Monday, June 24, 2013

The Diversity Gap in Children's Books Published in the United States

A blog post on The Open Book (the Lee and Low blog) reads:
Since LEE & LOW BOOKS was founded in 1991 we have monitored the number of multicultural children’s books published each year through the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s statistics. Our hope has always been that with all of our efforts and dedication to publishing multicultural books for more than twenty years, we must have made a difference. Surprisingly, the needle has not moved. 
The graph is telling. Look at that flat line of percentages.

So what do we do about this, exactly? At VCFA we've talked about the need to recruit more students of color into the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. How do we do that in conscience, if this is how the numbers play out?

I've been at conferences where teachers and librarians have stopped to look at my books and talk to me, then say as they disengage apologetically, "I don't have a large South Asian population in my area." Nikki Grimes and Rudine Sims-Bishop both refer to this frequently encountered perception that books about minority characters will only be read by minority kids.

Is this for real? Do we really only expect people to read books that reflect themselves? That seems like an awfully narrow view of reading. Speaking for myself, if I'd only been willing to read books about kids like me, I'd have grown up illiterate.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Unpacking the MFA Residency

It seems the harder I try to get ready for the VCFA July residency the more behind I get. Which makes sense--what could possibly get me ready for that 10-day wormhole experience that swallows us all up and spits us out at the end, exhausted and exhilarated and just about ex-breathing? Because residency has a way of validating your presence in the writing world while simultaneously pointing out at every turn how very little you know about this art around which you claim to have built your life. How very little you might know about anything, in fact. You spend six months looking forward to it and by mid-point you know that you are utterly crazy and all you want to do is go home and sleep for the next half-century.

In fact, it occurs to me that residency does the very things that writing itself can be relied upon to do. It puts your ego on the line daily. It's one endlessly looping emotional rollercoaster ride. And that is fine. Because at the end of it when I get on that plane, heading back to the rest of my life, I take memories with me. Of lectures that hold me riveted, faculty colleagues who fill my heart and mind, talk about books and writing, words and how they operate, workshop conversations and graduation moments that remind me why I love this program and the work we do together.

So instead of trying to get ready for any of that, I'm trying something else this year. I'm shedding loads. I'm packing light. I signed up for yoga ahead of time. I put together a playlist of soothing music. I'm taking along a bag of ginger chews and extra vitamins.

Clearing my desk. Making time to walk. Knitting. Reading for fun at least 10 minutes a day.

Bring on the time-warp. I'll never be ready, but maybe readiness is an overrated concept.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Cliff Swallows and Building Narratives

These cliff swallows nest just down the road. (At least I think they're cliff swallows--are they not the only kind to build those gourd-like nests out of river mud?) I've been watching them every summer for over a decade. 

All those years, I'd drive past, slow down to glance at the swarms of birds overhead, feel the smile breaking out on my face in the way that bird-swarms make a person smile. Then I'd go on my way. I'd think, I ought to stop and take pictures. Really. Someday I will.


For some reason it sank in at last that those somedays don't just stretch forever into my distance, so today I decided to put my Flipcam to work. 

The swallows came pouring out, perhaps in response to me and my blundering around at the foot of their cliff palace. Listen to the flapping of wings and the shrill, squeaky cries. Here's life just bursting out of that rock. In contrast to that extravagance of sound and motion, look at those nests. How perfect they are, a whole community on this rock face, built one little dollop of mud at a time, flown up from the riverbank a couple of miles away. 

They remind me of Nader Khalili's ceramic homes.

What can we learn from swallows about form and structure? A lot, I think. There's such a deep sense of the organic and whole about this little colony of homes, each little cavity containing a bobbing beak or two. Nothing wasted. Everything with a purpose. Who needs heaven? Perfection is right here. 

Think about building story that way, with that kind of care and concern for setting and context, space and sky, river and rock, that intensity and life force driving the whole endeavor. I'm quoting Annie Dillard these days: "...right now your job is to hold your breath."