Wednesday, March 28, 2018

I is for Inclusion

We're celebrating Women's History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community.
Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter #kidlitwomen.
Thanks to Grace Lin for welcoming me to contribute on gender equity in kidlit. My contribution to the conversation: seven suggestions that I hope will help create a more inclusive and comfortable atmosphere before, during, and after author visits/events:

1. Invite diverse speakers because you believe in them, not because others have decided they're stars.

Not long ago, I was uninvited to give a keynote. Yes, you read right - uninvited.

Writing about this terrifies me, because although I'm speaking in general terms, I fear someone will get upset or angry and then I'll be made to pay for mentioning it. But others have had the courage to speak out this month, and though I'm afraid of what may happen, I've decided it's important to share this incident, especially because many people assume that thanks to the marvelous work done by We Need Diverse Books, this sort of thing no longer happens.

Sometime back, I received an email saying 'our conference theme is diversity, are you free to give a keynote address'?  Yes, I said and planned my travel. Much later, I got another email that said, 'Sorry, but the committee decided instead to invite XXX' (a straight white male who does not, I believe, have a disability). Although I'd been demoted I was asked if I might do a workshop, and I decided to attend, especially as I'd by then arranged for other events in the area. When I arrived, I discovered that, like a log afloat on foam, I was the only brown face in a sea of white. Did I say the conference theme was diversity?

I fully admit there was a misunderstanding. I assumed the first email was an invitation (because usually when someone asks if I'm free to give a keynote, it means they want me to do it). The author who did give the keynote address is someone whose work I respect, he is extremely well known, has won several of "the most important" awards etc. So I was expected to understand and accept the uninvitation with grace, which I like to think I did. But the incident left me thinking.

I've been invited to give keynotes by people who believed in my work, and didn't care about the level of success I had or hadn't achieved. I've also been told, by others, that they "wished" they could someday invite me, by which they mean, if you achieve this or that, then, (and only then), you'll be invited.

As anyone who has followed the posts published this month will acknowledge, there are several inequities in our kidlit world. And, in my opinion, there are plenty of brilliant authors who are also marvelous speakers; who, for one reason or another haven't yet - and may never - get "the" sales/fame/awards. Why not go ahead and invite, highlight, celebrate and showcase dedicated authors whose work you love,admire and respect, but who haven't necessarily received "the" level of attention? This won't give conference attendees and organizers the same level of bragging rights (no guess-whom-I-rubbed-shoulders-with-last-night post-conference blog posts). But if you love a famous author as much as an unknown, why not treat them equally well?

After all, money is often tight. But maybe instead of withholding income from "lesser" names, or, as is unfortunately too often the case asking brilliant non-male authors to contribute time pro-bono because they haven't received immense material success, conference organizers might consider inviting fewer celebrities and spreading the wealth more evenly, by shining the spotlight on some authors who've written wonderful books for years but whose names are not immediately recognized?

2. Involve us initially as well as finally.

It's one thing to invite a "diverse" speaker (or, better still, many such speakers). It's another - and equally important thing  - to involve diverse people when planning an event.

3. Introduce us the way we'd like, please?

Before a talk, teachers usually introduce me as Padma. Although, for the most part, I don't care about titles, when I'm visiting schools, I like to have students address me as 'Dr. Venkatraman' - and yes, they can pronounce my name, it's not that hard!

Why 'doctor'? Because then, they're acknowledging that a woman of color could be a scientist as well as an author. And unfortunately, even today, students generally assume that a "scientist" or a "Dr." must be a white male.  Often, we make assumptions about gender and so much else, as soon as we're introduced to someone. It might help a little if, when an author visits, you ask what they feel is important to emphasize (or de-emphasize) when you introduce them, as well as how they'd like to be addressed (titles and pronouns)?

4. Inquire (without condescension, if possible).

After a talk, ask questions. Ask plenty of questions. But do try, and encourage students to try, to word questions thoughtfully.

I love to help people understand my background, even when adults ask questions like "Is it true Hindus burn widows?" or "Why is your culture so primitive that it treats women like dirt?" I'd rather be asked questions than have someone remain silent because they're scared they'll say something inadvertently insensitive. 

But of course, I prefer questions that aren't phrased offensively. One way to avoid this, especially when preparing students to meet authors from a 'different' cultural/ethnic background, is to try and avoid other-ing them. For example, if you are studying a book that shows gender violence in another country, rather than focus merely on this 'strange' culture in which such cruelty is perpetrated, spend at least a wee bit of time reflecting on gender inequities that remain/continue in our own time and place. And, spend time researching, to show that this culture has, as indeed every culture has, led the world in some way, at some point.

