I went to ALAN this year because Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Rogue; Nancy Paulsen Books) asked me to moderate a panel with her, Kekla Magoon (The Rock and the River; Aladdin) and Rene Saldana Jr (Juventud! Growing up on the Border: Stories and Poems; VAO Publishing). entitled “It’s Complicated: Diverse Authors Revisit the Classics”. We had a nice turnout and it was great working with these talented individuals, although Rene was unfortunately detained in that terrible storm in Texas and unable to join us.
I was truly disappointed in the lack of diversity at the conference. As a new friend stated “I’m tired of the all White world of YA.” I could count on my hands the number of people of color who were present. While there those who are committed to YA and to the teens who read it, most teachers and librarians of color will choose to come only if they see people like them somewhere in the program. It makes you feel welcome, you know?
My criticism is more with the industry and how it promotes authors.
I felt quite welcome at ALAN this year as I always do.
Yea, it bothered me that after all I’d gone through to get there, the room was so packed that it seemed I’d spend the first day standing around the back of the room. But this is a conference where people talk to one another! We talk about the books, the authors, programs we’re planning, students we teach and the shoes we wear. We talk to librarians, authors, editors and university students. While we celebrated 40 years of ALAN, we listened to authors as they shared about their writing, their readers and their lives.
I hated that I missed hearing Jacqueline Woodson’s (Each Kindness, Nancy Paulsen Books) poem but I had to get Swati Avasthi’s (Chasing Shadows, Random House) autograph and arrange an interview with her!
Who was it during the Coming of Age session when talking about hope in our stories that said “It’s not the despair that gets you, it’s the hope”?
Alan Sitomer (Caged Warrior; Disney Hyperion) on the same panel postulated that “we all live on hope.” With much passion, he proclaimed that “there’s an assault on kids in urban schools today.” They’re not bright enough, not motivated enough… and this is only said about the urban kids!
Upon receiving the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, Eliot Schrefer (Endangered; Scholastic) reflected on his visit to the Congo where he spoke to teens growing up in this war-torn country and he wondered why he was there talking to these students about books. But then, they began taking examples from his reading and applying them to situations in their country.
Fellow recipient A.S. King (Reality Boy; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) made even more of a point about why she writes. “I need to write the air. I write because I need to. I believe in compassion and community and I’ve always wanted to live in a world where people really are equals … Writing should make us generous. You have to give up yourself to the book. Writing should change you.”
As someone who has moved over to the academic side and who teaches research to students, I really appreciated what Tanya Lee Stone (Courage has no color, the true story of the Triple Nickles: America’s first Black Paratroopers; Candlewick) had to say about research. She suggested getting young researchers to realize what they are passionate about and then figuring out what’s important about that. Passion should drive research.
I loved hearing Beth Kephart (Going Over; Chronicle Books) state that “landscape is character” because it spoke to my passion for geography and economics in literature.
Sharon McKay (Enemy Territory; Annick Press) was amazing as she unfolded her personal story that helps her know how to be an insider when writer. “Outsiders have simple solutions.” They don’t understand a community’s complexities.
“We are all writing about people in the end. We’re all writing about love in the end.” Kephart.
But readers need to find themselves in what they read. They need to be able to relate to the characters and situations.
Sara Farizan (If you could be mine: a novel; Algonquin) reflected on growing up uncomfortable with her gay identity. She found solace in reading and writing and she sought out books. While she found some with gay and lesbian characters, she couldn’t find any Middle Eastern or Asian characters who were facing obstacles like her. She decided to write one.
Authors with so many provocative thoughts!
While so many writers urge us to push the envelope and to be edgy (which we need to do because so many teen’s lives are ‘edgy’) Another perspective was presented by Carl Deuker (Swagger; Houghton Mifflin). “They grow close to 6 feet tall but they’re still very close to Charlotte’s Web”.
I wish I knew who said it!!!
“Why are books the last racial barrier where many white kids only read about their own experience”? Neighborhoods and schools are integrated. We listen to one another’s music, so what is it about books?
I loved witnessing Paul Rudnick’s (Gorgeous; Scholastic) sheer exuberance about writing; Ann Burg’s (Sarafina’s Promise; Scholastic) commitment to truth, Robert Lipsyte’s plea for literacy over sports (where “character has become less important than characters”); Ken Setterington’s (Branded by the Pink Triangle; Second Story Press) work to preserve the pink triangle of the Holocaust and was perplexed by science fiction writings admitting the lack of science in their writing yet managing to redeem themselves in their use of horror.
I was glad to discover a new author of color, Kendare Blake (Antigodess; Tor), a Korean American author.
As is fitting, my take-a-way came from Walter Mayes, librarian extraordinaire and the face of ALAN. Remember, ALAN is part of NCTE, so the majority of people there are teachers. Walter was part of a panel celebrating librarians and media specialists. I think he’s an incredible librarian. Well over 6 ft tall, he’s still close to Charlotte’s Web, still close to what children hold dear. Walter related a story to us.
In his library, the older students are able to speak their mind if no younger students are around. Walter’s students aren’t those urban students but they’re diverse. His library books represent diversity. He’s figured out how to give students what they’re ready for and he knew this particular 8th grade black girl was ready for pretty much the same thing her white classmates were reading until one day, she came in, looked around and said she was tired of all these books with “rich, white bitches”. Their conversation led him to make a selection for her that had her coming back, and coming back and coming back.
Walter, this tall white guy working in a library in an all girl’s school was aware enough to get that not all Black, Latino or Asian kids are able to recognize or articulate their desire for books with characters like them. I can remember Ari, Kekla and even myself being quite satisfied with reading about “rich white bitches”, but once discovering a book with a character like us, we wanted more! In our youth, we really couldn’t articulate what we wanted or why. For publishers to want students to articulate their desire for ethnic diversity in literature is absurd: they simply haven’t all reached that level of psychological development. Thankfully, many librarians get it.
ALAN was stimulating, thought-provoking and irritating. I made wonderful connections in terms of thoughts, ideas and relationships with other people. I just know that a more diverse presentation would have enriched us all so much more. The authors not being there wasn’t because ALAN didn’t invite them, it has to do with who publishers choose to market.
ALAN is very inexpensive to join. The organization is extremely inclusive and its journal is quite important to the field of YA literature. Let’s not pull away from ALAN. Only by joining such organizations and working with such allies can we get publishers to realize they’ve got to change how they market their authors of color and how they represent YA lit to readers. We have to show up to be included. Next year’s conference will be in Washington D.C..
ALAN is the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English.