Advancing the diversity conversation

We-Need-Diverse-BooksIt’s been a rowdy few weeks in online discussions of diversity in YA and children’s books. I was just getting my thoughts together about Meg Rosoff’s dismissive-shading-to-hostile-shading-to-defensive response to an important contribution to children’s literature. (Read Edi Campbell’s post, which includes Rosoff’s Facebook remarks, and see Deb Reese’s post here for a list of many responses to Rosoff from the YA community.) And THEN this past weekend Michael Grant came out with a self-congratulatory catalog of ways he’s promoted diversity by including characters from many backgrounds in his fiction.

My first reaction to all this has been incredulity. I guess prejudice, opportunism, and showmanship are not just for the Republican primaries any more!

But I keep reminding myself that, however blatant the dysfunction of Rosoff and Grant’s remarks, they also do something useful for those of us who care about meaningful diversity in fiction and in publishing (you know, the REAL WORLD of agents, editorial boards, publicity offices, awards, and author lists).

First, they surface assumptions held by many out there, including quite a few teachers, librarians, and other stakeholders in education. Second, they create opportunities and a public platform for cogent responses and critiques of these assumptions. We are seeing more and more of this. The impassioned responses to representations of slavery in A Fine Dessert and of American Indians in The Hired Girl are two examples from this past week.

As talk grows as to what this can or should mean for books being considered for awards and presentation to children, we are finally seeing the conversation moving to the mainstream. Debbie Reese excavated this language about “Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation” from a manual for those sitting on committees (see her full comments here):  on page 25. Like this sentence in the first paragraph:

“Everyone benefits, children most of all, when the titles recognized within and across ALSC awards and best-of-the-year lists authentically reflect the diversity found in our nation and the wider world.”

And these three, at the end of the second paragraph:

“As individuals serving on committees evaluate materials according to the criteria outlined for their specific charge, they should strive to be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials. Every committee member brings unique strengths to the table, but every committee member also brings gaps in knowledge and understanding, and biases. Committee members are strongly encouraged to be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.”

That seems to me to speak directly to the conversations we’re having about A FINE DESSERT and THE HIRED GIRL. It says “be open to listening.” As we’ve seen, people are open to listening, but many are not swayed by that listening.

Listening may not always lead to action. I think, however, that we’re beginning to reach a tipping point toward an increased expectation to both listen and act on that listening.

Fingers crossed that this is real and not just the effect of my middle name on my worldview.

A review for National Coming Out Day

For the October issue of The Texas Observer, I had the good fortune to review Queer Brown Voices, a collection of essays and oral histories about Latina/o LGBT activism. And–new heights of coolness–the editor chose my review as the cover story:TXO_QUEERbrownvoicescover_Oct2015

As the editors of Queer Brown Voices note, and as I explain in the review, the anthology was motivated in part by a desire to remedy accounts that have relegated queer brown efforts to the margins of LGBT history, despite the fact that a number of Latinas/os were fighting for LGBT causes well before more widely known white leaders, like Harvey Milk, became active.

Here’s a bit from my review:

Queer Brown Voices… renders visible the challenges faced by Latina/o queer communities in decades past as well as their robust efforts to pave the way for a more just future. For Latinas/os, coming out had a real cost, one often paid on the family front. For Jesús Chaírez, who hosted the influential Dallas LGBT Latina/o radio show Sin Fronteras for more than a decade, coming out meant being excluded from family events. Luz Guerra and Mona Noriega discuss the prejudice faced by Latina lesbian mothers, who not only contended with the widespread belief that lesbianism might harm their children but also often lost custody because of it. (Read the whole review here.)

Thanks to all those who shared their stories in Queer Brown Voices and to the editors who brought those voices to the world. I’ll be proud for my son to read it and begin learning about this particular chapter in Latina/o and LGBT history.

Happy Coming Out Day.

Censorship fuels the censor within (Banned Books Week)


Two things are on my mind today. First, real-deal censorship, like the total ban on Ted Dawe’s award-winning YA novel Into the River in his home country of New Zealand. Second, the softer, but possibly more damaging censorship that writers may inflict on their own work, especially when stories like Dawe’s fill the imagination with potential opposition. There’s never a bad time to think about these issues, but they’re especially apropos because September 27-October 3, 2015 is Banned Books Week, and this year’s theme is YA literature.


