Guest Posts

WNDMG Wednesday–Guest Post–Chad Lucas on Letting Boys be Boys

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

This month on WNDMG, we’re excited to feature a guest post from author Chad Lucas. Chad’s debut middle grade, THANKS A LOT, UNIVERSE (Abrams Books), releases next week–May 11.

Thanks A Lot, Universe Book Cover

In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “tenderhearted and bold,” and furthermore:

“Featuring snappy dialogue from earnest tween voices, skillful prose guides this engrossing story from start to finish. The themes and social commentary found here are gentle and organic—never heavy-handed—and the plot’s antagonists are far from two-dimensional, expertly reflecting real-life human complexity for a middle-grade audience.”

— Kirkus Reviews

Letting Boys Be Boys

By Chad Lucas

Here’s one not-so-secret reason why I love writing for middle-grade readers: there is no one—I mean no one—more hilarious than a group of middle schoolers in their natural habitat.

Outside of writing, I get to interact a lot with boys between 10-13 as a basketball coach. When I’m in the gym with my team, two things usually happen at least once during every practice or game:

  1. Some kid will try something that makes me think, “Why on earth did you do that?”
  2. Someone—often the same kid—will make me laugh with my whole chest.

Middle school boys are a riot. They’re full of opinions and bursting with questions, like “Can you dunk, Coach?” (With these 41-year-old knees? Child, please.) In that dynamic phase between childhood and full-blown teendom, they’re a whirlwind of contradictions and energy—busting out rap lyrics, piling on each other like puppies, inventing elaborate five-step celebrations for when one of them blows past a defender or swishes from deep like Damian Lillard.

They can be so sophisticated and funny, yet sometimes they’re not sure if they want to grow up.

“Puberty is gross and weird,” one particularly exuberant sixth-grader said at practice one night.

“It’s a natural stage of life. Everyone goes through it,” I offered.

“Not me, Coach,” he declared. That was my big laugh for the night.

I’ve tried to harness some of that whirlwind in my debut middle grade novel, Thanks a Lot, Universe—both the angst of dealing with changes big and small and the sheer joy of boys being boys.

Now, I know that’s a loaded phrase. “Boys will be boys” has been used to downplay or dismiss some inexcusable things. But I’m also aware of all the mixed messages that boys—especially Black boys—receive on what it means to be a boy, and how the world will see and treat them.

Toxic masculinity is a powerful thing. So is the insidious racism that can turn a sweet, playful Black or brown kid into a “threat” in mere seconds. Our boys aren’t always allowed to be boys.

I know a book can’t single-handedly solve those problems. But I hope that readers who pick up Thanks a Lot, Universe will see some healthy representation of how complex and fully human boys can be.

My main characters, Brian and Ezra, are both ballers. Brian also struggles with social anxiety that grows into full-blown panic attacks after a family crisis upends his life. Meanwhile, Ezra wants to help but he’s still coming to terms with his crush on Brian, and he’s not sure he’s ready to let his friends know how he really feels.

One of my older supporting characters, Gabe, is a high-school athlete who ends up befriending Brian and Ezra for reasons I won’t give away here. I’ve had multiple readers tell me how much they love Gabe, and I think it’s because he’s equal parts swagger and vulnerability. That’s what I love about him, anyway.

Without being heavy-handed about it, I think it’s important to give boys permission to contain multitudes. They can be loud, sporty, sweaty, goofy… and they can be artsy, anxious, sensitive, soft. They can question their sexuality, or what it means to identify as a boy. It helps when they see that full range of representation in books.

And boys, especially Black and brown boys, deserve to see those many facets of their identities explored with joy. Of course, that doesn’t mean we writers should never address difficult topics; there’s certainly some angst and heartache in Thanks a Lot, Universe. But some of my favourite scenes involve Ezra—a queer, biracial Black boy—just riffing with his friends, piling on jokes that grow increasingly ridiculous until they collapse into absurdity.

In a world where kids like Ezra are often reduced to issues, threats or problems to be solved, writing stories where they just get to be boys still feels like a small act of revolution.

###

 

Thanks A Lot, Universe

Chad Lucas has been in love with words since he attempted his first novel on a typewriter in the sixth grade. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, communications advisor, freelance writer, part-time journalism instructor, and parenting columnist. A proud descendant of the historic African Nova Scotian community of Lucasville, he lives with his family in Nova Scotia. In his spare time, he enjoys coaching basketball, and he’s rarely far from a cup of tea. His debut middle-grade novel THANKS A LOT, UNIVERSE (Amulet Books/Abrams Kids) releases in May 2021.

 

Thanks A Lot, Universe Book Cover

Thanks A Lot, Universe

Brian has always been anxious, whether at home or in class or on the basketball court. His dad tries to get him to stand up for himself, and his mom helps as much as she can, but after he and his brother are placed in foster care, Brian starts having panic attacks. And he doesn’t know if things will ever be “normal” again…

Ezra’s always been popular. He’s friends with most of the kids on his basketball team—even Brian, who usually keeps to himself. But now, some of his friends have been acting differently, and Brian seems to be pulling away. Ezra wants to help, but he worries if he’s too nice to Brian, his friends will realize he has a crush on him…

But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra has no choice but to take the leap and reach out. Both boys have to decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. But if they can be brave, they might just find the best in themselves—and in each other.

We Need Diverse Middle-Grade posts once a month, drawing on work from our own team of MUF contributors as well as from guest authors, editors, agents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers. You can count on our presence here on Mixed-Up Files to shine a light on the stories, work, and truth of all those who are still underrepresented in this field. You’ll be able to recognize our monthly posts by seeing our WNDMG  logo: the diverse world we envision. Our artwork is by contributor Aixa Perez-Prado.

