Wednesday, November 12, 2014

WWW: Creating AUTHENTIC Characters

Meet my fellow Chicago children’s book author, the lovely and talented Claudia Guadalupe Martinez who so generously agreed to share today’s Wednesday Writing Workout in celebration of the release of her second Cinco Puntos Press book, the YA novel PIG PARK.

As her biography notes, Claudia grew up in a close family in Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas.  Reading the Spanish subtitles of old westerns for her father, she soon learned that letters form words. By six she knew she wanted to grow up to create stories.  Her father, who died when she was eleven, encouraged her to dream big and write many books. 

Cinco Puntos Press is located in El Paso, Texas, “a fact that informs every book that we publish,” publisher John Byrd shared.  Along with others championing diversity in children’s books today, he considers PIG PARK and Claudia’s debut award-winning novel THE SMELL OF OLD LADY PERFUME to be worthy examples of the kinds of books the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and WeNeedDiverseBooks encourage and seek.

“Claudia,” Byrd wrote, “has a clear fronterizo voice: innocent, shy, witty, full of border culture and understanding.  She used that voice well in THE SMELL OF OLD LADY PERFURME, earning herself a great deal of attention with readers, teachers and librarians looking for new and talented writers coming up out of the Hispanic community. That voice has matured in PIG PARK, still shy and clear, but now feisty as well and full of opinions as she chronicles the summer that fifteen-year-old Masi Burciaga and her neighbors came together to save Pig Park.”


I so appreciate Claudia’s willingness to share her insights and expertise on creating authentic characters with our TeachingAuthors readers and writers.

Enjoy! Enjoy!

Esther Hershenhorn

To enter our latest giveaway, a copy of CHILDREN'S WRITER'S AND ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET 2015, check Carmela's Friday post.

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 Wednesday Writing Workout: Creating Authentic Characters
The face of America is ever-changing.  “Minority” children are set to become the “majority” by the end of this decade, and are already such among babies under the age of one.  Yet, among the children's book titles published, approximately only ten percent are by or about racially or ethnically diverse populations each year--according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

This conversation isn’t new, but the mainstream is taking note, thanks to the success of the recent  WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.  I am more frequently asked for advice on writing diversity, specifically when it comes to authenticity.  In such instances, I refer my fellow writers to author Mitali Perkins' tips for writing diversity.  Mitali lectures widely on the topic.

When it comes to authenticity in racial identity, she advises writers to ask, "How and why does the author define race?”   She suggests writers consider the following:

“When race is explicit in a book, ask yourself and your students what would have been lost if a character’s race hadn’t been defined by the writer. Why did the author choose to define race?”  The reason should be to establish something for the character, and not just to follow a trend or be politically correct.  I, for example, wrote about young Chicana in THE SMELL OF OLD LADY PERFUME because I pulled from my own experiences growing up in a Texas border town.  The Latino kids in PIG PARK were loosely based on my experiences in Chicago.

Alternatively, writers can ask, “Why didn’t he or she let us know the race of the characters?”  If no explicit race is mentioned, will this cause readers to default to white characters, or do other cues establish diverse identity?  Physical appearance, language, names, food can all be used to designate diversity.

While Mitali’s advice focuses on race, authors can apply it to creating authenticity for various other forms of identity.  The point is to start thinking about how genuine the attempt at integration is.

To figure out what this might mean for you, whether writing inside or outside your experience, try this exercise.

Write a character biography based on his/her racial/ethnic identity.  Answer the following questions:
When and how did he/she become aware of his/her identity?

What role has the specific identity played in his/her life?
How does it affect his/her social activities?

How does it affect his/her school activities?

In what ways does the character benefit from this identity? In what ways doesn’t the character benefit?
How does the specific identity affect your story?

Variation: Write a biography based on another form of diverse identity (religious, sexual orientation, ability, etc.).

We live in a complex world where identity is both assigned and assumed.  Authentic diversity isn’t casual or happenstance, but something that we as writers must develop as carefully as all other aspects of our story.


Kathy Mirkin said...

Thanks for this good post!

Bobbi Miller said...

What a great post about authentic characters! A nice exercise. Thank you!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Esther and Claudia ~

My best friend in high school was Chinese. In my work-in-progress, the main character's best friend is also Chinese. Thank you both; you gave me a lot to chew on.