The Power of Diverse Stories

You are driving down a winding road. You need to get somewhere and your time is precious. There is a car going 10 mph ahead of you. You cannot pass because the road is too curvy. You are stuck for miles. No matter what you try to do – flash your lights, tailgate, wave your arms, roll your eyes, yell out the window – the driver of this car will not speed up.

What do you think and how do you feel?

Now imagine you are in the same situation, but this time you know the driver of the nemesis car is an 85-year-old man named Edward. The only family he has left is his sick cat. Edward loves his cat. Overnight, the cat got so sick that Edward braved the roads to get it medical help right away. Edward knows the cat gets car sick – barf, poop, miserable meowing, the works – on winding roads, so he drives extra carefully to keep the cat comfortable on the way to the vet.

Now, what do you think and how do you feel?

Author Deborah Underwood shared this anecdote at this year’s SCBWI Golden Gate Conference to illustrate the power of story. Stories, she said, build empathy and understanding. When we feel connected to one individual, we can feel for all.

When we read stories, we develop relationships with characters. We know them, they become our friends, and in many cases, we grow to love them. Growing up, I loved Matilda (and every other Roald Dahl protagonist), Anne Shirley, Max, Black Beauty, Ramona, Shirley Temple Wong, the tree in The Giving Tree, the Hardy boys and Encyclopedia Brown. As I got older, I loved Jing-Mei Woo, Celie, Hagrid, Gandolf, Edmond Dantes, Lisbeth Salander and Ender Wiggin, just to name a few.

These relationships begin early. Carter sees the characters in his books as friends. He asks for Sophia, from One Word from Sophia multiple times a day. He loves the characters Stick and Stone, from Stick and Stone; he feels what they feel, kisses or pets them when they are sad and lights up when they smile. He does not discriminate in his empathy – he loves all characters be they human, animal or inanimate object. He misses these friends if we don’t see them for a few days. This began when Carter was a little more than one-year-old.

Stories teach us about each other and about the world. They teach us how to act (currently reading him a lot of potty books and sharing stories!), how to see and treat others. They are mirror and map. They give us perspective.

Except when they only give us one perspective.

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Given the statistics in children’s books alone, it is no wonder that White becomes our reference point for normal. This too, begins in infancy. The consequences are far more insidious than people of color feeling othered, lost or insecure, though those effects run deep and have lifetime ramifications. I wrote about some of these effects in an older post, found here.

This normalization of Whiteness is compounded by the near complete focus on a Euro-centric (re)telling of history in schools. The media and Hollywood exacerbate it further. White people – particularly white men – get to spread a wide variety of narratives and stories about themselves. People of color see their stories either written or approved by those in power. Or, they don’t see their stories or histories at all. With an inexcusable dearth of stories about people of color, our common narratives become stereotypical caricatures of reality. They would be comical if they didn’t shape the way we viewed others and made decisions for the rest of our lives. They would be laughable if they were not so dangerous.

Without diverse stories, it is little wonder that people find it so easy to write off Syrian refugees in desperate need of help. It is little wonder that people can believe immigrants are rapists and murders, coming to take jobs and ruin our society. It is little wonder White flight occurs in all communities of color for different, discriminatory, fear-based reasons. It is little wonder too few women hold positions of leadership or pursue careers in science, math or technology.

It is little wonder that people find it easier to believe the police account of Terence Crutcher’s unprovoked murder, despite video evidence that his hands were in the air and his car window closed. It is little wonder that an armed, suicidal white man who threatened police officers in San Francisco was given the benefit of a 6 hour negotiation, when an unarmed Black man also suffering from a mental breakdown was shot and killed. It is no wonder that a Black man reading in his car, sitting on his own front porch, or lying on the ground with his hands in the air (while helping an autistic patient, no less) can be assaulted, shot or murdered with impunity. It is little wonder that the public finds ways to justify these killings when a person’s demeanor or prior criminal record should never result in an unjustified death. The examples go on and on.

Sometimes the world is so wrong, so immoral, so unjust that we find it impossible to accept the reality before us. So we default to the stories we know. The narratives we have been told. Even when they are wrong.

This is one reason diverse stories are important. It is not because they are trendy. It is because they are necessary. We need them to shape society today and for generations to come. They teach us to see a reality beyond stereotypes. They make it difficult to define any one group by a single false narrative. They help us move beyond our implicit biases. They allow us to see the diversity within diversity. They build empathy and remind us of our common humanity. They create change.

The photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned while fleeing Syria, echoed around the world. His family’s tragic story gave faces to the refugee crisis and galvanized the world – for a short time – to push for more aid and support. Nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant’s heartbreaking testimony against police shootings in Charlotte went viral and is changing the common “thug” narrative about communities who protest injustice.

When we know each others’ stories, we have greater capacity for compassion, empathy and understanding. Stories help us past the false narratives segmenting our society. Diverse stories are necessary not just for “diverse people” but for all people. We all need mirrors for ourselves and maps to others. These stories build bridges and diminish fear.

My dream is that one day, we won’t need to use the label “diverse books” because books will simply reflect the stories and realities of all children. They will just be books. “Diverse books” still implies that white is normal and the rest of us are niche. As if we could all fit on one multicultural shelf or be represented authentically by rarely recognized cultural or religious holidays. Right now “diverse books” means everyone who isn’t White, male, straight and able-bodied. So…the majority of the world.

My hope is that one day, I won’t need to work so dang hard to fill Carter’s bookshelves with stories that reflect the world. I only have a tiny window in which I can control most of the inputs in his life; I refuse to give him a dangerously myopic understanding of the world and its people.

It may take some time before I have the opportunity to see my own stories in print, but I feel the responsibility and need to do something to support diverse books now. My new goal – in addition to my other writing goals and blog posts – is to begin writing book reviews about diverse books once a week (eep!). Hopefully, by increasing awareness about the diverse stories available, I can help them reach a wider audience.

I hope that people will purchase the books that speak to them. We can support the authors and illustrators of diverse books and show the industry there is a strong and increasing demand for diversity in children’s literature. Even better, I hope people consider purchasing books from their local bookstores. It’s more expensive than Amazon, but they do so much to support writers, artists, literacy and culture!

We need more diverse books. We need more diverse stories. We need to know and understand the complex and beautiful realities of our brothers and sisters around the world. Deborah Underwood said, “One story can change the world.”

Let’s write, buy, borrow, share and pass on the stories that will change the world.

 

Three Favorite Bedtime Books

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These three books are our current bedtime favorites. We read them before bed over and over and over again.

The Quiet Book
Written by Deborah Underwood • Illustrated by Renata Liwska

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I think this book is genius. It captures different quiet moments throughout a day – some sweet, some silly, some exciting, some scary – in the most adorable and charming way.

Reasons I love it:

1. Each page offers a beautiful example of quiet: “First one awake quiet,” “Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet,” “Lollipop quiet,” and my favorite, “What flashlight? quiet.” This book captures life’s magical quiet moments and makes me appreciate them over and over again.

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2. The illustrations are so adorable I wish I could snuggle them to sleep too. They perfectly accompany the gentle humor with few fun details of their own. The ridiculously sweet animals are muted in color and soft in detail. I would buy this book just for the artwork. I would wear t-shirts with the animals from this book.
3. It is written in a way that captures childhood moments that resonate with kids and are nostalgic for adults. Everyone who reads this book with Carter at bedtime inevitably says, “Awwwww, that was so good!”

 

Pajama Time
Written and Illustrated by Sandra Boynton

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We got an old, beat up copy of this book from my cousin. At first, I was tempted to hide it in the back of the bookshelf…until I wised up and realized beat up books are the ones kids love best! It was Carter’s first favorite book as a wee babe, and it is still a favorite over a year later.

Reasons I love it:

1. We make up dances to match the rhymes and words. By dances I mean we jamma jamma jamma in our PJs while lying under the covers. I think this is why Carter loves it so much. It makes him die laughing every time.

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2. Sandra Boynton is hilarious. Her funny cartoony pictures of earnest animals in their pajamas make me and Carter giggle.

 

A Book of Sleep
Written and Illustrated by Il Sung Na

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A watchful owl observes different animals as they sleep. Each animal sleeps so differently! If I were an illustrator, I’d try to create art like Il Sung Na. That is all.

Reasons I love it:

1. The illustrations are whimsical and sweet; the animals are round and fat. Everything is cute and beautiful at the same time. I love love love the art in this book!

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2. There is an owl on each page; it is fun to search for them throughout the book.
3. The lilting, simple language takes readers through peaceful and funny examples of animals sleeping…until the sun rises and everyone wakes up. Except for the owl!

Happy reading!

 

Starting My Publishing Journey

Remember oh, early December, when I wrote this post on diversity in children’s books? I made a commitment to publish books for children of color and committed to publishing something myself if I didn’t have something in the works by June.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

BWAAAAA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!

