WNDMG

WNDMG Wednesday- Guest Post – Waka T. Brown

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Wednesday Guest – Author Waka T. Brown

We at WNDMG Wednesday are thrilled to host our guest post writer, author Waka T. Brown. Waka’s piece in honor of AAPI Heritage Month is a spot-on look at the importance of representation in middle-grade books, and we’re so grateful she took the time to stop by our blog.

Author Waka T. Brown–My Journey

Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, everyone! I’m honored to write a blog post this month for “From the Mixed-Up Files… of Middle-Grade Authors.”

With two middle grade novels which prominently feature Asian American main characters under my belt (and two more under contract), I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect and share what my journey as an Asian American author has been like thus far.

Being Sabrina Duncan

I’m curious how many Asian American children of the 70s and 80s are out there who remember “Charlie’s Angels.” Not the 2019 reboot with Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska. Not even the 2000 one with Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz. I’m talking about the one with Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Kate Jackson. Way back when, my friends and I sometimes played like we were the Angels—fighting crime and beating up the bad guys. I always played the character of Sabrina Duncan because… she had the darkest hair of the trio. Like me.

Television star Kate Jackson white woman with short black hair wearing red shirt

It Felt Presumptuous

I grew up reading and loving books by Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Duncan, Beverly Cleary, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder (just to name a few). I might not have looked like any of their main characters, but I identified with the spunky, smart, and resourceful girls featured in almost all their stories.

Book Cover for Little Women 4 white women wearing 19th century dresses seated together on a couch

I never once thought about what it might mean to read a book with girls on the cover who looked like me. I didn’t even know that it was an option. It felt presumptuous to even want that. After all, until I left home for college, I only knew fewer than a dozen Asian Americans outside of my family. I assumed there weren’t many of us at all, and TV, films, books all seemed to support what I assumed was true.

Looking for Meaningful, Positive Representation

So, what does it mean to grow up without meaningful, positive representation? When I was a teenager, beautiful equaled Christy Brinkley. When kids told me I was ugly, part of me wondered if they had a point. After all, I never saw models like me gracing the covers of Seventeen. When I never encountered stories about people like me, I internalized that maybe our stories don’t matter.

Magazine Cover Seventeen Magazine actor Brook Shields on cover

However, when I arrived in California for college for the first time when I was 18, it was with a bit (a lot) of culture shock that I realized I was not alone. I had never experienced a diverse environment like that one before. I joined the Asian American Student Association. I met Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipina, and South Asian friends. During study breaks we watched episodes of “Beverly Hills 90210,” and I wondered to myself where all the Asian people were. It took place in California, after all, and what I saw represented in media didn’t look anything like the diversity that now surrounded me.

“Asian Leads Don’t Sell”

Yet, when I started writing (screenplays mostly), my characters still didn’t look like me. “Imagine a bankable star,” I was advised when I created my characters. I wrote shallow, frothy romcoms that I thought would have mass appeal. When nothing came of them, I decided to throw previous advice out the window and wrote a teenage Roman Holiday-esque story… with two Asian leads. I would like to say this is when my big break came, but alas no. I was only able to get one person in the industry to even read it because, “Asian leads don’t sell.” Maybe at the time people truly believed that. But part of me thought (like my character Annie in Dream, Annie, Dream), How do you get to be a big name/bankable star if you’re never cast? After a disappointing reception to my attempt to create some Asian American representation, I went back to writing my standard fare for a while… but then again, I decided on a project, a far-fetched project. A memoir about 12 year-old me called While I Was Away.

Book Cover for While I was Away - profile sketch of an Asian girl with a small village in the background

Waka T Brown at 12 years old, photo of young Japanese girl in plaid shirt

Waka T. Brown at age 12

Even though a lot of people were dismissive of this endeavor and echoed my own concerns such as “Memoir? And middle grade? Good luck, that’s gonna be a tough sell,” and “you need to have an established platform to sell something like that,” I wrote it anyway. No one bought my more “commercial” writing, so why not? I wanted to get the memories down before they faded for myself. For every negative remark, there were also encouraging ones, like “You should definitely write that story” and “That is the story only you can write.” And those were the ones I hung on to.

