WNDMG

WNDMG Wednesday – Author Shing Yin Khor

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Author Interview with Shing Yin Khor

Featured in today’s WNDMG Wednesday, a WNDMG author interview with Shing Yin Khor about their graphic novel, THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO. (Penguin Random House, June 2021)

Shing Yin Khor Interview

About THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO

Part historical fiction, part magical realism, and 100 percent adventure. Thirteen-year-old Mei reimagines the myths of Paul Bunyan as starring a Chinese heroine while she works in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885.

Shing Yin Khor Interview

MUF: Thanks so much for doing this interview with me – I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO. And I have to tell you, both my 9-year-old daughter and I enjoyed it immensely – she’s already reading it again! We’re grateful to you for bringing such a vibrant, creative book into the world.

What is the origin story for THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO? What is the significance of your decision to incorporate the Blue Ox?

SYK: My interest in the Paul Bunyan mythos goes back many years – it started with a fairly straightforward interest in logging history and this American myth, but as I learned more about early American history, especially in the Wild West, I realised how much history I didn’t know, or that was left deliberately untaught to me. A lot of these histories are glossed over in the popular American narrative. The popular conception of early American history, and especially that of Old West heroism is one full of white heroes and white individualism, which is more a matter of myth-building than historical fact. Often, marginalized groups are spoken of as a monolith, as a people rather than a collection of individual people, living a diversity of lives. This is not true now, and it wasn’t then either.

Shing Yin Khor Illustration

Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox

SYK: The evolution of the Paul Bunyan myth feels like a microcosm of this history to me – it has become a story of individual strength, while the stories in the oral tradition are often far more about collective labor. Including Pei Pei(as the stand-in for Babe the Blue Ox) felt pretty compulsory to me, he’s just such a signifier of the Paul Bunyan myth, and I also just wanted a big goofy ox in the book.

I find American myth-building extremely compelling, and Paul Bunyan is probably the biggest American mythological figure, although probably a less generally destructive one than the myth we have made our “founding fathers” out to be. The American mythology dehumanizes and caricatures us. It tells us that indigenous people were “savages,” or healers, with no nuance for the individual, it tells us that enslaved people were “treated well,” it ignores the labor and death that this entire country was predicated on, and yes, some of the early Paul Bunyan stories are racist.

Shing Yin Khor Illustration

And to also know that these logging camps were filled with immigrants, and Black and Indigenous workers, that they had tons of Chinese and Japanese workers in them – at the center of this book is the simple question – what were the stories that we lost, because of the person that told them?

MUF: Why did you decide to set this story in a logging camp?

SYK: I am specifically interested in logging and forest history, and in the evolution of the Paul Bunyan mythos – a logging camp was the obvious choice.

The Power of Myth

MUF: A major theme of your book is the reclaiming of the power of myth and who gets to own it. How do you hope to empower your readers with this message?

SYK: I’m writing quite indulgently here – the reader I’m trying to write for is the 12 year old version for myself, not anyone else. I wrote this book to restore something to the young version of me, who only found books about brave imaginative kind white girls. I hope that young readers today won’t need to have that futile search because my fellow authors have already been writing them into history. I hope there are more books like this, especially those that center Black and Indigenous perspectives, but I am heartened that this book is coming out at a time where marginalized voices are centered more, even though I think the traditional publishing industry still has a very long way to go. I hope that this book assures young readers from marginalized communities that they can tell their own stories too, and I hope that the collective work of my elders and my peers and the work that I try my best to do now and in the coming years, will help to ease the path for them to center their own voices as storytellers and be their own protagonists.

The Chinese Story in Logging Camp History

MUF: One of the most painful moments in the book is drawn from the racial tension that followed the Chinese Exclusion Act—can you describe the experience of writing and researching that period?

SYK: The thing about doing research about any marginalized peoples, and especially if you are from the same group, is that you often get bogged down by the grief and trauma of the research. It is difficult, because a lot of the history is not well documented, and what is documented is often the violence of the time period against Chinese workers. 

Part of my impetus for writing Auntie Po was actually learning how Chinese people were, in some ways, valued by the world beyond their own Chinese communities. The plot point where Ah Hao finds out that he was paid more than the white cook is a historical fact, that I encountered in Sue Fawn Chung’s Chinese in the Woods, which is just about the only academic book about working-class Chinese in the lumber industry in this era. This story of logging camp cooks sprang basically fully formed into my head when I read it – I already knew a lot about the Paul Bunyan mythos, and I knew a lot about the early American logging industry, but this book so clearly placed Chinese people in this history I was already interested in and made it feel like it was something I deserved to claim.

((Enjoying this WNDMG interview? Read this guest post from author Christina Li))

Today’s Bias

MUF: How do you feel that history connects to today’s awful bias against the Asian

community?

