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T A Knox-Collins

I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children, am a graduate of 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.

A Young Artist Tackles Hunger: A Graphic Novel

Working part time at a bookstore, I get to meet a lot of interesting people. Best of all is when kids and teens come in to the store. I love to hear about what they’re reading, what they’re interested in, and discovering their talents.

Jing Jing is 16 years old. They come into the bookstore quite often. They have a bubbly personality and is a great conversationalist. They’re also an artist. They say they practice their drawings a lot and I can believe that. When they showed me their portfolio, I was envious. Drawing people is definitely not something I can do. I can draw stick figures. What Jing Jing does is a whole different universe.

I told Jing Jing I’m working on a graphic novel called Hunger. Jing Jing was interested. They asked me what it was about, and really listened as I gave them the long synopsis. Bless that teenager!

Hunger is about a Cassia, who lives in the International District in Seattle. Her parents died in an accident when she was a toddler, so she lives with her Aunt Maggie. Maggie runs a Chinese funeral supply store, and has been hoping to make the Hungry Ghost Festival popular in the Pacific Northwest. Business was never great, but her husband’s fortune telling business kept them afloat in the lean times. Now that Harry is gone, Maggie leans on Cassia to keep the store going. Cassia has the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the departed, particularly during the Hungry Ghost month (7th month of the Lunar Calendar). All Cassia wants is to find her parents’ ghosts, but for some reason, they’ve never visited her. Her ghost friends have been helping her search for them for years, especially Wing – a twenty-something man who died before Cassia was born.

This year, at last, as Cassia gets ready to enter her junior year in high school, news arrives from Wing that her parents have been found. In exchange for his effort, Wing begs Cassia to reach out to his family. He needs them to make him an offering, so he can be freed of his eternal wandering. Cassia may be good with ghosts, but with the living, she’s a complete introvert. To go to Wing’s family and ask them to make an offering to the husband and dad who abandoned them long before he died? That’s a lot to ask. Especially when Cassia finds out that Wing’s son is the most popular boy in her school!

With a whole cast of ghosts and living, Cassia goes on an adventure she’s never dreamed of having. She finds herself making friends with the most unusual people. She discovers how, in being biracial, she’s caught between two cultures whose beliefs about the afterlife could prevent her from ever reuniting with her parents. Most of all, she finds out that family is more than the biological connection between people.

Jing Jing’s reaction? They were excited! Bless them, again. They asked to see some of my script, and then surprised me a few days later, with sketches of some of the characters. I simply have to share them here. Aren’t they great?

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A King County organization called 4Culture very generously gave me a grant to work on HUNGER, to help me hire a graphic novel artist to do the first couple of chapters. With that, I hope to market this graphic novel soon. In return, I’ll be giving free writing workshops to kids who are interested in writing or graphic novels.

Lots of things are happening. But for today, I’m excited to introduce you to this up and coming artist. Great things will come from her someday.

Edited to add:

Jing Jing goes by the pronouns they/them. I apologize for not clarifying that before the original post.

 

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Two kids review “Redworld”

“Redworld” is a middle grade science fiction series that I wrote, published by Capstone. It’s about Belle Song and her adventures on a terraformed Mars, set 250 years in the future. I like to think of it as a Star Wars/Firefly/Star Trek universe type adventure, but where 12-year-old Belle still has to deal with the issues of being the new kid, making friends, finding her place in the world, and getting into all kinds of mischief, as her trusty android, Melody tries to keep up with her.

The first four books were released recently in library binding. All four books will be compiled into a paperback version and released to stores in February 2018.

I sent a book to some of my former students, and I asked them to tell me what they think. I promised to put their reviews on here, without edits. So, here are two of their opinions. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll post more of the kids’ opinions. If you like what they have to say, consider asking your library to stock this series.

Thank you, girls, for your reviews.

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Samantha read book 2, Raiders, Water Thieves of Mars.

“A wild, out of this world adventure, with twists and turns at every corner. Raiders: Water Thieves of Mars is an interesting example of what life is like on planet Mars. The situation on Mars reminded me of severe droughts on Earth today.  The fast, exciting pace is perfect for young readers who prefer action.  It was hard to stop reading it.  I can’t wait to read more of this series.”
-Samantha, 4th grader

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Helena read book 3, Tharsis City, The Wonder of Mars.

