For Writers

Building Community for Children’s WOC/Indigenous Writers

Art installation at the Loft Literary Center in 2017

Children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers have voices that need to be heard and stories that need to be told. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Loft Literary Center is helping that happen with a series of drop-in classes for Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers. This writing center is truly a special place for writers in the Twin Cities. For me, it’s where my writers’ group meets and also where I’ve had the opportunity to learn from experienced writers through classes and lectures. It’s a place of community where writers of all kinds can learn, grow, and connect.

For the Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers series of classes, each one focuses on a different writing topic and is taught “from the perspective of writers of color and Indigenous writers, meaning that the unique experiences of these writers are accounted for in the materials provided to the class discussions,” says Marion Gómez, Program Associate for these classes at the Loft.

I asked Marion (MG) a few questions about the series of classes (now in its third year), and also talked with Sarah Warren (SW), an instructor of the children’s writers class in the series. Here are their thoughts on finding community and support for children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers.

Marion, how did this series of classes start and how has it changed over the years?

MG: The class came out of a collaboration between David Mura and the Loft. David Mura approached the Loft with the idea of him teaching a class intended for writers or color and Indigenous writers that would address some of the barriers these communities often face—such as cost and participants having unpredictable schedules. The Loft received a Minnesota State Arts Board Arts Learning grant in 2015 to fund a free, multi-genre class with drop-in attendance taught by David Mura. The class began in February of 2016, meeting the first and second Wednesdays of each month until August, 2016.

David Mura taught the first and second years exclusively, but this last year Diego Vázquez Jr., Vanessa Ramos, Michael Kleber-Diggs, Heid E. Erdrich, Kao Kalia Yang, Sarah Park Dahlen, Erin Sharkey, and Sarah Warren joined David in teaching the class, each teaching one session with David teaching the first and last classes. This last August, Sarah Park Dahlen taught a class that examined insider and outsider authorship in children’s books and in October, Sarah Warren taught an introductory class on writing children’s picture book biographies.

Sarah, how did you become involved with teaching for this series of classes?

SW: I started attending classes at the Loft over 17 years ago. I love to write and I’m grateful for opportunities to develop. The Loft is special. We get to learn from other authors. Instructors have a working knowledge of the field. I also appreciate the network of support I’ve cultivated from classes and conferences. I never would have found my footing in this profession without help from several mentors. Community is priceless. I’m proud that I get to contribute what I know as a teaching artist.

What do you think is most valuable about this series of classes at the Loft?

MG: Bringing more writers of color and Indigenous writers into the world is so important in combating racism and oppression. The more writers of color and Indigenous writers we have the more their truths will be heard, the less alone these writers and their communities will feel, and the more galvanized they’ll be to demand justice. I love the sense of community that has formed among the students. Some have even formed outside writing groups after meeting in the class.

SW: For most of us, sharing our stories with children means negotiating the publishing industry. That was a huge learning curve for me. I had worked so hard to build up my ego… to believe my art was something worth investing in. Once I started getting critiqued and rejected, my ego started to get beat down by outside perspectives. Sometimes, that was good! I needed to grow and learn and become a better writer. Sometimes, that was bad. The industry and the outside voices weren’t open to my cultural point-of-view. The problem was, I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t know when I needed to change, and when I needed to push back. Now, I have people I can go to when I need perspective. It took me way too long to find those people. I think classes like these can build a powerful network for POC/Indigenous writers.

I am all for building a space where artists of color and indigenous artists can get feedback, offer support, and share wisdom without feeling exoticized, humiliated, tokenized, abnormal, or lonely. I’ve felt all of those things (usually not at the same time) in class. It’s stressful.

Marion, what kinds of students attend, what do they say about the classes, and how does the Loft get students involved?

MG: The students vary in age, race, experience level, and type of writing they do. Some of the students have also taught a session of the class and/or are published authors while others are very new it writing. What I hear repeatedly from them is that they love being around other writers of color and Indigenous writers. That this intentional space allows them to feel less isolated and free to express themselves more fully. After we received the grant in 2015, we held three preview classes at various locations in Minneapolis and Saint Paul to reach out to perspective students as well as promoted the class at Loft events and on social media. The classes are listed in our quarterlies, which are distributed throughout the Twin Cities. I also have a listserv of past and present participants I send a monthly email to, letting them know about upcoming classes and other opportunities, and I’m always inviting new writers of color and indigenous writers to the class I meet. I’m so grateful to you, Karen, for helping spread the word through the Mixed-Up Files blog!