SYK: I don’t really feel like I have the ability to form complete thoughts about this yet. But it is clear to me that the only way we move forward is in solidarity with other marginalized peoples, especially Black and Indigenous people, and other people of color. Anti-Asian racism is not just a current issue, it is an ongoing pattern of institutional racism that this country has engaged in, rooted in white supremacy, that seeks to pit marginalized people against each other, which does not ever benefit any marginalized group, and only benefits white supremacy. A large part of my book is about Chinese people forced into navigating whiteness for their survival and comfort, and realizing the limits of what white-adjacency can bring them. Our histories are much more intertwined with other marginalized groups than the stereotypical Asian-American narratives suggest, and solidarity backed by solidarity action is our only way out of the model minority myth. 

Personal Resonance

MUF: What is the most meaningful part of the book for you personally?

SYK: Mei’s relationship with her dad is really important to me, because it’s really similar to my relationship with my own dad. We immigrated to the United States when I was 16, and even though we are a much more privileged family than a logging camp cook, it is so clear to me the sacrifices he made to give me a life where I could make art for a living. He was the first person in his family to go to college, his brothers and sisters pooled their money so he could go, being an artist was never an option for him. 

I also loved being able to write a queer character while not necessarily needing to make it a major part of the book! Mei is a queer character that exists in many intersections of experiences, just like many other queer people. Not every experience foregrounds queerness, it is just part of who she is as a person. 

Publishing Team of Color

MUF: As a creator of color in the graphic novel space, what was your experience on your path to publication? In your Acknowledgements page, you note that this book was finished in collaboration with a team that was entirely made up of people of color. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you? 

SYK: I was already doing a lot of my own work, both self published and shorter works with online publishers, so the path to publication for this book was fairly straightforward. I had some early experiences in my early days as a writer, where I was often made to feel that the stories that were wanted from me in traditional publishing were about trauma, or confessional memoirs about even more trauma, and I was unenthusiastic about that. But because I was doing my own work, and had established enough of my own voice, my entire publication journey for The Legend of Auntie Po was with a team that was always on the same page about the sort of story that I was going to be telling. And of course, my book is coming out after so many other incredible marginalized authors and bloggers and editors have done the work of making publishing a more inclusive and welcoming space for a range of voices. I am extremely lucky, I am writing books about parts of the Asian American experience ten years after I first read MariNaomi Kiss and Tell, after Gene Luen Yang’s been making graphic novels for decades, after Kazu Kibushi’s Avatar series is wildly beloved. 

 Working with a team that is entirely composed of people of color(my agent, editor, art director – all of Kokila, my publisher), meant that while I had a lot of work to do on this book, the work that I did not have to do included things like “explaining racism” or “being nicer to the white characters.” Authors of color deserve to work with publishers and editors who understand their lived experiences. Working on this book has been a dream with them – the editorial team at Kokila is staffed with the most brilliant women of color, all of whom are thoughtful and incisive and philosophically devoted to centering stories like these in publishing.

MUF: What do you hope readers will take away from THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO?

I hope they will feel even more agency and urgency to tell their own stories.

Chickens and Cats

MUF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with our readers?

Every time I was stressed when drawing the book, I added a drawing of a cat or chicken to it. I think there are seven cats and four chickens, if you’d like to take a stab at finding them all.

MUF: I love that. Headed now to look for the cats and chickens. Thanks again, Shing, and congratulations!

Shing Yin Khor Bio PIcture

Photo Credit: Shing Yin Khor

Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and installation artist exploring the Americana mythos and new human rituals. A Malaysian-Chinese immigrant, and an American citizen since 2011, they are also the author of The American Dream?, a graphic novel about travelling Route 66.

Connect with Shing:

Website

 

 

WNDMG Wednesday — The End of the #OwnVoices Era

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

The End of the #Ownvoices Era

About a month ago, we saw the beginning of the end of the #ownvoices era when  We Need Diverse Books chose to stop using the hashtag #ownvoices. Since I am a self-defined #ownvoices author who has used that hashtag for years: querying, pitching manuscripts on Twitter, and even including it on my bio here at Mixed-Up Files, I began asking myself: am I ready — and is it really time?

WNDB Stops Using #ownvoices

Where #Ownvoices Began

To answer that question, I want to start with why we needed it in the first place. Back in 2015 when author Corinne Duyvis coined the term, it quickly gained traction as a shorthand way to tell agents, editors, and readers that a manuscript’s diverse main characters were authentic and drawn from a creator’s lived experience.

The end of #ownvoices

The force that is We Need Diverse Books propelled #ownvoices into the mainstream, accompanied by the clear message to the publishing industry: publish and promote marginalized creators rather than white authors writing diverse characters.

