Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nailing Your Opening Sentence


Every once in a while, I see a manuscript that hooks me from the first sentence. Yes, one sentence can make my heart beat faster. And then I read the second sentence, and my stomach can . And then I read the next and the next and the next. And that heady feeling I'm getting all started with one superbly crafted first sentence.


Don't worry about writing this holy grail of a sentence until you've reached the end of your story.. First, a perfect beginning is nothing without a great entire manuscript. Second, most people take time to get a true handle on their stories. This means there's no point fussing over the beginning ... at the beginning. Your first start may not be your last.

But once you've written the end and revised the big-picture items of your draft, it's time to obsess, at least a bit. A great first sentence is one that makes the reader ache for the next. You do that by evoking strong emotion. And you do that through:



What that tone is and what unexpected looks like will depend on the age group and genre you are writing for. However, the unexpected usually reverses conventions – by looking at something normal in a new way, putting something normal in a novel context, or putting something novel in a normal context.

Humorous Picture Book
When I bought my rhinoceros, I didn't really know what I was getting into. - Jon Agee, My Rhinoceros  
Why it works: Sets the tone and the unusual problem in a humorously understated way.

Nonfiction Picture Book
Dolores is a teacher, but her students are too hungry to listen. - Sarah Warren, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers
Why it works: Introduces the main character and gives her an unexpected, yet important and compelling obstacle.

Middle Grade Fantasy
Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped. - Soman Chaini, The School for Good and Evil
Why it works: Introduces the main character, sets the tone, and throws convention out the window in nine simple words.

Contemporary Middle Grade
"Tall," I said.
"No,what do you really want to be when you grow up?" said Molly: - Michael Fry, The Odd Squad. Zero Tolerance.
Why it works: It starts revealing the main character (short, sarcastic), and sets the tongue-in-cheek tone.  Also, sometimes you don’t have to aim for the perfect first sentence.  A group of quick sentences can be just as strong.


Some beginning sentences are compelling because they beg questions, and the only way to get answers is to read more:
  • The rabbits were quite unsuspecting. - Dietlof Reich, The Haunting of Freddy (Book 4)
  • 124 was spiteful. - Toni Morison, Beloved.
  • Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. - Ha Jin, Waiting
  • In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. - John Barth, The End of the Road.
  • It was the day my grandmother exploded. - Ian Banks, Crow Road

But what if the first scene does not set up anything unexpected?
Ask yourself if your manuscript starts too early – if you are laying down too much unnecessary “road work” before the story really gets going. Just because you, the author, need to understand the characters and their backstory doesn’t mean the readers need all that information at the get-go. Solution: pick a stronger starting point. But what your start is just fine -- what if you need normal and humdrum in order to create the bedlam that follows?

Perhaps the unexpected thing is the point of view, not the events:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new. – Samuel Beckett, Murphy 


Perhaps the unexpected is merely throwing convention right in the reader’s face:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Or you can always hook the reader by telling them why they should stick around. Foreshadowing can easily feel trite or heavy-handed if not used with a light touch, but it can also be used to great effect:

“A day and a half ago I killed a man and the thought weighs heavily on my mind.” – Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi (this is a minor cheat: it is the third sentence)

You can also juxtapose the seemingly mundane with what’s about to break loose:

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years--if it ever did end--began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” – Stephen King, IT

Foreshadowing needn't rest in the realm of thrillers and horror, either. Every story has conflict, this technique could work for any genre.

Hopefully, by now I've convinced you that one little sentence can draw a reader in. Now it’s your turn – take a new look at your manuscript and see whether you could make your beginning stronger. And share in the comments below: What are some of your favorite first sentences? Why do they work for you?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fishing for Powerful Beginnings



Today's guest post was written by Kerbie Addis.

For many writers, creating a powerful beginning is a daunting task. Convincing a reader to stick around for the next twenty or thirty chapters seems almost impossible, but luckily there’s advice out there for writers:


While these familiar fishing metaphors act as guides for creating strong beginnings, they are sometimes used incorrectly. A car exploding on page one might be exciting, but we won’t have a reason to care. Opening with a graphic scene might shock the reader into paying attention, but attention wanes after several pages lacking plot. While we’re told to “hook” and “bait” readers, shoving bait in a fish’s face will only scare it away.

