Writing Cross-Culturally

Pennies Michelle and Julie meet in real life at last week’s Madcap Retreat

This month, The Winged Pen’s own Michelle Leonard and Julie Artz were lucky enough to attend Madcap RetreatsWriting Cross-Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Not only was it a blast to finally meet up face-to-face, but the long weekend was packed with great information and resources. We’d like to share a peek at what we learned with our readers.

Highlights

We were surrounded by many talented writers of various backgrounds and made many new friends for life. The faculty (pictured below) included Leigh Bardugo, Daniel José Older, Nicola Yoon, Adi Alsaid, Danielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Justina Ireland, Julie Murphy, and Natalie Parker. Dhonielle Clayton

Your characters should have several layers of description that comes through in your story.

  • Outside identity:  race, skin color, physical features, names
  • Belief system:  religion, traditions, sexuality, gender, fears
  • Frame:  family structure, house rules, foods

Cultures are not a monolith. Be as specific as possible about who your character is on the outside, inside, and the frame around them.

When describing skin tone and hair, use make-up and hairstylist hair terminology (google is your friend!) to avoid character description pitfalls like “pale” (pale compared to whom???).

DJ Older

To get past good vs evil, to a more nuanced view of conflict, you have to understand the power dynamics of the characters in your story world.

Some examples of types of power:

  • Institutional power (posse of armed men)
  • Community power
  • Magic – the physicialisation of power
  • Health/ability
  • Spirituality/religion
  • Economic
  • Education
  • Acceptance
  • Beauty
  • Heteronormative/Gender
  • Reproductive
  • Race
  •  Age

The crisis of your book must be determined before you develop your character. The crisis can be anything from your character “needs a hug” to “he’s gonna die.” Ultimately, all stories are about who has the power and how it’s used. Check out DJ’s Buzzfeed article about writing about “other” characters.

Justina Ireland

Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. They are often transparent to you, but not to others. Microagressions remind outgroups that they are outside the norm or social standard.

Example: A store owner following a customer of color around the store.

How do you prevent microaggressions?

  • Write with savage empathy by seeing the character like an individual.
  • Write for your entire audience.
  • Consider how people from outgroups will consider your depictions.
  • Acknowledge your blind spots and get help from others in writing characters unlike you.

Resource for sensitivity readers and more: Writing in the Margins

Another good resource good on microaggressions (not shared by Justina, but relevant) from The Atlantic.

Tessa Gratton

Metanarratives are an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. Metanarratives are repeated until they seem like facts, but rarely reflect reality or what we want for future generations.

Basic western fantasy coding

  • Good: white, European Christian, pure
  • Evil: black, non-European, non-Christian
  • This comes from history
    • Medieval recreation of West v East (greeks v Persians) by Christian historians
    • Crusader ideology

Because this is the default, you must actively work against this metanarrative.

Nicola Yoon

It’s hard to hate what you understand. Avoid stereotypes because they’re not the truth. They are lazy. (Examples: sassy black woman, nerdy Asian, overbearing Jewish mom, demonization of poverty.)

How to write cross-culturally?

  • Diversify your life. Specificity is the key to building real characters. OK, they’re sassy. And then what?
  • Empathy + craft
  • When you engage in stereotypes, people see it as a moral failing but it’s really a failure at the craft level. You did not inhabit someone else.
  • When you write characters, be specific, write against stereotypes, and do no harm.
  • Use sensitivity readers.

Heidi Heilig

Cultural appropriation is adopting or using the elements of one (usually minority) culture by members of another (usually dominant) culture. Often the original meaning of those elements is lost or distorted, and this is disrespectful and oftentimes harmful to the members of the original culture.

Julie Murphy

Things to avoid in body representation:

  • Applying moral value to food and fat vs. thin.
  • Nobody “feels” fat. It’s not a feeling!
  • Just because you write a fat character in a book doesn’t mean that you need to explain why that character is fat.

Leigh Bardugo

Good worldbuilding:  playing god and not being a jerk about it. You should read work by “marginalized authors to learn how to build worlds that don’t make people feel like shit.”

