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Friday, September 22, 2017

Diversity in YA Lit

Diversity in YA Literature
by Anne E. Johnson

Previously I wrote about the widespread push -- led by the We Need Diverse Books campaign -- to bring a range of voices to children’s and middle-grade books and stories. This followup column deals with diversity for young adult readers.

Where to Find Out What’s Going On

It’s part of your job as a writer to know what’s out there. Keeping track of diverse representations in YA lit, however, can be tougher than visiting your local bookstore or library. The whole point of We Need Diverse Books is that many types of people are underrepresented in books, and therefore the books are hard to find.

Fortunately, there are some folks ready to help. Diversity in YA, for example, is an entire website devoted to new YA releases with diverse content. Review blog Rich in Color also focuses on diverse lit; this one is kind of a team effort, asking for reader participation to keep their files up to date.

Always a trusty source of kid lit information, the Children’s Book Council offers a list of recommended MG and YA multicultural books. And here’s a list called “Ten authors of color to read in 2015” (yes, it’s okay if you don’t get to these books until 2017).

How to Write It

Learn to write by reading. It’s not a bad game plan. If you want to know how to make your own work more diverse, get to know the work of diverse authors. You might start with this interview featuring three authors who specialize in diverse YA: Aisha Saeed, Sabaa Tahir, and Renee Ahdieh.

Another educational approach for the potential author of diverse YA is to study characters representing diverse groups. School Library Journal has put out a list of disabled characters in YA. The American Library Association offers a list of teen characters with autism in YA books. I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth repeating the link to I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell Do I Read, an ongoing list of LGBTQ-related fiction for YA and middle-grade.

Where to Send It

If you have written or plan to write any diverse YA, you’ll need some publishers or agents to consider it. As always, look at the background of everyone you consider: the agents’ client lists and the publishers’ back catalogs. See what they publish. Read interviews to see whether they have an active interest in promoting underrepresented authors or characters or settings or perspective. One example of a publisher with precisely this agenda is the Tu imprint of Lee and Low. You can read their mission statement here.

It may be worthwhile to look into grants or awards, particularly if you are a person of color or disabled, or a member of another diverse group. The 2017 deadline is coming right up (Nov. 1) for WNDB’s Walter Dean Myers Award for YA. (Note: you must qualify according their definition of “diverse” to enter.)

As for agents, besides reading interviews with them and blogs by them, you can also learn a lot from a series in Writers Digest called “30 Literary Agents Seeking Diverse Books Now.”

Good luck, keep writing, and keep expanding your perspective on the world. In can only lead to better stories!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Cover reveal: YA science fiction adventure, EXIT CODE

Ta-daaa! I'm just thrilled to be able to share the cover of my upcoming YA science fiction novella, Exit Code, due out Nov. 1, 2017. The designer is James at GoOnWrite, who always does wonderful work.

(To join my mailing list and be notified when Exit Code is released, please click here.)

In EXIT CODE, a clumsy first date becomes a battle against a terrifying crime wave. 

It's 2057, and people are being kidnapped as they ride on the Stacks, Chicago's new all-encompassing transit system that virtually replaces cars. 

The police are getting nowhere. Someone has leaked fake videos of the kidnappings to the media, putting the authorities on the wrong scent. Tren and his new boyfriend, Geo, accidentally find out where the real kidnappings are taking place. But they make the mistake of following the trail of clues while Tren's little sister Ezzie is with them. 

Tren quickly realizes that his sister's safety is worth more to him than the whole city of Chicago.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Writing Dialog for Middle-Grade Fiction

by Anne E. Johnson

Making characters talk in a middle-grade story or novel is not the same thing as writing for very young children. Needless to say, as kids get older they can follow (and appreciate) more complicated dialog. However, increasing vocabulary is not the only factor that distinguishes dialog for this age group.

Keep It Wondrous

One marker shared by the best MG lit is imagination. And, just as the stories are often full of wonder, let the characters reflect that in their voices.

In her novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, inspired by ancient Chinese folklore, Grace Lin uses arcane, stylized language with no slang and very few contractions. Stripping the language of artifice and modernity gives a specific atmosphere.