It might also be worth pointing out the obvious: within every culture, at every time, there are instances of power abuse; there are also, always, everywhere, people who are inclusive and compassionate. Understanding and acceptance aren't 'modern' values, although they do wax and wane, and are more obvious or blatant, perhaps, during certain periods in certain cultures. And if your students do end up asking awkward questions - that's fine. We're here for them. Any question is better than no question.

5. Include as many as possible in conversation.

Usually, we (author colleagues) gather together in happy clutches at events. But I've also witnessed (and probably sometimes caused) exclusion. Try not to shut out anyone, either through body language or through conversation topics that they can't relate to.

Our conversations reflect our assumptions; our assumptions reflect our privileges. Once, a group of authors (of whom I was part), discussed labor and having a biological child in the presence of a mother who'd adopted a child and statements were made that suggested that biological mothers were "real mothers." I'm not saying you mustn't converse about religion or politics or your private life or your successes and failures. Just, if you see someone feeling left out, try and reach out?

6. Indulge yourself less, and have the courage to shut up sometimes so others can talk.  

Recently, author Jacqueline Davies offered to step down from a panel to create a space for a more diverse voice. I'm not advocating that one should or shouldn't do this or that based on who you feel you are - but I'd like to say that I hope I have it in me to be as generous as Davies when I'm in a position of privilege (because we are all, at one point or another, in positions of privilege).

7. Individuals come together to form groups; please respect and recognize our unique voices.

I've been mistaken for other Indian-American authors. We do all have black hair (or mostly black, I've spotted a couple of not-so-black ones sprouting on my head recently). If you're one of those who called me Jhumpa Lahiri, don't worry, I love pretending I won the Pulitzer. But I don't think we look alike.

Nor do we all, within a given group, share the same views. Not having grown up in this country, having an accent that clearly delineates me as 'alien' and being a first-generation immigrant - all this gives rise to barriers  - and so my experience differs from authors who grew up in the United States but who're also South Asian.  

Adding diversity to your conference (or bookshelf) doesn't mean just having one author from each "category" you can think of. It means listening to - and learning about - and loving - individual voices, which differ within race, within gender, within every label that can be used to group people.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Books are more than mirrors or windows

Diverse books, we often hear, are mirrors in which readers may see themselves reflected; or windows through which readers may glimpse differences.
I understand and respect these metaphors. But to me, books are neither mirrors nor windows.  They are the keys to much, much more. To something broader and deeper than just recognizing oneself or peeking at someone else.
They are much more, as I have repeatedly said in my talks for some years now, and most recently mentioned at ALA and then at Oakland University.
They are a magical means of transport, transcendence and transformation.
When you read a wonderful book, you never see yourself. You may see someone similar, perhaps, someone who resembles you a little, outwardly or inwardly, but that's just superficial.
Your soul shouldn't be standing still when you read - your soul should move.
When you read a marvelous book, you don't just peer through a window.  Words touch you, grip you, and don't let go of you.
Your senses - all your senses are captive. Your body is consumed. You are on a glorious voyage, a voyage of the imagination, a voyage of thought, a voyage of love.
You enter the hearts and minds of characters. You live another life for a while. You see through their eyes. You feel how they they feel. You breathe with them and they breathe through you.
You don't just inhabit the protagonist's world, you inhabit the protagonist's soul.
And when you return from the book to your own world, your reality will have changed. You shall be changed.
You will be more compassionate, more empathetic.
That's why I write.
Not to teach, because books aren't teaching tools. But they are learning tools, nonetheless.
Through a book, you learn. Not learning in the sense of gaining knowledge, but the truest, deepest way to learn, which is to understand difference, to be - not just with but actually be -  someone else for a time, and through this to grow.
A good book shows you what love is. It is a tool fashioned by the most beautiful human impulse - compassion.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On the Nerdy Website!

Delighted and so deeply honored to be featured by the Nerdy Book Club:

Monday, May 02, 2016

Hearing Voices

At the NESCBWI writing conference, I did a whopping 3 workshops, all on one day. Some highlights below.

I rather intensely dislike all things electronic, so I admit I don't blog, tweet, fb, link in, etc. etc. as much as I ought, but something I love intensely is to be able to help other writers out, in real life, in the flesh, in person. And I feel so happy and grateful every time I get the chance to do this, as I did, this weekend, at NE SCBWI. 