Ted Dawes

Although I was aware of current YA book challenges and the banning of many works in the past, I had no idea that a nation like New Zealand had such a thing as a “chief censor” whose job is to direct a bureaucracy focused on rating media and, in cases, banning the sale or distribution of books like Ted Dawe’s Into the River. I haven’t read the book, but from what he talks about here, it sounds like we’re in pretty familiar, well-trod YA territory.

It’s worth noting what “banned” means in New Zealand. We’re not just talking about the book being pulled from public library shelves (although that, too, would be bad). In New Zealand, it is illegal to exhibit, buy, sell, or distribute Into the River or any other book “under restriction.” It may also be illegal to purchase electronic copies of the book.

This situation is intolerable on many levels, but what I’m most interested in–and concerned by–is what the anticipation of censorship means for how writers approach their work. I reckon that New Zealand suffers a paucity of the kind of writing we get here from Carrie Mesrobian, whose frank, sensitive explorations of adolescent sexuality are as important as they are controversial. Carrie’s books Sex and Violence and Perfectly Good White Boy are what I consider top-shelf, and I’m sure her latest, Cut Both Ways, will join them there. (By the way, I mean “top-shelf” as in AWESOME, not as in “keep it out of the reach of the littles.”)

A while back, Carrie had this to say about self-censorship in the context of YA engagements with sex and sexuality:

I think there’s also a form of censorship that we don’t see. This occurs on the part of writers fearing such blowback – is this too graphic? is that okay for kids to read? – and so when it comes to writing sex or anything else controversial, they step back. The scene fades to black. The scene pivots and becomes a summary. The scene gets edited out. The end result is the reader doesn’t get to see that writer’s honest view of the world.

As a writer of YA fiction, this kind of pre-censorship is just as troubling to me as more classic forms of censorship and book-banning. Not only does it underestimate our audience’s capacity and disrespect their ability to select material that has meaning for them, but it also encourages writers to create a kind of pre-chewed, palatable and safe menu for readers, instead of offering up what might be an original view on a difficult or complicated topic. It makes decisions for readers we’ve never met. It contracts the limitless world of literature and all its ways of providing comfort, escape, meaning and empathy.

Amen to all of that. Read the rest of Carrie’s compelling defense of “graphic” scenes in YA fiction here. And while you’re at it, also read Ted Dawe’s description of “uncensoring” his students’ personal writing to open up the possibility of “fearless honesty,” authenticity, solidarity, and visibility for their experiences.

For the most part, when I write, I train my attention on the story I’m telling and the world that it unfolds in. I try to understand that world by writing my way into imagined hearts and minds. That means writing the scenes that belong in my narrative even when it entails going places I’d rather not. As I talk about more here, this uncensored writing process is incredibly difficult to achieve even in the States. The work would be made much harder if I were trying to do it in a country with such a vexed relationship with writing that engages with reality in all its aspects. A quick poke around the New Zealand censorship webpage suggests to me that the office’s vision of “wise choices” maps distressingly well onto the idea of “clean YA” that I reject for my own writing.

Even as I do my best not to think about the hypothetical judgments of hypothetical PTA members who might hypothetically read and condemn (or condemn without reading) my books, I’m more than a little worried about censorship in New Zealand.

So, here is what I’m up to: (1) checking out Into the River, (2) writing in support of restored access to the book in New Zealand, and (3) fearlessly writing my next novel. I hope Ted Dawes is working on that last bit, too.


Official Out of Darkness book release

It’s here! No, I’m not talking about Liam Miguel’s first day of kindergarten (that was yesterday) or Ethan Andrés’s first day of nursery school (that’s today). I’m talking about the official release of Out of Darkness, which has been part of my world since I started writing it in 2011 and can now–finally–become part of your world… if you dare.

For the past month, I’ve been answering questions and clarifying (for myself and anyone who will listen) why this novel matters and what writing it was like. Dip into any of the blog tour posts, and you’ll get a taste of the novel, which takes the 1937 New London, Texas, school explosion as the backdrop for a secret romance between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. In my editor’s words (lightly revised): “It’s a book about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.”