N.K. Jemisin’s work is an example of excellent worldbuilding with diverse characters.

Adi Alsaid

Start your story as close as possible to the event that throws the main character off footing. Watch this very important TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story.

Book Recommendations

There are so many amazing things happening in kidlit, it’s hard to narrow down a list of recommendations. But here are a few:

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

Daniel Jose Older – Shadowshaper

Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

Nicola Yoon – The Sun is Also a Star

Julie Murphy – Dumplin’

Alex Gino – George

Donna Gephart – Lily and Dunkin

Additional Resources

Take Gene Luen Yang’s April Reading Without Walls challenge.
NaNoWriMo’s Preparing to write about diverse characters
Justina Ireland’s blog about writing about people unlike yourself.
WNDB We Need Diverse Books resources for writers
Writing With Color
Intersecting Axes of Privilege
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) statistics on children’s publishing
Disability in Kidlit Tumblr and website

The best part of our weekend–all the amazing friends we made! ❤️

We hope you’ll enjoy a few blogs from our new writing friends so you can see different takeaways from the MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. Please feel free to share any resources or questions you have for writing cross-culturally in the comments!

Aimee Davis’ blogBroken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Anna Jarvis’ blog: The Wonderful World of Writing and Friendship

Jordan Kurella’s blog: We Could Be Heroes, For Every Day

Sarah Viehmann’s blog: Favorite Quotes from MadCap

Carrie Peter’s blog: MadCap Retreat: March 2017

Book Talk with Author Jessica Lawson

Jessica Lawson is not only the author of three terrific middle grade books, she’s also an all-around cool human being. When she discovered my daughter was a fan, she commenced a covert operation to make sure a swag bag, along with a handwritten note, was waiting under the tree for my daughter on Christmas morning. Today, she’s agreed to chat with the Winged Pen.

Jessica, welcome! Your first two novels, The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher and Nooks & Crannies, are both historical (although with vastly different settings). They also feature strong female protagonists with interesting sidekicks; was this intentional?

First of all, thank you so much for having me on the blog! As for character choices, it was definitely a deliberate choice of mine to make Becky Thatcher a strong female—I always wished the original Twain-written character had more mischief about her, so it was fun to make that happen. And, as I was already playing around with character roles, I got a bit of satisfaction out of making Amy Lawrence—Tom Sawyer’s previous “love”— the best friend character. As for Tabitha Crum, lead character in Nooks & Crannies, she was raised to be very solitary and quiet. Giving her a mouse sidekick to chat with allowed her to express her other side—clever, introspective, funny, and vulnerable. 

Your latest novel, Waiting for Augusta, includes an element of magical realism; tell us more!

It’s the story of Ben Putter, a boy who runs away and travels over 400 miles in an attempt to scatter his father’s ashes on the 18th green of a very famous golf course. The ashes speak to him along the way, helping both Ben and his dad come to terms with their broken relationship.

Was it hard making the switch from realistic/historical to magical realism? I’ve heard some agents/editors talk about the importance of being able to “shelve” books together; did you encounter any resistance when you pitched switching genres? 

Strangely enough, I didn’t really see it as magical realism when I was writing it. To me, it was natural that a very creative young boy might stare at a cremation urn and imagine what his father might be saying, were he still alive. The conversations between the two of them came the same way they would have if the dad was still alive, though Ben feels a bit more free to speak his mind.

I think the shift into magical realism was tempered by the historical setting, so it didn’t seem like too much of a genre switch. I interviewed my agent about marketing books that seem different, and how she does that when trying to sell my stories- you can read that post here.

Simon & Schuster has published all three of your novels; how has your relationship with your editor evolved over time? Is he/she instrumental in developing new story ideas, or do you pitch a story once you’ve already fleshed it out?

I had the same fabulous editor for my first three books, and she and I became more and more comfortable in knowing what the other person needed to make the best book possible. I develop story ideas with my agent, then show my editor fleshed-out pages and a summary once it’s time to pitch a new idea.

