High Tech, Low Tech, No Tech?

I bought a new car recent­ly (blame the dis­tract­ed dri­ver who rear-end­ed me while I was at a full stop.) My new, cer­ti­fied used car is essen­tial­ly a com­put­er on wheels—not the replace­ment car I had in mind. How­ev­er, of all the used cars the deal­er had in stock, this one was in the right price-range. Turns out, all the newish makes and mod­els are loaded with tech.

high-tech car dashboard

The sales per­son was thrilled to let me know the car was equipped with Blue­tooth (what?), could be linked to my cell phone (huh?), and gave me the capa­bil­i­ty to view films while driving—as if I were hon­est­ly inter­est­ed in split­ting my atten­tion between, say, Mis­sion Impos­si­ble and the road before me. No. Thanks. As for Blue­tooth, I won’t be using that, or most of the oth­er tech good­ies avail­able. I find them all too dis­tract­ing from, you know, Dri­ving. The sales per­son was espe­cial­ly dis­ap­point­ed that he would­n’t be able to link my car to my smart phone because—gasp—I don’t have one.

I’m strict­ly a flip-phone woman. Yes. You read that right. That means I can’t surf the Inter­net or check my emails every two sec­onds, but I don’t need to, any­way. Who does? (Well, being able to search for near­by restau­rants could come in handy when I’m hun­gry. Still.) My flip-phone allows me to make and take phone calls, send and receive texts, and access mes­sages. What more do I need? “Apps!” you say. Well, apps might be fun, even use­ful at times. But nec­es­sary? Vital? I don’t think so. Call me crazy, but I actu­al­ly man­age to nav­i­gate the world with­out apps. 

My shut­tle dri­ver tries to shame me into get­ting on the smart-phone band­wag­on. I’ll ask her some­thing like, “What ter­mi­nal is my flight leav­ing from?” Since get­ting me to the right ter­mi­nal is part of her job, this is infor­ma­tion I expect her to have. Instead of just telling me, how­ev­er, she launch­es into, “If you had a smart phone, you could find out your­self, because there’s an app for that.” Really?

I get that the new tech is con­ve­nient, but there are a myr­i­ad of ways to get the infor­ma­tion I need with­out cast­ing myself off the high-tech bridge and get­ting caught in the whirlpool of apps, games, and social media con­nects on-the-go. 

I came late to the dig­i­tal par­ty, kick­ing and scream­ing all the way. I’ve found much of it use­ful as a pro­mo­tion­al tool for my busi­ness, but I’m also painful­ly aware of its time-steal­ing poten­tial. Let’s face it, the Inter­net is addic­tive. I waste enough time on social media at home, as it is. Must I now also take it with me on the road? I think not. Beyond the basic cell phone, I don’t need tech that fol­lows me out of the house. Lim­its must be set.

people using smartphones

What dis­turbs me most about all the new tech, though, is its neg­a­tive impact on social inter­ac­tion. Too often, I’ll walk into a room where two peo­ple, seat­ed a few feet apart, are con­nect­ing with each oth­er (you can’t real­ly call it com­mu­ni­cat­ing) via their devices. The same is true of peo­ple on lunch and din­ner dates. The par­ties might as well be seat­ed at sep­a­rate tables, for all the gen­uine con­nec­tion being made. They’re all too busy slav­ish­ly check­ing their phones between bites of food they aren’t tak­ing time enough to ful­ly enjoy. What is the point? What ever hap­pened to con­ver­sa­tion? I miss con­ver­sa­tion. And eye con­tact. And hav­ing a com­pan­ion’s full atten­tion. Sigh.

I know a good many peo­ple who feel quite over­whelmed by con­stant waves of new tech lap­ping at the shore of human imag­i­na­tion. We for­get that there are shut-off switch­es, that no one is hold­ing a gun to our heads forc­ing us to use the lat­est app dropped into the dig­i­tal uni­verse. Those who feel over­whelmed com­plain that they don’t have enough time for their art, for their spous­es, for their chil­dren, for—fill in the blank. But if they weren’t con­stant­ly plugged into their var­i­ous devices, play­ing games, explor­ing the lat­est new app, check­ing email and mind­less­ly scrolling through social media news­feeds sev­er­al times a day, they’d have more of the time they crave. How do I know this? (Behind on a dead­line, any­one?) As I’ve already admit­ted, I’m scrolling right along with the rest of the crowd! It’s a habit I’m deter­mined to break.

