For Writers

Diversity in MG Lit #13 A Look At the Numbers

I am so happy to be back at the Mixed Up Files after a hiatus of a few months. I wanted to kick off the new decade of my series Diversity in MG Lit with a look at the numbers. Many of you are familiar with this infographic from Reflection Press by Maya Gonzalez. I like this one because it shows both where we are and how far we need to go to achieve something that looks like equity.

The number of books published in a given year don’t tell the whole story. Here are some other statistics that give both a fuller and a more encouraging picture.
  1. The NY Public Library recently published its list of the 10 most checked out books in NYPL history. Obviously this structure gives great advantage to the oldest books. Even so the number one spot went to The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats first published in 1962.  Fifty-eight years ago it was the first picture boy to feature a black boy as a main character. It was popular immediately and has been ever since As a bookseller I listen to authors and illustrators a lot. Hundreds of them over the years and many of our most prominent POC writers and illustrators, black men in particular, have pointed to The Snowy Day as a seminal influence on their work and their belief that there was a place for them in the world of books.
  2. The Flying Start feature of Publishers Weekly is designed to highlight up and coming authors and illustrators. In 2019 the Spring Flying Start list featured  2 of 5 or 40% diverse writers including Tina Athaide for Orange for the Sunset and Carlos Hernandez for Sal & Gabi Break the Universe. The Fall Flying Starts included 4 of 6 or 66% diverse creators: Brittney Morris for Slay, Christine Day for I Can Make This Promise, Joowon Oh for Our Favorite Day, and Kwame Mbalia for Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,
  3. Our newest National Ambassador for Young Peoples Literature is Jason Reynolds, a brilliant choice. Even better, his selection makes 4 of the 7 people (57%) to hold this position Persons of Color. The others are Walter Dean Myers, Gene Luen Yang, & Jacqueline Woodson. 
  4. The American Booksellers Association holds its Children’s Institute every spring. In 2019 five out of seven (71%) keynote or featured presenters were POC. Of the 67 authors and illstrators that publishers brought to the conference to meet independent children’s booksellers from all over the country, 38 or 57% were of diverse backgrounds. (including disabled and LGBT+)
  5. The National Council of Teachers of English was held in November of 2019. Seven of their 10 keynote speakers were diverse. If you looked at all 28 of their featured speakers, you’d find 57% of them were POC.
  6. And finally the 2020 midwinter American Library Association will meet in just a few weeks. This year all six of their featured speakers are diverse. 100%!
I find those data points encouraging. We still have a long way to go, but it is nice to see that teachers, librarians and booksellers are taking leadership in demanding a more diverse representation at our professional conferences. And if you are wondering what you can do—just one person—to make a difference I have three suggestions.
  • Buy diverse books from an independent bookstore. Big box and on line retailers are never going to care about the welfare of authors or readers of any demographic. Indie booksellers do care and they have consistently over decades proven the best venue for making best sellers of little known or debuting authors.
  • Take a moment on social media to call out the folks that are working hard to help diverse books find parity. I’ll start: Hey fellow Portlanders our 2020 Everybody Reads author is Tommy Orange who wrote There There. He is Cheyenne and Arapaho and lives the urban Indian experience in California. His book is amazing! I can’t wait to talk about it with my neighbors and friends.
  • If you don’t see a diverse book you love in your school or library or bookstore, ask for it. Ask regularly. Schools, libraries and bookstores are here to serve you, the public. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about what you want and what you need. Help us out! Change comes when we stand up and say something.

Writing Exercises—Ways to Warm Up Your Students’ Brains

A lot of times we talk about using writing exercises as a warm up for our “real” writing. But I was curious: Do most writers really do this? I don’t typically warm up by doing a writing prompt. Instead, I enjoy going for a run on a wooded trail before I sit down to write in the morning. It’s not just the exercise but being out in nature that inspires me. I often solve some writing snag while I’m in the thick of the forest. I stop and look around, soaking up the feel of the wind, the sun, the sky.

I thought I’d throw the question out to other children’s book writers: How do you wake up your brain before diving into your work? Here’s what they said:

  • Listen to music
  • Go for a walk
  • Stretch
  • Reread what was written the day before
  • Listen to a poetry podcast
  • Journal
  • Eat a good breakfast
  • Look at a photo and write about it
  • Create a word bank
  • Review research related to the topic of the book (for nonfiction)

You might want to help your students become mindful of what gets them warmed up to begin writing. Maybe they do like beginning with a writing prompt. Or doodling. Or passing out the writing folders to the other students to get up and moving. Here’s a way to help you (or your students) find out.