It was a breath of fresh air. #Ownvoices creators had spent such a long time feeling frustrated that our authentic viewpoint didn’t seem to be valued as much as the white viewpoint of who we were. Now maybe, things were changing.

Authors (like me) used the hashtag on Twitter pitch contests like #PitMad and #DVPit, and the industry responded. Agents, editors, and readers all embraced the tool that helped diversify their lists.

So, it seemed that #ownvoices was a win.

Where #Ownvoices is Now

It should absolutely have been a win. But as always, trends that go mainstream become susceptible to the battlefield that is social media. In this case, what should have been an empowering self-identifying label morphed into anxiety-promoting ugliness. In the wilderness of social media, where nuance and context go to die, identity can be and often is flattened by out-of-context reading, crushed, or judged cruelly by followers who insist on the right to define your identity and its authenticity.

The end of #ownvoices

In a brilliant essay,  author and bookseller Nicole Brinkley notes,  “… how intensely the notion of perfect representation had been weaponized—both by readers who didn’t consider representations authentic enough to earn the label, and by readers who dismissed as problematic any representation that wasn’t explicitly labeled ownvoices by its author.”

With this relentless scrutiny, #ownvoices began to create a litmus test for diversity that felt a lot like backlash and certainly wasn’t creating a healthy and safe space for marginalized writers to promote their work.

#Ownvoices Doesn’t Police Identity

But the external pressure on #ownvoices creators was only part of the distortion that ultimately dismantled it. The other came from creators who were eager to ride the diversity wave even though they already had the privilege of benefiting from an overwhelmingly white publishing industry.

When Beth Phelan launched Twitter pitch contest #DVPit back in 2016, she would host pre-pitch Q and A sessions. Because often participated in the contest, I would read these threads avidly and frequently observed these kinds of questions:

“Can I participate if I don’t identify with a marginalized population but my book/main character/secondary character does?”

Phelan’s answer was always the same: we don’t police your identity; that’s on you. But #DVPit is for marginalized creators only.

Whether We Still Need #Ownvoices

While #ownvoices began because of a clear need for authors to be able to rally around a common flag and support each other in that space, it needed to be able to grow and change along with the industry’s attitude toward diversity. To have shown that kind of growth, we needed to see two distinct characteristics: 1) continued unambiguous support of marginalized creators; 2) results.

We’ve seen how the support system that was #ownvoices crumbled. But what about whether #ownvoices actually helped get more marginalized creators published? That’s tough to quantify.

Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. reveals that in 2020, about 58% of 3,115 books reviewed were written by or about: BIPOC, Asian, Latinx, and Arab communities. The distinctions between “by” and “about” show that while the number of diverse books published continues to rise, the number of diverse creators still lags.

That said, CCBC doesn’t distill those”by” numbers further into whether creators are #ownvoices. According to the CCBC website, “…  #OwnVoices is a term whose meaning is tied to culturally specific identity and experience, which is not captured in these broad categorizations. The information we document for each book regarding culturally specific content, and for book creators documenting their culturally specific identities, is necessary to determine if that book might be categorized as #OwnVoices. It is also important to note that the way in which individuals interpret the meaning of #OwnVoices may vary.”

((Want more on #ownvoices authors? Read this interview with MUF contributor Natalie Rompella))

Outlived its Usefulness

Ultimately, if you buy my assessment that #ownvoices needed two crucial supports and neither one of them held up, it seems clear that #ownvoices has outlived its usefulness.

I always have a hard time letting go though, and so I’m taking a moment to say thank you before I say goodbye.

Thank you to #ownvoices for:

  • giving me and other creators a space in which we could become a visible choice –a force, in fact — for publishers to consider as they diversify;
  • validating my lived experience as authentic material for the stories I write; and
  • providing a community for marginalized creators navigating the still overwhelmingly white publishing industry.

I have chosen to remove the hashtag from my bio, but I will continue to identify myself as a mixed-race author and hope that there will continue to be room under this tent for all of us.

 

WNDMG Wednesday–Pride Month and Beyond: What Tik Tok Told Me

We Need Diverse MG

 

We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

Pride Month

June is Pride Month and there is so much to talk about when it comes to middle-grade books and representation. I thought a great way to explore this topic would be by doing a deep dive into book talk on Tik Tok.  In case you’re not familiar, Tik Tok is the platform that so many people are using to talk about books.  I assumed it would be easy to find lots of MG recommendations and reviews for Pride Month, but it wasn’t.  Most of the #booktok I found did not pertain to books aimed at middle grade audiences, or books that feature LGBTQIA+ characters. Don’t get me wrong, there are some creators out there ‘book–toking’ about MG + LGBTQIA+, but I couldn’t find many whose platforms focus on those two areas. Still, there was a lot to discover, and some great accounts to follow.

