Taking Responsibility

The other day one of my boys came to me in tears, crying that his sister had hit him with a toy sword. “I didn’t mean to,” she yelled. “It was an accident.” Knowing my kids, it was probably true, but it didn’t make the red spot on my son’s arm hurt any less. She still had to take responsibility for hurting him and apologize. A few minutes later everyone was playing happily again.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last couple of weeks, with all the chaos going on in YA Twitter. So much of it seems to start with one person, a reviewer or a fan saying, “you hurt me.” Because that is what an accusation of racism or sexism or ableism or homophobia is: a cry of pain and a warning to others.

But too often lately these critiques have been taken as attacks. And I get it. We authors pour our hearts and souls into our books, and critiques can feel like an attack on a part of us. And often (at least I hope) the offense isn’t meant. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Like with my daughter and her sword, lack of intention does not indicate a lack of pain.

If someone tells you your words or actions hurt them, believe them. Apologize for hurting them. (Not for them being offended.) If you can’t understand why they’re upset (and chances are you won’t or you wouldn’t have written it that way), Google it. Learn from it. And do better next time.

Because if I’d let my daughter call in her friends to say what a nice person she was and how my son was overreacting and just trying to get my daughter in trouble, then my son would have called in his brother to testify to all the times she’d hurt them in the past and…well, you can see how quickly these things get out of hand when no one wants to take responsibility for their actions.

So authors, please, if you get called out on something: apologize, learn, do better.

I only hope that if and when it happens to me (and it well might, because as much as I try and stay in my lane and do my research, I still learn new things about my privilege everyday, and I’m bound to make a very public mistake sooner or later) I have the sense to follow my own advice.

The Worst Part of Being a Writer

Nope, it’s not the waiting. (Although that *may* just be the second worst part of being a writer.)

It’s the imagination.

No, really.

The most valuable tool for my craft – the thing that lets me invent fantastical plot twists, heartbreaking realistic characters, and killer lines – is also my Kryptonite.

It allows me (nay, FORCES me) to come up with every possible bad turnout to every situation I encounter. (Too much time spent thinking, “how could I make this worse for my MC?”) And once I’ve imagined it, well, then I can’t help but worry any or all of those things might actually happen.

In fact, as you’re reading this, I’ll be sitting in the hospital waiting for Boy #1 to come out of a surgical procedure which I know is very simple, but which my writer’s imagination is already having a field day with…

I’m convinced this is why so many writers struggle with depression and anxiety – our imaginations are in constant overdrive, always telling us what might go wrong next, intent on spinning fantastical tales out of the most mundane situations. Which is great when it comes to plotting out books. Less so when it comes to navigating real life without constantly breaking down…

Right, off to go and try and distract my imagination with some chocolate and a good book. Wish me (and more importantly, Boy #1) good luck.

(Edited to Add: Boy #1 came out of the surgery smiling. He’s already downed four banana popsicles and we’re home resting now.)

 

Beware the Ides of March

Cake based on the Et Tu, Crouton? (The Assassination of Caesar Dressing) Threadless design by Ben Douglass

As you guys know, I am only an “almost-Full-Time” writer. The rest of my time is spent taking care of my family and dealing with my own health issues. Well, between a bout of lice (ick, ick, ick, why didn’t anyone warn me about this pre-parenthood?), March Break, and a 9-days-long-and-still-counting migraine, this week has definitely not been filled with writing, even of the blogging variety.

Hope you all had a more productive week than I did, and I’ll try to have a more informative post up next Thursday.

Striving for Gender Equality

There’s been a lot of talk this week on Twitter about the different ways men and women are treated in the children’s writing industry, and why.

Go to any SCBWI meeting, and you’ll find a group that’s around 70% female. But try and name some of the biggest names in kidlit and who comes to mind first? Dr. Seuss, Mo Willems, Robert Munsch, Jon Scieszka, Jon Klassen, Drew Daywalt, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, John Green…? They’re the ones that seem to get most of the press, awards, and attention.

And I’m not trying to say they’re bad writers. Their books are great. But so are books by Mem Fox, Debbie Ohi, Helaine Becker, Ame Dyckman, Shannon Hale, Rachel Renee Russell, Raina Telgemeier, Kate DiCamillo, and Sarah Dessen, to name but a few.

So why, when it comes time to hand out awards like the Caldecott medal, or name “rockstars” of the industry, do so many of the accolades go to the men?

Is it because writing, reading, and children are still seen as primarily women’s domains, so men are given extra credit for choosing to go into this field?

(Side note: at one location I worked as a makeup artist, the male artists got paid more money because it was assumed that all women know how to put on makeup, but if a man went out of his way to learn it and pursue it as a career, it must mean he was exceptionally talented, and therefore automatically deserved more money.)

Or is it because male authors write more boy characters, which are presumed to be “for everyone,” while female authors write more girls, which are assumed to be only for girls? (If you think I’m exaggerating, check out this post by Shannon Hale about her experiences with gender-segregated school visits. Or see this post about why J.K. Rowling had to invent a middle initial to hide the fact that a woman wrote Harry Potter.)