“I recommend the book Tharsis City if you like exciting, adventurous stories. One thing I love about the book Tharsis City is it has just enough pictures so I can imagine what Tharsis City is like from the beautiful descriptive writing.  I told lots of people about Tharsis City and they all said it sounds interesting, and someone even started reading it and liked it!  I read it really fast because I liked it so much, mostly because it’s so imaginative.  I loved Belle’s alien friends and wolf dog.  Another thing I liked is that her mom Zara is going to have her first baby on Mars.  I loved this book and I hope you will too!
-Helena, 5th grader

 

 

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Future Food, Reading Dogs, and Library Books

Yes, that title is a little odd. Today’s post covers things that are seemingly unrelated. And yet, they are related! Read on.

We begin with another review for Homestead: A New Life on Mars (Book 1 of the Redworld Series). Keep sending them! I love getting reviews from kids, and as promised, I’m posting without edits. 🙂

Nathan (5th grade) says of Homestead:
I liked this book even better than my comic book. I like it better because I like the characters, the setting and the alien animals. For example, the humped horse. It is the description of a camel and a horse. It can go long without water, and it is hooked on with a wagon. Except it is more Sci-fi, like hover pads and stuff like that. My favorite part in visualization for the story is when Myra told them about the useful things the mealworms can be. They can be grounded to flour, and then they can be fried and baked. Very useful. They don’t give pollution.
Thanks, Nathan! I’m glad you enjoyed that. (I love comic books too, so that was a lovely compliment). The great thing about science fiction, is that sometimes, it’s based on fact and taken to the next level with a little imagination. I did some research on the future of food, and mealworms came up as a great source of protein. People already eat it some parts of the world today. I just pictured the possibility of it becoming the most common food of the future – easy to ‘grow’ and they don’t take up a lot of space or resources. What do you think they’d taste like, especially ground up as flour and baked into a cake?

Next, Good News! Redworld will soon be available at King County Libraries here in WA. And hopefully in libraries everywhere.

KCLS Homestead

This is exciting. I love libraries. They make for great refuges when the world gets too much — why? Because they’re filled with books, of course! Also, my dog, Lady Rose and I volunteer at several libraries in King County with Reading with Rover. (RWR is a therapy dog organization. Teams go to schools, libraries, bookstores and community centers so that kids can read to dogs. Dogs are not judgmental, and they make great listeners. RWR also goes to colleges for de-stressing therapy, assisted living homes, and hospitals. It’s a great program, and we’re so proud to be a part of it. See? I told you I could fit reading dogs into the post. I can fit dogs into almost any subject.)

At the libraries, Rose and I are surrounded by kids who love to read, and librarians who are friendly and helpful. We always leave feeling happier and more relaxed at the end of a session. Here’s Rose getting ready to hear some kids read:

So, go visit your local library, and maybe you’ll get to read a book to a dog. And if you happen to find Redworld, let me know. Or better yet, get a kid to write a review!

 

 

 

Two More Kids Review Redworld

I’ve been so lucky, over the years, to have been in the classroom with some really great kids. As a Montessori teacher, I often had the same kids in my class for three years. You really get to know each other in that time. That’s the part of teaching that I miss the most. Watching my students grow to become kind, compassionate, and bright kids who love to learn, has been the best part of being a teacher.

Some of my students desire to be writers some day. And I can see them becoming prolific at it. I’m fortunate to still be a part of their writing journeys. I love working with them on their stories. We talk about plot, structure, character, conflict, — everything I think about in my own writing life, and learned about in my MFA program. How amazing to see them grasp these concepts and apply them to their own writing.

These kids are voracious readers too. That they’ve agreed to read my books, and to share their thoughts, has been a joy and an honor. And as usual, I promised not to edit their thoughts.  So, here you are.

Three more reviews of the Redworld Series.

Book One: Homestead – A New Life on Mars

Molly, 5th grader, says:

stars

I rate this book five stars. Belle leaves Earth – all her friends, activities, school and personal items – and moves to a new planet. Even though she is moving to Mars, Belle’s reluctant feelings on moving are very understandable. When she gets to Mars, it isn’t easy to get used to the new farm, neighbors and school friends. But, it looks like a fun adventure and the alien nature of everything makes me think of Star Wars! I would strongly recommend this book to sci-fi lovers and those who are moving.

Another 5th grader, Theo, adds his thoughts:

I like this book because it is science fiction and, my favorite genre is science fiction. I also like it because it has cool pictures of what could be Mars in the future. The scene that I like is when the Sulux people show the Songs how to make their house recognize them and uncover the real house that is hidden invisibly and that the little shack in the front of the real invisible house is actually the front porch.

Theo also read Book Two: Raiders — Water Thieves of Mars

I like this book because there is a lot of action going on in the book the scene that I like is when the neighbors’ kids group together to make some weapons for defenses. Belle makes some very cool petripuffs that paralyze the person that got hit by the puffs. Belle’s friend made something called a disrupter. It immediately disables a person’s body once the person hears the high pitch sound.

