There is a movement called WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS. It started as a Twitter hashtag, progressed to Tumblr, got a crowdsourcing campaign going, a website and now, it is a full fledged nonprofit created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature. We Need Diverse Books is committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.
It is based on the belief that seeing themselves in books helps form a child’s identity, including their development of kindness, understanding and acceptance of differences. It lists books that feature gay, questioning, disabled, ethnic, religiously conscious protagonists. There are a host of articles about how the publishing industry has a long way to go in honoring diversity on many levels. When an author from a population that is not of the dominant group wins an award they celebrate it. When an author in a position of privilege makes a bonehead racist comment, they sound off on it and invite others to do the same.
In light of the events in Ferguson, and in so many other cities across America where the lives of children of color are seen as less worthy than the majority, this movement is needed more than ever. How can books be so important you ask? Let me try to express what books have done for me and see if I can do it justice.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I didn’t see myself in the books I read growing up. It wasn’t until my twenties that I read about a Latina living in two cultures. As a child I read realistic fiction featuring small towns and safe neighborhoods. To me, those stories held as much magic as Hogwarts. They were so different from everything I knew, everything I was. Looking back, I find that to be sad and unfair. What if I had read about a girl from the hood who made it out with her love of culture in tact? How would that have helped form my sense of self, sense of worth? Where were the picture books that celebrated the brown women who made history long before JLo? If I’d seen women who looked like me, doing things I thought were impossible, would my choices have been different?
How could my world not have expanded if I saw that people who looked like me, sounded like me, came from the place I came from could also be heroes and change the world? Books can do that for kids. Even before television, video games and movies, words on a page can seep into a child’s psyche because they have power. That nonsense about how sticks and stones can break bones but words can’t hurt is BS. Words hurt far longer than any bruise or cut. They imbed themselves deep within us and rear themselves in ways we can’t control, forming parts of us that we sometimes love, often loathe. We internalize what we’re told about ourselves. The same is true for what we don’t see.
When we see super-heroes that are tall, blonde, pale, able-bodied, cisgendered, and male, we begin to believe that those are the only people who can be good. They become the people we think should save us. It formulates our reality that since we are different from that, we are less. It becomes how we project ourselves into the world.
But it’s not only about how our kids see, or don’t see themselves. The majority of children’s books are purchased and read by adults. That means that the people who make decisions about our future also don’t see kids who look like me doing positive things. Adults are swayed and pulled by images and words, too. Diversity in books becomes a teacher for the teacher, an example to those who are expected to be examples. They open the adult reader to seeing diverse children in a different light. Those depictions begin to influence how they treat those children, how they see them in the larger scheme of things. Those characters that bring their own children joy, become reflections of real children they come across in their daily lives, those for whom they make decisions. And that has power.
Beloved tales and characters have a way of making adults nostalgic. It takes them to a place of security and simpler times. Can you imagine if the nostalgia was on behalf of a beloved hero who happened to be a little black boy? Would that same adult be so quick to develop fear of black males? Would that same adult be so willing to put laws and governance into place to incarcerate people for whom they had seen similarities and compatible qualities?
Do I believe that children’s books are the solution to all the injustices in the world? No. But, I believe they play just as vital a role in shaping ideas of self, of worth, and of possibility. They should be part of the conversation and the solution. We need to value them for the power they hold over their readers. We have a lot of work to do to give them their proper place at the table but there are ways we can start to use them as tools for healing and teaching.
Here are some ways to do that:
Request diverse books from your local library and your children’s school library.
When deciding on a book to purchase for a young reader, look for those that feature a story about a non-majority character.
If a diverse author is visiting your city, go listen to that author speak, buy their books, tell others about them.
Ask your schools to stock diverse books in your children’s classroom.
Nominate books that feature alternative storylines for awards, reviews and recognition.
Planning an event? Arrange for a diverse author to be the keynote speaker.
Encourage little ones to write their stories.
Donate a book that features diverse characters to your local school, hospital, library or church.
When I tell people that I am a writer I am often asked if I am going to self-publish. Anything is possible, and perhaps self-publishing may be a route I take one day. But, I have spent a lot of time studying the publishing industry and talking with published writers and for now, from what I know about how a book goes from idea to store shelves, I’d rather not try it on my own.
There are a lot of steps that go into publishing a book, which is why it takes so long. There are also a lot of people involved throughout the process. All of whom are working towards making the book profitable once it hits the market, because all the investment is put in up front. The book has to be produced before it can hit bookshelves and e-readers.
