Guest Posts

WNDMG Wednesday – Guest Post by Jorrel Brinkley

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 Post by Jorrel Brinkely

We Need DIverse MG is delighted to host a new author this week.  Jorrel reached out to WNDMG a few months ago with an idea for connecting his work as an author and school psychologist to the importance of diverse representation in middle-grade fiction, and we were excited to be able to feature a fresh voice on this always-timely topic. Thanks for your post, Jorrel!

My Journey, by Jorrel Brinkley

Hey everyone! I’m so excited to write a blog post this month for “From the Mixed-Up Files… of Middle-Grade Authors.” Having written a middle-grade novel and working as a school psychologist, I’d like to take this time to talk a little bit about the importance of diverse books and early literacy in reaching children in high-needs elementary schools.

Stereotypes and Microaggressions

As a teenager and in my adult years, I’ve been on the receiving end of various stereotypes and microaggressions:

“Do you rap or play basketball?”

“Imagining you riding a horse is like imagining Tupac riding a horse.”

“You look like someone I saw on a ‘Most Wanted’ billboard.”

I would say, “C’mon guys, read a book!” But given the small amount of prominent diverse books available when I was a kid, I guess I’m not surprised. I’m not disparaging any of those books, but we definitely needed more.

The White Default

Growing up, I can recall only a few books that I read in school featuring Black authors or characters. More often than not, the ones I read featured historical figures (e.g. think days of slavery or around the Civil Rights era) or were African folktales. Important for sure, but not always relatable. Most of the books that I’ve read centered around White characters. I remember that while I was writing my debut book, Gus & Major: Obedience School, I had an idea for another story. As I imagined what the cover of that book might look like, I realized that I had envisioned a White protagonist. Why was that? In my head, I saw a main character that fit with most of who I’ve seen my entire life in books, TV shows, and movies.

“This Boy Looks Like Me!”

It is important for children to not only see characters or authors who look like them but are also relatable. There can be much encouragement and hope for children when they read a book and realize they are not alone. It also gives them an idea of what they could be besides the stereotypical representations found in media. On a personal level, my three year old son was looking at a picture book. He is half-black, half-Latino. As he perused the pictures, he looked up with excitement and said, “This boy looks like me! And this is you, Daddy!”

Lacking Early Literacy Skills

As I mentioned earlier, not only am I an author, but I am also a school psychologist working in a high-needs elementary school. Most of the evaluations that I conduct with students deal with reading difficulties. Many times, I’ve found that the students I’ve tested do not have a learning disability. Rather, they simply lack the early literacy skills that are usually acquired before entering Kindergarten. Now, there are a multitude of factors that play into this, but that’s a discussion for another time. As they go through school, what I’ve typically seen is that they lack foundational reading skills. These skills build on each other every year as the curriculum becomes more challenging. The issue is that by the time the students are in their middle grade years, many have been unable to overcome the ever-increasing gap; that is their expected performance and their actual performance. Mix in a grade retention or two, and we have a serious problem. The students are over-age and seem to have lost interest in school, especially in reading. They do not see its importance; many have told me that reading is too hard. On top of that, when you place a book in front of them with characters that do not look like them or with an unrelatable story, reading it is the last thing they want to do. And let’s face it, smartphones and social media are stiff competition.

Enter diverse middle grade books.

Relatability in Diverse Books

Admittedly, my debut book features animal characters, BUT I was very intentional in writing a story that the students at my school and similar schools would find relatable. Why? In my experience, the children I’ve worked with are more interested in stories with diverse characters or those with similar experiences. They also seem to be more invested in the outcome of certain characters. In addition, when they can empathize with the author, that is a bonus. Not only are children interested in the story, but they are more willing to read other books by said author.

BookCoverWebImage_500x800

Each year at my school, I typically mentor a group of fifth-grade boys in which we discuss music and think about the messages conveyed in songs. When I ask them about their favorite rappers and why they listen to their music, I’m often told that they can relate to some of the rappers’ struggles. They feel like they’re not alone and that there’s hope that they can make it past their own personal struggles too. Without examining the veracity of some rappers’ statements, it’s important that we don’t miss that gold nugget. These boys connected with artists that looked like them, talked like them, and had relatable stories. I can almost guarantee that they would read a book written by their favorite rapper!

((For more articles on why representation matters, check out our WNDMG Wednesday archives))

Making Connections

What does this have to do with diverse middle grade books, Jorrel? I’m glad you asked. It’s all about making connections. Making connections with children through diverse books can help them process their emotions, provide language to what they are experiencing, and may even provide a framework for overcoming various challenges.

How do you attract students who don’t find curling up with a good book on a rainy day as exhilarating as you do? Give them diverse authors and/or characters and a relatable, compelling story. What if they are a struggling reader? Well, if they’re sitting and engaging with the book, that’s half the battle! It’s easier to target some of those foundational reading skills when interest and motivation are high.

On a few occasions, I’ve read part of my book, Gus & Major: Obedience School, to a group of third graders at my school. In it, I touch on topics such as fatherlessness, behavioral problems, and forgiveness. Most of the story is drawn from my time working with children. The students were immediately able to relate to the story and characters, saying things like, “So-and-so does that in my class all the time,” or “I used to act like him in the beginning of the year.”