And before you tell me that that’s just what boys naturally like, reflect on the little ways society reinforces these stereotypes: how many kids’ movies, books, and tv shows have a minimum 5:1 male to female gender ratio in a “show for everyone”* (I’m looking at you PAW Patrol, Smurfs, SpongeBob Squarepants, and pretty much every Pixar movie ever made). How, despite the overwhelming popularity of Disney’s Frozen, it was impossible to find any boys’ clothing** with either of the two main characters (aka the girls) on it. And how the PAW Patrol sheets my kids received for Christmas were conspicuously missing the only female main character (I guess because boys wouldn’t use sheets with a girl dog/pink on them?)

Kids are bombarded from a very young age with the idea that girls and girls’ things, are worth less, so is it any wonder it carries over into the grown-up world of writing?

So, what can we do to combat this?

As readers and parents we can make a point of buying or borrowing books by both male and female authors, and featuring both male and female characters. Present these to your kids without comment, or apology. And don’t spend money on books that only feature one gender, or feature a really gender-imbalanced, or stereotyped cast.

As you can probably tell between this week’s post and last week’s, I really believe that reading is the way to opening minds and changing the world. I think we all owe it to ourselves and to future generations to read responsibly. (And, don’t forget, when you’re looking for those gender-balanced books, to make sure to include authors from a diverse range of backgrounds as well.) With any luck, between speaking with our wallets, and broadening the minds of our children, the future of children’s lit will look a little more balanced.

 

*Personally I think all shows should be shows for everyone, but for right now I’ll go with which aisle the toys end up in at the (sadly still gender-divided) stores. Note also, any show with a 5:1 female to male ratio would automatically be considered a “girl show.” (My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, etc ).

**Again, as much as I’d love to say there’s no difference between boys’ and girls’ clothing, the way girls’ shirts are cut, with frilly sleeves, scooped necklines and tapered waists, give them a noticeably “feminine” look, which is somehow socially unacceptable for boys (but no one seems to notice when my daughter wears a boys’ shirt – again with the double-standard of boys = for everyone, girls = just for girls).

 

 

 

Mirrors and Windows

window

By the time I was nine, I knew I was ugly. In all the books I’d read, (and I’d read a lot) no girl character was allowed to have brown hair and brown eyes. Brown-eyed girls had hair of ebony or raven, or maybe auburn, (which I’d pretend was kind of close to mine, except for the being-red part). Girls unlucky enough to get stuck with mousy brown hair at least got blue or green or even the highly coveted and way-more-popular-in-books-than-real-life purple.

At age nine, I met two protagonists with my same hair-eyes combo. They were from the Babysitters Club books: Kristy & Mary Anne-aka the tomboy and the mouse-and, despite the fact that they were the two most like me in personality, them not being the pretty one, the glamorous one, or the artistic one, definitely sent a message. Brown-eyed brunettes were boring and unattractive.

By the time Beauty and the Beast hit theatres two years later, I was already blowing my allowance on bottles of Sun-In and yearning for a pair of tinted contacts. (Not that Belle didn’t have her problems-her whole storyline involves her turning down a figurative beast to love the literal one who imprisoned her (Stockholm Syndrome much?)-but at least she was beautiful…)

But I was lucky. I got to see myself way earlier than my Chinese Canadian friend who had to wait another seven years to see herself in Mulan (again, not without problems), and way, way earlier than the other friends who are *still* waiting to see someone resembling themselves in popular fiction twenty years after that.

So I was a bit shocked this week when one of my writing friends told me she’d heard agents advising their white clients to keep all of their characters inside their experience. ALL of their characters: main, side, every last one. Which would mean for a writer like myself my books would have to be populated by nothing but cis, het, relatively able-bodied white folks.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for staying in your lane when you’re writing a POV character. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever know enough about the experiences of someone from another cultural background or sexual orientation or disability to properly convey them, especially in today’s world. And double especially since I’m already working with the disadvantage of being a Canadian trying to represent American life. On top of that, I’d hate to have my version of those experiences published over a much more authentic story told by someone who lived them.

And I’m not trying to say there’s no responsibility involved with including people outside your experience as side characters. You can still perpetuate harmful stereotypes and tropes with side characters, so you can’t just add these characters in like diversity sprinkles-you actually (gasp!) need to think through what you’re writing and what message (intentional or otherwise) you’re sending with the choice of your characters’ identities.

How do you do that? Read #ownvoices books and blogs to figure out what good representations and what problematic representations are already out there. Hire sensitivity readers to double (or triple or quadruple) check your work. And then listen to them and fix it.

But to completely exclude these people from your writing all together? To present a homogenous world and erase any and all people who don’t match the “norm” of the author? To me that feels like taking giant leaps in the wrong direction. The world I live in is filled with diverse people, why should my books be any different?

Because books aren’t just mirrors, they’re also windows. As nice as it was to see someone like myself as a beautiful princess, what made a difference was so many other people seeing her as beautiful, too. Suddenly brown-eyed brunette didn’t automatically equal tomboy or nerd (although, she does start the book as a book-loving nerd, so maybe I can’t give them too much credit).

Good representation can break down stereotypes, give you a glimpse into someone else’s life, and actually increase empathy. Perhaps if more people read good representation, there’d be less hate in the world today…

Which is why I feel like we shouldn’t be aiming to erase *all* diversity in books, merely bad/harmful representations of those diverse people.

What do you think? Should writers “stick to what they know” for all their characters? Or is it okay to include diverse secondary characters, so long as it’s done with research and thought? Tell me what you think in the comments.