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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.

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August 2015

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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Change is Our Evolution

Do you watch the TV series Extant? I do. I watch most any sci-fi on TV. Plus Halle Berry stars in it. So, I’m a fan.

Extant_TV_Series-708050912-large

Without giving away too much, Halle Berry’s character, Molly Woods is an astronaut who ends up giving birth to a hybrid baby — half alien and half human. This hybrid runs off and impregnates more human women, creating more hybrids. These aliens can read minds and control humans with their bright yellow eyes. They can make us do what they want.

Molly discovers that the reason they’re here on Earth.Their planet is dead and they need a new place to live. As they evolve, they learn not to kill people (that’s nice) and seek to live peacefully with us. When the government guy who wants to kill all the aliens with a virus asks Molly what the aliens really want, she says, “To coexist.” What do you think the government guy did? (Spoilers – he kills them).

I recently wrote a story that implies (kind of like Extant) that in order for humanity to survive, we need to evolve. (And not necessarily in the biological sense of the word). We need to let go of the status quo and accept change.

But change is scary. Hellishly scary. People will fight change with their lives. And their words.

Lately, I’ve been involved (and also watched on the sidelines) in a conversation about privilege and how it feels to be on the other end of it. Here’s what I hear –

  • Political correctness is tiring. It takes too much effort. My quick reply is this picture. Thank you, Mr. Gaiman —Neil gaiman quote
A long time ago, a professor in law school introduced the Law of Torts using the following analogy. He said, and I paraphrase because it was a long, long time ago, that when I walk down the street, I have the right to swing my arms as high as I want, but once my hands hit the nose of the person walking across from me, that’s where my right ends. This may not be the most accurate memory of his talk but the picture stayed with me.
This is how I see freedom. Freedom must be tempered with compassion (or respect or consideration, whichever word works best). As a human, I don’t live in the world all by myself, so to be human is to consider the person beside me. My personal freedom ends when I stop caring about my fellow human. Being ‘politically correct’ has become a nasty phrase. I like what Neil Gaiman says, that it’s about treating others with respect. And yes it takes effort, but if we think about it, we do it every day anyway, to people we care about. Now we just need to extend it a little farther. It’s not as hard as it sounds. And it’s worth the energy spent.
To me, that’s what being human is. So why are there so many non-humans occupying our planet?
  • Next, I came across this –This is the title of an actual book – “End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).” The authors are Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson. You can read a discussion of their take on free speech in this article. Yes, because freedom is about you having fun. That’s intelligent. Won’t be reading this book.
  • And this article, which made me think. The real reason Americans fight about identity politics 

    I quote from the article —  “Law professor Nancy Leong studies what she calls “identity capitalism” — the ways in which particular identities like one’s race, gender, or sexual orientation have traditionally constituted positive or negative social “capital,” and how the value of that capital is changing. She believes much of the backlash against so-called identity politics is really about a sense that the status quo is under attack, and fear that something worse might replace it.

    She explained to me that it’s really easy for people from dominant groups to assume that the status quo isn’t biased, because they’ve never had to confront that bias themselves. And so when they see that an existing system is being changed to include minority groups or accommodate other interests, there’s a tendency to assume that the natural order of things is being disrupted in some illegitimate way.”

    And that creates fear.

So back to my story and Extant – Okay, barring the fact that we really don’t want to be invaded by a superior alien species, the message underneath still stands. It’s scary to let go of the status quo, to let others rise and share the space that’s been held for so long by one group. But just because one group rises, doesn’t mean the other must step down. This isn’t a pyramid. If anything, it’s a plateau. There’s plenty of space for us all.

And here’s the application of this in my context — Putting someone else down doesn’t raise another up. It just causes conflict. And these beliefs we carry as adults bring nothing but misery to our children who then go on to face the horror of bullying or become bullies themselves. This is why I write for children. I want to be a part of the movement that shows every child that they are special, important, valued. We are all equal, accepted, loved, and deserve to be heard. There is room here for everyone. Look! It says so in all our books. (that’s the dream).

Changing the status quo is our evolution, at this moment in time. It can only make our species better, smarter, more peaceful. Yes, the alien storyline is a limited analogy, but I choose to see this message. It’s why I love sci-fi.

What a book should do

This week, I started looking up books for a topic I’m researching and I came across this book. It’s called Part Asian 100% Hapa by Kip Fulbeck. I turned to the first page and found myself sitting down to read through the entire book.

10_kip-fulbeck

What the writer wrote in the introduction could have been about me. I was sucked in as soon as I read the first line — “You don’t look Chinese.” Further down on the page, he says, “What are you? I answer the question every day of my life.”

Hey! Me too. (well, I used to).

I’ve blogged about this before — that growing up, I was asked this question a lot. “What are you?” To the Chinese, I wasn’t Chinese enough. To the English, I definitely wasn’t one of them. To others, I was a curiosity. But I am, really, both – although the English side probably has some Irish and some other European additions.

After all this time, though, I’ve grown to be okay with the question, mostly. I understand now that people are curious. I get curious about others too. In fact I recently asked a friend of mine that question, just maybe not quite that bluntly. I hope he was okay with it. I think I ask the question to find common ground with others, to find a point of connection. To know that I’m not the only mixed race person on the scene.

I understand that the older I get, the more I look like my mom and she’s Chinese. In fact over the years, it just became easier to allow others to assume I am Chinese (or some version of ‘Asian’). Except for my name – that’s the most English thing about me (and yes, it’s mine, not my husband’s. He’s Chinese. You’d be surprised how often I get asked if I’m married to a white man).

But as an aside, I also feel compelled to say, not Chinese from China. From South East Asia. Today, I read an article that mentions how Asia is far too big a continent to lump us all together in the all encompassing word “Asian”. Specifically, the article in Education Week said this —

“The diversity of nearly 50 ethnic subgroups speaking more than 300 languages cannot be accurately captured in the use of the broad and single panethnic label “Asian.” ”

Precisely.

Yay, to Peter T Keo (the article’s writer) for saying so.

So please don’t feel like you have to tell me you’ve been to China. While interesting as a general topic of conversation, it doesn’t connect me to you. I’ve never been.

But, what is new to me, is the word “Hapa”. I’d never heard it before. It’s kind of nice to know there’s a word that describes what I am. I think it’s a word borrowed from Pacific Islanders, so thank you for sharing it. It’s certainly better than some of the names I’ve been called in the past.

This book, Part Asian 100% Hapa, is a photographic book. The writer brought together a lot of Hapa people and photographed them, portrait style. Next to their pictures, each person wrote a short note answering the question “What are you?” It was a lovely read. The people were from every age and walk of life, and every one was beautiful.  It made me feel happy, and reminded me that I wasn’t alone in the world.

And that’s what a book should do.

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.

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