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Ailynn Knox-Collins

I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children, and attend Hamline University's MFAC program. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

Committing to Diversity

Diversity in children’s literature is vital. It’s necessary. It’s long overdue. It should be there in adult literature and all media too. (Don’t get me started on casting issues in Hollywood). But it is most important when the consumers are children. And I’m glad we’re doing something about it.

This topic of diversity in kidlit has been growing for many years. Brave people and organizations have been fighting to make their voices heard, so that all children will be represented in the books they read. Maybe it’s because I attend a school that is dedicated to diversity that it feels as if the conversation is gaining traction. But everyday, I am seeing posts on social media and hearing that it’s being discussed at conferences, ones that could affect the future of books. Just yesterday, in my email inbox, there was a newsletter from the SCBWI. The first article, listed under Hot Topic, was written by Lin Oliver, the Executive Director of SCBWI. The title was “Diversity: What Can We Do About It?” It was encouraging to read.

As a student at Hamline’s MFAC (Writing for Children and Young Adults) program, I joined with others to commit to reading and writing diverse literature for children. I desperately want children to be able to see themselves in books. It makes me so happy to hear a child say, “Hey, he looks like me!” or “We do that at home too.” when I read a book aloud. (I teach tiny ones, and medium sized ones). During this last Hamline residency in July, our MFAC Pride group asked us to commit to buying, reading, and reviewing or blogging about diverse books for kids — at least 12 in the next year.

I’m really excited to do this. And by putting it out here, I’m holding myself accountable. I’ve already bought several books by diverse writers, and I can’t wait to start reading. Of course, some of these books I’ll have to read in between completing my MFAC homework (we call them packets). Some books are already on our required reading list, (Monster by Walter Dean Myers is my favorite so far) so I’ll get to ‘kill two birds’ as they say. (The faculty at Hamline is revising the required reading list to include more diverse books too. Yay!). Mostly, I’ll be able to escape into the wonderful worlds created by people I have only recently been introduced to.

Not that I haven’t read books by diverse authors or books with diverse characters up till now. The ones I’ve read recently include:

  • Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  • The Firekeeper’s Son, and A Single Shard, both by Linda Sue Park
  • The Living by Matt De La Pena
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth
  • Legend (The Trilogy) by Marie Lu
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
  • American Born Chinese, and Boxers and Saints, all by Gene Luen Yang
  • This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • Talon by Julie Kagawa

See, it’s not that hard to find 12, or 13. I like that, if I deliberately look for diverse books, I can find a good number of great ones, from picture books to young adult books. Imagine a world where diverse books are everywhere, and we wouldn’t have to go looking for them. That makes me smile.

I found several great resources too – We Need Diverse Books, Bookriot, and LibraryThing are perfect starting platforms for finding diverse books to read. And from the new and emerging writers I’ve met along the way in my writing journey, I know a lot more wonderful, relevant books are coming. This is an exciting time.

More and more, we are becoming aware of this need for books that reflect all kinds of children in all kinds of families, doing things all of us can identify with. And books with diverse characters don’t have to have characters doing things that are stereotypical of their culture. Also, there’s an interesting emergence of subcultures brought about by kids who are growing up in a different country from where their parents were raised. And there are the biracial and multiracial kids too. How great would it be to see books about their journeys?

So, as we continue the discussion, here’s my little wishlist for readers and writers of children’s books —

  • Diversity is not a trend, like vampires and angels once were. It is the truth about our world. Don’t treat it like a trend.
  • Don’t write a diverse book for the sake of it. This shouldn’t be a band-wagon to hop onto. Write one because when you look around your own world (or dig a little deeper to discover the truth), you’ll see that the world is already diverse, and you have no choice but to reflect it.
  • Reflect the diversity well, consistent with reality. Do research, if you need to, and it’s always good even if you don’t.
  • Show us diverse people doing regular day to day things, but make it interesting because it’s in a book and readers need to turn the page.
  • Read diversely. Do the work to find them. They’re easier to find than you think.
  • Pass along good books to everyone you know.

Maya Angelou once said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”

There truly is. So let’s share it. And one day, diverse books will be mainstream, and the world of children’s books will match the world in real life.

A Moment to Geek Out

Last week, this happened.

Photo credit:  This artist's impression of Kepler 452b shows how its surface might look, complete with water and active volcanoes. SETI Institute/Danielle Futselaar.
Photo credit: This artist’s impression of Kepler 452b shows how its surface might look, complete with water and active volcanoes. SETI Institute/Danielle Futselaar.