To expound on the fishing analogy, I’d like to introduce the technique of reeling in. This relies on a necessary component for novelists - the inciting incident.

The inciting incident, as many writers know, is the crucial moment that begins the story’s conflict. In Harry Potter, for example, the inciting incident is Harry’s acceptance to Hogwarts. In Legally Blonde, the inciting incident is Elle being dumped by her boyfriend. In order to create a powerful beginning for your novel, you first have to identify the inciting incident.

Once you’ve identified the inciting incident, reel it in. But how far back should you reel in? Developing appropriate distance between page one and the inciting incident takes practice and experimentation. However, the reader will need time to establish the world and time to care about the main character.

Establishing the world isn’t just for fantasy and science fiction, where worldbuilding is a must. If the inciting incident shatters your character’s life and changes everything, we have to know what this means for them. For the reader, you must establish the status quo in order to destroy it. If the turning point for your protagonist is finding a dead body, don’t begin with that. Show us a world where this sort of thing shouldn’t happen - or maybe it’s a world where it’s all too common.

What is your protagonist doing beforehand? Give us a character to empathize with so we feel their disgust and horror at stumbling across a stiff. Would this change them? Is this just another day for them? We need a feel for your character’s personality before having them thrown into a horrifying or action-packed scene.

This isn’t to say you should start your novel with a character staring into a cup of coffee, in deep introspection. Once you have a fish on the hook, you must keep tension in the line. In other words, once you draw a reader in, you have to keep things tense and interesting to keep them engaged. Even if you begin with nothing exciting, give us the promise that something exciting will happen very soon.



Hook us with your first few pages. Use the first chapter as bait to draw us in.

These bits of wisdom are good advice - when explained properly. Baited hooks are a game of patience, requiring the fisherman to try different fishing spots and proper technique by reeling in with a tight line. In writing, you may need several attempts to find just the right starting point for your story. But with practice, you can find a proper balance that will leave readers begging for the next page. 

Kerbie Addis writes young adult speculative fiction. She is currently a college student and works as a reference assistant in her university library. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor and amateur video game theorist. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Weaving Fact Into Fiction

Writing fiction is fascinating, especially if it is done right. But how can you make it right? How can you convince the reader to go beyond the first chapter? Fiction is mostly about using your rich imagination to create the scenery, the characters, and the story. But it can become something even greater if you conduct a bit of research related to your topic. You should include real facts regarding your primary topic in your book. Why? Because a reader will find it easier to slip into the “reality” you present in the book. Of course, you don’t have to make your manuscript read like documentary. A few well-sprinkled facts, here and there, go a long way to keeping the reader hooked to your story.

When you start with a new project, don’t bother with the title and the names of the chapters, or how many chapters you will have in the end. The first, and most important, is to set the main topic. And then the scene. The main characters’ knowledge base. Remember, you don’t have to just research places, events, and procedural facts. Behavioral research can help you create believably flawed characters with complex motivations. All these aspects and more can benefit from a bit of research. Search legitimate sources and note anything you think it will do you good.

Image by Maria Noordegraaf, Flickr
While some authors skimp over the research aspect of writing, others can go overboard.   Don’t feel like you need to – or should! – use all the information you garner, however. Fragments that can be successfully inserted in the story will be more useful. It will give the story that real touch, that feeling that it is anchored, even for some limited moments, in real life. Instead of dumping all your research into clumpy paragraphs, grab a hold of these notes as you will need them. Sometimes it might be easier – or more important – to get the details right as you write the scene, but other times you can concentrate on capturing your ideas and letting the words flow, then adding those realistic tidbits on your second go-around.               

Revising is a critical part of writing, but be careful not to smother your story with too many details. Details are good for creating the right scenario and giving the correct information about the things going in the story. But only in portions. Too much information hampers both tension and the forward movement of the plot and will make the reader fall asleep while reading your book. So, do give your reader the details that help color your scene or the action – that help complete the picture – but don’t make the mistake of writing like the facts are the picture, because they never are in novels. People read fiction for the story not to find out in three whole pages how the chamber of the library was looking like, or something similar. Your primary task is to make the story catchy, and give details only to complete the experience.