Every time I see someone out there whose eyes are so hopeful, someone I am able to reach out to, some aspiring writer whom I can assist in some small way, it makes me feel more alive, more grounded, and more inspired. I felt like I was able to give a lot more than my usual number of short pep talks to as yet unpublished writers during the past three days, and this alone, if nothing else, made me happier than I can express.

Below are a few points from the workshop I did on "voice" - along with a list of books I recommended. There are so many marvelous examples of voice, though, so this is just an eclectic list of what popped into my mind as I was planning my talk. 

Voice, to me, is flavor. It's not about accurately reproducing the way someone speaks (I know no one who speaks with the fluidity of a written voice); it's about effectively conveying insights into characters, about capturing time and place in a manner that's unique. Each writer, each character has a voice that is - or should - reflect their individuality. Listen all you can - but learn, don't try to repeat what you've heard precisely on the page. To me, it's a little like making tea. Your first draft probably contains all the elements of voice, but just as you need to toss out the teabag once the flavor's steeped into the water, you need to cut away words/phrases/sentences/paragraphs that don't fit the voice you've chosen for your story. Voice is choice. Voice influences, but doesn't dictate subject matter. Literary novels are often written in lyrical voices (whether they're lush and rich or lean and spare) and a literary voice pairs well with quieter novels. That doesn't mean, of course, a literary novel cannot have a lot of action. I remember how surprised - and thrilled - I was when one of the starred reviews of ISLAND'S END referred to its "heart-stopping action" !

Novels I referred to during my talk, including my own:
Realistic/Contemporary: Speak, What Jamie Saw, Maniac McGee, A Time to Dance, all Sarah Pennypacker's Clementine books, Paula Danzider's Amber Brown books
Fairytale/Fablelike Voice: The Underneath, Island's End, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Wind in the Willows, The House at Pooh Corner
Fantasies rich in detail: Inkheart, Tuck Everlasting, Redwall, Eragon, The Lord of the Rings, The Narnia Series
Literary Sci-fi: The House of the Scorpion, The Giver, Flowers for Algernon
Historical Fiction: Climbing the Stairs, Chains, Elijah of Buxton, Daughter of Venice Catherine, Called Birdy, The Gift of Sarah Baker, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry
Nonfiction: Most Dangerous, Symphony for the city of the dead, Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam and the Science of Ocean Motion, Feathers: Not Just for Flying

Verse novels set outside the United States that Holly Thompson and I referred to in our session: 
Helen Frost's The Braid, Meg Wivott's Paper Hearts, Mariko Nagai's Dust of Eden, Maria Testa's Something about America, Joyce Lee Wong's Seeing Emily, Steve Herrick's By the River, Andrea Davis Pinkney's The Red Pencil, Terry Farish's The Good Braider, Stephanie Hemphill's Sisters of Glass, Dana Walrath's Like Water on Stone, Margarita Engle's The Poet Slave of Cuba and Enchanted Air, Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu's Somewhere Among, Sarah Crossan's The Weight of Water, Thanha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, Leza Lowitz's Up from the Sea, Melanie Crowder's Audacity, Skila Brown's Caminar, Jennifer Roy's Yellow Star, Marilyn Hilton's Full Cicada Moon, Juan Felipe Herrera's Downtown Boy, Ching Yeung Russel's Tofu Quilt, Holly Thompson's Falling Into the Dragon's Mouth, Orchards, and the Language Inside, and of course, my A TIME TO DANCE.

Novels featuring characters with disabilities that Amitha Knight, Carrie Banks and I mentioned during our session: A Time to Dance, of course, and Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, Tending to Grace by Kimberley Newton Fusco, Me and Rupert Goody by Barbara O'Connor, The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, El Deafo by Cece Bell, The Memory of Light by Francisco Stork, Rogue by Lynn Miller Lachmann, When Reason Breaks by Cindy Rodriguez, on the Edge of Gone by Corrine Duyvis. A nonfiction title that we mentioned was  Including the Families of Children with Special Needs by Carrie Banks. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Tolerance versus Acceptance

At a recent panel discussion with wonderful authors Dana Levy and Susan Ross, I spoke about tolerance versus acceptance. I've started writing an essay on this topic, but here are some quick thoughts:

We often expound on the virtues of tolerance, but really, don't we want to do more than merely "tolerate" those whom we deem to be different from us in some way or another? To tolerate someone implies that we're irritated by them or that we dislike their views - but despite this deep-rooted sense that they aren't quite right, we do our best to co-exist with them. It's a live and let-live policy.

