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. 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

When the Words Won't Come



You are in the midst of a writing blizzard. Word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter, your story is coming out in great future-award-winning torrents. Or at least, that was what was supposed to happen.

Instead, the cursor is blinking at you accusingly while you struggle for breath under the heavy weight of the unwritten page. Worry not! First, you are in copious company. Second, you can write your way out of writer's block.  Honest.

Don’t wait for that magical fix.

Yes, it’s true that sometimes the words flow out seemingly effortlessly, but that’s not your muse or some ethereal inspiration at work. That flow you’re experiencing is simply flow -- that state any person passionate about a project can get into when they’re focused and enjoying the process. It’s not something you can control as easily as an on-off switch, but it is under your control. The more you work, the more likely that flow is to come, which is one of the big reasons for that oft-told writing sentiment:

Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard

So, if you’re feeling uninspired BIC, HOK. If you’re tired and sure to get a paltry word count, BIC, HOK. If that show is on TV – BIC, HOK. You get the point. If you want to have written, you have to write. The magic will come when you put the elbow grease in.

Don’t daydream your dreams away.

Best seller list. Multi-movie deal helmed by that director with who else but that actor to play the lead. Desperate apologies from all the people who doubted you. We all have dreams about what success looks like. And while goals can be powerful motivators, larger-than-life goals can actually strangle your future. There are several reasons for this. One is that our idea of success often includes ample amounts of leisure and ease – the very opposite of what people actually need to succeed. Why spend day after day chiseling away at that manuscript when you’re supposed to be relaxing poolside?

Another reason dreams can be counterproductive is that the combination of wanting them so much and being so afraid that they won’t pan out can be paralyzing (and, honestly, authorship is hardly the recipe for fame and fortune). Second-guessing whether this sentence or this character or this plot is good enough for a six-figure advance or a starred review is not conducive to getting work done.  Yet it’s something we do to ourselves all the time.

Daydreaming is natural and it’s not all bad, but if you catch yourself in lala land when you’re supposed to be typing away, redirect your attention. Ask yourself what your main character is doing right now, and then answer that question!

Do brainstorm your problems away.

But what about those times when you hit a brick wall? When you can’t write one word more because you have no idea what’s supposed to come next? Time for some serious brainstorming. You can do it while you’re walking the dog (use your phone to record notes!) or in the shower (buy some markers that will wipe off from tile). You can do it while staring out the window (“Yes, I’m working. Why do you ask?”). For small problems, it may be easy enough to do some mental what-iffing and move on. But the physical act of writing, typing, or talking can help stimulate your brain during stickier situations. 

  • Find an oversized board or paper to let your ideas go in all directions. 
  • Burst out the index cards – they’re great for shuffling around and discarding and replacing at ease.
  •  Bounce your thoughts off a relative or friend – forcing yourself to put your ideas that make sense to others can help flesh them out.  
  •  Ask yourself “what if” and don’t necessarily settle for the first answer – which is often the most obvious, and thus the least interesting choice. 
  • Start at the end and “reverse engineer” what it would take your character to get there. 
  • Shake things up by asking what would happen if some other character appeared or disappeared from the storyline.
Even if you don’t end up using your ideas, you just want to jiggle your thought process enough to get unstuck and be able to move the story forward.

Do bulldoze your way through.

What if you know what’s supposed to happen, but you can’t get the words right? The scene isn’t unfolding like it’s supposed to, or the dialog isn’t as clever as you’d hoped. Try to work it out, sure, but if you’re good and stuck, move on. Don’t let any one scene – even if it’s the pivotal turning point – bring your story to a halt. Just write out what’s supposed to happen [Misty discovers that her magic cantaloupe isn’t a cantaloupe at all, but her long-lost twin, now turned evil] and MOVE ON. There’s no rule that says you have to write the story in the order it will be written. For mere mortals, revising is an unavoidable and crucial part of writing, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to revisit that recalcitrant scene later.  For now, just focus on making forward process.

Do take a break… for a while.

You’ve tried everything you’re supposed to, and the story is still not going anywhere. Time to be honest with yourself. Is the idea really not as interesting as you had first envisioned, or are you just in a temporary – but very stubborn – rut. If it’s honestly the latter, no need to beat yourself up. (If it’s the former, fine – the sooner you realize this, the better.) Take a break. Exercise (exercise, exercise!) Cook a five-course meal. Watch that guilty-pleasure show. Go do that thing you never seem to have time for. Start another writing project. Let your mind relax about this story and you might find your knotty issues seemingly resolve themselves. But be honest about whether you’re taking a short holiday or permanent vacation. Give yourself a deadline for when you need to get back to the story (it might be twenty minutes from now or ten days, depending on the situation). Then step away from the keyboard. But just for a while. Because, remember, the only way to reach The End is 


Monday, November 3, 2014

2015 Membership Now Open, Discounts through Dec. 15th

During the course of the year, we've been hearing from many of who who couldn't wait until we were once again open for membership. So...here's your chance!