In one scene, the main character’s Ma and Ba (father) are worried about their missing daughter. Their fish (!) gives them enigmatic wisdom:

“There is fear in the wind,” the fish said, “great worry.”
“Is it a storm?” Ma asked.
Ba looked at the fish. It stared at him with big eyes.
“I’m not sure,” said Ba.

Keep It Personal

With increased comprehension comes increased demand for details by the reader. Let each character have his or her own style of speech and favorite topics to talk about.

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Framed is a humorous contemporary novel about a boy in a small town. In that context, every single character is visible and important.

Here a girl nicknamed Terrible Evans, who is obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, sits next to the main character and spews forth trivia rather than making conversation. (Know anyone like that? I do, too.):

“Did you know,” she said, “that in the original comic, Splinter wasn’t a mutant rat?”
“No. I didn’t.”
“In the telly series, splinter is a rat who used to be a human. But in the comics he’s a rat who was always a rat. On telly he used to be Hamato Yoshi, who mutated into a rat because of a mutagen…”

And on and on. Although this conversation does not contribute substantively to the plot, it tells the reader volumes about both the character speaking and the character patient enough to hear her out.

Keep It Loose

When kids talk to each other, it’s practically a different language from the one they use around adults. This is particularly true when the kids have a lot of shared experience, such as schoolmates.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban, shows some good examples of capturing this in dialog. During one conversation between the main character and a boy she knows, notice how little narration and tagging there is. The words spill out in a believably fluent way:

“You were pretty mad out there,” Wheeler says.
“You were pretty mad yesterday,” I say.
“Was not.”
“You punched a bird.”
“A fake bird,” he says. He shoves his hands in his jacket pockets.

Keep It Silly

And the most important advice of all for the writer of middle-grade lit: Let your imagination be sprinkled with humor.

And you can’t get more humorous or imaginative than the late, great Terry Pratchett. Here is an exquisitely bizarre excerpt from his first Tiffany Aching novel, The Wee Free Men:

“There really is a school for witches?” said Tiffany.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said Miss Tick.
“Very close.”
“Is it magical?”
“Very magical.”
“A wonderful place?”
“There’s nowhere quite like it.”
“Can I go there by magic? Does, like, a unicorn turn up to carry me there or something?”
“Why should it? A unicorn is nothing more than a big horse that comes to a point anyway. Nothing to get so excited about,” said Miss Tick.

Which middle grade novels do you think have the best dialog?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Now available: "Cat's Breakfast" Kurt Vonnegut Tribute Anthology from Third Flatiron

One of my recent fiction publications is a ridiculous science fiction story called "Formica Joe." It is told from the point of view of a man stuck in two dimensions inside a tabletop in a diner.
Kurt Vonnegut

I do love unabashed silliness and weirdness, which is one reason Kurt Vonnegut ranks among my favorite authors. So, imagine how thrilled I was to sell this story to Third Flatiron Publishing for their Kurt Vonnegut tribute anthology, Cat's Breakfast. All the stories in this collection share Vonnegut's sardonic strangeness.

Good beach reading? Well, it depends on the kind of beach you like.

The authors represented in this anthology are as follows:

Jonathan Shipley 
Konstantine Paradias James Beamon Iain Hamilton McKinvenJill HandAnne E. JohnsonVaughan Stanger Dan KoboldtRati MehrotraBenjamin C. Kinney David A. Killman Tim Jeffreys Gregg Chamberlain Christorpher Mark RoseKeyen BowesPeter HagelslagJames LairamoreVille NummenpaaRekha ValliappanAugust MarionS.E. FoleyJames DorrJohn J KennedyRyan DullVeronica MoyerCorrie ParrishNeil James HudsonLaurence Raphael Brothers, E.E. King, Edward Ahern

You can purchase Cat's Breakfast on Amazon.


The new "Cat's Breakfast" anthology from Third Flatiron pays tribute to the imagination and inspiration of the late author Kurt Vonnegut. Emulating Vonnegut's famous "gallows humor" and skeptical view, these all-original satirical stories are a delightful antidote for the malaise and division plaguing contemporary society.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Diversity in Children's Literature

This post originally appeared on the website Eat Sleep Write in 2015.