My next book, UNDER THE BOTTLE BRIDGE, will be out next fall and is the first book with my new editor. It’s an autumn story set in a modern artisan village that has a heavy focus on traditional arts. The main character, Minna, comes from a long line of woodworkers. It’s full of covered bridges, looming deadlines, mysterious bottle messages, and family legacies! 

With three books published and a fourth scheduled to hit shelves in September, you are an incredibly productive writer! What does your “typical” day look like?

Aw, thank you! As a mom to two young kids, I write in spurts, whenever the opportunity presents itself. There’s no typical day writing-wise, but I’ve found that writing plot notes and bits of dialogue on post-its or notebooks is something I consistently do that really helps me stay focused when I do get time to draft.

Finally, a speed round!

Coffee or tea?  Coffee

Sweet or salty?  Salty

Dog or cat?  Dog (though I have a cat :))

Plotter or pantser?  Pantser

E-book or physical book?  Physical book

Jessica, thank you for dropping by! 

Thank you so much for having me!

Jessica Lawson is the author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, a book that Publishers Weekly called “a delightfully clever debut” in a starred review, and Nooks & Crannies, a Junior Library Guild Selection and recipient of three starred reviews. Her latest middle grade novel, Waiting for Augusta, is also a Junior Library Guild Selection. You can learn more about Jessica on her website  or at Simon & Schuster

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

Shout out for Stephanie Garber’s CARAVAL

Caraval is the story of Scarlett, a girl who is desperate to escape her violent and controlling father and to take her younger sister, Donatella, with her. Scarlet hopes marriage to a man she’s never met, a marriage arranged by her father, will save them. Donatella doesn’t believe it will, so she persuades a handsome sailor to transport them off their island home and to Caraval, a legendary once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show.

But even before Scarlett reaches the gates to Caraval, Donatella disappears. Legend, the mysterious showman who runs Caraval, has made finding Donatella the puzzle every player will try to solve. Whoever finds her first wins the prize, the granting of a wish. Scarlett must follow the clues in Legend’s game to find her sister, but winning won’t be easy. In Caraval, no one is what they seem.

There are several things I love about this story. The rich, magical world of Caraval, the tight bond of love between sisters that pulls Scarlett deeper into the game even as she’s desperate to head home for her wedding, and Scarlet’s growing attraction to Julian, the sailor. This story will pull you in, but remember, it’s only a game.

I received an advanced reader copy of Caraval in a Goodreads giveaway and was asked to review. I also purchased a copy for myself and another for my niece for Christmas because…love!

Caraval will be released January 31st. There’s a great pre-order giveaway. Details here (preorder and submit receipt by January 31, 2017).

Find Caraval at:

Goodreads
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Indiebound

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

A Book to Pull in Reluctant Readers: Neal Shusterman’s SCYTHE

Normally, I don’t write reviews for books by established authors. Scythe was published in November 22nd, 2016 and already has 1,994 reviews on Goodreads, so my 1,995th is not going to have a big impact on Shusterman’s sales. But as a mom with one bookworm and one reluctant reader, I am always on the lookout for books that will pull in a tween/teen boy. This is one. My son picked it out and after he’d finished it, he literally pulled the book I was reading out of my hands, put this one in it, and said, “Read this first.”

Scythe is set in a Utopian world where death, disease and war have been conquered. “Splatting” or jumping from great heights to feel the thrill of an adrenaline rush, only to be revived afterwards, has become a thing. Because where there is no fear of death, life also has less joy and purpose.

But population levels still need to me managed. This is done through scythes, men and woman who humanely reduce the population. Scythe is about two teens, one girl and one boy, who are chosen as apprentices to a scythe, and about their struggle to learn the “killtrade” and grapple with the task of selecting humans to “gleaned.”

This topic sounds gruesome, and there are certainly scenes involving killing. But Shusterman focuses not on the blood and guts but on the moral dilemma that the apprentices face. He shows the “gleaning” process for several different scythes, helping readers to draw their own conclusions about the ethical implications of the different methods.