The 2015 membership package includes tons of awesome features including:

~20 manuscript submissions
     12 “Anytime” submissions between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015
     8 “Free day” submissions - one submission on each “free” 2015 submission day

Special offer through Dec. 15 only: +2 bonus 2014 submissions for early registrants and/or returning members! These bonus submissions are effective immediately upon checkout and can be used through Dec. 31, 2014—so you don't have to wait to get feedback!

~Priority Inbox Treatment for your submissions:
     Forwarded to judges before the general public's "free" submissions
     Score + some comments (as opposed to free submissions, which are only guaranteed a score)

~2 free entries to the 2015 Rate Your Story Writing Contest
      Writer's choice of category to enter
      Saves you $10 and gives you the chance to win cash or prizes (contest is in March)

~PRO eNewsletter Exclusive Subscription
        Monthly email with contest links, agent/editor wish list requests, submission calls, and articles
        Bi-monthly interviews with agents and editors (many of whom will take submissions)
        Occasional special discount offers on full or professional critiques

~A Free eBook
      Your choice:
      Melissa Gorzelanczyk's The Hybrid Homemaker - with practical tips on how to do what you love        and earn a living from it
     or Laura Purdie Salas and Lisa Bullard's How to Query an Agent or Editor

~The ability to participate in RYS
       You can query us and write a guest post for the RYS blog
       Feel free to send us your good news/book info and we will give you a shout-out

The price of a PRO membership is $180/year. However, if you purchase before Dec. 15th you will get the extra early discounted price of $120/year.


Our plan is to be open for signups to new memberships for the 2015 year through the end of January. However, as many of you know, we have a limited capacity for the number of manuscripts we can read/rate per month, and that members get priority. This means we reserve the right to close signups when we are full.

If you have questions, please visit the Become a Member page or email us at rateyourstory [at] gmail [dot] com.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Query Letter Don'ts



If you are one of those people who anguishes and sweats and seems to spend more time on those three bloody paragraphs than on your entire manuscript, let me ease your mind. You don’t have to write the perfect query letter.  Authors don’t land agents or contracts on the strength of queries alone. However… writing a bad query can hurt your chances:
  •  Don’t shotgun it. You know how in the movies, the bad guys expend a zillion bullets only to hit absolutely nothing? Don’t be that person. TARGET your queries to specific agents and publishers. 
  • Don’t forget the crucial elements. We see queries all the time that don’t specify an agent, word count, genre, title, and even the author's name! 
  • Don’t be vague about what your project is about. Do you know how many books out there are about someone who made an amazing discovery that led them on a journey that put their life on the balance? That tells us nothing about your book. 
  • Don’t oversell your book. If your manuscript is fantastic, we will be able to tell. Honest. 
  • Be wary of comparisons. Obscure ones will just confuse us and grandiose ones will leave us feeling cold. But if your project can honestly be encapulsed by X meets Y (Pirates of the Caribbean meets Martha Stewart), then by all means pitch it that way. 
  • Don’t tell us your life story. Yes, the agent-client relationship is an important one, but now is the time to focus on your product, not you. 
  • Don't ignore guidelines. They are there so we can review submissions in the most efficient way possible, and disregarding them is not a good way to make a first impression. 
  • Don’t submit a query for fiction unless your manuscript is complete. 
  • Don’t sweat a minor typo. To err is human, we do it, too. Please don’t resend a query to fix negligible mistakes. Now if there are A LOT of mistakes, don’t bother resending the query either… Just learn to be more professional next time. 
  • Don’t use crazy fonts, colors, unending walls of text, or anything else that makes our eyeballs want to rebel against your submission.
 
And because concrete examples beat vague proclamations, I present, for your reading pleasure, a very bad query letter:


Dear Sir or Madam,
  
I realize you are only looking for YA manuscripts right now, but when you see my book, I know you will throw your guidelines out the window. My husband and daughter love my story – and their not even the target audience! 
 
I truly think the book speaks for itself, and I wouldn’t want to spoil your enjoyment, so I’ll just say that first, a girl’s mother adopts a… rather unusual son… and when a suspicious neighbor moves in, hijinks ensue. Technically, it’s a paranormal MG comedy, but in reality, it transcends all age and genre considerations. Think a funnier version of Twilight, except  without vampires, for younger readers, and with real people.  Or like a supernatural Captain Underpants, without the silly illustrations and bathroom humor. There is no other book like it!!

I have included the first 88 pages of the book. I am ready to right the rest when the contract is in hand! Don’t worry, though. I have outlined it, and it’s going to be FANSTASTIC!

Since winning a local contest in the 9th grade, I have become a prolific writer, having written the newsletters for the local nonprofit I work for. I have also received honorable mentions in a couple of poetry anthologies. In my spare time, I love watching tv, playing with my cats, and eating vegetarian food (unlike the character in my book!)

I will call you next week to discuss the size of the advance and my ideas for cover art. By the way, I insist on keeping movie and foreign writes. It will be worth your time. Trust me, this book is going to be HUGE!

PS – I thought you should know I’ve copywrited the first chapters, just as a precaution. Not against you, of course, but I know you’ll agree that an author can never bee to careful.