Have your students do an experiment: As a class, come up with four different ways to wake up the brain before beginning a writing assignment. A few you could try include:

  • Listen to soothing music
  • Stretch or do simple yoga positions
  • Write from a writing prompt
  • Free journal
  • Take a walk around the school (if possible, outside)

Each day, have the class try one method followed by their usual writing assignment. Afterward, have each student write down how they felt about it:

  • Did you feel your writing flowed more or less than usual after the activity?
  • Did you feel more or less energized?
  • Did you feel more or less focused in your writing?

After the experiment concludes, discuss as a class what students learned about what helps them warm up for writing. Which method was most useful? Why? They may be surprised!

Need some writing prompts? Here are some good ones:


Goal Statements (a.k.a. Resolutions) for Writers

Welcome to the New Year! What an excellent opportunity for us as writers and creative professionals to recharge, reboot, reflect, and resolve. Indeed, even as you wrap up the holiday season, it’s a great time to think about your writing resolutions and what’s ahead in your writing life.

Well-worded goal statements might be the key to achieving the objectives you seek in 2020. Once you have identified the areas of your writing in which you want improvement, it’s time to figure out strategically how to get there. With a little work, you can tailor your list of goal statements into a kind of personalized self-help guidebook that is user-friendly, adjustable, and most important, filled with achievable objectives. Here are some suggestions for how to construct great goal statements for your writing resolutions.

Strong goal statements, as most teachers and others in education will tell you, share several common traits:

  • They are specific: Resolving “to write more” is a good start; now get specific: how much more? In terms of time, page count, or both? New genres, new point of view, new style?
  • They are realistic: You might want “to make writing the #1 priority,” but realistically, the requirements of your day job, family, and other responsibilities probably preclude the notion of putting everything else on hold for your writing. Use more realistic language: “To spend twice as much time on revisions in the week as on social media.” “To balance an hour of chores/errands with an hour of writing time.”
  • They are measurable: Think numbers, values, dates, percentages. However…
  • They are flexible in range: Consider how uncomfortable it is to work out in jeans; stretchy waistbands are a thing for a reason. Instead of one set number for your weekly word count, include a range that allows for the unexpected machinations of daily life (“to reach between 500 and 800 new words every two days”). You’re still working on the goal, with a little “give” when necessary.
  • They are modifiable: Also, remember that what you are resolving to do is make an improvement; the ways in which you accomplish improvement can change mid-game if something isn’t working. So compose goal statements knowing that they can be both flexible and changeable.

Additionally, writers can take a cue from folks in acting and directing who formulate moment-to-moment, scene-to-scene objectives for theatrical character development. Character objectives should be

  1. Written with the use of an action verb. Avoid “To feel satisfied with….” and “To be better at…” Think instead of actions you can visualize yourself carrying out physically: to add, to read, to list, to plot, to brainstorm, to attend, to interview, to speak, to revise.
  2. Written in terms of a concrete “something,” not an abstract idea: an event, a person, yourself, your books, a place.

Taking into account these suggestions, a resolution like “to become more skilled at writing endings” transforms into a completable action with a concrete product : “To draft 2-3 possible endings for my WIP’s first chapter by the end of January.

The more carefully and thoughtfully you construct your writer’s resolutions, the more effectively they will work for you as motivators.

Speaking of motivators, the new year is the perfect time to try a new mini-reward for yourself when you meet a goal. Take a walk, try a new herbal tea, clean a drawer, listen to music or a podcast.

Another fresh-slate motivator: change up your surroundings, even just a little. Some writers swear by “settling in” to their writing zone (hot tea, check; fingerless gloves, check; clean desk, semi-check)—but how might you modify your surroundings for a fun difference, increased comfort, and more efficiency? Rearrange your desk bins; add a new pillow or throw to your writing chair; remove distracting clutter from your line of sight and replace with a photo or message.

Finally, if all this talk about resolutions and motivation seems overwhelming, you are not alone—it’s often that way for many writers. Consider treating yourself to a new craft book on writing, in that case, and set a goal to read just one chapter a week (or whatever works for you). Sometimes another writer’s instruction can both calm and inspire our writer-brains, and help us to define our own goals over time. Here are a few titles I hope to try myself this year:

The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman

Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication by Chris Mackenzie Jones

The Elements of Style Workbook, a writing workbook based on the original The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Making Readers Care with Psychology and Structure: The Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Totally Gripping Novels, Film and TV Scripts by David Thorpe

Good luck in 2020, no matter what path your writing resolutions take. Happy New Year!