I did not want to navigate this process alone so for me, the first step was getting a literary agent. The simplified role of a literary agent is to represent an author’s work to publishers. This may sound like a simple task, but it’s not. Agents have to know which editors work on what types of manuscripts. They have to predict trends and know how to identify talent from as little as ten pages of work. Agents have to know how to sell not only manuscripts, but also the writers they represent. They develop strategies for keeping their clients top of mind with editors who specialize in their client’s genre. They champion the book before, during and after publication. Agents see potential in books and turn that into sub rights sales. An agent plays a huge role in whether or not a book makes it to publication. A good agent helps you establish a career in writing.
Becoming published is such a lifelong dream that it has terrified me and therefore I have avoided it for decades. It wasn’t something I envisioned as a possibility for myself. It is still hard to believe that I’m pursuing it now. Because it is so personal, I want a partner in the journey. I want to have someone by my side who believes in me, sees talent in me, and can encourage me along the way if I doubt myself. Notice, I didn’t say I want someone to hold my hand, do the work for me, make things easier, or tell me what to write. That’s not what anyone should look for in an agent. But, those are the core reasons I decided that I want an agent. On the practical side, I want to focus my time on writing and revising, not on the tasks I outlined above that are the role of an agent.
There are several ways that one can go about getting a literary agent. Some people are lucky enough to win writing contests and get attention from agents that way. Others meet agents at writer’s conferences and retreats. Others send queries, which are letters that describe your writing and provide a brief synopsis of the plot. All agents have guidelines for how they want to receive queries and how long of a writing sample they want to see. Others like me find their agents via a referral.
My agent is Adriana Dominguez of Full Circle Literary. She is one of the few Latina agents (maybe the only one but I’m not 100% sure of this) who has extensive experience in children’s and YA books in English and Spanish. In fact, she was the Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children's Books, where she was the first Latina to manage the children's division of their imprint, Rayo. Before that she had years of experience editing via CRITICAS magazine and has done editorial work for twenty years. Her experience is beyond impressive and she represents a lot of Latina writers I admire. A classmate at Vermont College of Fine Arts (a BIG thank you to my Ally, Linda Camacho) knew I was querying and suggested Adriana. I had heard her name at a Latina writers conference I attended years ago, and when I Googled her and saw her client list, I was immediately intimidated. Why would someone with her vision, experience and client list want to work with me? I’ve never been published nationally. I don’t have connections in the publishing world. How could my stories compare to the brilliant writing she’s worked on with award-winning authors?
I had to give myself a pep talk and get over the “I’m not worthy” jitters. For starters, I asked myself, Christina, what do you have to lose? The worse that could happen is that she felt that my manuscript was not for her. But, a voice inside me said that wasn’t reason enough not to try because at the heart of my manuscript is a Puerto Rican teen who fights for survival. It is the type of heroine found in many of the books published by her clients. Then I reminded myself that I have always aimed high when going after anything else in my life, so why should this be any different? I like a challenge. When I was young my favorite challenges came in the form of academics. Today they are more complicated and this was no exception. If my writing was good enough to get the attention of an agent of Adriana’s caliber, then it would serve as validation that perhaps I have a shot at this writing thing. Also, I had the safety of name dropping. Even if my writing sucked, (which I felt sure it did not) I was banking on Adriana’s relationship with Linda to entice her to take a look at my manuscript.
After having this long discussion with myself, I followed the querying guidelines on Full Circle Literary’s website and sent Adriana a message. I name dropped in the subject line. I was honest in my note about what I was looking for. I wrote and re-wrote my synopsis. I sent the email and then I purposely packed my schedule for the next few days so I wouldn’t obsess over her response. To my amazement, she responded a few hours later and asked for the full manuscript.
This was huge. It meant the first ten pages captured her attention and that even though she probably had a gazzillion queries in her inbox, she wanted to take the time to read more of my work. I sent my manuscript and then did a happy dance.
About ten days later Adriana requested we have a phone call to talk about the work. I had a previous agent request a call before and never actually call me, so I wised up and said that I would call her. I was ecstatic and nervous beyond belief. In the days leading up to our call I spent hours researching what to ask a potential agent; reading past critiques of the work I submitted so I’d be prepared for her feedback; reading about her clients and following them more closely on social media; and asking other authors about their experience with agents. In the end, I was glad I did all that work, but what really led me was my gut.
Someone had told me that finding the right agent is like dating. There has to be chemistry there, a connection from which to build trust, or it won’t work. An agent can say and do all the right things to sell books and sub rights, but if you don’t connect with them and trust them, it won’t be a lasting relationship. I was already impressed by Adriana’s career. I knew she had valuable connections in the industry and understood the market. She was Latina and that was certainly a huge plus because it meant that she understood me from a place of shared experience. What I didn’t know was whether or not she would understand why I feel compelled to write my stories, why writing is at the center of who I am.