High tech, low tech, no tech—whatever we choose, it’s a trade-off. We can choose more con­ve­nience and con­nec­tion, but the cost is less secu­ri­ty, and less oppor­tu­ni­ty for gen­uine, inter­per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion. If we choose less con­ve­nience and less broad-based, or abbre­vi­at­ed con­nec­tion, we mul­ti­ply the time we have for deep per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion, for mind­ful liv­ing, for art, for greater aware­ness of our surroundings. 

It all comes down to time, the most pre­cious com­mod­i­ty we have. How we use it, and how much of it we have to use, is very much bound up with the choic­es we make con­cern­ing high tech, low tech, or no tech. Take your pick. It real­ly is a choice.

I look up all the time. I notice the clouds dance across the sky, the Mag­no­lia blooms spilling their vanil­la scent, the rash of mush­rooms fol­low­ing a rain, the hum­ming­bird nuz­zling a rose. Do you?

Lessons from Charleston

Bronx Masquerade
Bronx Mas­quer­ade

An unarmed black per­son dies at the hands of, or in the cus­tody of, white police­men, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, scream­ing, “What can we do? What can we do?”

Nine black souls are mas­sa­cred in a house of wor­ship, in a state where the Con­fed­er­ate flag, sym­bol of hatred, flies proud­ly, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, scream­ing, “What can we do? What can we do?”

I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I cer­tain­ly can sug­gest a few, the most impor­tant of which has noth­ing to do with gun con­trol, and every­thing to do with empa­thy. We need to teach our chil­dren empa­thy. It’s a lot hard­er to mur­der some­one you have empa­thy for than some­one you don’t.

The per­pe­tra­tor of this lat­est atroc­i­ty was not men­tal­ly ill, as some wish to sug­gest. (Please don’t insult me by sug­gest­ing every white per­son who kills a black per­son is men­tal­ly ill. I grew up with a par­ent who was gen­uine­ly men­tal­ly ill, so I, for one, know the dif­fer­ence. Oh, and, I should note: she did­n’t kill any­one.) Nor was this per­pe­tra­tor born with hate in his heart. No one is. Hatred is a seed that must be plant­ed, watered, fer­til­ized, and nur­tured. The ugly fruit of hatred is not pro­duced in a sin­gle, sud­den moment. Rather, it ripens over time. It is not inevitable. I repeat: race hatred is not inevitable.

As a seedling, hatred can be uproot­ed ear­ly on. Or, it can be left untouched in its own envi­ron­ment and allowed to pro­duce a head and heart both poi­soned, and poi­so­nous. While chil­dren are yet chil­dren, and still under our care, we adults get to influ­ence which of those two things happen.

Instead of look­ing the oth­er way while hatred takes root in young hearts and minds, why not try this: Plant the seeds of empa­thy. Teach the young to feel the heart­beats of races and cul­tures oth­er than their own. Replace any pos­si­ble fear of the unknown, with knowl­edge of the know­able. Teach them the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are dif­fer­ent. Teach them that the most impor­tant com­mon denom­i­na­tor is the human heart. Start with a book.

Give young read­ers books by and about peo­ples labeled “oth­er.” I’m not talk­ing about one or two books, here and there. I’m talk­ing about spread­ing diverse books through­out the cur­ricu­lum, begin­ning in ele­men­tary grades, and con­tin­u­ing through to high school. Why? Because racism is sys­temic and teach­ing empa­thy, teach­ing diver­si­ty, needs to be sys­temic, too.

You say you want to change the dynam­ic of race rela­tions in Amer­i­ca. Well, here is a place to begin—unless, of course, you’re not real­ly seri­ous. In that case, by all means, keep run­ning around like your hair is on fire, scream­ing, “What can we do? What can we do?” every time an unarmed black per­son is killed by a white police­man, or a group of inno­cent black peo­ple is mas­sa­cred. Just don’t expect me to keep lis­ten­ing. I’ve already told you where to begin.

