin' About BessieNow, I’m not saying my work is the greatest thing since sliced bread, because there are writers out there whose wordsmithing I envy. What I’m saying is that my titles are not exactly in hiding. In fact, throughout the course of my career, I have worked diligently to make sure they’re not. From seeking out bookstore signings, in my early days; to doing school visits; to producing postcards and bookmarks; to creating a comprehensive website; to investing in teacher guides for my books; to developing an online presence via Facebook, and now Twitter—in these ways, and more, I have made a concerted effort to put my work out there. How is it, then, that many people still manage to miss it?

Pocketful of PoemsBefore I go any further, let me say that I am extremely grateful for those teachers and librarians who have sought out and found my work, over the years, and then went on to share it with the students they serve. Obviously, I wouldn’t have much of a career without these literature-loving professionals. They have kept a goodly percentage of my 46 trade, and 20-odd mass-market books in print. I’m hoping they receive to my next two titles with equal kindness. However, after 30+ years in the business, I still routinely hear people say, “I’ve looked for your work everywhere and can’t find it,” to which I respond, “Huh?”

Almost ZeroI have a website featuring all of my titles, awards, audio-clips, and select reviews, with posted links to IndieBound.org and Amazon.com. In addition, I have a Wikipedia page, as well as an Amazon.com page. How hard have you been looking, exactly? I’m confused.

Sylvia Vardell’s must-view Poetry for Children website lists many of my poetry titles. TeachingBooks.net features my Coretta Scott King Award and Honor winners (six in total). I, thankfully, have books on any number of Best Book lists. Tell me again how hard it is to find my work.

Bronx MasqueradeClearly, there’s more to the lack of diversity in children’s books than whether or not POC are creating and publishing them. Could it be that some lack the motivation to seek out the books that are already there? That’s what René Saldaña, Jr., is asking. Now, I am, too.

Mind you, I’m not saying that we don’t need more books by people of color, because we most certainly do. The numbers show that we are woefully off the mark in producing diverse books in numbers commensurate with the proportion of our ever-increasingly diverse population. But that said, I am suggesting that we, perhaps, look at the issue a little more closely, that we ask a few more uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

René Saldaña, Jr., spoke to this issue from the point of view of an author with a little less visibility than mine. And yet I have to agree with so much of what he has to say.

The juggernaut that is #WeNeedDiverseBooks is hard at work to raise the visibility of books by, and for, people of color. This is great and important work. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more going on beneath the surface that would explain why the gatekeepers in this business continue to miss the POC books—including Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and National Book Award Winners—that are already out in the marketplace.

Where, exactly, is the disconnect? Is it the want-to that’s missing? If so, how do we begin to address it?

Let’s talk.