Sarah, how do you think children’s publishing will benefit from having more writers of color and Indigenous writers? 

SW: I heard Daniel José Older say in an interview, “To me, it’s a huge human rights violation, to deny an entire generation of young people of color…generation after generation of young people of color the right to see ourselves as protagonists in stories. How else are we to conceptualize ourselves as protagonists in our lives if not through the stories we are told?” That’s me he’s talking about. I never saw myself in stories unless I suspended my own personhood and slipped fully into someone else’s skin. We need the chance to grow up seeing many possible versions of ourselves. The community of writers serving kids should be just as diverse as its audience.

What do you suggest for other writing centers hoping to start similar programs?

MG: I recommend they start by listening to the communities they want to serve so that they can design a program that really addresses the needs and desires of these communities.

SW: Not all writers are comfortable calling themselves experts or teachers. Some of us don’t even feel comfortable calling ourselves writers! Find a way to mentor potential teaching artists. Be open to unconventional teaching styles. Accommodate students who aren’t comfortable in formalized educational settings by seeking out safe community spaces. Make sure to pay your artists!

What do you suggest for children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers wanting support and instruction in writing?

MG: Come to the class! We will have at least two classes focused on writing for children/young adults in the next round starting this spring. The Loft also has a new mentorship program for writers of color and Indigenous writers called Mirrors and Windows. Applications for this year have already closed but will be accepted again next summer (2019). The most important thing they can do is find a community that supports them.

SW: If you read things that resonate with you, contact the authors. Let them know their work struck a chord. Ask questions. Attend conferences and readings and classes. Ask questions. Read your work out loud. If you connect with other writers, form a group! Go to my website: Do you have questions? Email me! I’m happy to share resources. Keep writing. We need your voice!


Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with the Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers series of classes at the Loft, Marion and Sarah! To learn more about the Loft, visit Are there any classes like these in your city? Tell us about them in the comments!

Marion Gómez is a poet and teaching artist based in Minneapolis. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Jerome Foundation. Her poems have appeared in La Bloga, Mizna, and elsewhere. Her poem “Father Bought Mangos” was selected for the Saint Paul Almanac’s Impressions Project. She is a member of the Latinx spoken word collective Palabristas and works at the Loft.





Sarah is an early childhood educator who graduated from the Loft’s Master Track writing apprenticeship program in 2006. Her debut picture book, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers was picked for the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten Book List and awarded a Jane Addams Peace Association Children’s Book Award honor. Her picture book about the singer Beyoncé is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin. Sarah’s family lives in Minneapolis with their dog, Bruce Valentine. Visit




Developing A Scene Within A Chapter

Scenes are the workhorses of a story. A writer can have one or several scenes in a chapter. Instead of a story goal – to resolve the big problem that defines the whole novel, the point-of-view character creates a scene goal, which will advance his or her cause toward reaching that story goal.

In her book, The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield defines scenes as “those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’ with characters in action. Or we can say that a scene is a segment of story told in detail, the opposite of summarizing.” She further explains that there are four basic elements to a scene:

  1. Every scene has event and emotion.
  2. Every scene has a function.
  3. Every scene has a structure.
  4. Every scene has a pulse.



JK Rowling describes the four elements of a scene in the first chapter of Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s Stone.

In a scene, characters do things and feel things. Or in other words, they act and react. Therefore, ever scene has an event and emotion. Rowling has Hagrid appear on his motorcycle with baby Harry when Professor McGonagall and Professor Dumbledore are engaged in a conversation with each other, waiting for his arrival:

“Hagrid,” said Dumbledore, sounding relieved. “At last. And where did you get that motorcycle? (14)”

The scene advances forward as they bend forward over the bundle of blankets on the motorcycle and find baby Harry fast asleep, and they confirm that it is indeed Harry with his scar:

“Is that where —?” whispered Professor McGonagall.

