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?