Image by Gin P.H. (Gambargin)
So, what to include? Good research can help you decide the best details. But don’t forget to put yourself in your characters shoes. What would they notice? Care about? What would affect their actions or moods?  The answer is going to be different for every character, and in fact, the details that you choose to convey can not only help to create a more realistic setting and procedures, but also flesh out your character as a distinct entity. And all that helps create those series of moments that make the real world fade away for the reader while the pages keep turning, and that, of course, is your ultimate goal.  


This week's post was written by Raluca Baban with Ella Kennen.



Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Get Fresh! Breathing New Life into Evergreen Themes

This week, guest blogger Marcie Colleen shows us how to break the mold.

Hang around picture books long enough and you will start to believe that we just keep writing the same stories over and over again: there’s a new baby in the house; some little protagonist wants a pet; life is tough when you don’t fit in.  The list goes on and on because these are universal themes that kids everywhere can relate to.  And we want kids to be able to relate to our books, right?  Right!  So pick up your pencil and write a story about a universal theme and you are golden, right?  Not quite. 

The world does not need another blah story about a little boy who wants a dog, his parents say no, he begs and begs, they finally give in and he gets a dog.  End of story.  Sure, this story might have really happened to a child you know (or even yourself) and it might have been incredibly cute and charming and silly.  AND you might write it with perfect rhythm, pacing, tension, scene-building, etc.  In fact, everything about your manuscript might be technically perfect AND it deals with a story that kids can relate to BUT it’s blah.  It’s boring.  

You see, it’s not just about what you write and how you write it.  Your story needs to be fresh to stand out and take on the competition. 

So how to do you turn an evergreen theme into a fresh concept that editors will want to publish and kids will want to devour?  It takes a little twisting, a little shaking up, and a HUGE bend in in the way you think.


Let’s look at some recent examples of evergreen themes cleverly twisted into something incredibly fresh.

Evergreen Theme: Wanting a Pet
Clever Twist on the Theme:
  • Me Want Pet by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Bob Shea—a caveboy tries out many prehistoric animals.
  • Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown—Beatrice Bear finds a human child in the woods and brings him home.
  • Backhoe Joe by Lori Alexander, illustrated by Craig Cameron—a little boy finds a stray backhoe and takes it home to be a pet.


Evergreen Theme: Manners or how to behave        
Clever Twist on the Theme:
  •  How Do Dinosaurs series by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague—deals with how dinosaurs, and ultimately children should behave in a comical spin.
  • Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang—Billy is born with a mustache, but is it a good guy mustache or a bad guy mustache?


Evergreen Theme: There’s a new baby in the house  
Clever Twist on the Theme:            
  • Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin—Won Ton’s life requires some adjustment when a new puppy is adopted.
  • There’s an Ouch in My Pouch by Jeanne Willis—what happens when a mommy wallaby has another baby and the pouch gets tight?

I could go on and on with examples, but hopefully you are starting to understand what I am talking about here. I’ll give you one more example from my own writing before I leave you to your own twisting and shaking up. 

Some may already know that I am a former nanny who still babysits two days a week.  The kids that I watch were having a real issue on the playground.  Although they knew how to play with a friend, they had a really tough time playing once a third friend would show up.  The other nannies and I got to talking about our own memories of being a kid and dealing with a trio.  It certainly was something we all could relate to—an evergreen theme, you could say.  But because I didn’t want to write yet another story about kids trying to navigate friendships on the playground, I had to be clever and twist my idea into something fresh. 

I introduce to you, Love, Triangle.
Square and Circle have been friends forever. They just fit, the way best friends do. Then someone new comes along: Triangle. Triangle is different, bold, inspirin. A wedge develops between Circle and Square and before long, they find they no longer fit the way they used to. Can this frienship for two grow to become one for three? Filled with geometry-inspired wordplay, this story resonates with even the youngest readers -- after all, you don't have to understand the Pythagorean Theorem to know what it's like when a friendship gets bent out of shape and needs to be put back together again. 
I am so excited to say that Love, Triangle was sold at auction this past November and will be published by Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins.  Look for it on a future bookshelf.