Kepler 452b, found by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, is located 1,400 light-years from us. It orbits a star that is 4% more massive and 10% brighter than our Sun. The planet itself is 1.6 times the size of Earth – making it a super-Earth – but the scientists are fairly sure that it is a rocky world, owing to its size and the type of star it orbits.”

I love to read and write about space. I’m working on a story now about us finding a new home somewhere out there. I worry about us ruining another perfectly good planet, but I get excited by the prospect of being given a second chance, to start again, to do better this time. Can we, though? I hope we can.

So this is a brief ‘geek out’ moment for me – having read several articles about this planet and dreamt of the possibilities, and laughed at how science fact is catching up so quickly to science fiction these days. I surprise myself at how excited I am. Maybe I cope with life here by dreaming about life out there. Hey, it helps to have something to look forward to. Okay, maybe not in my lifetime, but still, it’s there.

I know 1400 light-years away is still too far for us to get to within a reasonable time — generational ship, anybody? — but it’s something to think about.

The other question is if it’s such a perfect match for Earth, wouldn’t it already have some kind of life on its surface? So, a possible first contact situation?

Star Trek, here we come.

Writing the Asian character

My friend and author, Justina Ireland, (look her up, she’s as awesome as her Twitter handle – @tehawesomersace, requested information about microagressions against Asians from the Twittersphere. I could give you plenty from personal experience, but her search to understand this issue got me thinking elsewhere. Microaggressions are definitely a topic to talk about, and I will, someday soon. There are many other people that lay it out so much more clearly than I ever could, so I will let them.

But in reading about Justina’s quest for authentic answers, my mind goes to my craft of writing authentic characters. How do I write Asian characters, make them as real as any other character, and yet true to their heritage? I’ve seen it done badly enough times to need to lay it out for myself. If you’d like to come on this journey with me, you’re most welcome. Otherwise, thanks for dropping by.

I am biracial, and one half of that is Asian. But the term “Asian” alone means little to me. Being part Asian places my ancestry geographically somewhere in the largest continent on the planet. How does that define who I am and what values I carry with me? How does that influence my behavior, my parenting style, my worldview?

When I write an Asian character (even as a part Asian writer), do I have the right to simply imply their ‘Asian-ness’ without truly understanding that term in a much deeper way? Without understanding that character personally? Especially in the context that my characters often live away from their ancestors’ countries of origin.

I start with a few simple questions: (there’s rarely a simple answer though)

  • Where does my character live now or in the time frame of my story?
  • Which part of Asia do their ancestors come from?
  • If the character doesn’t live in the country of origin, is she two, three or just one generation away from that original culture?
  • What values from that original culture still form the foundation of her identity and belief system?

I’m half Chinese. I’ve been asked what China is like, but I’ve never been, so I couldn’t tell you. I have friends from China, friends whose grandparents are from China, and they are different from my friends from Taiwan. I have Chinese friends from Thailand, from the Phillipines, from Indonesia, and of course, from Singapore. (And not just Chinese, for these countries have descendants from the indigenous culture as well as those from everywhere else in the region).

I identify most with the culture that formed in the multicultural city of Singapore, while acknowledging the influence of China’s pre-revolution culture from my grandparents. (That’s a mouthful, and a lot of repetition of the word ‘culture’.) An entire book could be written about the infused culture that is unique to this island nation. (I’m sure it already has been.) This is where my mother was born and where I spent 25 years of my life. The “Asian” culture that I have absorbed into my system is Singaporean. Yes, there are similarities with my friends from China or Taiwan, but there are just as many differences. Don’t even get me started on the number of different languages that exist in these regions. I understand three of them, and that’s barely anything.

So, when I write a character who comes from or has roots in Asia, I need to know precisely where she hail from. I need to understand the values that her grandparents brought to her family. And learn which of those her parents chose to keep, and those that were modified.

And then there’s the character herself. What values exist in her thinking without her consciously thinking about them? What aspects of her culture has she chosen to drop or adopt, and why? This applies especially to Asians who now live in a different part of the world from their ancestors. (Which funnily, could be most of us in the US, don’t you think?)

If the character’s ancestry hails from more than one culture, that’s a whole other research journey.

My own children, now American, have to work out what values and traditions they would like to keep and which to adapt, and which to discard. That is their right. I suspect though, that the older they get, the more they may return to some of the traditions we’ve tried to pass down.

