Posts Tagged diverse creators
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.
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!
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
Today, we are delighted to have with us, Payal Doshi, author of Rea And The Blood Of The Nectar (Mango & Marigold Press, 2021) with us.
Welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Payal!
Thank you so much for having me!
Tell us about Rea and the Blood of the Nectar. What was your inspiration for the story?
Rea and the Blood of the Nectar is the story aboutRea Chettri, an introverted but curious girl from Darjeeling, India, whose life gets turned on its head on the night of her twelfth birthday. After a fight with her twin brother Rohan, Rea discovers that he has gone missing. Her Amma is distraught and blames Rea for his disappearance. So, Rea along with her neighbor Leela visit the village fortune-teller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling quest to find Rohan where they must solve riddles to portal into an enchanted realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy! There, Rea must battle evil creatures, confront a ruthless villain, and find out why Rohan has been captured. But the heart of this adventure story lies in Rea’s relationships with the people in her life. Her brother who she was once inseparable from is now the popular kid in school and spends most of his time with his friends. Rea, on the other hand, has always struggled socially, but in her mission to find Rohan she must learn to trust others, find the courage within her, and understand the meaning of friendship and family.
I was inspired to write this story because as a kid, I loved to read but I never saw myself in books. A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm. I wanted to change that. So, I decided to write a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture that had kids from India who went off on thrilling adventures and became heroes! It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself. This book has all the elements I loved reading about as a kid—there’s a mystery that needs solving along with an exciting quest, a ticking clock, dark family secrets, unforgettable friendships, a fantastical world, and my favorite, magic!
Could you share your publishing journey with us?
My road to publication was long and winding! I began querying in November 2018. At first, it was great. Most of my queries turned into full manuscript requests. But by mid-December, the rejections started to come in. One of the criticisms I kept hearing was that my book was too long for middle grade. Typically, the word count for middle grade novels is between 50,000-70,000 words while mine was 91,000. I was heartbroken. I had a choice to make: continue querying or pull my book out, edit it down by 20,000 words, and then give it another shot. If I chose to edit the book, I would have to significantly rewrite parts of it since I had to remove one of three POVs. Adding to the daunting prospect of a massive revision, I was pregnant!
As hard as it seemed, I knew it was the right thing to do. During the last two months of my pregnancy, I cut down 23,000 words and rewrote large sections of the book. Once my baby arrived, I sent the manuscript back to my beta readers to see if the new revisions maintained plot, pace, and character growth. After I emerged from that newborn haze of hormones, sleepless nights, and baby cuddles, I dove back into my beta readers’ feedback and by September 2019, I began querying again. Long story short, I signed with my publisher on January 2nd, 2020! My publishing journey ends with the ever-important lesson: No matter how hard it gets, don’t give up.
What was your research process when you set the story in the foothills of the Himalayas and when you created the fantastical world of Astranthia?
When I was thinking about where to set the ‘India’ part of the story, I knew right away that I wanted to portray a region of India that was beautiful and underrated with respect to its landscape and people. The city of Darjeeling is a stunning hill station in the northeast part of the country ensconced within hills, the view of the majestic Himalayas, and rolling tea plantations. There was just so much beauty to be inspired by in terms of its landscape and culture. Since I had never been Darjeeling, I relied on online research especially the official government website for Darjeeling to get details about which trees, birds and animals could be found as well as tourist accounts on blogs and reputed travel websites. I bought books on Darjeeling to get an idea of the local cuisine and day-to-day life, I peered over every aspect of Google Maps to understand the topography of the land and keep it authentic to the story. After double and triple checking the details from my research, I felt pretty confident that everything I had included about Darjeeling was factual. However, it turns out it wasn’t all accurate! I’m so glad I decided to visit Darjeeling before sending my manuscript to agents because I found several inaccuracies in my descriptions and details and it was only after seeing the city, talking to the locals, and driving around that I was able to correct the inaccuracies and record factual details. So, my top tip for any writer who is writing about a place they have not themselves visited is to visit that place before submitting their work for publication!