But the real draw for this story is the two teen apprentices, Citra and Rowan. The teens feel genuine. Readers will feel their tension as they come to see that the scythe is a necessary profession in this world and is best done by the people who are least drawn to it, those who place the highest value on human life. When Citra and Rowan discover a bigger problem facing their Utopian world and try to right it, it leads to action, adventure, and plot-twists that keep the pages turning.

Scythe was released November 22, 2016.

Find Scythe at:

Goodreads
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Indiebound

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

10 Great Books for the Young Readers on Your List

Here are ten books for Middle Grade readers (9 to 12) I enjoyed reading this year. Maybe you’ll find something for the special readers on your holiday gift list.51s7thphe8l-_ac_us240_ql65_

Nancy Cavanaugh’s THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET is the story of a lonely girl with a gift for auto mechanics, her tree-hugging granola-head father, and how she finds real friends.

89716Gennifer Choldenko’s AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS is the story of a boy whose family moves to the famous prison island, Alcatraz, and the warden’s daughter’s money-making schemes and an unlikely friendship between a girl with a leaning towards autism and the world’s most famous criminal. For more about this book, listen to the Book Club for Kids podcast.

8112318Wendy Maas’ THE CANDYMAKERS was recommended to me by my youngest a year or so ago. This story of a candymaking competition is told by each contestant in turn. Their stories don’t always agree. And that’s what makes the mystery.

 

7793985Shutta Crum’s THOMAS AND THE DRAGON QUEEN starts off like a classic quest of a very young wannabe knight. The tone is gentle and warm and you might be mistaken by the cover into thinking this is a book for younger middle grade readers only. There’s a really nice twist as a reward.

SPOILER ALERT: If you have a sensitive reader, check out the battle scene yourself first. The story is worth it.

10508431Jessica Day George’s TUESDAYS AT THE CASTLE is a warm book about a family and the castle that loves them. I noticed that the current cover on Amazon makes it look much “girlier” than it is. Celie is a princess, but she’s also a mapmaker who saves the day. This is the first book in a series.

SPOILER ALERT: Sensitive readers may be concerned that the story will get too dark after Chapter 3, but the book keeps it’s younger middle grade tone, so take courage and read on! 🙂

12969596Caitlen Rubino-Bradway’s ORDINARY MAGIC is a bit like Harry Potter upside down because it’s the ordinary kids who are sent away to school, not the magical ones.

SPOILER ALERT: Sensitive readers might not be crazy about the goblins.

 

22402972Lynda Mulally Hunt’s FISH IN A TREE was one of my absolute favorite books this year. Artistic Ally has a secret worry but her terrific teacher, Mr. Daniels, gives her hope. This is a heart-warming story about making friends, finding your place in your class, and finding out what it means to be smart.

28110852Kelly Barnhill’s THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is a story for readers who like to fall completely into a story. The world feels so rich and the relationships between the family members are so warm. Magical.

SPOILER ALERT: There’s a scene with paper birds that might be challenging for sensitive readers.

19500357Lynne Rae Perkins’ NUTS TO YOU stars a cast of squirrels that talk exactly the way you would expect squirrels to talk. They’re worried about the forest and they’ve got a bit of attitude. Fun!

 

 

17731927Ally Condie’s SUMMERLOST is as beautiful as its cover. A story about overcoming grief that’s focused on hope and a Shakespeare summer festival and a new special friend.

Read more about SUMMERLOST in my Goodreads review.

 

Want even more? Download The Winged Pen’s 2016 List of Great Book Gifts for Classroom Libraries here.

These are the same books we’ve been sharing on Twitter during December–– all on one list for your shopping convenience.

Did you find something to try? Or do you have other suggestions for middle grade readers? Feel free to comment below.

The Winged Pen is taking a break for the holidays and will return early 2017 with an exciting new development. See you then!

 

IMG_4373HighResHeadshotLDLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

 

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