 

I want to thank all the kids who’ve reviewed the Redworld Series. If you’ve liked what they’ve said, and are intrigued by the stories, ask your local and school libraries to stock the series. They’re published by Capstone. A paperback version will be out in stores in February 2018.

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Redworld is Here!

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post. It’s been two weeks since these books were released. And yes, it’s taken me this long to get around to writing about it.

I wrote a series of Science Fiction stories for Capstone publishing, called Redworld. Here’s the link to an interview on their website.

The books are aimed at kids in the Middle Grade level (8 to 12). They’re short and full of action, in the hope that reluctant readers, especially, would be interested in picking them up, and give reading a go.

Books 1 to 4 of the Redworld series came out recently in library binding. Titles are

  • Homestead
  • Raiders
  • Tharsis City
  • Legacy

Redworld is the story of 12 year old Belle Song and her family who move to a terraformed Mars, to start a new life. She and her android Melody, along with lots of other characters, get into more trouble than you think a kid could find. There are hybrid animals, several alien species, and strange android creatures. Yet, with all the tech available, there’s still an element of the old world, especially among the struggling farming community that Belle finds herself in. Yes, there are elements of Star Trek, Star Wars and Firefly in them.

The art work is beautiful and exciting.  The artist is Tomislav Tikulin, who has done quite a bit of scifi illustrating. He did a great job bringing Belle’s Mars adventures to life. His art makes me want to move there.

I was thrilled to hold the library bound copies in my hands when they arrived in a box two weeks ago. The paperback version, which is the compilation of all 4 stories in one book, will come out in February 2018.

I kept a set for myself and sent the rest to former students of mine (and some kids of friends). They’re around the age of the targeted readership. I asked them to read a book each and give me their honest opinions. I promised to put it on this blog, WITHOUT editing their reviews. As they come in, I’ll post them here. Yes it’s a risk, but why not?

So, here goes the first:

Angus, in 5th grade (he read Book 2) said:

“After reading “Raiders, Water Thieves of Mars” all I can say is the book was simply captivating. There are multiple elements that are very creative and new, such as all kinds of animals and human hybrid races. Another thing is there are some things that could happen in real life like various school related problems. There are a few confusing chapters but they are easily overlooked. This is irrefutably a must for just about anyone.”

Well, thank you Angus for your honest review. I’m glad you thought the story was captivating. I would love to know more about the ‘confusing chapters’, since it isn’t my aim to confuse any of my readers. I hope to do better next time.

And so the adventure continues…

We Need Biracial Books -What I Didn’t Say

There were some things left unsaid. Important things.

This week I gave a presentation on the extended critical essay I wrote that is required to complete my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. (One more semester to go). I had twenty five minutes in which to explain the one underlying message that has been a part of me ever since I can remember.

But anyone who knows me knows that 25 minutes isn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of what I want to say. Plus there were nerves and jitters, etc…

I came away feeling unfinished, like I’d left the most important part out. I haven’t been able to stop the feeling that I let myself (and possibly others) down.

So I’ll put those thoughts here. Mainly so I know I’ve put these ideas out into the universe and maybe it’ll make sense to someone.

I talked about why we need children’s books that feature biracial characters. Statistically speaking, biracial and multiracial people are the fastest growing population in the US. More importantly, biracial children should be given the gift of seeing themselves reflected in stories. And reflected authentically.

I talked about how some books will have the biracial child’s identity issue as the main theme, and the story is about the character working out where they belong. (The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods,  and Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen, for example) On the other side of my story continuum, I see books that have universal themes, but seen through the eyes of the biracial child — remembering that who a character is, influences how she sees and tackles the world, and these universal issues. (Examples include The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W Durrow, We Were Here by Matt de la Pena, and Living Violet by Jaime Reed)

I believe that at the heart of every biracial/multiracial person is this push pull question of ‘what am I?’ Growing up belonging to more than one race, yet most often resembling one side or neither side of the family, creates a feeling of being ‘not quite enough’. Other people also tend to try to categorize us, sometimes telling us (and not always in words) what we are by how they think we look. (See the Twitter discussion #BiracialLooksLike)

From my experience, most white people can’t look at a biracial person and see their white side. They only see the Asian, African, Latino, Native American side. I can’t tell you the number of times people think my ‘white’ surname is from my spouse. At the same time, our ‘other side’ people will see that we’re not quite all there. So the ‘where do I belong’ question is always there at the back of a biracial person’s mind. That is the contention I make in my paper.

