Cicely Lewis, Kao Kalia Yang, Melanie Gillman, and NoNieqa Ramos on #ReadWoke, #OwnVoices and Diversifying Library Collections

by Lois Wallentine, School & Library Marketing Director

Photo Credit: Nina Arroyo Santiago and Pen Faulkner Foundation

In mid-October, Lerner and SLJ hosted an enlightening #ReadWoke webinar with librarian, SLJ columnist, and #ReadWoke founder Cicely Lewis and three #OwnVoices authors:

  • Kao Kalia Yang, author of A Map into the World, the first picture book about a Hmong-American child written by a Hmong-American writer
  • Melanie Gillman, author/artist of the graphic novel Stage Dreams, a rollicking queer adventure full of robbery and romance
  • NoNieqa Ramos, author of The Truth Is, a powerful YA novel about love, identity, and self-worth through the eyes of a fierce, questioning Puerto Rican teen

Following Cicely’s interviews of each author, the panelists answered some of the audience’s questions, but we ran out of time for others. In today’s blog post, Cicely and the authors tackle questions about #ReadWoke, #OwnVoices, and diversifying library collections.

What is the first “read woke” book you read that inspired you?

Cicely Lewis: Black Boy, by Richard Wright, and Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South, by Anne Moody.

Kao Kalia Yang: My first truly “read woke” book was A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman, by David A. Adler. I saw a small woman, cast to the undersides of possibility, make a stand for herself and her people, and I thought, “If only…”—for that thought is imperative for all the others to begin.

Melanie Gillman: Some early comics I read that inspired me when I was first getting into graphic novels were Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel, and Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.

NoNieqa Ramos: My first #ReadWoke book was A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel García Márquez, which carried me through a portal to Love in the Time of Cholera, Of Love and Other Demons, One Hundred Years of Solitude... His worlds, no matter how fantastical, were the first ones that made me want to toss off my shoes and press my bare feet into the terrain. I must also mention the profound experience of reading Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older, because that was the first time I read a book that was a door straight into my childhood.

How do you balance the need for “woke” books with parent concerns in an elementary school?

Cicely: I work in a high school, so I am not as familiar with elementary schools. However, I have a media committee; I email committee members a list of my recommended books with a short synopsis. They can add their input. If no one objects, then the book is approved. Be brave, but also be smart. Assess your community’s needs and start small if you have to do so.

Kalia: When I was younger, I was so hungry to see my world reflected [in books.]…Shortly after I got to America, my sister and I discovered the bookmobile that used to come to the housing projects where we lived. I have a very clear memory [of asking the librarian] if there were books about people like me, children like me. The librarian went to the shelves and looked. She found a book about the Vietnamese, and the Chinese, and one about the Koreans, and she said, “I’m so sorry, my dear, there are no books about the Hmong on these shelves.” Underneath my breath I said, “One day a little girl is going to come here, and she’s going to find a book about the people who love her most.” Of course, I didn’t think then that I would be the author…. It was my first librarians who showed me a bigger world via the books on the shelves. This tiny light that was in me flowered up, and here I am a part of this world….Success for me is if I can offer [friendship] to a child who’s lonely, a child who’s looking to belong, to offer them a place where they can know belonging, know love, know what a beautiful world this is.

Melanie: Queer and trans books face a disproportionate amount of banning from school and public libraries. A lot of times it’s because there are concerned gatekeepers among parents, or for political reasons. Mainly it’s going to be a question of bravery and what you value. Do you value the lives of the children who are going to be looking for books like this in your collection? And do you value the responsibility of libraries to have a book for everyone who walks through that door? If that is something you’re willing to fight for, I would encourage you to look at books depicting queer and trans young people in a positive light, especially ones written by queer and trans authors themselves.