I’m grateful that there is an increasing number of diverse books being published. What messages do we want to send to our children? How do we ignite a love of reading in children lacking basic reading skills and maintain their interest? Let’s expand their imaginations to what else is out there, and let’s introduce them to more diverse voices early.

About Jorrel Brinkley

Jorrel Brinkley is a school psychologist and the author of his debut chapter book Gus & Major: Obedience School. He has worked with elementary school-aged children from a variety of backgrounds for over 15 years. His goal is to engage children’s imagination through entertaining, relatable, and thoughtful stories. When he is not writing, he is spending time with his wife and two boys.

Connect with Jorrel

 Instagram

Website

 

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 – Guest Post – Gail Villanueva: The Pitch Wars Culture of Giving Back

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

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

The Pitch Wars Culture of Giving Back

by Gail D. Villanueva

I never thought I’d be a published author. I’ve always wanted to be one, but I never thought I’d actually be one.

You see, I live in a country where access to books is a privilege, not a right. In the Philippines, poverty, crime, and natural disasters are greater concerns over libraries. That’s not to say we don’t have books. We do. But the local publishing industry here is so not the same as it is in the US. There are few publishers and even fewer writing organizations. Mentorship is limited to a chosen few.

So, you can understand why being a published author was a seemingly unattainable dream for me. I just didn’t have access to resources to become one. Still, I wrote a book—a book that featured a main character who looked like me.

I have a technical background, so the Web was my go-to place for resources. Somehow, my aimless browsing landed me on the Twitter account of a sweet, kind soul named Brenda Drake. Reading through her tweets, I learned about this project she founded—Pitch Wars.

Pitch Wars Logo

 

Pitch Wars

As a newbie writer, Pitch Wars was everything I needed. It was (and still is) a mentoring program that would help me elevate my writing and had (and still has) an online showcase at the end where agents get to look at my entry. But as a Filipino author living in the Philippines, I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t think Americans would care about my story. After all, there were hardly any Filipinos featured in the books US publishers published.

My husband convinced me I didn’t have anything to lose if I tried. It wasn’t like I was expecting to be accepted anyway. The main Pitch Wars program was closed to submissions at that time. But as soon as a side event opened for subs, I applied.

To my surprise, I was selected for Pitch Madness. I had some agent interest, but none of them panned out. Still, it was the first time I felt that maybe, I wasn’t so bad a writer, that my story might be worth telling. Best of all, I became part of an amazing community. It made joining a Pitch Wars event super worth it.

I ended up shelving that book and wrote a new one. I found more people online who became my friends and mentors. I eventually signed with a rockstar agent who helped me further elevate my writing. She found my middle-grade debut a home with Scholastic, where I learned more from the team.

My Fate According to the Butterfly Cover

My writing career was, and continues to be, built on a foundation of mentoring and learning. I don’t think I’d be able to get where I am now without these generous people who helped me along the way. Giving back to the community that made me was the only way to go. So, I mentored in various programs, but Pitch Wars was my fave. Before long, I got to level up my giving-back and showcased my 20+ web design and development experience by becoming the Technology Director of Pitch Wars when the committee was formed.

Pitch Wars is a diverse group of wonderful individuals coming from wide-ranging backgrounds, cultures, and marginalization. Every one of us is shaped by our experiences as different human beings. Every mentor, every committee volunteer, every mentee.

((Like reading about Pitch Wars authors? Read this interview with Adrianna Cuevas!)) 

I think it goes without saying why such diversity is important. For starters, it addresses the need for voices traditionally not heard to be heard, and for the traditionally invisible to be seen. Varying backgrounds bring about perspectives that a lone one cannot. These multiple perspectives help in making sound decisions, may it be in writing books, mentoring authors, or running Pitch Wars.

Not gonna lie, making choices as a committee for such a visible organization isn’t easy. Our volunteers are constantly faced with the reality that we can’t please everybody. But every effort we put into them is so worth it. Because that means we get to create a safe space for mentors and mentees. We get to help mentors help writers, who may one day publish a book that will make a reader who’s like them feel seen. A book that will become a lifeline to a reader who needs one. A book that will remind a reader that they matter.

Pitch Wars is just one path—it’s not the only path—to publication. I’m totally biased when I say this, but Pitch Wars is an awesome path. It’s a path where you can have fun while learning from a great community driven to continue the cycle of giving back. And I’m truly grateful to be a part of it.

 

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Want to Know More About Pitch Wars?

The 2021 Pitch Wars Wish List blog hop launches Saturday, September 11, 2021. The blog hop highlights the Pitch Wars mentors and what they’re looking for. Learn more at www.pitchwars.org, and stay up to date by following @PitchWars on Twitter.

 

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Gail Villanueva Author Photo

Gail D. Villanueva is the Pitch Wars Technology Director and the author of Sugar And Spite (Scholastic, 2021). Her debut novel, My Fate According to the Butterfly (Scholastic, 2019), was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, an Amazon Best Book of the Month Editor’s Pick, and a NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Born and based in the Philippines, Gail’s daily routine includes running a web design company with her husband while trying to keep up with the shenanigans of their many pets—dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and random birds they befriend in the backyard. Learn more at www.gaildvillanueva.com.

Sugar and Spite Cover

 

Find Gail Online

Website: https://www.gaildvillanueva.com

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/gaildvillanueva

Twitter: https://twitter.com/gaildvillanueva

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/gaildvillanueva/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/gaildvillanueva/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gaildvillanueva/