((Like reading memoirs and ready to find more? Read this Rosanne Parry’s roundup of Diverse MG Memoirs))

Plus, there were other promising signs urging me not to give up. Crazy Rich Asians was a box office smash. Bookstore shelves looked a lot different from when I was a little girl. I caught up on years of reading, including works by Grace Lin and Kelly Yang. And despite a number of rejections that pointed toward my story’s lack of marketability and/or relatability with a wider audience, While I Was Away eventually sold at auction in a 2-book deal.

movie poster for movie "Crazy, Rich Asians"

How people have embraced my first book since its publication in January 2021 has truly blown me away. It was an Oregon Book Award finalist, one of New York Public Library’s Best Books for Kids of 2021, a Bank Street Children’s Best Book of the Year for 2022…

Dream, Annie, Dream

But, I definitely feel my work as a writer isn’t finished. With my second book, Dream, Annie, Dream, I tackle the issue of representation head-on. Even though it’s a work of fiction, many of the experiences were drawn from my own. Although some of the topics and incidents in it might feel uncomfortable, it is my hope that young readers are drawn to my main character Annie Inoue like I was drawn to Sara Crew, Laura Ingalls, Anne Shirley, and Jo March.

Book Cover for Dream Annie Dream, young Asian girl with basketball and books and pencil as "dreams" floating around her head

They’ve Needed This Story for Decades

While I truly feel my books are for everyone (even teenaged sons who have yet to read their mother’s second book… cough, cough… you know how you are), I appreciate that what each reader gains from them is their own. Some readers have let me know how they related to certain incidents. Some have mentioned that they just enjoyed the story. But the ones that I hold the most dear have been the ones who tell me that they’ve needed this story for decades.

For me personally, representation has come a long way from “the dark-haired Charlie’s Angel” to these two books.

Book Cover for Dream Annie Dream, young Asian girl with basketball and books and pencil as "dreams" floating around her headBook Cover for While I was Away - profile sketch of an Asian girl with a small village in the background

It’s my sincere hope that more stories, diverse stories, stories about events we’ve never heard of continue to surface. And that as readers, we continue to embrace them all with open hearts and minds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headshot author Waka T. Brown - Asian woman seated on couch, smiling

Waka is a Stanford graduate with a B.A. in International Relations and a Master’s in Secondary Education. While I Was Away (Quill Tree/HarperCollins 2021) is her debut novel.

Dream, Annie, Dream (Quill Tree/HarperCollins 2022) is her first work of historical fiction.

More About Waka T. Brown

In addition to writing middle-grade stories, I enjoy writing screenplays. I wrote and co-directed the short film Double Tap (Official Selection, 2018 DC Shorts and Portland Film Festivals) and my feature-length screenplays (comedies, romcoms, & animated features) have been 2nd-rounders at AFF, placed in the semifinals of PAGE, and quarterfinals of Screencraft writing competitions.

I’m currently an online instructor with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE). I teach about U.S.-Japan relations to high school students in Japan, and have also authored curriculum on several international topics. Recently, I was honored to receive the U.S.-Japan Foundation and EngageAsia’s national 2019 Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher award.

I live in the Portland, Oregon area with my husband, three sons, and my naughty yet lovable shiba Niko. I have a lot of hobbies such as running, art, baking, and playing guitar.

Connect with Waka:

Twitter

Instagram

Website

 

WNDMG Wednesday – COMING OF AGE Interview

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We Need Diverse MG Logo

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

COMING OF AGE Anthology Author Interview

We Need Diverse MG is so lucky this month … we get to feature an incredible new anthology called COMING OF AGE: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman)–which happens to be the number one release on Amazon for children’s Jewish fiction. We’re thrilled to have an “in” with one of the editors and a contributing author–because they’re both MUF contributors! Jonathan Rosen and Melissa Roske graciously agreed to interview with us. Moreover, because they’re so cool, we did half our interview in text and the other half on Zoom audio. So, enjoy our multi-media visit and get excited for COMING OF AGE before it appears on your bookshelves on April 19.

Book Cover for COMING OF AGE antholody features book title and starburst graphic around the text

 

About COMING OF AGE Anthology

Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories: As you might be able to deduce from the title, COMING OF AGE  is geared to a middle-grade audience. What does it mean to become an adult in your faith? Join thirteen diverse characters as they experience anxiety, doubt, and self-discovery while preparing for their b’nai mitzvah. And whether celebrating with a lavish party or in reception room A with an accordion player, the Jewish rite of passage remains the same. Filled with humor, hope, and history, there’s something in this anthology for every reader, regardless of their faith.

Meet Co-Editor Jonathan Rosen

WNDMG: Tell us the origin story for the book?