I had high hopes for our call, but our conversation blew me away. We spoke for two hours. She wanted to know about my writing, but she also wanted to know about me. She asked questions that made me think and shared about herself. It felt like I was having a conversation with a friend. When we got off the phone, I was so relieved that I wept.
I got offers from other agents to read my work and consider representation but I was set on working with Adriana. I want to see where we will go after that wonderful conversation about so much more than writing. I want to learn from her and be challenged by her expertise in the business. I feel in my heart that I made the best choice for me.
So, now that I have an agent, what’s next? Well, there’s a long road ahead of me before I see my story in print. It has to be refined so that it can be sold. Once I am paired with an editor they will want to make more revisions and polish it some more. Then it will need a cover designed. It will need a publicity plan. It will need to be copy-edited and reviewed more times that I can count. It’s a long road, and I promise to write updates about it as it happens. For now, I’m just happy that I am not facing this journey alone.
When I read as a child, I always assumed that writers loved their characters. How could they not when I loved them so much and I had not created them? In my naiveté, I imagined they all came from people the authors loved, who existed in their lives. As I got older and characters became more complicated, I was sometimes shocked at the challenges characters faced. I remember reading The Giver and being appalled that Jonas had to leave his family behind, that he was put in the position to potentially die. It seemed a cruel way to treat a character that Lois Lowry took so much time to create. As I read more widely I saw more and more characters facing greater challenges. I thought about what it must take to put a loved character through so much turmoil.
For a long time in my writing, I played it safe with my protagonists. The worlds I created were a way to get out of my own, so why would I make it just as harsh? It took me a long time to think of character development differently. It took reading a ton more books, and challenging myself to ask, What if? a lot more deliberately when considering plot turns. I am very much a character-driven writer so for me, mapping out plot points takes effort and thought. I can’t just let things happen to my characters, they need to be actively making things happen. That may sound easy but it’s not. Making characters face consequences is harder than making my daughter face them. At least my daughter can protest her point if she feels wronged, or accept a hug when she feels alone. With characters, sometimes you have to keep putting them in harder and harder situations so that you increase the stakes for the reader. When readers worry about a character, they grow closer to them. They feel for them in a way that is similar to how sports fans love an underdog.
Putting that into practice has left me in tears, seriously. I have sat in the library, writing scenes where I strip away all that a character holds dear, tears streaming down my cheeks. I wanted to reach into the screen and pull my characters into an embrace where I could protect them. But, I knew that wasn’t what was best for the story. They had to suffer in order to develop. They had to have experiences that challenged them to the core, just like we have in real life. On the plus side, I knew that after leaving them with nothing, the payoff had to be huge. I owed that to my characters. I owed that to myself, too.
I wasn’t able to do that very well for a long time. What I thought were tough times for my characters were really not, and often times they were too passive. My advisors at school would push me to do more to them, to make the characters do more. I would often sit at my computer reading their feedback over and over again, feeling fiercely protective of my protagonist. I didn’t want to make life hard on them. I didn’t want to hurt them.
But, I did. Tears be damned I pushed myself and my advisors were right, the story was better because of it. My characters developed in such a way that I was proud of them in the end. They started as loved ones to be coddled and ended as survivors to be respected and admired.
Of course, I don’t love every character I create. I thoroughly dislike a lot of them. Some of them are too arrogant, some of them haven’t been through enough to have earned my respect. Others don’t have a strong backbone. But they are necessary to the story so I have to give them the same consideration as the protagonists that I grow to love. All characters have a precise purpose in moving a story along. Before I write one into a story, I ask myself, "What is this character’s purpose? Is this character necessary?" If I can’t think of more than one reason why a character should exist I don’t include her. Throwing in characters just to move your story to another point is confusing for readers. They have to decide how they feel about that character and if the character isn’t truly relevant to your story, why make the reader invest in her?
When I was in grad school there was a term students and staff used for writing ploys that served no real purpose. We called them Plot Bitches. Plot Bitches aren’t exclusive to characters, but writers tend to turn to them a lot when trying to make something happen in a story. It’s easy to do. You need your protagonist to do something, or make a certain decision? Throw in another character to make it so. But then what? What happens to that new character after they fulfill their role? Instead of a Plot Bitch, is there another way to manipulate the story to get your protagonist where you need her? Usually there is. It’s not always easily apparent and it takes some thought, but I can guarantee you that it’s worth the extra effort in the end.
Ultimately, readers will love and hate characters for reasons no writer can predict. Eliciting feeling from your reader means you are doing something right, and for me, it is the driver in my writing. If I don't feel anything for my characters, how can I expect anyone else to? I am glad when my characters evoke strong emotions in me. My goal is that they will do the same for my reader.