To accept someone is to embrace them - or at least to warmly shake hands with them - although we mayn't agree with them. Acceptance implies equality. I think that if we're truly to promote diverse books, we need to accept one another, taking a step or two beyond mere tolerance.

At a workshop later, I also mentioned diverse books that I've read and enjoyed. In some cases, I can't judge authenticity; all I can say is that I liked them. I also mentioned some websites that I think serve as extremely useful resources: Cynthia Leitich Smith's Blog; Deb Reese's Blog; The Primary Source Website, The Global Library; Disability in Kid's Lit, and of course, the We Need Diverse Books website. The books I mentioned were:

Novels on the Disability Experience: 

The Sound of All Things
Out of My Mind
The Black Book of Colors
Challenger Deep
The War That Saved My Life
Me and Rupert Goody
Tending to Grace
On the Edge of Reason
El Deafo - a marvelous
 graphic novel 

Authors writing from outside a culture:
The Language Inside
A Path of Stars
The Good Braider
22 cents: The Story of Mohammed Younis
The Red Pencil
Many Stones

Authors writing about their cultures and diversity within a culture:
First Nations - Joseph Bruchac, Deb Reese, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Shonto Begay
Cuban-American - Margarita Engle, Alma Ada Flor, Richard Blanco
African-American Authors whose work is remarkable but for some reason don't seem to be read as widely and as often as I'd expect: Brenda Woods, Nikki Grimes, Marilyn Nelson (despite a Newberry and a National Book Award, her amazing work for children and young adults seems relatively unknown)

Intersectionality: When Reason Breaks, God Loves Hair, The Memory of Light

Global Narratives: Tofu Quilt, Little Green, Yellow Star, Like Water on Stone, Dust of Eden

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Words, white space and spirituality - the landscape of music, mathematics and language

A Poem
is not words
but spaces soaring
inwards in between.
is numbers heard
equations sung aloud
word patterns
soft or bright
the topography of sound
A poem is as numbers are
determined by mutual distance
stop-start-pause rhythms
of speech, sound, hearts.
A poem is faith
in blank spaces
where God unbounded
by religion abides.
A poem is trust
in emptiness growing
revealing infinity
within the confines
of a line segment.

 Thanks so much to Steven Bickmore, Kelly Bully, Evelyn Spratt for inviting me and Dana Walrath to do the keynote; to my brilliant editor Nancy Paulsen and the team at Penguin, Alexis, Venessa, Carmela, Talia, and Julie and everyone else for their support.  I found this 2-3 year old poem draft and thought it captured some of what I said about wordlessness in verse being especially suitable for spirituality not confined to any particular religion yesterday morning at NCTE. Much of this I'd said before as well, in many other places where I've spoken ever since I started writing a time to dance. Yesterday, I also mentioned the magical duality of difference and universality that a good book encompasses, and of my realization several years ago of the connection between words and numbers: Mathematics, everyone acknowledges is music. And language, at its best, sings. I will say, in the poem above, if you are an atheist, do feel free to spell God with two O's - God to me is the power of Goodness as much as it is anything else. How wonderful to be invited to speak at NCTE about A TIME TO DANCE!

Monday, August 03, 2015

A TIME TO DANCE Author Events

ISBN # 978-0-399-25710-0

Released to 5 stars

*Kirkus, Starred review *Booklist, Starred review *VOYA, Starred review *BCCB, Starred review *SLJ, Starred review 

Booklist Top 10 art bk of the year; Forever Literary Top 10 Character Driven Books; Kirkus Best Books for Teens; Booklist Editor's Choice Best Books of 2014; New York Public Library Top 25; IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities; 25 Books by Women to Diversify your Shelves; Indiebound Summer selection...
A TIME TO DANCE received marvelous reviews in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the Denver Post and the Providence Journal, plus rave reviews online. Excerpts from reviews are provided in another post on this blog. Below, I list several author events (outside of school visits) that
 I'm pleased to be doing, to most of which everyone is welcome.Some, however, are closed to the public, so please check.