This is all to say, don’t ever let anyone tell you that a topic or theme of a story is overdone.  Sure there might be many other stories on the shelves that already deal with the underlying evergreen theme, but with your own brand of clever execution you can write a stand out title.

So go ahead!  Tackle that first day of school story.  Don’t shy away from a “visiting Grandma and Grandpa” tale.  Who cares if there are a zillion barnyard stories.  Shake it up.  Twist it around.  And get fresh.



Marcie Colleen’s debut picture book, The Adventure of the Penguinaut sold to Scholastic in fall 2014 and will tentatively be published in 2016.  Additionally, Love, Triangle sold in a five house auction to Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins as part of a two book deal.  Marcie is proud to be represented by Susan Hawk/The Bent Agency.  She lives in Brooklyn, NYC with her husband—Lego artist Jonathan Lopes—and their mischievous sock monkey.  To learn more, visit her at www.thisismarciecolleen.com or follow her at @MarcieColleen1.


What are some of your favorite takes on tried-and-true ideas? Share in the comments!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

From Resolution to Reality: Becoming a Working Writer in the New Year

Enjoy this inspirational and practical guest post from RYS Judge Jennifer Swanson.


This is it. This is THE year that all your dreams will come true. You WILL be published!  How many of you have put that at the top of your list of New Year’s resolutions? Come on. Raise your hands. I bet there are a lot of you out there that did.



Well GOOD FOR YOU!  Making a commitment to your writing is the first step to improving it and actually making things happen. But the reality of the writing life is that a lot of the times you have no control over whether you get published or not. Finding the right agent or editor for your work can seem as easy as finding a needle in a haystack. In other words – not easy at all.


Your manuscript is great, funny, timely, But… it just doesn’t fit my list.  OR  I already have a client that has a similar piece…. OR (my favorite) I just didn’t connect enough with the character/story/theme…  ☺ Ever heard one of those? I’m sure you have.


So what’s a writer to do about it? Give up?


NO!  


Why not take a different approach this year. Make your goal to become a WORKING writer in 2015.  What’s that? A person who actually gets paid to write books. That’s what I did a few years ago and it’s been paying off ever since.


I  am the author of over 20 fiction and nonfiction books for children. My secret? They are all Work-for-Hire (WFH) books. I get paid to do what I love—write books for children. 

What is WFH?  

WFH means exactly that.  A publisher sends you a contract to write a book to specific guidelines under a set timeline.

Who Uses WFH Authors?

The biggest employers of WFH are educational publishers and book packagers, although pretty much every major publisher has a WFH division.  


Educational publishers are companies that write specifically to sell to schools and libraries. These books will probably not be found in book stores. They are very concerned with writing to exact grade and reading levels.


Book packagers are companies that are hired by other publishers to create books for their list.


Major publishers usually use WFH authors for trademarked series like ones about super heroes or say Nancy Drew type books. These books are formulaic and stick to the series guidelines although each book has a new topic.

How do I find a WFH company?


Here are some great links to look over:


How do I approach a WFH company?

Prepare a resume package to submit. A resume package consists of the following:


  • Query letter outlining why you are interested in working for this company. It helps if you have read a couple of their books or can point to a series they are doing that you are interested in working on.

  • Resume of your writing credentials. Include anything you’ve had published, even if it’s just on a blog. If you don’t have much, then put what you do – your job, your interests, whatever. It should be in a standard resume form and look professional
  • Writing samples --  these are really important. Two samples is optimal, although check the submission guidelines, some want more or less. These pieces need to SPARKLE. This is your chance to shine so be sure you send your best stuff.



Why do WFH?


Published books of any kind add to your writing resume. Many of these WFH books will be reviewed, which also helps. Several of my books have received highly recommended reviews from School Library Journal and the National Science Teacher Association. A few have even won awards and one received a starred review with Booklist!


The depth and breadth of my resume has impressed trade editors enough that now I have several of my own trade books under contract. And the best part is that I also have money now to invest in continuing education—I go to conferences, I take writing classes, and can afford to join professional groups like Publisher’s Marketplace.


Most WFH publishers are PAL publishers with SCBWI so you get all the perks that brings. You can go out and do school visits with your books and sell them at events, and so forth. Yes, you are a REAL author!  