I take it back. Clearly, I had no idea what I was talking about when I made that commitment. Since then, I have taken a few little steps into the world of children’s publishing. I started out by researching publishers online, visiting many publishing websites, blogs and boards. I attempted to draft unsolicited query letters to publishers only to realize that perhaps I should be looking for an agent first. This led me into a brief phase during which I thought I would try my hand at illustrating my own stories. That was short-lived. I talked with a publisher who gave me good advice. Namely, learn more about the craft. Work on your writing.

So, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attended a conference last weekend at Asilomar. I chatted with beginning writers – like me! – published writers, agents and editors. I was inspired! I was uplifted! I was filled with passion and fire!

And, I am overwhelmed but undaunted by the long road ahead. Key lessons I’ve learned on my journey so far:

Children’s Writing is an Art Form
Writing children’s books is an art. To the untrained eye, a picture book seems like a collection of simple words and a simpler story line. Anyone could do that, I am ashamed to admit I mistakenly believed. Underscore ashamed and the past tense form of believe. I’ve been schooled. There is a world of intentionally executed pacing and page turns, theme, voice, perspective, word choice, rhythm, flow, sound and character development that lives in every book. I never imagined that some picture book writers take years revising their stories to perfection.

It reminds me of teaching. Teaching is an art form. It is possible to recognize a masterful teacher; but, to the untrained eye, it is not always possible to see the thousands of choices s/he is making throughout a class period. Lesson planning and pedagogy aside, there are the relationships built, intentional pacing of the space, specific word choice and signals, teacher stink-eye, phrasing of questions and follow-up and a million other details that make teachers artists.

Great picture books are complex, layered stories told in less than 1000 words. Humanity’s lessons written in 32-40 page stories that a five year old can understand. A writer has to say much with little; it is no easy feat. Children’s book writers take tremendous pride in their art and I am humbled. I want to learn. I want to become a master artist. And it won’t happen overnight.

A sketch from my brief stint as an aspiring author/illustrator.

Empathy and Impact
Stories change lives. They change they way we look at others and the world. One of my favorite memories from teaching English is the day my students read their personal narratives to the class. They shared and learned personal stories with tremendous vulnerability and began to see each other – and themselves – differently as a result.

At the Asilomar conference, author Deborah Underwood shared an example of an everyday story that makes an impact on our perceptions. She contrasted the striking difference of emotions we might feel between two versions of the same experience: being stuck for miles behind a driver going 15 mph on a windy road vs. being stuck for miles behind a driver going 15 mph on a windy road knowing the driver is rushing his sick cat to the vet but is driving slowly because the cat gets carsick with increased speed. Our frustration is curbed and we feel greater compassion and patience when we know the driver’s story.

Stories build empathy and challenge assumptions. As such, they have the ability to create lasting change. Stories shared with the rising generation can shape their ideas of truth and possibility. They can create connections and break down barriers. Stories are tools for equity. Understanding this fuels my desire to write and publish. Writing is not a side-gig hobby I’m dabbling in because of a quaint, momentary inspiration I had after giving birth to Carter. Stories can change lives, can change public opinion, can change the world. So, I will write stories until I learn to write stories.

Perseverance
In an industry where a Newbery Award winning author has ten years of rejection letters from pages upon pages of editors and agents (I’ve seen the pictures and it ain’t pretty!) I’m beginning to understand the sheer grit and determination it will take to reach my goals. It ain’t gonna be pretty but I’m not going to give up. That is all.

(Someone remind me that I wrote this when I’m ready to throw in the towel after 32392834792835601 rejection letters, please.)

Another sketch. Sticking to writing. Maybe I’ll put these on a t-shirt for myself.

Revisiting My Goals
So, it has become painfully clear that this whole, if I don’t-find-someone-who-will-publish-my stories-by-June business is laughably, woefully uninformed. I’ve also realized that I don’t want to self publish. So, my ultimate goal is still to be published. Several times over. But, methinks I need to give myself a lllllllllllllooooooooooooootttttttttttttttt more time. Preferably before I turn grey?

My revised goals for this year:

  • Continue to improve my writing. Form a critique group that meets regularly, take classes, read books. Write a lot, revise a lot. Write some more.
  • Finish at least four stories by the end of summer
  • Submit queries to at least 20 agents by December
  • Don’t lose hope when the rejections come in! Keep submitting and writing.

Closing words that inspired me from the conference:

Crazy and stupid are not the same thing. – LeUyen Pham

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line. – Oscar Levant