In 2016:

- Sat, Apr 2, library, Derry, NH
- Tues, Apr 5, library, Camden, ME
- Thurs, Apr 7, RRU, Augusta ME
- Sat, Apr 9, Cape Elizabeth Author Fest, ME
- Fri-Sun, Apr 29-May1, NESCBWI, Springfield, MA

-Mon-Wed, May 23-25, Highlights Foundation Workshop, PA

- Sat, 4 June, Verse Novel Workshop, The Writer's Loft, MA
- Thurs-Fri, June 23-24 Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, RI
- Sat, June 25, ALA conference, FL

- Sun, Jul 10, ILA, Boston
- Tues, Jul 12, library, Avon, CT

- Fri-Sun 14-16 Oct, James River Festival, VA 

In 2015:
- Wed 4 Feb, Pratt Institute, NY (private lecture for class, not open to the public)
- Thurs 12- Thurs 19 Mar, Hong Kong Youth Literary Festival, Hong Kong, China
- Fri/Sat 19/20 Mar, Salve Regina University, March into Reading, Newport, RI
- Fri/Sat/Sun 24-26 Apr, NESCBWI, Springfield, MA
- Thurs 14 May 3:30-7:30 Diversity Now, Boston Public Library, Copely Square, Boston, MA
- Thurs 18 - Sat 20 June OSSWC, Kingston, URI
- Wed 8 July, KQL International, CCSU, CT
- Sat 25 July, Writing Workshop, Tomaquaq museum, Exeter, RI
- Sat 19 Sept, 1:00 p.m., Diversity Discussion, Eric Carle Museum, MA
- Fri-Sun 16-18 Oct, USBBY, IBBY, New York, NY
- Fri 31 Oct, NEATE, Mansfield, MA
- Sat 22 Nov, NCTE, Minneapolis, MN

In 2014:

April in the Caribbean
- Keynote address at Beach Pen Literary Festival

May in RI, CT
- 1:00 p.m. Saturday 10 May, Tomaquag Museum, Exeter, RI
- 4:00 p.m. Saturday 17 May, Books on the Square, Providence, RI
- 3:00-5:00 Sunday 18 May, Bank Square Books, Mystic, CT

June in RI, NY, DC, MD
- 1:30-3:30 Tuesday 3 June, Coastal Institute Bookstore, GSO, Narragansett, RI 
- 11:00-4:00 Saturday 7 June, Curiosity and Mischief, Narragansett Pier, RI
- 1:00-3:00 p.m. Saturday 14, June Wakefield Books, Wakefield Mall, RI
- 7:00 p.m. Monday 16, June Willett Free Library, Saunderstown, RI
- 19th-21st June, Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, URI, Kingston, RI* 
- 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, 24 June Books of Wonder, New York, NY
- 5-8 p.m. Wednesday, 25 June Politics and Prose, Washington DC
- 2:30-4:30 p.m., Saturday 28 June, Govan's Branch, Enoch Pratt Library, Baltimore, MD

July in MA
- 10:00-12:00, Saturday 19 June, Wellesley Booksmith, Wellesley, MA
- 6:00 p.m., Monday 21 July, Robbins Public Library, Arlington, MA

July in RI
- 9:00 - 12:30, Wednesday 23 July, Tomaquag museum, Exeter, RI
- 2:30-5:30, Sunday 27 July, Symposium Books, East Greenwich, RI

August in CA
- 7:00 p.m. Friday 15 August, Books Inc., Mountain View, CA
- 2:00 - 4:30, Saturday 16 August, Saratoga Public Library, CA

Sept in RI, MD, VA
- 26-28 Baltimore Book Festival, Baltimore, MD
- 6:00 p.m., Sunday 14 September, Authors on Main, Wakefield, RI
- 18 September, Bookworm Central, Manassas, VA

October in RI, CT, MA
- Sunday 5 October, Island Books, Middletown, RI
- 4:30 p.m., Tuesday 7 October, RWU, Bristol, RI
- Fri-Sat 17-18 October, Lincoln School, Providence, RI
- Sun-Mon 19-20 October, NELA, Boxborough, MA

November in RI, MA
- 2:00 p.m., Saturday 8 November, Davisville Free Library, Davisville, RI
- Harvard University  (invited class lecture, not open to the public)
- Fri-Sun 21-23 November, NCSS, Boston, MA

December in NY
- 6:00 p.m., Wed 10 December, New York Public Library, NY (words without borders)

*I'm doing a workshop on writing YA novels at URI's Ocean State Summer Writing conference, so do register if you'd like to do a writing workshop with me :