“Yes,” said Dumbledore. “He’ll have that scar forever. (15)”

The dialogues in the scene advance the plot further, and we can state the event and emotion developed in it through the characters’ reactions.

There is a reason a scene needs to be described in detail with dialogue, characters, and setting.  It accomplishes something for the story. It has a function. It changes something. It makes now different from the past.  Rowling describes this by showing how Hagrid wants to say goodbye to the baby, but eventually breaks down and howls like a wounded dog because he finds it hard to let the baby go:

“S-s-sorry,” sobbed Hagrid, taking out a large, spotted handkerchief and buying

his face in it. “But I c-c-can’t stand it – Lilly an’ James dead – an’ poor little Harry off ter live with Muggles – (15)”

These elements of the scene reveal something about Harry that he may be special, perhaps making the reader feel more deeply attached to him even if he is just a baby. This also sets up a situation that will be important later in the story.

Ever scene has a structure: a beginning, middle, and end. An alternative way to think of the scene structure is that there is a situation at the beginning, a line of action, and then there is a new situation at the end. Thus a scene establishes the structure in three parts.

JK Rowling does this effectively by setting up Hagrid’s arrival with baby Harry, sharing some of the conversations among Hagrid, Professor McGonagall and Dumbledore, Dumbledore taking the baby from Hagrid,   and finally, leaving Harry at the doorstep of the Dursleys:

“A low rumbling sound had broken the silence around them (14).”

Dumbledore took Harry in his arms and turned toward the Dursley’s house (15).

“Yeah,” said Hagrid in a muffled voice, “I’d best get this bike away. G’night, Professor McGonagall – Professor Dumbledore, sir (16).”

“Good luck, Harry.” Dumbledore murmured. He turned on his heel and with a swish of his cloak, he was gone (16).

This scene brings us into the story, letting us know what is going on, involves us, and lets us move forward with the plot.

Scofield defines the pulse of a scene as “some vibrancy in the story that makes the scene live in the page and makes it matter to the reader.” Sometimes the pulse is subtle, and sometimes it is highly visible, but it is always present in a scene. It is emotional, an attitude, a state of desire or need.

Rowling describes this by showing that Harry would grow up to be a special child who needs to be protected. Dumbledore trusts Hagrid enough to bring him home safely, and as the scene progresses, and the three of them take extra care to not wake the sleeping baby. At the end of the scene, as Harry Potter rolls over inside his blankets without waking up, people meeting in secret all over the country wish for his safety:

He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in their hushed voices: “To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!(17)”

All the main characters describe their feelings for the child through dialogue. They care for Harry’s well-being. Harry’s safety is the pulse of the scene.

Therefore while creating a scene, writers should make sure that the character with a goal runs into opposition. The opposition creates conflict that builds greater suspense through repeated thwarted efforts, until finally the character succeeds and reaches the goal, or fails. The scene ends with change: a surprise, twist, setback, or disaster relate to the goal.


Hero, Mentor, Trickster: Thinking about Archetypal Character Roles in MG

Despite having been an English major in college, I don’t recall learning about archetypal story roles before my graduate writing program. When I finally read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey for a grad class, it was like seeing through a suddenly-acquired magic spyglass that gave all stories a layer of extra interest and added meaning. Vogler establishes that his thoughts on character and plot archetypes stem from those put forth in the psychological and mythic studies of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Vogler is able to take the archetypal theories of The Hero’s Journey (described in detail in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and relate them to the craft of writing with popular story examples (from Star Wars to James Bond to Odysseus, and many others).

The general theory is that our story-brains are somewhat hardwired to recognize the ways in which characters fulfill certain roles, because the duties of these archetypal roles remain common over time, genre, length, style, and intended audience of stories. For example, a Mentor character in one story will have something in common with a Mentor character in another story, because their duty as a Mentor will be similar (to help some other character do something/go somewhere for some reason).

These character archetypes can be helpful to us as writers, as teachers, as librarians, and as parents of MG readers. For example:

  • An understanding of archetypal roles can promote discussion of character traits among students in the lit classroom.
  • Family read-aloud time (or movie night) gets a brain boost when we recognize an archetypal character role and make comparisons to characters in other films and stories we’ve shared together.
  • Archetypal role descriptions and examples can help writers to analyze their own characters in works in progress.