JR: Basically, the impetus was just wanting to get something with Jewish content for kids out. I’ve experienced someone telling me to make a book “less Jewish”. Or that Jewish books don’t sell well. I’ve spoken to many other Jewish authors who have told me about their similar experiences. Also, in my mind is how over the last ten years or so, antisemitism has been skyrocketing. So, wanted to do something that would feature Jewish characters, not just for Jewish kids to see themselves and their own experiences, but hopefully for non-Jewish kids to be able to read, and see how similar Jewish kids are. I know it’s cliché, but making a difference really does start with children. Lastly, one of the things that was important to me was to have a portion of the proceeds donated to Jewish organizations that fight antisemitism.

yellow road sign with word antisemitism lined through with red

WNDMG: How did your selection of authors come together?

JR: To start, it really was as simple as first reaching out to Jewish authors that I knew. I had done a couple of trips sponsored by PJ Library, so I got to meet several other Jewish authors as well. So, I reached out to who I knew. There were also people who were on my wishlist who I didn’t know. When I spoke to Henry Herz, my co-editor on this book, he suggested some people he knew, so between the two of us, we were able to get a great collection of authors. Fortunately, almost everyone that was asked, immediately agreed to participate. My biggest regret was after word got out, many other Jewish authors reached out to me to find out if there was room, because they wished to participate, but there wasn’t enough room. Perhaps, I’ll have to do another anthology. 😊

Centering on B’Nai Mitzvah

WNDMG: What direction/driving question did you give the authors for their stories?

JR: I didn’t want to give too much direction, because I wanted each one to write what they wanted. The only criteria was that it had to be centered around a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, since we were targeting Middle Grade readers, that’s kind of the biggest event in a middle grade Jewish kid’s life. But, otherwise, each author had the freedom to take the story where they saw fit. It was interesting to me that everyone wrote such different kinds of stories. We had memoirs, comedic stories, more serious, and even a few sci/fi which surprised me that more than one person thought along those lines.

Welcome to Melissa Roske

At this point in our conversation, we are joined by contributing author Melissa Roske, whose short story is a lovely exploration of a meeting of generations.

Connecting to Grandparents

WNDMG: Let’s talk about your stories—both are about connecting to grandparents but in very different ways. Melissa, what led you to write about connecting with Grandma Merle?

MR: Unlike Bella, the protagonist of my story, I was extremely close to my maternal grandmother, Molly. We even lived in the same New York apartment building, and she took care of me after school while my parents were at work. Most days we played “School,” where I was the teacher and Granny (that’s what I called her) was the pupil. I insisted on playing this game every single day, and Granny was kind enough to go along with it.

Author Melissa Roske with her grandmother posed in front of a decorated orange backdrop

Melissa and Granny

Like most Jewish grandmothers of her generation, Granny loved to feed people—especially me. She even kept a special drawer of chocolate in her kitchen for my sole enjoyment. Unfortunately, the chocolate drawer was the source of multiple cavities and a root canal. J Another thing about Granny, besides her tiny stature (she was 4’10”), was her impressive collection of flowered housedresses. I never saw her in anything else, except on the day of my Bat Mitzvah. She wore a fancy black-and-gold dress to please my mom.

Melissa Roske at her Bat Mitzvah standing with her parents

Melissa and Family

Earlier in her life, Granny was against the Viet Nam War and refused to pay her taxes in protest. My mom was convinced Granny would be arrested and begged her to pony up the funds. I was too young to witness this, but it says a lot about my grandmother’s character. She was little but fierce. Maybe that’s why I wrote a story about a girl who didn’t know her grandmother. I was blessed to know mine, and somehow wanted to pay it forward.

((Curious about more books with B’Nai Mitzvah themes? Read Melissa’s book list here.))

Time Travel and Grandparents

WNDMG: Jonathan – same question for you, but I need to add – is there a personal significance to the time travel watch? (I mean, I’m half expecting you to say you met Abraham Lincoln at your Bar Mitzvah, which was of course only 20 or so years ago)

JR: Twenty? More like fifteen! Actually, my kids always wonder why their ages keep increasing, but when I give them mine, it decreases every time they ask.

But as far as the story goes, I had figured that most of the stories would be more conventional stories, or memoir types, so I figured I’d do something different. Little did I know that I’d get other sci/fi submissions as well. But, the idea for me was always to show that the tradition is more important than the spectacle. That’s something that’s sometimes lost, because the tendency, at times, is to treat a Bar/Bat Mitzvah as big as a wedding, and there really have been times throughout history, where Jews had to do these things in secrecy because of certain regimes in power made it illegal for Jews to observe. So, through time travel, the main character kind of gets to experience that.