8/9: Q&A – Shelf Life @ Texas 

8/10: review – Finding Wonderland 

8/12: interview and giveaway – YA Outside the Lines 

8/17: guest post on cover art – Actin’ Up With Books 

8/21: excerpt and giveaway – Forever Young Adult

8/26: why write with history – the Sarah Laurence blog

8/28: review – Forever Young Adult 

8/28-8/31: three-part conversation at Finding Wonderland (Part 1Part 2Part 3)

8/31: “Words that Wake Us” guest post – Diversity in YA

Out of Darkness on tour…

The Out of Darkness blog tour is underway! The September release of Out of Darkness is just a few weeks away, and I’m visiting some of my favorite blogs and online haunts. Here’s where I’ve been so far:

8/9: Q&A – Shelf Life @ Texas 

8/10: review – Finding Wonderland 

8/12: interview and giveaway – YA Outside the Lines (This giveaway is still happening…)

8/17: guest post on cover art – Actin’ Up With Books 

And here’s where I’m headed next:

8/21: excerpt and giveaway – Forever Young Adult 

8/28: review – Forever Young Adult 

8/26: review and my thoughts on writing about history – the Sarah Laurence blog

8/31: guest post (“Words that Wake Us”) – Diversity in YA

TBA: conversation with Tanita Davis and Sarah Stephenson about Out of Darkness, writers’ responsibilities, and more. – Finding Wonderland 

Also, in case you missed it, Out of Darkness was included on the Book Riot “Best Books We Read in July” list. Kelly Jensen called it “powerful, painful, raw, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.” Watch out–reading through the “Best Books,” I added about 7 new titles to my “To Read” list.

Another great–and very detailed–review of Out of Darkness is here on the Midnight Garden, a blog on YA for adults.

What Montessori preschool can teach writers

By Sarah on Flickr:

It’s partway through your morning work time, and here are your symptoms: brain on ice (or scattered), lethargy (or restlessness), total aversion to the work on your desk. You’re frustrated with yourself; it’s not time·to be tired yet. You’re not even sleep deprived, so what is going on?

I say “you,” but of course I really mean “me.” The above is what invariably happens to me around 10 or 10:30 when I’m trying to power through an academic article or a frustrating fiction task. I used to take this feeling as a sign that I needed a break, but wait a minute: I already take a 5 minute break every half hour. On other days, sometimes I’d decide that the fatigue meant that I just wouldn’t be able to accomplish all the writing I’d hoped to and would simply have to switch to a zombie task

But at some point during our older son’s journey through Montessori early education, I learned about the notion of “false fatigue,” which one Montessori guide describes this way: 

Beware of misinterpreting the restlessness that is common an hour or so into the morning. Montessori tells us that the children are simply in search of their “maximum interest.” One could easily conclude that the children are not able to continue working. It would be a mistake to gather the group at this point, though our observations might indicate that just such an action is necessary to avoid chaos. Montessori tells us that the child’s “great work” occurs in the second half of the morning. If we resist the urge to interfere during the agitation of false fatigue, we will find the children returning to activity, choosing more challenging work, and becoming deeply absorbed in it.

 Thanks to the notion, I’ve gotten better at embracing my inner preschooler and toughing out the mid-morning false fatigue. I might even have a couple (or six) sticky notes over my desk cautioning me against such things as false fatigue. Because, hey, I don’t want to miss the chance to accomplish my day’s “great work.”

So there you go. Get your Montessorian act on.


Ten Things That Happened Last Year (with photos to account for my absence)

I’ve been away from the blog for a good while now. I’ve gotten the occasional blogging fix over at, but I’ve missed having my own space for mulling over ideas big, little, and in between. The life of the mind sometimes produces nuggets of insight and inquiry that need somewhere to go but don’t fit into my fiction or academic work or teaching. Which is why I’m back and looking forward to offering a post here every week or so.

