Lifting Diverse Voices: A Q&A with Authors Inspiring Discussion and Action with YA Nonfiction

Lifting Diverse Voices

On October 5th, we hosted the Lifting Diverse Voices webinar moderated by #ReadWoke founder and 2020 School Library Journal Librarian of the Year Cicely Lewis and featuring experts Talia Aikens-Nuñez, Lars Ortiz, and Dr. Artika Tyner. These three authors have all recently released Young Adult Nonfiction books that focus on prejudice, racism, and the ways that we can address the discrimination that has occurred in the past and continues to plague our society today.

Talia Aikens-Nuñez wrote Men of the 65th: The Borinqueneers of the Korean War, which is centered around a unit of Puerto Rican men who fought for the United States. It guides us through the history of the Borinqueneers and the challenges they faced leading up to what was the largest court martial in the Korean war.

Lars Ortiz is the author of Walls and Welcome Mats: Immigration and the American Dream. His book examines the backlash against immigration that so many immigrants have faced, and the optimism that leads people to seek a better future in a new land.

Dr. Artika Tyner’s book Reimagining Police: The Future of Public Safety educates readers on the troubled past and present of policing in the US, as well as the underlying problems of a flawed criminal justice system and unjust social structures.

We were able to hear these three authors speak about their experiences writing their books and how they view these issues in our society. Below, we’d like to share their responses to some of the most interesting questions that were discussed during the webinar.

What are some ways that you think teens can actively participate in discussions around police reform and contribute to stronger and safer communities?

Dr. Artika Tyner: Get a deeper understanding of the law. Don’t leave home without your pocket constitution. Learn about due process. Explore what searches and seizures look like. Just like policing, these words are used, but I think it’s important to explore them and see what they mean because that way you can get an understanding of the hierarchy of the law. In addition, explore careers in public safety. I hope this book is the impetus for young people to say, “I can be a part of shaping the future of my community.”

Can you explain how you came to select the title Walls and Welcome Mats and how you feel that is represents the differing reactions that American’s frequently have to immigrants?

Lars Ortiz: The current reaction to immigrants from some is that they should stay out and that the best way to keep them out is to build a wall. Walls make people feel safe. The backlash of immigration is truly about fear of the other. The welcome mat is what everyone hopes to encounter when they arrive. Walls and welcome mats are total opposites but represent exactly what’s going on in this country right now.

Can you tell us about your selection process for images and how you hope they help teens understand the text?

Talia Aikens-Nuñez: I really wanted to personalize the stories so people understood the humans behind this unit. In the book as I go through the chronology of the unit, the reader can really see what is being described and feel in the story as they are reading it.

You both write about topics that are highly discussed and that many people have many misconceptions about.  What misconceptions do you hope to debunk?

Dr. Artika Tyner: The greatest misconception is around use of force. I hope that this book serves as an invitation for our youth to grapple with questions and understand that the use of force is something that people help to shape through laws and policies. Community organizers often chant “Got voice, got power.” I hope that people can use their voice and start asking some questions or thinking about reimagining this whole conversation.

Lars Ortiz: Two of the biggest misconceptions about immigrants are that they’re here to be a drain on government services and that they increase crime. The fact is that immigrants often take jobs that native-born Americans are unwilling or unable to do. Immigrants contribute to the economy with their hard work and by paying taxes, both documented and undocumented. On crime, immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than natural-born citizens. It’s a dramatic and emotional decision to uproot your life and your family’s life so you tend to be more cautious about behavior that would put you in jeopardy. It also has to do with the fact that immigrants often revitalize lower income neighborhoods with economic growth and as poverty rates go down, crime rates tend to go down as well.

Can you tell us about the famous frog, the coqui, and its importance to this story.

Talia Aikens-Nuñez: I really want the reader to get a feeling for the island of Puerto Rico. Even when I talk about military exercises, I go into detail about what the island feels like: the temperature, the trade winds, etc. If you’ve ever been to Puerto Rico, you’ll always hear the melodic sound of the coqui.

As you advocate for a more harmonious future between the government and marginalized communities, what role do you see leaders, both within law enforcement and in the broader society, playing in bringing about meaningful change?

