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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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Diversity

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!

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.

 

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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