Just as these decisions exist for my real kids, they exist for the children that come from my imagination, the ones that populate the fictional worlds.

Being Asian, like being African or European, is a convenient term, but it’s really only geographical and just the start of the journey to understanding my characters. I get excited about the expedition I need to take in order to get to know my characters, to understand who they are, based on their own and their families’ journeys through time and place. I am interested to get to know real people who live these lives, to talk to them about how their ancestry has affected who they are, as they find their place to belong, here in the multicultural, mixed up world we have today.

I don’t think I get it right every time, but after this summer residency at Hamline University’s MFAC program, I will work harder to get it ‘more right’, thanks to the insights and wisdom of my classmates and my teachers. I will seek to get it right for the sake of children who may someday read my work, and see themselves reflected back in the characters.

So thank you, Justina, for making me think about this.

It’s Been a While But I’m Back

The writing journey has taken a turn for me. So I thought I should update and get going on this blog. I’m still learning how to do this better, so it may take a while.

The best thing that has happened to me as a writer was beginning the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Hamline University.

WP_20150719_002. WP_20150719_001

I’m in my second semester now. In this low-residency program I have met and been taught by amazing faculty. I have learned so much, but more than that, I have been treated with respect and care. I never really thought of myself as a writer, till I met Mary Rockcastle and her terrific faculty.

My first semester went by so fast, and I should have written about it then. But I want to go back and reiterate my thanks for the scholarship I was awarded back in January. It really gave me the confidence I needed to keep going with my writing.

Lerner Scholarship tweet

I tell my non-writing friends, I feel like I’m being taught by celebrities, because I am such fans of all the faculty’s work.

The students at Hamline’s MFAC are lovely too. So talented. So inspiring. Laura Hanson, a member of my class, won this semester’s scholarship for her picture book. Back Row Ninjas, we rock!

So, as I continue this learning journey, I hope to be better at blogging about it.

Tu Books Announces Winner of First Annual New Visions Contest for Writers of Color

T. A. Knox-Collins:

Congrats to the winners! Watch out for their books. In fact, someday maybe all our books will be out there too. 😉 *fingers n eyes crossed*

Originally posted on the open book:

[from the press release]

New Visions Award sealNew York, NY—April 11, 2013—Tu Books, the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery imprint of respected multicultural children’s publisher LEE & LOW BOOKS, is thrilled to announce that author Valynne Maetani has won its first annual New Visions Award for her young adult mystery novel, Remnants of the Rising Sun.

The New Visions writing contest was established to encourage new talent and to offer authors of color a chance to break into a tough and predominantly white market. The award honors a fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel for young readers by an author of color who has not previously published a novel for that age group.

Remnants of the Rising Sun is about a Japanese American teenage girl, Claire Takata, whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her father was a member of the Japanese mafia, Yakuza. “As kids, my brothers…

View original 290 more words

Trying to Outrun Science – So now, InVitro Meat?

I just finished a class in World Building at a local college. It was taught by a wonderful teacher who is so full of knowledge and experience — Phil Athans. This is his blog, look him up. In this class we learned how to create a ‘bible’ that is so essential for anyone writing Science Fiction or Fantasy. We looked at books and movies that were consistent about their world’s rules – something we don’t really notice until there’s a book or movie that blatantly disregards all rules and just did it ‘Because’. I bet you can think of a few right now.

So I spent the last few weeks going over the world of the Ark Chronicles, in particular my first installment Generation Zero. It’s been great fun drawing pictures, maps and rethinking the rules of my world. Of course I did this three years ago when I started writing this story and over time, some of the rules changed, as did the story with each revision. I have bits of paper and files on several computers with all my musings and thoughts. But this time, I got myself ONE notebook and compiled it all into one place, and added my terrible, unartistic drawings and stick figure illustrations.

Then it came to the science in my science fiction. Phil said different writers use different proportions of science and fiction – for example, your story might be 90% fiction ad 10% science, or vice versa. I’m not sure where I fall but I’m aiming for somewhere in the middle.

Generation Zero is what I call ‘near future sci fi’. It’s set in 2081 and the problem with that is almost as soon as I write something or make something up, the real world of science tells me, “It’s been done,” or “We’re almost there.” (Admittedly I also ignore the “That can’t be done” and the husband’s comment “You’re changing the rules of physics!” Yeah well, that’s the ‘fiction’ part. I can hear him cringe.)