Lars Ortiz: We need an understanding of what drives migration to this nation. In many cases, it’s a complete lack of jobs and economic opportunity. There needs to be compassion for what brings people to this country. Also, immigration laws are outdated and do not serve our needs. Instead of creating fear and chaos for political gain, we need to ask ourselves why this is happening. Instead of building a wall, we should be helping these nations get back on their feet. Finally, many of the people clamboring to enter this country right now are doing so to escape violence due to the drug trade. The United States is the largest consumer of illegal drugs on the planet. We need to ask ourselves as a nation why we have such an addicton crisis inside our borders.

Dr. Artika Tyner: I wrote this book because I saw how police violence, poverty, and despondency disproportionately impact the black community. There’s a myth that there’s black-on-black crime. That’s false. Crime is by proximity. There’s also a myth that black people tend to have a higher rate of drug use. False. I’ve watched news broadcasters talk about how black people are born with a gene of violence. False. I hope this book can help us to do our homework to see that these are historical constructs that divide us when the opportunity of the true American Dream is finding out about our shared humanity and common destiny. There’s also a lingering issue around public safety called economic justice. For the most part, African Americans are brought to America through slavery. If we’re looking at how communities have struggled to find jobs, access to housing, healthcare, all of those pieces contribute to the instability that challenge us in trying to build public safety in meaningful ways. These things have already been discussed. In order to understand the present, we have to understand the past. To understand public safety, we have to understand racial justice.

What do you hope to accomplish with your book? How can you see your books being used in schools and libraries?

Talia Aikens-Nuñez: I’d like to see my book incorporated into US history classes. These types of history are so important for kids to learn so that this type of disparate treatment is not continued in the military or in other realms of government today.

Lars Ortiz: I could see my book being used in conjunction with assignments and research projects. It could also be used to help students write the history of their own immigration or arrival story. I want people to see themselves in this story. While immigration can be a polarizing issue, it’s also a story of hope.

Dr. Artika Tyner: As a lifelong educator, one of the doctrines I followed was teaching in the moment. I want young people to have practical tools to engage with the subject matter. These books do that. These conversations are happening everywhere. Young people can find out how to engage and hopefully learn more about history in meaningful ways.

What tips do you have for getting teens engaged in YA nonfiction?

Talia Aikens-Nuñez: I typically engage kids by talking about present-day things. I find when kids can relate to it, it peaks their interest. When I’m talking to kids about Men of the 65th, I’ll talk about things like have you thought about going into the military or have you been to Puerto Rico. There are many different ways to approach the topic so they see themselves and then take it one step further. It opens the door for them to want to read more about it.

Lars Ortiz: A salient memory I have when I was in school was reading time. Maybe the best way to engage students in reading is to help them build the habit in class whenever possible.

Dr. Artika Tyner: I hope that my book can serve as the guide to spark conversations. Being timely and relevant is a key to my success as an educator over the past two decades.

Sell your book in 30 seconds.  How would you get a teen to select your book to read in 30 seconds?

We have compiled QR codes that direct you to videos of each of the authors responding to this question.

Dr. Artika Tyner, Reimagining Police

Talia Aikens-Nuñez, Men of the 65th

Lars Ortiz, Walls and Welcome Mats

It’s Banned Books Week and book bannings are all over the news. According to PEN America, “30% of the unique titles banned are books about race, racism, or feature characters of color.”  While your books featuring diverse voices have not yet been challenged, what advice might you have for librarians, teachers, and parents to fight against book banning?

Dr. Artika Tyner: Malcolm X said “Education is a passport for the future. For tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Books are integral to education. I look forward to every young person having a passport for education. The books are the visas that go inside. My life opened up as went into the library. I was able to see the world before I traveled outside the one-mile radius of my community. Let’s open up that passport. Let’s make it readily available and we know that’s a charge and mission for us all of access, accuracy, and advocacy.

Lars Ortiz: There is a resource called and it has a lot of great information. I’ll also add that the backlash against immigrants is no different than the backlash against information and new knowledge. Those who seek to ban information will never give up, so we must also never give up.

Talia Aikens-Nuñez: I thank all the librarians, teachers, school administrators, and all those people for fighting this fight and understanding the importance of education for our kids. Always reach out to us as authors for whatever support we can provide because we are here for you and in this fight with you.

To see a full recording of the Lifting Diverse Voices webinar, watch the video here.

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