But what I needed to finish saying is this, when we choose to write a biracial character into our stories, there are questions we must ask:

  1. why does he or she or they need to be biracial? What does their ‘biracialness’ bring to the story that is unique compared to a single race character? Because remember, the identity issue is always going to play a role in their life, even if it isn’t the main or even sub plot of the book.
  2. Why am I the right person to write this story? Be careful not to use a biracial character because it’s killing two birds with one stone. A mixed race (with white) character isn’t a white character who conveniently looks like a Person of Color. She isn’t any easier to write about simply because she is half white and often tends to appear culturally white on the outside. In her innermost circles, her heritage plays a HUGE role.

A writer who isn’t biracial who wants to include a biracial character needs to understand that there are just as many, if not more, cultural (for want of a better word) issues faced by a biracial person than a single race person. She will often face all the racism, all the prejudice that comes with being a Person of Color, and still not quite fit in with either side of her heritages. This may appear, on the outside, to be less true when a character has other privileges such as wealth and education. But, it’s there.

So, the biracial character is not the ‘simple’ solution to adding diversity to a story. There isn’t a simple solution. And as I said in my presentation, our concern for bringing diversity to children’s literature isn’t about peppering our fictional worlds with color. It’s about authenticity.  Sometimes, it’s about decolonizing our stories — stepping aside for the right person to tell the story (consider the OwnVoices stand). I’m not saying you can’t write a biracial character if you aren’t biracial yourself. I’m saying that if you do, tread carefully, with great respect, lots and lots of research, and intentionality. (The same goes for any character different from ourselves). Consider hiring sensitivity readers for your manuscript.

But Always, it’s about understanding your characters inside and out, so that your telling of their story is authentic. Because the kids reading it will know when something smells off. They will chuck the book across the room before finishing it. Or worse, they will think there’s something wrong with themselves if they’re essentially told that what they feel deeply isn’t important enough to talk about.

So there’s my soapbox. You might not like it, and that’s okay. I just needed to say it.

 

An American Superhero…who’s Chinese.

I recently finished reading and re-reading a superhero comic (really, a graphic novel, because it was nice and long). When I was done, I can’t tell you how excited I was.

I grew up reading comics, especially because I was told not to. Comics, in the olden days, were considered unacceptable reading material. They were written in all CAPS, had half sentences (gasp!), and contained unacceptable language (I don’t remember any). So, of course, whenever I went over to my cousins’ houses, I would raid their enormous collection and read, and read, and read. When I had my own kids, I encouraged them to read comics. So guess what they did? They didn’t read comics. Sigh. This was one time I wish I had gone the ‘reverse psychology’ way. What mom was enthusiastic about couldn’t ever be cool enough for my three girls.

But I’m going to be sending each of them a copy of The Shadow Hero by Gene Yang and Sonny Liew. shadow hero

Why, mom? We’re all adults now.

Well, girls, because this is the first time I’ve read a superhero comic where the hero is Chinese, and he isn’t living in China, or anywhere in Asia. He’s American, and he’s Chinese. I want to squeal in excitement. Think of how that will change the way Asian American kids see themselves, see the possibilities. If you don’t read it, keep it for your kids. This is a momentous occasion. This may sprout more Asian American heroes. And you can then say you own one of the very first books that paved the way.

When I was growing up, there was a TV show called The Greatest American Hero. GAHHe wore a red suit with a giant symbol on his chest. We used to call him the ‘hong zhong’ man, because the symbol looked like the Chinese word for ‘middle’. (Funny that I think of that now, because it’s also the first word for ‘China’ – the Middle Kingdom).2014-02-04-EricXLiEastChinaSea The ‘hong zhong’ man was the closest I had, growing up, to a superhero with a albeit fake connection to who I was. Of course, he was as white as could be. Still, it was an amusing series.

I digress.

Reading The Shadow Hero, I laughed at the overenthusiastic mom who literally pushes her son into situations, to try to turn him into a superhero. I felt her frustration with her lot in life, with having to serve a white family that barely saw her, with the feeling that her life might amount to nothing. That’s why she wanted this greatness for her son. Her ambition for her son was impossible, but oh so typical of what we seem to call the ‘tiger mom’, (maybe every mom?)  Her non-existent relationship with her husband who loved her anyway, tugged at my heartstrings. I appreciated the main character, Hank’s loyalty to his family. He was a good son, and a good man. He worked hard, looked up to his dad, and funnily enough, obeyed his mom, even when she made him wear a ridiculous looking superhero suit. Their plight as a struggling family in the 1940’s reflected the same path many families walked, and gave me a glimpse of the Chinese family’s life in our country in those days.