NoNieqa: We have a shortage of the kinds of books that can support kids through their struggles. But we can do better. Not just by putting #OwnVoices books on the shelves, but putting them in our curriculums. And not just putting them in our curriculums, but networking with each other—as authors, writers, and librarians—all across the country and the world. We can support each other in this good fight. It’s not just the lonely librarian saying, I value these children. I know that when I leave this book off the shelf, I’m leaving that kid out. I’m abandoning kids when I leave holes in the shelf where they can’t access what they need. It’s scary to take risks, because librarians and educators need to put food on the table. But there is less risk when we band together. Maybe we can’t all go to the streets, maybe we can’t all hold up signs. But we can hold up the books. The books we’re holding up are that massive protest. We’re protesting together. We’re amplifying each other, finding each other, chain-linking arms. That makes it so much safer to put those books on the shelves.

Cicely, do you read the books before you recommend them as #ReadWoke books?

Cicely: Yes, all of my recommendations that are featured in School Library Journal are books that I have read.

What free resource did Melanie Gillman reference during their talk about doing research on the historical lives of queer and trans people?

Melanie: The Digital Transgender Archive

Does Stage Dreams have a bibliography in the back so readers have a further jump point to help find more information about themselves? Or links on the author’s website?

Melanie: Not currently, but I definitely recommend resources like the Digital Transgender Archive or local LGBTQ resource centers and libraries for readers who are looking to do their own research. Also, if you listen to podcasts, I love Morgan M. Page’s One from the Vaults.

Melanie, since you are purposely leaving some questions unanswered in your books, do you find that readers are responding with fan fiction?

Melanie: Ha ha, nobody’s sent me any yet! Purposely-unanswered-questions is a pretty common storytelling practice, though 🙂

The majority of YA novels published are still written by cis white authors. When they include characters from marginalized groups they may not be able to fully realize, do you feel editors are responsible to push many changes in manuscripts when those from those groups would find the characters lacking?

Melanie: If I had my druthers, the real thing I’d like editors to do more of is publish books by people who aren’t cis and white. In particular, I’ve been noticing a depressing trend where publishers will hire my trans author colleagues to do sensitivity reads on cis authors’ manuscripts, but those same publishers won’t touch the trans authors’ own book pitches. While I certainly agree editors should push their authors to take feedback from marginalized readers if they’re writing outside their own experience, I think the much more important, effective way to make change in the publishing industry is to let underrepresented authors write their own books.

NoNieqa Ramos: I think it’s important for cishet writers NOT to write marginalized characters as their protagonists. Those are not their stories to tell. When I wrote The Truth Is, I could not have—and should not have—written the protagonist as my trans boy Danny. To represent the diverse world we live in however, we need to include characters who may be different from ourselves in culture and/or sexual and gender identity. Imagine how weird it would be to have a book where every character in it was only a cishet male. I think editors and writers are on TEAM Whatever Book You Are Writing. You both have a responsibility to do research and get sensitivity readers to make sure you are honoring the dignity and integrity of marginalized characters that aren’t #OwnVoices. My editor Amy Fitzgerald was there to support and challenge me every step of the way.

What has inspired your courage when there have been days when you didn’t think you could write the words for others?

Melanie: What inspires me is knowing there are children out there reading these works who will be affected in a positive way. That’s the benefit of writing books you wished that you had as a kid; you know firsthand the effect it is going to have on young readers. You know you’re making a positive difference. That bulwark can sustain you through a lot of trials and tribulations as an author.

