Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cynthia Leitich-Smith & Ellen Hopkins Workshop

Ellen Hopkins and Cynthia Leitich-Smith are two brilliant New York Times bestselling authors who teamed up to give a workshop on a pair of related topics: How to Write about Difficult Subjects and Writing Within & Across Identity Elements.

Cynthia started us off with a definition: writing diverse books is about telling the stories of underrepresented people and cultures.

There are lots of questions about who can write what, as well as lots of concerns about the writing itself: the authenticity, cultural appropriation, single stories, and more.

Can books harm and help children? What about artistic expression and censorship?

It's an urgent question as the country grows measurably more diverse. Fifty-one percent of children in the United States today are people of color. And this doesn't even take into account the more kinds of diversity, including disability, cultural, and class.

Cynthia said there has been progress. There has been an expansion of nonfiction topics, and in fictions, we're seeing retellings, historical fiction, and contemporary books with social justice themes. Speculative fiction often has diverse characters.

Her advice on the inevitable criticism. "No matter what you write, not everyone will love it... be diligent, thoughtful, and courageous."

We should focus on creating respectful portrayals, not romanticized or idealized ones.

How do we do this? "If you're not an own voices author, read at least 100 books by members of that community before writing one."

There are tough questions to ask. Here are some Cyn gave us:

  • Have you done your homework? (Read a lot.)
  • Is the character stock or a stereotype? A Mexican-american maid? A white soccer mom? This limits you, though stock characters can be useful.
  • Is my character "exotic" and framed exclusively in terms of ancestral belief system? Are the black teacher and and Mexican neighbor the only ones described by the color of their skin? This centers whiteness. 
  • Your characters shouldn't be excuses for two-dimensional social studies lessons.

She also gave advice on working with experts to help us get our work as good as it can be: Be nice. Include multiple voices. Listen. Do not use sources or readers' names without permission.

She encouraged us to support and encourage new and your voices and support diversity in big and small ways.

Ellen Hopkins, who regularly writes about difficult subjects, told us stories of emails she's received from readers, including one whose mom started pimping her out when she was a 10-year-old. Her writing resonates so much with readers that she gets as many as 200 messages a day from them.

"If you take one thing away from this, never...self censor. Write the story you think needs to be told the way you think it should be told."

Her books are regularly censored, but she writes the hard stories for the kids who desperately need them. Her son is gay and 40 years old, and he came out to her when she was 12. And it was a really hard time for kids to come out. Her book CRANK has a gay character because that's a truth to her. You have to write what's true. Create real, live, multi-layered characters.

We were fortunate to hear her read from her work, which is raw, emotional, and unflinching. She's created this through her own life, through research like spending time with young prostitutes, by eavesdropping and observing others closely. This is how you make characters special, by knowing aware of the details.

Creating these characters is important for readers who are like them, but also for the readers who aren't, because this is what helps people understand the whys, for example, why a child with PTSD might lash out.

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