Good luck to everyone this year. I hope all of your writing dreams come true. May 2015 be your BEST year yet!







A self-professed science geek, Jennifer Swanson is the author of over twenty nonfiction and fiction books, including award-winning and starred reviewed ones. She has her books coming out with National Geographic Kids (2015 & 2016) and one with Charlesbridge (2016).  Follow Jennifer on Facebook for more information about WFH writing. Jennifer now offers critiques of nonfiction picture books, mid-grade proposals, and work-for-hire submission packages. Finally, if you are looking for more guidance, she will be teaching a class with the Children’s Book Academy in June titled “Writing for Love and Money: From Trade, to Educational Publishing and Beyond”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Caroline Tung Richmond Rewrites History


Caroline Tung Richmond is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Baltimore SunHighlights for Children, and USAToday.com, among other publications. The Only Thing to Fear is her debut novel and is out now from Scholastic Press. A self-proclaimed history nerd, Caroline lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband; their daughter; and the family dog Otto von Bismarck, named for the German chancellor (naturally). 
 
 
Tell us a little about your book.

Here's my little elevator pitch! The Only Thing to Fear is an YA alternate history novel, set in a world where Hitler won WWII and colonized the US. The protagonist Zara is a sixteen-year-old Virginian farm girl who joins a rebel group that's set on overthrowing the Nazis---and assassinating the Fuhrer himself. 

How did you get the idea for writing it?
Actually, my husband gave me the idea for this book in a very roundabout way! Back in 2010, I asked him for book recommendations and he told me to read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a memoir by a North Korean refugee. I blazed through the book, and I couldn't stop thinking about: what would it be like to live in such a regime? How would someone try to fight back against it? I started imagining a girl who lived in a very oppressed society, and I let my imagination go from there. And that's how I got the first kernel for the idea that become The Only Thing to Fear!

Writing an alternate history sounds like a very powerful allegorical tool. What advice would you give to other writers wanting to give it a try?
I still consider myself very much an amateur when it comes to writing alternate history, but for those of you who might want to write in this genre… I say, go for it! It may seem like a daunting genre due to all of the research involved, but I promise that the research often turns out to be quite fun and super interesting. But it can be overwhelming so I would say to take your time and to let things soak in! With every book or article you read for research, jot down notes that you find fascinating because they may come in handy for your world-building. And don't feel like you have to flesh out EVERYTHING in your world before you start your book. You can fill in a lot of the historical details as you write or whenever you start revising. Like I said, just go for it! 

What amount of research did you have to do to write your book? How did you go about it?
Gosh, quite a bit! I made sure to brush up on my overall WWII history knowledge before I sought out particular research topics that would help me flesh out my world building---particularly what life was like in Nazi Germany and what life was like in the countries they occupied, like France, Poland, and the Netherlands. My new WIP is set during WWII so I have quite a lot of WWII-related titles on my Kindle now! 

Examining a Nazi-led world seems like no small task. What advice would you give to writers who want to tackle a big, even larger-than-life project?
My advice? Just do it! I think it's a good thing to be a little scared about a potential writing project---it is this fear that helps us stretch and grow and develop as writers. And try to take things slowly. I think we often shy away from larger-than-life projects because we don't even know where to start. So tackle things one at a time! Dip your toes in the research waters. Read other books in the genre and note what works and what doesn't. And when you're ready to start writing, focus on getting a little bit done at a time. A paragraph here, a chapter there. It might take months or even years, but you'll eventually finish a draft for that daunting novel you weren't sure you could write. 

How do you balance world-building versus honing in on particular characters’ lives?
Oh, this can be tough! I've found it really hard to strike that nice balance between fleshing out a world yet moving the plot and the character arc forward at the same time. It can be quite tempting to use the dreaded info dump! And so, I try to focus on the plot and character arc first while folding in world-building whenever necessary. 

Also, find good beta readers! My beta readers are fantastic about letting me know when I've info-dumped too much or when I need to beef up the details. Oftentimes as authors we're blind to the balance of world-building because we're already living inside of this world that we created. We just get it. So it might take someone else to point out what's working and what's not. 