Kalia: When I was seven, my family went to Kmart to buy some lightbulbs. My mother, who was only 25, didn’t know English. Instead of just asking for lightbulbs, she said, “I’m looking for the things that make the world shiny.” My mother was struggling with the words, while the clerk was tapping on the desk. The faster the tapping, the harder it was for my mother to get the words out. Finally when she managed, the clerk walked away and didn’t come back. We waited 15 minutes and then my mother looked down. Although I was just a child, I knew my mother was ashamed. I decided then that if we lived in a world that didn’t need to hear my mother or my father, then surely the world that I lived in didn’t need to hear me. I became a selective mute. All of my public school files say that I was a selective mute. When I published my first book, I got up to speak, and I couldn’t do it. I stood there shaking. My father walked all the way from the back of the audience to the front. He put out his hands, the rough hands of a machinist, because when human flesh is cut by steel, the flesh suffers. He held my hands and said to me, “From hardness you give birth to gentleness,” because I have the soft hands of a writer. My mother said, “If all Hmong tears can be incarnate, we would rain the world with our sorrow, but because they cannot, they can only green the mountains. If you speak, maybe the winds of humanity will blow, and maybe our lives are not lost.” For every Hmong person that I meet, two other persons died so that I could be here. I have to speak in hope that the winds of humanity will blow. It isn’t a question of fear, but in the words of my grandmother, who was a shaman, “I will build my life because of my faith, not my fears.”

NoNieqa: The publishing world is a roller coaster. Sometimes I feel like I was supposed to be “this tall” to get on the ride and somehow I snuck in. But my answer to how I deal is in the photo at the top of this page: THE KIDS! I don’t ever want a kid to feel isolated or abandoned. When all eslse fails, I want them to be able to reach for a book and find answers, respine, their truth. At my recent school visit in D.C., kids said things like, “This book changed my perspective,” and “Thank you for talking to us and not at us,” and “How did you get the voice to sound like us?” They said things like “Verdad, what’s she’s going through, I feel that too.” That is why I will take breaks, get a funnel cake, and then get back in the line and ride.

Do you know of any Farsi (Iranian) authors for kids K-grade 7? We have Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, and Saffron Ice Cream, by Rashin Kheiriyeh, but that is about it.

NoNieqa: Here is a source for Iranian authors: Read Globally: Books to Introduce Kids and Teens to the History and Culture of Iran. And great news, Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, is going to be a movie!

Lerner:  Also try the resource unearthed in the group chat:

I was wondering if anyone had a resource for finding elementary books with Asian, particularly Korean, characters.

Kalia: There’s a great professor at St. Catherine’s University named Sarah Park Dahlen. She is one of the preeminent scholars in diverse books and she’s Korean American, so if there are good ones, she would know. She has a wonderful website with a blog and other resources.

Can you recommend some LGBTQ+ picture books and novels for young kids 8-12 yrs old?

NoNieqa: Here is a great list of LGBTQIA+ picture books. I also personally recommend Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, by Rob Sanders, which was an Amazon Book-of-the-Year Selection. And here is a great list of Middle Grade LGBTQIA books. I also highly recommend Aida Salazar’s The Moon Within, a stunning four-star earning MG book from Scholastic on the beauty of menstruation that celebrates Latinx and LGBTQIA+ identity.

Are there any graphic novels that feature LGBTQ characters that you would recommend? I recently read Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, and would like to have other titles to share with my patrons, colleagues, etc.

Melanie: Definitely! Here’s a handful of recommendations: The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang; Cucumber Quest, by Gigi D.G.; Mooncakes, by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu; Super Late Bloomer, by Julia Kaye; Transposes, by Dylan Edwards; Curveball, by Jeremy Sorese; and Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu.

I LOVED (Melanie’s book) As the Crow Flies. Are we getting a sequel?

Melanie: Yes! I’m currently working on a second volume, though it won’t be out for a few years—colored pencil is a slow process!

What are you working on next?

Kalia: This spring, I have another children’s picture book coming out titled The Shared Room (University of Minnesota Press). It is a story inspired once again by real people and actual events, in this case the drowning of a Hmong girl a couple of years ago. This story, with the permission of the family, is dedicated the girl’s remaining siblings. The story deals very directly with the grief of a family, the loss of a child, the love that remains. Also, my second book with Carolrhoda Books/Lerner, The Most Beautiful Thing, releases in Fall 2020.

NoNieqa: I am working on final edits for my forthcoming picture books being published by HMH/Versify, Beauty Woke and Your Mama. On the YA front, I’m working on my first horror/magic realism project!

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