Please pre-order and support the Young Explorer's Adventure Guide via Kickstarter here.

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Diversity in Children’s Literature
by Anne E. Johnson

In this world of racial tensions that never seem to stop escalating, perhaps one positive step toward peaceful coexistence is to open the minds of the next generation. The children’s literature scene is taking this idea seriously. Publishers and writers are stepping up and speaking out to encourage diversity in kid lit.

Perhaps you have heard of the organization called We Need Diverse Books. Their Twitter hashtags #WNDB and #WeNeedDiverseBooks have garnered worldwide support. Their website offers comprehensive information about writing and spreading diversity in literature, and they have set up outreach programs for schools, resources to help writers wanting to be more inclusive, and awards and grants for authors who match their definition of “diverse.”

While a number of children’s publishers are attempting to be more racially diverse in their offerings, some companies were designed with diversity as their primary goal. British publisher Tamarind (now owned by Random House) has an almost 30-year history of featuring diverse cultures in its children’s books. In the U.S., Lee & Low is at the forefront of publishing with a non-white perspective. You can read Lee & Low’s mission statement here.

Writing about diverse cultures is not the same as representing them personally. Another side of diversity in children’s publishing is the encouragement of diverse ownership of publishing companies. To highlight this issue, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has put together a list of small presses that publish for children and are owned by people of color.

Race is not the only aspect of a child’s experience that requires a broadened representation in kid lit. There is an excellent website called Disability in Kidlit that deals specifically with books and stories for and about children with physical and developmental challenges. Blogger Lee Wind has garnered well-deserved praise for an excellent book list for LGBT kids called “I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell Do I Read?” The website Rainbow Rumpus offers stories that feature characters with LGBT parents. Editor-in-Chief Liane Bonin Starr described her publication:

Rainbow Rumpus is the world‘s only online literary magazine for children and youth with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) parents. We publish short stories, illustrations, articles, celebrity interviews and profiles of the children of LGBT parents with the goal of showing young readers a world in which having an LGBT parent or parents is no different than any other. We serve our audience with high-quality writing and artwork which is often used in the classroom as well.  

The key phrase here, I think, is “no different than any other.” If we welcome enough diversity into children’s lit, then perhaps children will grow up realizing that every culture is equally valid.

I’m proud to say that I’ve had several stories published in Rainbow Rumpus. In fact, I write this column as a kid lit author determined to learn to write for the whole world of children, giving credence and respect to all their perspectives, lifestyles, and experiences. That is why I have contributed stories to the first two volumes of an anthology series called the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. Corie Weaver, co-founder of Dreaming Robot Press, had this to say about her groundbreaking middle-grade series:

Dreaming Robot Press believes representation matters. Children must be able to envision themselves as the heroes of any story.

Sally Ride, first American woman in space and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, famously said: “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The Young Explorer's Adventure Guides are science fiction anthologies geared to the middle grade reader. Girls, boys, people of all skin tones and ableness are the heroes here!

I hope these words inspire you to add diversity to your own writing for children. Here’s an essay for those who want to create a more inclusive setting and characters but don’t know how to begin.

Next time: Diversity in YA lit.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It's re-launch day for Medieval Irish novelette A KISS AT VESPERS!

In the year 1008, a British woman named Asta stows away on a ship to Ireland, never guessing how her faith and love will be challenged.

I'm very happy to announce that my historical romance novelette, A Kiss at Vespers, is again available in all ebook formats, and with a spiffy new cover. And at the permanently crazy-low price of 99 cents!

Researching seafaring, Vikings, and monastic life of 11th century Ireland was all kinds of fun, so it was important to me to get this book back out into the world. This is a sweet romance and (I'm told) a fun and quick read.

A Kiss at Vespers is now presented as Volume 1 in the Ireland's Medieval Heart Novelettes series. And you know what that means...I'd better get writing!