When I read about or watch on TV about the new stuff that’s coming out, I grunt and moan and then try to go one step further in my story so that my ‘science’ isn’t outdated before the book is done. Science progresses so quickly, it’s dizzying!

And no less so in today’s issue – food.

When you put a thousand people on a starship for thirty years, they’re going to need to be fed, especially if they’re also expected to reproduce in space. I’d done quite a bit of research on this topic and thought I’d had it down. But of course I don’t. And I discovered this while having breakfast this morning, over a cup of tea, a waffle (yes, broke my diet – couldn’t resist my husband’s offering. It’s Saturday) and a Time Magazine.

In the March 25, 2013 issue of Time magazine (I couldn’t find an online version of the article yet) there’s a short piece entitled “Grow a Burger“. It’s about In Vitro Meat. There’s even a Consortium for this research. It began at a workshop held at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences June 15, 2007 and research is continuing to this day to try and create meat in a lab, so that we don’t have to kill animals to eat. The Time Magazine article quotes Winston Churchill in 1931, saying “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing.”

Maybe it took more than fifty years, but isn’t this fascinating? Scientists are taking meat cells, a.k.a myoblasts, cells that would normally grow into muscle, and are prompting them to grow into actual meat with real flavor. The Huffington Post had an article about it too in 2012, calling it Frankenfood. Please understand that I’m not thinking about the realities of this yet. We’re still a way away from this being on our tables, and I’m sure we’ll have to consider the ethics, the safety and all those issues.  I’m thinking purely as an SFF writer at this time.

The way I look at it is, if we have to send people out into space for long journeys, as in Generation Zero, we won’t have to load the ship with livestock for food, or make everyone vegetarian. Having read a few sci fi books in a similar vein to mine, these have been the typical solutions. I too had livestock on the Ark II (the starship I created), but they died — couldn’t survive the space radiation. I resorted to cloning them one at a time.

But now look what we can do! We only need tissue samples from animals in order to grow them into steaks, chops or wings.

Thank you, world of science for giving us  SFF writers such great fodder (no pun intended) to work with. I wonder what you’ll come up with next?

T. A. Knox-Collins:

Our Final installment, giving our thoughts on diversity in genre fiction for MG and YA.

Originally posted on the open book:

New Visions Award sealIn January we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the last few weeks, we’ve highlighted these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

guest bloggerPreviously, our New Visions finalists shared their experiences as young readers, and whether they saw themselves represented in books.

In this last post, they share their final thoughts on diversity in genre fiction for middle grade and young adult readers:

Ailynn Knox-Collins

I applaud the efforts that publishers like Tu Books are making to bring diversity into children’s lite  rature. I am humbled and grateful to have been given a small part to play here. I…

View original 1,230 more words

Meet Our New Visions Finalists, Part IV

T. A. Knox-Collins:

This is what books meant to us when we were growing up.

Originally posted on the open book:

guest bloggerNew Visions Award sealIn January we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

Previous posts by our New Visions finalists:

Q: What was your relationship to books and reading as a child or teenager?  In what ways did you see yourself represented in books?

Ailynn…

View original 1,235 more words

Originally posted on the open book:

guest bloggerNew Visions Award sealLast month we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

Q: What has been your experience writing from a different cultural background that may be unfamiliar to most young readers? 

Ibi Zoboi, Haiti.

While most readers are familiar with Edwidge Danticat, there are, of course, other Haitian and non-Haitian writers telling stories about Haitian children. M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow was a National Book Award Finalist.  The recent winner of the Printz Award is In Darkness, a story about a Haitian boy during the…

View original 917 more words

T. A. Knox-Collins:

Here are the three finalists. Get to know us all.

Originally posted on the open book:

guest bloggerNew Visions Award sealLast month we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

Q: What brought you to Tu Books and to the New Visions Award competition in particular?

Rahul Kanakia, Baltimore, MD:
My novel has a number of autobiographical elements. I mean, obviously, I didn’t grow up in a plague-wracked authoritarian dystopia, but I did share many of the troubles and experiences of the character in my novel. I went to Catholic school and I was confused regarding my sexual orientation and I had body image issues…

View original 1,526 more words

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I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children, and attend Hamline University's MFAC program. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

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I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children, and attend Hamline University's MFAC program. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

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I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children, and attend Hamline University's MFAC program. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

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