White Authors & Black Characters

I have recently discovered the marvelous work of Nnedi Okorafor, about which I’ll blog more later, but this led me to her insightful analysis of Stephen King and what she calls his “Super-Duper Magical Negroes.” I have heard this expression before. I believe it started with Henry Louis Gates (now best known as that college professor arrested for trying to enter his own home), and once Rush Limbaugh co-opted the trope I wanted nothing to do with it.

However, this keeps coming back to haunt me, because I realize, whenever it comes up, that I could be held up as an example of a white author using this narrative device. Sekou, a.k.a., “Charlie” in Mamba Point holds up to all five of Okorafor’s five criteria:

  1. He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.

My book takes place in Liberia, but since it is primarily concerned with white characters and white experience in West Africa, I think it’s fair to call Sekou a person of color (from mine, and Linus’s point of view). Sekou does not die, but does take risks and make sacrifices to help the hero. He is not uneducated or disabled, and he does not occupy an especially low position compared to others in his world, but he could be seen as poor compared to the white occupants of the Mamba Point neighborhood where he sells his art.

I felt Sekou deeply as a character when I was writing Mamba Point, and gave him a rich back story that did not make it to the final copy, but I can’t imagine that if anyone were reading it with an eye to compiling a list of middle-grade novels which committed this particular cliche and offense, I would be found innocent.

I don’t think I need to apologize for having written a heartfelt quasi-autobiographical book about Liberia, and I feel I avoided some of the traps white authors fall into when writing about Africa, but Okorafor’s essay and the trope of “the magical negro” in general keeps me mindful of the limitations of my own experience, of vision narrowed by white privilege, and especially how, when given my own experiences to mine for literary material, I still subconsciously go instead to the frameworks and archetypes of other white authors.

The ultimate test for me is to have writers I admire read my books and like them, and so now, though I’d love to say to Ms. Okorafor, “I’ve also written magical realism set in Africa!” and hope she’s intrigued, I would rather she didn’t read my book, because of Sekou and the SDMN problem.

I’ll just try to do better next time. I’m writing a book now largely set in the Caribbean, realizing all of the dangers of doing so, but unable to shake these imaginary people from my head. I can accept my own limitations of experience, but I cannot forgive myself for using tropes or cliches of the Caribbean that are already identified as tropes and cliches; that just comes down to be knowledgeable of the region and its literary treatment, which every author should do when they set out to write a book in a particular vein.

Reblogging: Dragonflies Draw Flame

I love everything about this blog post by Kelly Barnhill — its animist spirit, its wisdom on story crafting, the emphasis on reading deep into history, and the idea of carrying a poem with you. None of this is a surprise to people who have read her novels for children and stories for adults; the same themes course through everything she writes.

Dragonflies Draw Flame.

I now have “Birches” folded into my wallet.

The Percy Jackson Solution

Twitter was a-twitter today with the latest in a series of cannonballs lobbed in the general direction of books for and about kids, and the people who read them. This one landed on the deck of the SS Rick Riordan. I rarely enter these frays, because I know six hundred other people will say the same thing, and somebody will say it way better than I can (usually Anne Ursu), but I want to respond to this conclusion:

 What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them. . . away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?

What if, I would answer, what if… what if there was a body of research that already answered this question? What if there was an entire professional enterprise devoted to it? What if there was some fangled-thing called “reading education” that explored the lifelong relationships between kids and books?

Hey, guess what! There totally is!

For example, see the work of Jim Trelease, who coined the term “home run book,” an idea summed up nicely by Stephen Krashen:

One very positive experience can create a reader.

What’s a very positive experience? It’s a kid getting excited by a book. Sometimes, as Michael Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm discovered, the book has an authenticity in a reader’s life (which is why we need diverse books). Sometimes, as William Brozo has explored, the book has something do with the adult a kid wants to become. Sometimes, according to Krashen, that book is an award-winning literary historical novel, sometimes it’s gritty urban adventure, sometimes it’s a formulaic mystery (like the ones Mead admits to liking as a child), and sometimes it’s a comic book (gasp). For millions of kids, apparently, it is Percy Jackson. But whatever book turns a kid into a lifelong reader, we know this:

 One very positive experience can create a reader.

This isn’t a theory at this point, it has been affirmed by decades of research. To ask “What if a positive reading experience totally ruins reading?” is as ridiculous at this point as asking if vaccines cause autism: not because the question itself has never been worth asking, but because it’s been answered exhaustively and to keep asking it shows a dogged incuriosity in the facts.

I don’t especially care for Percy Jackson myself (I’m more of a Cronus Chronicles fan), but this isn’t about my taste. Of all the challenges kids becoming lifelong readers — no access to books, no access to books about kids like themselves, socialized negative attitudes about reading, a lack of positive role models who read — one thing absolutely not on the list is beloved series that has millions of kids reading. That is the solution, not the problem.

Too Many Notes

One of my favorite scenes from any movie is this one.

