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I write as A. L. Collins or Ailynn Collins. I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

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Hamline MFAC

Reviews, a Book Party, Great Advice, and a Realization

I am new to the world of reviews. When I began this writing journey,  I knew that what I write might just get out there in the world someday. I know  (maybe only in the back of my mind) that other people will read them. Some will like my stories, others will not. I’m okay with that. I’ve put down books that others have read over and over again. I’ve loved books that others have not.

That’s okay.

I just never expected the stomach twisting feelings of actually reading what others think of my stories, whether the reviews are lukewarm or great. Still, this is a part of the journey, isn’t it?

Because you see, I wrote a set of 6 books called Redworld. They’re hi-lo books, (high interest-low readability stories for reluctant readers reading below their grade level), and they would appeal to kids 9 and up. Each of these books is in hardcover, available in your local libraries now. (Support libraries!)

 

And as of February 1, 2018, the first four books will be released as one paperback called, Redworld: Year One. The cover is gorgeous because the illustrator, who did all the beautiful artwork in the library versions is Tomislav Tikulin, a talented sci-fi, horror and fantasy illustrator.

And on February 2, we’ll be having a BOOK PARTY for Redworld: Year One at Brick and Mortar Books in Redmond, WA. 6 pm. Come if you can. There might be cake!

brick and mortar books

Here’s a bit about Redworld — Belle Song, the main character, is 12 when we start book 1, Homeworld, and 14 by the time we get to book 6, Outcry. She is biracial, and human (something we can’t just assume in this future). Her parents have dragged her away from her friends and regular life on Earth, to live on the red planet, which despite having been terraformed over the last 200 years, isn’t all that great a place to live. It’s still wild, and unpredictable, especially on the west side where the farmers live. These 6 books follow Belle on her adventures, as she makes new friends and gets into more trouble than she can handle.

And yes, Belle is a troublemaker. She wants to be good, but she just can’t help herself. The pull of curiosity and the need to prove herself are just too hard to resist. She reminds me of someone I know all too well. 🙂

In past blogposts, I’ve had kids write their thoughts on each book, and they’ve been so generous and enthusiastic about Redworld. Now, with permission from the publishers, Capstone, I get to show you the reviews from the adult world.

From the December 2017 issue of VOYA magazine:

These easy-to-read novels contain both scientific facts about Mars—its climate, calendar, etc.—and science-fictional possibilities, such as programmable house windows and personal androids. Dramatic pictures—the friends surrounded by fierce cave lizards and diverse faces aglow at baby Thea’s party—add appeal. Middle school students will identify with the conflicts in Belle’s journal entries and relish the harrowing adventures in each book. A glossary, a list of Mars terms, and discussion questions encourage classroom use, and the theme of understanding between diverse cultures is both timely and relevant.

From the Jan/Feb issue of Foreword Reviews:

Inventive and highly entertaining, A. L. Collins’s Redworld is set in a future where Mars has been colonized and serves as home to several alien races, including humans. Clever explanations for how the planet was made livable, and how its inhabitants create and use energy to sustain it, build a believable setting reminiscent of the old west.

The Martian setting is enticing, especially as explored by naturally curious Belle. An android helper and aliens add interesting elements.

Redworld is fun, unique, and well plotted, with interesting characters and dangerous adventures that make it difficult to put down. Subtle lessons about creating a sustainable environment and learning to see past superficial differences heighten its appeal.

KIRKUS REVIEW
 On the surface, Collins crafts a Martian action-adventure story, complete with water raiders, hybrid animals, and trips to the bustling capital city. Underlying themes of racial acceptance and environmental impact are inescapably heavy-handed, although doled out with restraint, mostly through Belle’s insistence that Lucas come to accept Ta’al even though the Sulux and Nabians are prejudiced against each other. Given the entertaining third-person narration, Belle’s interspersed journal entries seem unnecessary, but Tikulin’s illustrations offer rich ambiance and work beautifully with the graphic design. An opening gallery brings the Song family and their friends to life, and each part of Belle’s journey is prefaced with superb illustrations of exploits to come.
A commendable effort that embeds racial tension, geopolitics, and environmental issues in an action-packed Martian adventure. (glossary) (Science fiction. 11-14)

Family Fun Magazine will also have a lovely blurb about Redworld in their March issue.

So there they are – a few of them, for now.

WP_20160717_18_51_22_ProTHEN, with the perfect timing of a well-plotted story, I went back to Hamline University for an MFAC Alumni weekend last week. There, a very wise professor and Newberry winner, Kelly Barnhill, said these inspiring words at her workshop to the MFAC alum:

“When we write books, we don’t get to control how our readers relate to our books.”

“As writers, we are trying to create something out of nothing. For kids.”

And quoting Kerouac, she added “It’s important to tell yourself that you’re a genius every day. It matters because the story exists, and you did it.”

That’s the point really, isn’t it? I did the work. The books are out there. It’s done. I will let them go, take the journey that all books must. (Oh, how I love Hamline and her professors!)

But more importantly, and for me personally, my hope is that the stories will find a kid who dreams about the future the way I did at that age, a kid who needs the momentary escape, a kid who deserves to see herself as a heroine in a grand adventure.

Because that is the reason I write.

WP_20160525_21_17_07_Pro (2)For kids like her.

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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.

 

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.

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.

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I write as A. L. Collins or Ailynn Collins. I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

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