Jonathan Rosen Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall standing with his father behind him, a young boy and his smiling father wearing sunglasses

Jonathan Rosen Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall

Finding the Relatable

WNDMG: As authors, we all want our books to resonate with readers. Beyond that, we also have dreams about how exactly our words might become a part of our readers’ hearts. What do you each hope for with this book?

MR: My hope is that kids from all religious and ethnic backgrounds will find something relatable within the pages of Coming of Age. Yes, it’s a B’nai Mitzvah-themed book, written by Jewish authors and aimed primarily at Jewish readers. But you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the stories and themes each author presents. In my story, “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish,” I wanted to show readers that there’s more than one way to achieve a goal. In Bella’s case, it was having a Bat Mitzvah—something she thought was unobtainable because she wasn’t “Jewish enough.” Children often feel as if they’re not “enough.” Smart enough, fast enough, thin enough, popular enough… Here’s hoping they’ll see themselves in a more positive light, and acquire greater self-acceptance, after reading the stories in this book.

JR: Really, I just hope that the book as a whole entertains. Of course, there are things that I hope the reader takes away, but the overall purpose for me was to put out something with Jewish stories, and Jewish characters, which Jewish readers could identify with. And even non-Jewish readers could relate to seeing kids their age going through similar experiences to things that they experience in their lives.

The Jewish Equivalent to the Easter Egg

WNDMG: Authors often like to put small references in their books—maybe to a friend’s inside joke, a family tradition, or even a previous book. Ironically, they’re often referred to as “Easter eggs.” What would the Jewish equivalent phrase be? And did either of you put any in your stories?

So, What’s the Answer?

Curious about Jonathan and Melissa’s answer to that last question about the Jewish equivalent to the Easter egg?

We decided to have some fun and offer you all a mixed-media interview: blending text with audio for a true immersion into our conversation. So, to hear the answer,

Click here to listen to the rest of our interview:

We also talked about being Jewish in America, Jonathan and Melissa’s own Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and whether Melissa is going to be able to sell books out of her car at Time Square.

Thank you so much to Jonathan and Melissa for a wonderful chat and CONGRATULATIONS!

Release Date: April 19

COMING OF AGE: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman) releases April 19, 2022.  To buy a copy:

Amazon

Bookshop

About the Authors

Author head shot, dark-haired man with beard

Jonathan Rosen

Jonathan Rosen is a transplanted New Yorker who now lives with his family and rescue dog, Parker, in sunny South Florida. He is proud to be of Mexican-American descent, although neither country has really been willing to accept responsibility. He is the author of the Spooky Middle Grade titles, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies and its sequel, From Sunset till Sunrise, as well as the co-editor of the anthology of Jewish stories, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories, He is an administrator of the Middle Grade reading site, FromtheMixedUpFiles.com, and the co-host of the YouTube channel, Pop Culture Retro. He can also be found on his own site at www.Houseofrosen.com

Author photo woman in dress sitting in bookstore signing books

Melissa Roske

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge, 2017), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” will appear in the forthcoming Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Compay, 4/19/22). An active blogger for the popular MG website, From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-grade AuthorsMelissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

 

WNDMG Wednesday – M. K. England Guest Post

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Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Wednesday is thrilled to host author M.K. England this month. M.K. wrote a fantastic post for us exploring themes central to their writing–themes that consistently create connection and validation, which is the connective tissue of what diverse kidlit is all about. Thank you so much, M.K.! And congratulations on Player vs. Player — so excited for this book!

Guest Post, by M.K. England

My work as an author is a bit all over the place. I started out in YA sci-fi/fantasy with The Disasters and Spellhacker, skipped to adult sci-fi with Guardians of the Galaxy: No Guts, No Glory, then hopped to YA contemporary with The One True Me and You, which just came out on March 1st. Now, after all that, I’ve finally found my way to middle grade—and what a joy it is to be writing the Player vs. Player trilogy.

Two Consistent Features

What in the world could possibly connect all of those very different books, other than the fact that they all lived in my brain? There are two consistent features of everything I write:

  • Strong, loving, supportive friend groups that treat each other like family, and,
  • A reading experience that I, the queer nerdy Star Wars loving gamer child, would have felt validated by.