Below, I’ve listed some common character archetypes and given some examples from all sorts of MG fiction—recently published to modern classics, realistic to fantasy. Keep in mind that archetypal roles are not static, and that they are rarely “cast” by a writer in a simple, one-to-one list like parts in a play. Good writers and storytellers at all levels allow for an ebb and flow of character growth, change, and development; consequently, a character fulfilling the role of a Shadow in the beginning of the book might be recognized as a Mentor by the end.

This dynamic movement of archetypal roles might be especially notable and important in MG, where readers start grasping the complexities of human interaction perhaps for the first time.

Some common archetypal character roles in stories:

A Hero is usually our protagonist, though other characters can certainly step in and out of the Hero role. The Hero often experiences some kind of journey (physical, spiritual, emotional) and may or may not (but usually does) experience some kind of change as a result. Two key Hero elements are learning or practicing self-sacrifice in helping others, and learning or practicing the ability to take action. Hero and main character Chantel in Sage Blackwood’s Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded demonstrates this element of self-sacrifice as she puts herself in danger and works to secure safety for the younger girls at the school and all the people of Lightning Pass.

A Mentor is a character who serves to help, teach, train, or lead the Hero in some way as he or she makes the journey. A Mentor might “step in” and be the voice of the Hero’s true conscience when the Hero is conflicted and cannot “hear” his or her own heart. Mrs. Whatsit in A Wrinkle in Time serves many Mentor-duties for Hero Meg.

A Herald is a character who brings some kind of news to the Hero. Usually the news raises the stakes for the Hero—makes things more challenging, or changes the conflict in some unexpected way. Sometimes the Herald helps a character make a connection or see a clue, like when Lola texts Valencia in Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. The message from Lola triggers Valencia’s deduction on the missing Virgil’s whereabouts, and launches a rescue mission.

A Threshold Guardian is a literal or figurative guard at a doorway or transition point, whom the Hero must get past in order to progress from one place in his or her journey to the next. Usually the Threshold Guardian serves as an obstacle, and might hold some truth or bit of info the hero needs. Stew Mitchum in Lemony Snicket’s Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? is a Threshold Guardian as he impedes young investigator Snicket’s progress in solving the case and in moving about the train.

A Shapeshifter is a character who isn’t necessarily the person he or she seems to be, or a character whom the Hero (or the reader) may not be able to trust. A Shapeshifter can surprise the Hero with unexpected actions, reveals, or switches of loyalty. Characters (and readers) of the Harry Potter series may not realize that Moaning Myrtle holds clues Harry needs several times in the series. Her sudden changes of emotion and her switch of interest in Harry to interest in Draco are Shapeshifter behaviors as well.

A Shadow is the antagonist, the villain, the “bad guy.” This character or group stands in the way of the Hero, works to defeat him or her, and often utilizes the Hero’s own flaws. In Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, the Man in the Yellow Suit is a Shadow force as he pursues the Tucks and plans to use Winnie for his own immoral gains.

A Trickster is often a funny sidekick character or a comedic relief character; sometimes this character’s sarcasm or verbal irony reveals truth, like a witty jester or a class clown. Examples of mythological tricksters can be seen in many cultures and backgrounds, such as Loki (Norse), Coyote (Native American), and Maui (Polynesian).

There are many other archetypes, and many, many variations on those listed here (for example, according to Vogler, there are anti-heroes, loner heroes, trickster heroes, willing and unwilling heroes, the hero group…). Mentors may not be good teachers, may be on their own journey, or may learn from other characters even as they teach. Shadows often have redeeming qualities and brilliant moments. And a character can fulfill two or more roles in a story; for example, a Threshold Guardian is often also a Herald of information.

Consequently, archetypal roles are not meant to serve as simple labels for the characterizations we see in stories, but instead, provide us with some vocabulary and ideas for use in thinking about and discussing the stories we read.

Thanks for reading and considering these theories on characterization! I’m interested in your thoughts on archetypes, and characters from MG who might fulfill these roles—please share in the comments!