Tik Tok

But first, for those who aren’t sure how TikTok works, a brief overview. This platform started with music and dance videos but has since morphed into just about everything videos. Remember the Vine app from back in the day? Tik Tok is kind of like that, but the videos are longer and the app more sophisticated with lots of fun effects.  If you’re interested in books, you can find plenty of people talking about them on this app. All you have to do is search for the right hashtags. These include; #booktok, #mg #ya #kidlit and other hashtags related to books and book lovers.

Once you start following the creators you like, you will find that they reference other creators to follow. That way you can start building up your list of bookish TikTok accounts. Be careful though, you can really go down a TikTok rabbit hole once you get started. Some of the content is intriguing, hilarious, and even addicting. The dark circles under my eyes are proof that once you get on TikTok, it can be hard to get off!

Acronyms

It’s good to know the commonly used acronyms that the bookish accounts often feature. Here are just a few of them that I’ve seen over and over.

  • TBR – to be read
  • DNF – did not finish
  • ARC – advanced reader copies
  • CR – current read
  • FRTC – full review to come

Accounts to Follow

There is a lot out there created by and for young people who love books. Most of what I’ve found is geared towards YA, often with an MG title or two mixed in. Some videos show lots of different book covers that the creator recommends without really talking about the books. I find those less helpful than the ones where the creator gives a run-down of what they like about the book and why. In addition to accounts run by book fans, there are also authors, agents, teachers, and editors to follow who give recommendations and information on diverse books, new releases, writing, book promoting, and breaking down stereotypes in kidlit. Below are just a few of the LGBTQIA+ and MG friendly accounts that I found and recommend following.

  • @jeremy.l.williams – middle school teacher features MG book recommendations, and has uploaded a number of videos centered on pride month with book recommendations
  • @averyqueerbookclub – loads of recommendations on books with queer representation, including marginalized groups within the queer community.
  • @mx.segal – middle school teacher with a great video that features lots of diverse MGs
  • @luna_with_love – lots of queer book recommendations, mostly YA, some MG
  • @endlessfairytales – features many recommendations for diverse books, mostly YA some MG
  • @samisbookshelf – many informative videos to help diversify you book selections, mostly YA, some MG
  • @caitsbooks – a wealth of videos on all kinds of books with heartfelt reviews and humor
  • @literaticat – agent giving great advice on writing, books, and lots of humor

MG Tik Tok Book Recommendations for Pride Month & Beyond

Hunting through the multitude of YA videos, I was able to find the MG books below that are a great addition to any bookshelf, and an especially appropriate group of reads for Pride Month. These books often feature not only LGBTQIA+ characters, but also characters who are diverse in different ways. Several of the creators in the list above included these books in their recommended readings.

George book cover

George by Alex Gin

A middle grade novel that features a queer younger MG protagonist. Melissa is a trans girl who isn’t sure about how to be her authentic self until the class play gives her an opportunity to be a girl on stage. But when she’s kept from auditioning because they think she’s a boy, Melissa has to decide what to do. This one is recommended in many Tik Tok videos by middle grade teachers.

 

moon within

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

This novel-in-verse coming of age story includes a trans character who is the protagonist’s best friend. The main character experiences her first period, her first attraction to a boy, and her best friend coming out as genderfluid, then identifying as a boy. Black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and LGBTQ characters offer diverse perspectives in this compelling middle grade novel.

 

stars feet

The stars beneath our feet by David Barclay Moore

This novel is a winner of the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for new Talent and will soon be a major motion picture. The story focuses on a young boy whose brother has died as a result of gang violence. He has to navigate a new life along with his mother and her girlfriend using creativity and community to make his way.

 

hurricane child Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender

Caroline is a  twelve year old dealing with a lot of difficulties including bullying, a spirit only she can see, and the loss of her mother. When she finally befriends a new student and develops a crush on her, they end up working together to find Caroline’s mother.

 

 

drama book cover

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

 

Callie, a theater lover, is the set designer for the drama department, and she’s determined to create a Broadway worthy set despite her middle school budget. But she runs into trouble when ticket sales are down, the crew has trouble working together, the actors bring their drama off stage and a couple of cute brothers are in the picture.

 

((Enjoying this Pride Month book list? Check out this one too!))

Happy Pride Month!

Those are just a few of the many books you can find for middle grade that feature LGBTQIA+ characters. Tik Tok is only one place to look for these books, and it could use more accounts focused on middle grade kidlit. I just started my own TikTok account @aixasdoodlesandbooks.  I have posted just one video so far with Picture Book recommendations. By the time this blogpost comes out I’ll hopefully have my second video with MG recommendations for Pride Month. Meanwhile, I hope to find and follow more accounts posting on MG. Let me know if I should follow you!

pride reader

Artwork by Aixa Pérez-Prado