Any parting words?
Never give up, never surrender! It took me LONG time before I got my book deal for The Only Thing to Fear. Although I wrote the draft quickly, it took me over 18 months to revise the book, including switching the entire POV from first present to third past. There were many times when I wanted to give up---on this project and sometimes on writing altogether---but I wanted so badly to tell this story and I feel humbled and grateful that it is now out there in the world. And so, if you're struggling right now, hang in there! Eat some chocolate, drink some wine, take a little break, and get right back in there in the ring. :) 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Tweeting a Winning Pitch

One tweet. One modest goal: landing an agent. Sounds insane? Perhaps. But it happens often enough that manuscript pitching contests have sprouted all over the Twitterdom. All you have to do is write a unique, compelling high-concept idea in 144 characters or less – and wait for an agent or editor to favorite it. Couldn’t be simpler, right?

Right.

The truth is hundreds of writers tweet (and retweet) on the appointed day to no avail, while a handful will end up getting favorited again and again. Of course, getting your tweet favorited is a far cry from landing an agent – but having someone eager to look over your project is a very promising start. But even if you don’t end up scoring an agent because of a tweet, joining a Twitter pitch party is a worthwhile endeavor. At the very least, you will end up crafting a few sentences you can weave into your query letter or use to talk up your project. And you may very well gain some new insights into your project.

As an agent, I get kinda sort of thrilled by Twitter pitch contests. Thrilled because what agent open to submissions doesn’t appreciate the excitement of the hunt? Kinda sorta because, well, most of the pickings don’t stand out.  So, how do you distill a 80,000-page manuscript into 144 characters or less? Easy. You don’t. A Twitter pitch is not a mini-synopsis. (And tweets that attempt do that just end up as overly dense strings of confusion, so don’t even try). Instead, a Twitter pitch’s only goal is to get agents and editors literally asking for more.  

 How do you do this? Many great articles have been written about twitter pitches -- about relevant hatchtags, pitching etiquette, etc. --   and you’d do well to read them. But, once you follow the general guidelines, you have one last challenge: to make your target audience feel vested. And how do you do that? By clearly and accurately combining at least two of the following:
  • a fresh premise
  • a main character that seems relatable and interesting
  • clear stakes
  • conflict
  • a strong voice


Most people water down the potential impact of their story by making their tweets too vague:
  • “two friends must embark on a journey…”
  • “new powers…”
  • “…they get more than they bargained for”
  • “…learns the high cost of [love/greed/whatever]"
Or, let's put it another way. Do you think "Two princesses must find the meaning of true love before it's too late," makes Frozen stand out? 


There’s nothing wrong with the above per se... but they fail their one job: to stand up above the crowd. Specificity always triumphs. Compare two theoretical pitches for the first season of Castle:
  • “A mystery writer and a detective team up to solve murders in New York City.”

versus
  • "He's a best-selling crime author with the sense of a 9 yo. She's a hard-charging detective. Hope they don't kill each other."

Which one catches your attention? Exactly. In three short sentences, it provides genre, shows how the main character is different from your typical crime drama fare, promises lots of juicy conflict, and hints at stakes and voice. And that's just the second draft. Further revisions could really make a pitch like that sing -- and get you the traction you're looking for. 

Ready to try your hand at twitter pitching? Now is your chance
  • #pitmad is going on TODAY (December 4) and is repeated quarterly
  • #SFFpit is on December 9
  • #PitchMas is on December 12



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Interview with Debbie Reese

An Interview With Debbie Reese

Debbie Reese is the founder of American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL), which provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society. Her site has been listed as one of First Peoples' Top Five Native Blogs and Podcast to follow, and has written posts for School Library Journal and the American Library Association blogs. Debbie is a Nambe Pueblo Indian and RYS has invited her to speak about the crossroads between books, culture, and authentic representation in literature.

Want to ask Debbie a question live? 
Join the Twitter Chat tonight, November 18, at 9PM EST.

Tonight we're chatting about #NativeAmerican representation in children's books w/ @debreese & @alliejanebruce. Use #SupportWNDB to join in.


RYS: Hi Debbie! Can you begin by sharing a little about how do you define your personal role(s) and mission(s) within the world of children's books/literature?