I know the joke is about banal criticism, uttered by a witless fop who knows nothing about music, but I also think — maybe it doesn’t apply to Mozart, but I know what the emperor (who I will always see as Principal Rooney in a ridiculous costume) means. Music can have too many notes. It can be overly notey. Have you seen the winnowing rounds of American Idol, when every vocalist wants to show their stuff by hitting as many notes as they can on their way through a syllable in the lyrics? Too many notes. Cut a few.

Writers are more used to be critiqued on economy, and though it’s obviously not shared by all acclaimed novelists (even famous ones), most of us would roll our eyes at an author who claims their bloated novel has “just as many words  as the piece requires.”

I think, in many ways, my first three novels have too many notes. The first draft of Mudville had so many notes it was a cacophony; you have no idea how many subplots and backstories were  shoved into it. A lot of that was cut, but if I had a fresh crack of it I think I would boil it down to two thirds its current length.

I think that middle grade has gotten overly long and notey as a genre, to be honest. Why when I was a kid (waves cane) when I was a kid there was nary an elementary school book that topped page 200 and you could read the whole thing in one sitting. And books were made out of paper!

That being said, I’ve been working on something since January that is still only 10,000 words long — I’ve had the file open for most of the year, so it’s not for lack of working on it, but it is painstaking and doesn’t want to write itself, and doesn’t want to go away. It’s either my masterpiece or I’ll never finish it. No matter how much you love economy, 10,000 words ain’t going to cut it. 20,000 is all right if you’re Andrew Clements, but for most of us 40K is short. Will I ever get there?

If I do, this is my masterpiece. But you can’t expect it until (does math) 2018, and that’s if I find a publisher three days after writing THE END on the last page (by the way, nobody actually does that, it’s figurative).

I have told people about it, even entire schools full of people, but I haven’t blogged about it, and not many people have read it.

Here’s the first sentence:

Rafael Reyes ran up bleacher steps of Tetelo Vargas stadium flapping his arms and pretending to fly.

That sentence — believe me, I’ve worked on it enough — that sentence has no superfluous notes.


The Pond

We live near a small lake, which I call a pond, because it’s such a small lake. The pond has a pier, and about once a week I walk there with my son. In spring black clouds of baby bullheads hovered near the surface, gulping down the nymphs and wrigglers. By midsummer the water was clogged with plant life, the pond humming with mosquitoes. Byron asked what happened to the bullheads. I assured him the fish were fine, hidden by weeds, now fat and feeding on the hellgrammites at the bottom. We’ve never seen dobsonflies but we both love to say “hellgrammites.”

This summer we got to know all the various kinds of insects, and looked for them in and around the water. We found beetles under stones and looked on milkweed for monarch caterpillars. Byron particularly loves dragonflies, which can fly backwards, and rarely let one go by without pointing and shouting in delight. One day we saw a tiny frog and followed it for a while. Another day, following a rain, we saw monster-story-large mushroom caps floating gills-up in the marshy overflow and Byron couldn’t stop pointing them out to me, knowing I’m interested in fungi.

Summer is gone but the pond is still thriving. Today he rode his scooter the whole way (previous expeditions involved a wagon), sailing down Victory Drive on the path, turning right at the flagpole without being told the way. He was both a big kid and small, at that moment–beyond reach, moving faster than I could hurry, flying under his own power, yet tiny and achingly vulnerable. We stopped once on the way to marvel at a tree full of songbirds — I’ve never seen (or heard) so many at once–a veritable sparrowpalooza. I would have marched right past, but Byron has eerily sensitive hearing, and today that proved a gift.

We finally reached the pond and found it full of geese, mallards, and coots. Every living thing seemed to be out and about, enjoying what might be the last brilliant weekend of the fall, honking and quacking and gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight. We could have stayed forever.

As the era of trucks and trains passes into its own autumn, I am so glad to have a young boy who also loves nature, who treasures the smallest creatures (his two best friends are ants), who sees beauty in rocks and twigs, who marvels at the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies, who even thinks mosquitoes are interesting, and whose heart is open to little birds (who are, after all, the secrets of living).


Keeping Up

This evening Byron got a new scooter (an impulse purchase) and for a long while we witnessed pure, unfiltered, untroubled, unlimited joy. For his sensory processing, the scooter is a perfect combination of vestibular sensation (feeling his body fly through the air, balanced on leg) and proprioception (pushing off the keep the scooter going), both of which he craves. But you know, scooters also just plain fun. There’s something wonderful and memorable about playing at dusk, wearing out the day and putting it to bed. There’s even more wonderful in being able to go faster than your parents can run.

Byron on a Scooter Dad in Pursuit

Childhood is made of moments like these. I hope B. can remember it, to keep it like a leaf or a lucky coin, and come back to it when he needs to.

Middle Grade Fiction – Online Class

I am offering my online class, Middle Grade Fiction, once again this winter… I swear this class is a lot of fun, and you’ll learn a bunch. It’s a distillation of what I’ve learned and is steeped in middle-grade classics like Harriet the Spy and Charlotte’s Web.

Find out more or sign up here.