And the story is good too! As with all superheroes who are starting out, there are the failures, the funny mishaps, the mentor/trainer, and of course, the girl. As Hank grows through the story to eventually become the Green Turtle, there are lots of insights into the world of the 40’s in Chinatown. Also, Hank doesn’t really have supernatural powers (hope that’s not a spoiler). He is granted a wish (okay, so maybe there’s a little bit of the supernatural here) but the rest of his adventures are based on his determination, his good heart and his training. And can I say, it’s great to see that even a young Chinese man can be portrayed as muscular and buff. And attractive! How sad is it that these characteristics are rarely bestowed on the Asian character or actor today?

At the end of the novel, there’s a wonderful piece of history added on. The creators explain the origin of The Green Turtle, how as a comic book published back in the day, readers never actually saw this superhero completely. In order to get more readers to accept this hero, he never showed his face. He never showed the reading world back then that he was Asian.

So, girls, I hope you can see why I’m sending you your own copy of this graphic novel. First and foremost, it’s a fun read. Then, I hope you’ll appreciate its significance. Even dad is reading it, and that’s a miracle!

Dream-Like Autumn Forests

henryherz.com

Fall is here. Halloween is just around the bend. Time for some arboreal inspiration from artist Janek Sedlář, and the mad geniuses at Bored Panda.

Janek Sedlar is a young self-taught photographer from the Czech Republic whose speciality is landscape photography with a surreal twist. He became a “serious” photographer only in 2011, and most of his captivating images were captured in his home region of Moravia and around the White Carpathians nature reserve.

“Inspiration I find in daily life, in NATURE, in my feelings and thoughts,” said for an interview with Interesting Photographers. “Being in these woods and meadows is a return to childhood, it regains my life energy and I am trying to share these moments with my camera, the process itself is like a meditation for me.”

Call of wandering

Kingdom of silence

Lane of elders

Fog in the red forest

Dream inside a dream

Autumn prayers

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Renegades of Diversity

My lovely Hamline MFAC classmates have started a website called Renegades of Diversity. In it, we will be reviewing children’s books that are diverse, and we mean diverse in every sense of the word. You should check out the reviews on the site.

Every Monday, one of us will post a review of a diverse book we’ve read recently. I’m excited because in my pledge to read more diversely, I have come across a lot of great books. The one I post here below is also posted on Renegades of Diversity. I loved The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, for all the reasons I wrote about in the review. Mostly I love that it is a story of an identity struggle, where the protagonist is biracial and is torn by both worlds, yet  trying to fit into both.

Here’s my review:

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W Durrow (2011)

I was pulled in by this story right away. It is told from four different points of view, and is at the same time tragic and optimistic. The motif of birds, of falling versus soaring, runs through the entire story. I was most drawn to the identity struggle of the young biracial protagonist.

Preteen Rachel Morse is half Danish, half African American, growing up in the 1980’s. Her parents met and married in Europe. Tragedy followed the family, and the marriage eventually broke up, leaving the mom, Nella to raise her three young children in Chicago, with her alcoholic, white boyfriend. The way her biracial family is treated, both shocks and saddens Nella, and this leads to the tragedy that forms the basis of the whole story.

Rachel is sent to live with her dad’s mother in Portland, OR. Before this time, she barely thought about the fact that her dark hair, brown skin and blue eyes created an unusual picture. But in this new life, she is seen as strange, and subjected to many questions about her racial makeup. Through living with Grandma, her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend, Rachel learns what it means to be African American. In school, she struggles with being both black and white, faces taunts and bullying. At first she’s reluctant to let go of her Danish-ness, but over time, she begins to identify as being black. Every character she comes to know in this new world, shows her a different side of what it means to be a part of her dad’s family and culture. Even down to the music – Rachel loves jazz, and she gets introduced to the blues, which she loves too. In the same way, she grapples with learning to embrace all sides of her identity. Hers is the journey of working out how to accept being both black and white.

Through the eyes of the other point of view characters, we learn the whole story of how Rachel came to live with Grandma. We discover the secret Rachel is keeping from the world, and the hurt she is holding onto inside. These burdens are part of what keep Rachel from accepting her identity, from embracing both sides of her makeup.

The tragedies faced by Rachel and her family are heart-wrenching. Yet, they carry on. This book was an emotional roller coaster for me, but I couldn’t put it down. What I loved most were the characters that this writer created. They made me love them, root for them, and cry out loud for their struggles. Each one was genuine and their struggles rang all too true in this day and age.

Seriously, read this book.

 

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