Now, where have I been? Here’s an account of what’s been going on (in reverse chronological order because, well, why not?):

(1) Release of Out of Darkness in September 2015

(2) Blog tour for Out of Darkness in August 2015

(3) Baby Ethan Andrés born on June 10, 2015

(4) Finishing Out of Darkness in January 2015

(5) Start of new job teaching world lit at The Ohio State University in August 2014

(6) Moving the whole family to Columbus, Ohio

(7) Dissertation defense and completion of PhD in summer 2014

(8) Two-person job search in fall of 2013

(9) Joining up with rockstar writers and Latin@ literacy advocates to form

(10) Writing the dissertation from 2013-2014

Yes, I realize that my list includes two events from the future, but I’m doing work for them now, so I figure that they should count. Also I wanted to put as much space between myself and the nightmare stress fest of writing the dissertation and looking for jobs. But it’s over now! I can laugh about it (sometimes). 


A few photos to document these adventures:

This family photo was taken when Ethan Andrés was five days old. Arnulfo and Liam Miguel (now 5 years old) are rockstars in the baby soothing business (not to mention their incredible sense of style).

Out of Darkness is almost here! Thanks to my editor Andrew Karre for his phenomenal editing (we talk about that and more in this Cynsations post), to the Lerner designers for the cover, and to my family for endless patience during the four years I spent writing this book. And woohoo!: starred reviews in School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. Fingers crossed that there will be more stars as additional reviews come out.

During my first semester at OSU I gave a talk to highlight my current academic research on cruelty in literature. Right now my position is just for three years and not tenure-track, but we’re hoping that will change.

This is the house we bought right in the middle of Columbus. It’s 6 minutes from campus and in a historic area called Clintonville known for its friendly neighbors. Liam Miguel has made tons of friends, including a buddy who lives across the alley and will go to the same kindergarten in the fall. When they want to get together, they do the following: Liam Miguel climbs the tree in our back yard, August goes to the top of his play house, and somebody calls out, “Tell your mom to text my mom.”


This is our map tracking potential jobs for each of us to help us see where we had options. We looked all over the country for jobs. We both had good leads, but the challenge was hitting on a place that offered opportunities for each of us. OSU was the winner!


… and back in the fall of 2013, author Cindy Rodriguez invited me to help her found a website that focuses on children’s and YA lit by and/or about Latin@s. Latin@s in Kid Lit is what we created. Since we got started, we’ve expanded our list of contributors and become visible as a source for reviews and suggestions for selecting and teaching Latin@ kid lit. We also post on issues of importance to the Latin@ community and its allies. Here are some of the posts I’ve written for LKL.

Colorful Genius

Check this post at Latin@s in Kid Lit out. Patrick Flores-Scott makes a case for creating a diverse YA/kid’s publishing version of the Hollywood Black List, a vetted collection of best screenplays that haven’t yet been purchased. The concept is genius. It’s an industry-wide notion that could expand what we’re beginning to do with the Pitch Fiesta: create visibility for folks who haven’t (yet) had success navigating the paths into publishing. I think the next question is: what would it take to make something like this happen? Could we get YALSA, for example, to put committee power behind it? I might throw this post at my agent and editor–both rockstars who’ve had success with diverse titles–and ask them to comment on the idea.

If you’ve wondered where the heck I’ve been these last months, well… let’s say that while I was away, two Pérez PhDs got finished (mine and my husband’s), a move to Columbus, Ohio, happened, and we started new jobs at The Ohio State University. Kind of a lot. I do plan to be back here with my own thoughts, shouts, and murmurs, but a lot of my blogging energy has been channeled to Latin@s in Kid Lit, where I blog regularly.

The Road to Publishing: One Take on Working with a (Rock Star) Editor

Some of what my revision has looked like working with Andrew.

In articles and blog posts about breaking into the world of publishing, the lion’s share of attention goes to the writing craft, getting an agent, and securing a book deal. But what happens after those hurdles have been jumped? What can writers expect from their editors once the deal is sealed? And what will editors expect from writers?

For my take on what it’s been like to work with rock star editor Andrew Karre, check out the rest of this post over at Latin@s in Kid Lit. Later this week, Latin@s in Kid Lit will post an interview with Andrew, so be sure to stop by for that as well. And while you’re there, why not sign up for the fabulous book giveaway and check out our 2014 reading challenge?

12-Book Giveaway from Latin@s in Kid Lit

Don’t miss out! The blog Latin@s in Kid Lit is running a 12-day giveaway with a whole heap of amazing books (ahem, mine are in there, too)! Check out all the details here, and happy reading.

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All materials © 2015 Ashley Hope Pérez. Author website by Websy Daisy.