Simultaneously, as I was inventing the realm of Astranthia, I wanted to capture that same lushness that Darjeeling exuded. When researching Astranthia, I drew inspiration from nature, the changing seasons, online research from fantasy illustrations and Indian and Celtic mythology. I love reading books in which the world feels like a character in itself and I wanted both settings of Darjeeling as well as the fantastical land of Astranthia to feel immersive, verdant, and magical. I find that descriptions of plants, leaves, trees, flowers, and animal life add greatly to the atmosphere of a place and make the reader feel like they are right there with the characters.
About Rea’s family and sibling relationships …
It was important for me to show Rea coming from a small, nuclear, and broken family – it’s just her mother, her grandmother, her brother, and herself. Stereotypically, Indian families are known to be big, joint families and rarely do we hear about divorce or unconventional family units. I wanted to change because the reality is that there are all kinds of family units and structures in India and as we have begun to talk more openly about it, we are seeing that there are so many kids who come from family structures that are different from that ‘one big, happy family’ narrative. Similarly, I wanted to shake the stereotype of the Indian mother as one who is always selfless, always generous, always making you and your friends eat, and just being wonderful and gregarious. Rea’s Amma is not that at all! She is aloof, cold, and battling her own demons, which Rea does not know about or can fully understand yet. Her relationship with her mother is strained and Rea craves the love and attention from her which she does not get. With respect to Rea and Rohan’s relationship, I based a lot of it on mine and my sister’s dynamic! It amazes me how siblings can be so different from each other, and I loved exploring those opposite qualities in Rea and Rohan. Rea has her insecurities but is a fierce girl who is on the hunt for answers to questions that plague her while Rohan is extroverted and the popular kid in school. They get compared all the time (as so many of us have experienced with our siblings!), much to Rea’s disdain. And as they’re growing into their own people, Rea and Rohan who used to be close as children, are now going their separate ways. I wanted to capture that sibling dynamic of rivalry, jealousy, envy but also fierce love, loyalty, and pride for each other.
Why was it important for you to write Rea’s story?
It was important for me to write Rea’s story because I wanted South Asian kids see themselves as main characters in books and know that they are worthy of going on exciting and joyful adventures as well as being heroes.My first draft which I wrote nearly ten years ago, all 70,000 words of it, was written with white characters who lived in the English countryside. It was only when my writing teacher pointed out my lack of Indian characters did I realize how much the books I had read growing up had subconsciously trained my mind into thinking those were the only types of stories people wanted to read. I wouldn’t change the books I read as a kid, but I sure would have loved to read books with characters that looked like me. This is why representation is important. Underrepresented kids should see themselves in books, see themselves as complex characters, and should grow up knowing that their stories are equally important and wonderful. Similarly, I want kids from other cultures and countries to relate with my characters and see that despite their different backgrounds, they share the same hopes, dreams, and fears.
What are some things you hope children will takeaway from Rea’s story?
South Asian representation is incredibly important to me and it has been my mission and passion in writing this book. What I most hope for is that young readers from all backgrounds see my book as an exciting fantasy story (not one only meant for South Asian kids) filled with characters that can relate to and hopefully love reading about. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and know that their stories deserve to be celebrated. At the same time, I wanted to write a story that all kids would enjoy regardless of color, race, nationality, and culture.
Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The New School, New York. Having lived in India, the UK, and US, Payal Doshi noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become her first children’s novel. When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, you can find her nose deep in a book with a cup of coffee or daydreaming of fantasy realms to send her characters off into. She loves the smell of old, yellowed books. Rea and the Blood of the Nectar is the first book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information, visit her website, www.payaldoshiauthor.com, or follow her on Instagram @payaldoshiauthor and on Twitter @payaldwrites.
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You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on July 16, 2021 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US only) to receive a signed, personalized book.