Guest Posts for We Need Diverse Middle Grade

If you’re interested in being considered for a guest post slot on WNDMG, please feel free to email: mufcommunications@gmail.com.  Please Note: We do not pay for guest blog posts.

WNDMG – Guest Post – Christina Li Why Kids Need Diverse Middle Grade

Christina Li
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

 

Happy New Year,  from all of us at We Need Diverse MG … and WOW, are we excited it’s finally 2021!

For our first entry in 2021, we’ve got a real treat: a guest post from debut author Christina Li. We’re excited to tell you all about Christina’s debut novel, CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins) … but first, a great reflection from Christina on why kids need diverse middle-grade books.

Christina Li

Photo credit: Bryan Aldana

Guest Post: Christina Li

See it and Be it: Why Kids Need Diverse Middle-Grade books 

By Christina Li

One of the texts I read at the beginning of high school was Emily Style’s piece, “Curriculum as Window and Mirror”, in which she described literature taught in education as a series of mirrors and windows. Later on, I also read a piece in which Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop added that literature can be viewed as not only mirrors and windows, but also sliding glass doors. More often than not, literature is made of books that are “windows”—in which you can peer through and see the experiences of others, or “sliding glass doors”, in which you can walk in and experience the author’s story as a participant. Sometimes, literature ends up being a “mirror”, in which you can view experiences that reflect your own identity, culture, and upbringing.

Growing up, I never had thought of literature as mirrors or windows or sliding glass doors—books were simply just escapes for me. I grew up as a shy child–the kind who, when the teacher called on the class to share their answers or their work, would silently hope to not get picked because even the thought of reading a paragraph aloud to the class terrified me. And so, naturally, I fell into books. I read about kids going on epic quests and facing down fearsome monsters and saving the ones they loved. I read about them standing up to bullies and finding a voice.

((Like Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s sliding glass doors perspective? Read this archived MUF post here which also investigates windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.))

Seeing Through Windows

It didn’t really register in my mind that for the most part, the books I were reading had main characters who didn’t look like me. I didn’t realize that for the most part, I was looking through windows, until I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. It was a Chinese mythology-inspired middle grade novel about a young girl named Minli who, upon hearing magical tales from her father, sets out to change her family’s fortuneIt wasn’t just that I fell in love with the book itself, with its enchanting magic, the sweeping quest of crossing lands to find fortune for one’s family, and the talking dragon (because who doesn’t love talking dragons?). It was that Minli was the first Asian protagonist I’d ever come across, and looked like me and spoke the language that I spoke and was clever and resourceful and caring. It was that the story referenced the cultural details that I also grew up with. It was that I was, for the first time, finally looking into the mirror.

Being the Hero

I didn’t realize for so long that I was seeing myself only passively portrayed in books—if at all—until I finally saw myself actively reflected in a story. I saw myself as someone who could be the hero of the story—someone who could take charge and speak up, someone who could go on her own adventures and actively shape her destiny. And moreover, I saw myself as someone who could write those stories as well. I raced through the rest of Grace Lin’s books, and just weeks later, I began slowly brainstorming story ideas of my own. And the following year, when the teacher asked for volunteers to share their pieces during the creative writing unit, I was one of the first to speak up and volunteer.

In my experiences as a reader and a writer, seeing yourself—your identity and background and culture—reflected in books is one of the most validating things in the world. You’re no longer a passive observer; you actively relate to the narratives in the story. You see little cultural elements and details included in the book that you’re familiar with and you feel a small, comforting connection. You see characters who look like you take on struggles and challenges and epic adventures with bravery and resilience, and you think, I can be brave too.

Serving as Mirrors

Over the years it’s brought me so much happiness, as an Asian reader and writer, to see and read more and more diverse middle grade books with protagonists of Asian descent. And it’s been such a validating experience to write Asian middle grade stories of my own. In my own debut novel, Clues to the Universe, it was an absolute joy to write one of the main characters, Ro, a biracial Chinese-American girl. I loved including small details from my own Chinese-American upbringing, from pastries to jasmine tea to having Ro’s mother address her with the same endearing term that my own mother addressed me with. And moreover, I loved having Ro’s character shine on the page, with her hopes and fears and dreams. She was a fearless and inventive scientist. She had sky-high ambitions but was also struggling with grief and loss. She embraced her Chinese culture. She wasn’t afraid to speak out on behalf of her friends and her family. And most importantly, she was unquestionably and uncompromisingly the hero of her own narrative.

And that is truly what diverse books do, and what I hope to accomplish with my books: to include narratives that help serve as mirrors. That can help readers feel seen. That help kids feel like they can—and deserve to be—the heroes of their own stories.

About CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE

Clues to the Universe

On the surface, Rosalind Ling Geraghty and Benjamin Burns are completely different. Aspiring rocket scientist Ro normally has a plan for everything. Yet she’s reeling from her dad’s unexpected death, and all she has left of him is a half-built model rocket and a crater-sized grief that she doesn’t know how to cope with. Artist Benji loves superheroes and comic books. In fact, he’s convinced his long-lost dad, who walked out on his family years ago, created his favorite comic book series, Spacebound–but has no way to reach him.

Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners. But when a mix-up turns the unlikely pair into friends, Benji helps Ro build her rocket, and Ro helps Benji search through his comics—and across the country—to find out where his dad truly could be.

As the two face bullying, loss, and their own differences, Benji and Ro try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.

CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE publishes next week … on January 12, 2020.

Christina Li

Christina Li is a student studying Economics at Stanford University. When she is not puzzling over her stats problem set, she is daydreaming about characters and drinking too much jasmine green tea. She grew up in the Midwest but now calls California home. You can find her here:

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