By Felicity LuHill
March 6, 2017
I’ve just finished two Saturday classes titled “Writing Cross-Culturally: Diversity in Children’s and Teen Literature,” with Andrea Pinkney, editor at Scholastic, esteemed author and Coretta Scott King Award Winner for “Hand in Hand: Two Black Men Who Changed America.”
For our class, Andrea listed the “ingredients” of writing an effective cross-cultural book. It was a long list that included: authenticity, research, vulnerability, physicality, voice, intention, experience, flavor, time and place. She told us to split into groups and list the ingredients by order of importance. In my group, we tried to figure out what the most important ingredient was. One person said “research;” another said “time and place.” I hesitated. I wanted to say “vulnerability” but now that they mentioned it, I thought of how writers have been told for so long how important research is.
When we got back together as a class, Andrea revealed her ordering of the list. The number one most important ingredient? Voice. Voice makes the character powerful, what draws the reader in, what makes reading feel like a discussion with a friend. Next was flavor, then vulnerability. Time and place came second to last and research came last. “Research is the filler” she explained. “The details you double check later.”
Everything clicked when she said this. Of course! We read to find people, not facts. It made sense that voice would be most important.
The class continued to be a series of epiphanies for me. What else did I learn?
- Kill The Committee. “The Committee” is the cluster of cacophonous voices in your head that keep you from writing, while attempting to tell you what you “should” do. These voices say, “What if someone never had an experience like that?” or “What if someone would react differently to this?” When writing a diverse character, you should hush those voices and focus on what is true for your character.
- Be upfront about the diverse aspects of your character. Don’t shy away from saying explicitly what makes your character special. In my class specifically, not only were people writing characters that had different race and ethnic backgrounds, but characters who were trans, plus-sized, and maintained disabilities. Whatever makes up the identity of your character, don’t be afraid to say it explicitly.
- Rip open your chest! Tap into your character’s thoughts and feelings, and dig deep. Get messy. Get emotional.
As a writer and a reading enthusiast, I see these lessons applicable both ways. At Barbershop Books, we’re always on the look out for writing that accomplishes these things so we can pass them on to early readers. Books should have full, dynamic characters that are unafraid to express what makes them unique. Characters who aren’t self-conscious of what certain readers might think. We need characters that rip open their chests and let us in, so we can know how they feel. Because in the end this is what helps us understand us, and the world around us, better.
Admin, Author. “Calendar – February 1-28, 2017.” Metro Monthly. Accessed March 06, 2017. http://new.metromonthly.net/2017/02/01/calendar-february-1-28-2017/.
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