Debbie Reese: I'm an advocate for accuracy of information that children and young adults receive through the literature they read. Most of the representations of Native peoples in literature are well-intentioned, but most of what goes into them was, and is, shaped by inaccurate perceptions of who we are now, and who we were in the past. It is a cycle of misinformation that, with my work, I try to interrupt. 


Stephanie Fryberg is a researcher who found that stereotypical images--positive and negative--depress the self-efficacy (sense that you can change the world) of Native kids who see them. She also found that the self-efficacy of non-Natives who see them is elevated. That elevation may be why positive stereotypes, in particular, make people feel good, but it is crucially important to note that the person who feels good is not the person being shown. Studies show that Native youth drop out of school and commit suicide at exceedingly high rates. Writers love books. Readers love books. Why? Because they inspire or move us in some way, but we must acknowledge their power to hurt as well. So! I advocate for accuracy and work towards helping others why. And of course, I hope they join me in talking with others about the ways that Native peoples are misrepresented in children's books. 

That said, the single most important thing to know about Native peoples is that we are sovereign nations whose leaders entered into diplomatic negotiations with leaders of European countries and later, leaders of the United States. We were not the primitive Indian that so many people think we were. Our leaders were politically savvy. They fought to protect our homelands from those who wanted those lands. Their skills in war and diplomacy are why we exist today as self-governing sovereign nations. If, for example, you were to come visit me at Nambe (my reservation in northern New Mexico) and you drove too fast once you were on our reservation, you might get pulled over for speeding by tribal police. You'd pay your ticket at our tribal court. Chances are you'd meet and talk with tribal members who are on our tribal census. That scenario packs a lot of information that isn't taught is schools, but it is at the core of who we are, and is a large piece of what I see as my role in educating writers and readers. 

RYS: Our readers seem very interested in diversity efforts in children's literature. Many of our followers identify in majority circles. What are some ways our followers can support diversification efforts?

Debbie Reese: I believe that, in the abstract, people like Native people. I think that abstract embrace is what explains the reverence people have for Indian mascots, Native "folktales" (more on that later) or that motivates their decision to dress up as an Indian at Halloween. Because we're such a small demographic, there is little opportunity for them to meet and talk with a Native person about issues of stereotyping or appropriation. Supporting us means getting to know us. It is natural to turn to books, but the books we turn to is key. Instead of a favorite classic that has Native characters, I suggest people read Native writers, Native news media, Native journals, and Native websites. Steep yourself in that material and use it as a guiding light when selecting books about Native people, or, when creating Native characters or stories.  And of course, buy children's and young adult literature by Native writers. Doing so increases their sales number, which tells the publishers those books will be bought if available. And, ask your librarian for the books, too, and check out the ones that are on the shelves. Librarians use this data in collection development--and weeding, too! If books don't circulate, they get removed from the shelves. 

RYS: On the writing side, can you speak toward cautions or considerations one should/must take when writing outside one's own culture?

Debbie Reese: Years ago in a graduate seminar, the professor asked me about books written by outsiders to a culture. I said then that I thought it was fine, that it was possible with a lot of work. She said "you just had a baby, didn't you?" I had, and said as much (the question was fine, as I'd brought my daughter to class by then). The professor posed a third question: If you were going to read a book about what it is like to birth a baby, would you rather have one written by a male who had researched it, or a woman who had been through it. It was an easy answer! Of course, the woman who had experienced it. It doesn't mean the man couldn't do a good job, but still, my choice would be a book by someone who actually shared that experience. Same with stories about Native people. I would prefer to read one by a person who grew up on his reservation, than one who researched and based on that research, imagined what that life was like. 

Doing the research to write outside one's culture means, in this case, means--at the very least--reading Native materials. Lot of authors visit a place (like a reservation) and some talk to someone there and feel that a few visits and conversations is sufficient to "get it right." I think that is possible, but I've read far too many books in which that was not sufficient. Even teaching on a reservation can be insufficient. I think the motivation for writing the story is where things may fall apart. If the motivation is to help Native kids who want stories about themselves, I think a writer becomes a rescuer rather than a writer. It seems to throw up blinders that don't let the writer see his or her own privilege. 