Buy it wherever ebooks are sold, including:

Barnes & Noble

A Kiss at Vespers
by Anne E. Johnson
Ireland's Medieval Heart Novelettes, Vol. 1

In 1008 AD, Dublin is just a small town, newly opened to trade now that Viking violence there has died down. A young woman named Asta runs away from her boring life in Britain on one of her father’s trading vessels bound for Dublin, hoping that she and the sailor she loves can find a new life together. But when shipwreck takes him from her, her whole world changes. She is helped up the rocky shores of eastern Ireland by handsome and enigmatic Brother Martinus, who takes her to the Monastery of St. Luran’s to recover. Despite his vows of silence and chastity, Brother Martinus is entranced by the beautiful maiden who seems delivered to him by Providence. Their unexpected relationship causes both of them to rethink their concepts of faith and love.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Susan P. Baker on using her law experience for the suspense novel UNAWARE

Any one of us can end up the victim of a crime. Today's guest, Susan P. Baker, took inspiration from her experiences as a lawyer for her novel Unaware. If this essay is any indication, get ready for some major suspense!

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Unaware in Real Life

by Susan P. Baker

UNAWARE is loosely based a case I handled when I first started practicing law. At the time, I was married to my first husband. We were the parents of two young daughters. My husband traveled a lot on the job, which was necessary but could be annoying when I was trying to get a law practice off the ground and parent the children at the same time. We did not have an au pair, couldn’t afford one. My father had been an attorney but was on the bench when I won my law license.

One night, when my husband was out of town, I went to a meeting and was out too late. The girls were old enough to stay by themselves. I stopped off at the grocery store on the way home and noticed when I was almost to my house that a car had been following me. When I pulled into my driveway, the car stopped and parked in front of the house opposite mine. I immediately backed out and drove away, hoping to lead the person away from my children. We didn’t have cell phones back then. I drove a short distance to my sister’s house, jumped out, and ran inside. 

My brother- in-law drove to my house to check things out while my sister and I called the police. When they found no one there, I went home, having become aware of how easy it would be for someone to hide around my house, what with the hedge next to the front door. I pulled into the garage, put the door down, ran inside to check on the girls who were okay, and got the butcher knife out of the drawer and put it under my pillow. We didn’t have any guns. I had a hard time sleeping that night. The following day I bought a .38 revolver.

At that time, I was building my family law practice as well as practicing criminal defense law. I shared an office with two of my father’s former law partners. They were much older and often gave me advice. One of them had the messiest office I’d ever seen, but he had a brilliant mind and could cite law that I’d never even heard of.

In one of my cases, a beautiful, young woman with long, blond hair came to see me about her situation. She hadn’t been married to her husband very long but was ready to get out because he’d become violent almost as soon as they’d said “I do.” He worked on the wharves and had a very sharp cotton knife that he threatened her with when she spoke of leaving him. He was a few years older than she was and fairly good looking. His father was a big-wig in the longshoreman’s union and had bailed him out of trouble many times. 

Susan P. Baker
I took the case against the advice of the other lawyers because she didn’t have much money and had been turned down by other lawyers who were afraid. It wasn’t long before she told me that her husband threatened to kill her and me. We tried our best to settle the case amicably. The man’s father even came to see me in my office. He knew my father. He said he’d make his son settle the case, pay the money he needed to pay, and he even gave me a pendant of a gold leaf. Anyway, clearly the inspiration for UNAWARE came from my law practice.


What you don’t know CAN hurt you.

Frustrated with the two controlling men in her life, Dena Barlow Armstrong has outlined a rosy future for herself and her children, independent of them. Her husband, Zack, constantly pushes her to turn over her inheritance to him and, when she doesn’t, he punishes her with his indifference. Her law partner and cousin, Lucas, controls her money and the types of cases she accepts.

Just as Dena begins to achieve her goal of independence, someone emerges with very different plans for her. Unaware of the danger she faces, Dena lives each day as a wife, mother, and attorney. Then one day, when her husband is out of town, the stranger lurks in her garage, waiting until she and the children go to bed…

This standalone novel is Susan P. Baker’s sixth mystery/suspense novel.

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Learn more about Susan P. Baker on her website.

Purchase Unaware on Amazon.