It’s dangerous to go alone!*

In the Player vs. Player trilogy, both of those features are fundamental to the story. We get to see the formation of my hallmark friends-as-family group in action as four kids come together to bond over their shared love of a video game called Affinity. Book one, Ultimate Gaming Showdown, is like a video game version of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, where four kids team up in a virtual tournament to do battle for an amazing prize package. They play well together… but there are whole heaps of loneliness and isolation (and maybe a few secrets) keeping them from playing their best and coming together as a team—and as true friends.

  • Josh’s family moves around a lot for his mom’s job and just wants some friends to game with.
  • Hannah struggles in school and plays alone at the public library every evening while her mom works a second job.
  • Gaming is banned altogether in Larkin’s household, and she’s got a million other things going on in her life—but her heart and dreams are filled with video games.
  • Wheatley struggles to relate to other kids and has an overbearing father… and a secret that could wreck the whole team.

Player v Player cover art

I loved getting to design the video game these kids play together, and writing the action of the tournament was a blast. It’s the process of getting these kids together as a team, as friends who trust and care about each other, that ultimately propels the book forward though. There is such incredible power in finding the people who see you and validate the things you care about, something all of these kids desperately needed. To many people, video games are a waste of time, something shameful that kids should avoid. To these kids, gaming is a critical lifeline, a source of purpose and pride… and maybe even a future career.

Of course, as we’ll find out in PvP book two, it’s not all smooth sailing once you’ve found your people. Staying friends, especially when you’re on a team together? There are… challenges.

* – A classic Zelda reference that the kids in this book would totally not get. I embrace my status as an Elder Millennial Nerd.

Gamers are cool now, right?

The second constant in my writing, a reading experience that validates my queer nerdy young self, is baked right into the core concept. I loved video games a lot as a child. It’s the earliest thing I remember being very into, starting with button mashing on our old original Nintendo as soon as I could get my hands around the controller.

However, when I was the same age as the kids in PvP, it was the late 90s. Being a gamer at that time wasn’t especially cool for anyone, but definitely not if you weren’t a boy. Things have improved, but gaming is still a boy’s club in a lot of ways. For example, the vast majority of the top streamers on Twitch are straight cis white guys. Meanwhile women, BIPOC folks, and queer people get harassed right off the site. We clearly still have a long way to go.

For adult me, a queer non-binary person who grew up as that weirdo “gamer girl,” the opportunity to write this story is healing. The gaming team in PvP includes two girls competing at the highest level in eSports—and as a kid, I would have been obsessed. PvP is a book I would have read until the paperback had gone soft and fuzzy, full of creases and little torn off chunks missing from too much time spent in a backpack or wedged between the bed and the wall. Though there weren’t books for kids and teens back then that mentioned the word nonbinary (that I knew of), I gobbled up anything where I saw kids like me—girls who didn’t fit, who dared to ferociously love unexpected things, who chafed against their boxes. If there’d been a book series about girls in video games? Game over.

((Also into gaming? Read this archive STEM Tuesday interview with Janet Slingerland, who wrote VIDE GAME CODING))

Press start

 It’s been fascinating to me, writing characters who are just beginning to discover who they are. Characters in YA are doing the same thing, but they’re much further down the path. In middle grade, kids are just starting to take those first steps to differentiate from their families and embrace who they’ll become.

For some queer, trans, and gender-expansive kids, by the time they hit that 8-12 range, they’re already well aware of their identities. For others, like me, it takes longer. Maybe it was just the lack of representation in media and the “tomboy” label I was saddled with as a kid, but it wasn’t until high school that I really started to understand and embrace some aspects of who I was, and the full picture didn’t come into focus until my early 30s. Before that, it was much more subtle. Blushing glances, that awkward blend of curiosity and embarrassment, experimenting with clothes to see what felt right. While I’m sure I’ll write a more overt middle-grade story later, for right now I’m enjoying writing this subtle growth into queerness that so reflects my own experiences while the characters put 99% of their brainpower into their gaming goals.

It’s an honor to be writing directly to and for the next generation of gamers, who I hope will create a much more open and welcoming gaming culture in the years to come. I’ll still be here, controller in hand.

 

Headshot of MK England - background stars and galaxies

M. K. England grew up on the Space Coast of Florida watching shuttle launches from the backyard. These days, they call rural Virginia home, where their house is full of video games, dogs, plants, Star Wars memorabilia, and one baby human. MK is the author of THE DISASTERS (2018), SPELLHACKER (2020), THE ONE TRUE ME & YOU (2022), and other forthcoming novels. Follow them at www.mkengland.com.

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