Without having read Native scholarship, a writer (even one who has taught on a reservation) is still shaped by the romantic stereotypes by which they were socialized. If a writer had read Native articles about art and appropriation, they'd likely know about the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act that protects Native artists and consumers, too. It says that art (paintings, jewelry, weavings, etc.) that are marketed as American Indian must be made by someone who is enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. The Act protects that person's livelihood, and it protects the consumer from fraud. While the Act doesn't apply to stories, I suspect that, if a writer knew about that act, they'd think twice about creating a traditional story to use in their book. Similarly, if a writer had read articles in Native journals, she would know that boarding schools were devastating to us, and with that knowledge, wouldn't white wash or overly dramatize it in her book. Sensationalizing something like that suggests a lack of understanding of what the boarding schools did to Native peoples. And spirituality! That is so badly done in most books I've read. Understanding dance, and clothing! Those are also badly misrepresented.

Quick Tips for writing about/with Native characters:
Any of these words/phrases will signal that you did not do the research necessary to give readers a book that portrays Native people with integrity. 
  • Don't use squaw or papoose as THE Native words for woman/baby. Those two words originate with a specific tribe and ought not to be used as if all tribes use them. We all have our own words for women and babies. And--the ubiquitous, derogatory portrayal of squaws has made the word itself derogatory. 
  • Don't use shaman to refer to our healers. Native people use our own words for healers. Shaman is an outsider's word.
  • Don't use chief or warrior unless it is appropriate to the character's role. Use "men" instead. And don't use "brave/braves" to refer to men! Like shaman, it is an outsider's word. 
  • Princess is a European concept, not one rooted in Native peoples. Don't use Indian Princess
  • "Low man on the totem pole" is commonly used to suggest a hierarchy of status, but position on an actual totem pole has nothing to do with status. 
  • "Off the reservation" is commonly used to signal out of control, but it is rooted in the reservation period when Native peoples were confined to reservations. Leaving them without permission of the government agent meant you were at risk for being pursued and killed.
  • "Circle the wagons" summons images of brave pioneers under attack by savage Indians. In fact, those "savage" Indians were men who were protecting their homelands from illegal occupation by squatters.  
RYS: Can you recommend some of the best titles in recently published picture books, middle grade, and YA by Native Americans?

My favorite picture book is Cynthia Leitich Smith's JINGLE DANCER. Set in the present day, it is about Jenna, a Muscogee Creek girl who will be doing the Jingle Dance for the first time at an upcoming powwow. 

My favorite middle grade book is Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE. Set in the heydey of the Beatles, it is about Lewis, a 7th grader who lives on the Tuscarora Reservation, and his growing friendship with George, a white boy who he meets at school. 

Tim Tingle's HOUSE OF PURPLE CEDAR is one of those books that is written for adults but that would appeal to YA readers. Set at the end of the 1800s, this story is told from the vantage point of a Choctaw woman whose community dealt with racism of the town marshall. There are spiritual elements to the story, too, that Tingle presents in a matter-of-fact way, rather than a romantic or mystical way. 

Another wonderful crossover book is Louise Erdrich's THE ROUND HOUSE. Set in the present, it gets at jurisdictional issues specific to our reservations when a rape takes place.  

For more, I'm going to take a shortcut and invite readers to the Best Books page on my website. There, I've got a set of links to lists I developed, and a link to the page about the Youth Literature Award of the American Indian Library Association. 

RYS: What are some other resources/links that writers, teachers, librarians, and parents should check out and consider regarding diversity in children's books?
Debbie Reese: Cynthia Leitich Smith (author of JINGLE DANCER) has an incredible website. Here's her page about diversity. It has incredible depth and breadth. Scroll down to find her section about Native Americans.

Oyate is well known for its work on Native Americans in children's books. Their HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE guide is online here, and I highly recommend two of their books: THROUGH INDIAN EYES: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN (1987/2006), edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, and, A BROKEN FLUTE: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN (2005), edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin. 

RYS wants to thank Debbie Reese for her thorough comments and ample resources. Definitely a lot to think about here. If you have a question that hasn't been answered, or want to chime in on the subject, tonight's Native American Twitter Chat (11/18/14) is at 9PM EST using the hashtag #SupportWNDB.