The Gift of Story

A recent blog by Sal­ly Lloyd-Jones got me think­ing about a ques­tion we authors hear some ver­sion all the time: Where do you get your ideas, or how do you come up with ideas for your sto­ries? The ques­tion would sug­gest that there’s a trea­sure trove, some­where, packed with sto­ries ready for the tak­ing. Or that there’s a place one could go, a repos­i­to­ry one can sim­ply dip into, at will. But, the truth is, sto­ry ideas are more elu­sive than that. Their source is far less pre­dictable, more a mat­ter of mag­ic, or of serendip­i­ty. An idea might spring from a peri­od of fast­ing, or flash of insight dur­ing a med­i­ta­tive state, or result from lit­er­al­ly trip­ping over an object that brings that idea to mind. No mat­ter the ori­gin of an idea, or the vehi­cle that brought it to you, that idea, that sto­ry, is a gift.

Chasing FreedomI’ve been think­ing about my newest title, Chas­ing Free­dom, releas­ing in Jan­u­ary 2015, and try­ing to trace it’s ori­gins. The ini­tial idea came to me while I was busy work­ing on some­thing else. The some­thing else was a series of dra­mat­ic mono­logues for a the­ater pro­duc­tion to be per­formed in Chi­na, in 1988. The theme of the show was Amer­i­can His­to­ry, and so I chose as my sub­jects Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Har­ri­et Tub­man, and Susan B. Antho­ny. In the midst of research­ing their sto­ries, and craft­ing their mono­logues, I became excit­ed to learn that they not only lived at the same time, but all knew each oth­er. One day, while thumb­ing through these his­to­ries in the stacks of the Dohe­ny Library at USC, I sud­den­ly thought, “I won­der what it would be like if Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny sat down for a talk.” That notion was the seed that even­tu­al­ly led to my writ­ing Chas­ing Free­dom. I was­n’t look­ing for an idea, mind you. It sim­ply arrived of its own! A gift.

Words with WingsI turned my thoughts to Words With Wings, a nov­el-in-verse about day­dream­ing, and I tried to trace the ori­gins of that sto­ry. This task was more dif­fi­cult, because the gen­e­sis of the idea was much less straight­for­ward. Over the years, I’d read or heard com­ments by teach­ers about the impor­tance of nur­tur­ing the imag­i­na­tion; read or heard Steve Jobs bemoan the fact that chil­dren are no longer encour­aged to day­dream; read or heard name­less oth­ers com­ment on this sub­ject, in one way or anoth­er. Some­where along the line, this train of thought stuck, and I began think­ing about my own child­hood, and how impor­tant day­dream­ing had been in my own for­ma­tion, and lat­er suc­cess, and I real­ized how much I want­ed that for the chil­dren I serve through my work. Out of this thick soup of essays, arti­cles, off-hand com­men­tary, and per­son­al mem­o­ries grew the idea for a nov­el about a day­dream­er. So there.

The ori­gin of the idea for my next book, Poems in the Attic, out next spring, is a bit clear­er, but not much. I watch the night­ly news as much as any­one, and I’ve noticed a bar­rage of sto­ries about our mil­i­tary over the recent years. With troops in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, espe­cial­ly, this last decade has pro­duced miles of video­tape about sol­diers. I espe­cial­ly noticed the pre­pon­der­ance, of late, of images on tele­vi­sion of sol­diers return­ing home, snug­gling with their chil­dren after long tours away, images of both fathers and moth­ers in uni­form, near­ly wres­tled to the ground by chil­dren so excit­ed to have them home, again. These images stuck. Then, there was the show Army Wives, which brought these themes into my liv­ing room week­ly. Besides the above, there’s the fact that sev­er­al of my friends reg­u­lar­ly share child­hood sto­ries of grow­ing up as mil­i­tary brats. At some point, a cou­ple of years ago, I start­ed think­ing about the increas­ing num­ber of chil­dren who have to nego­ti­ate the uncer­tain­ty of life with a par­ent in the mil­i­tary, and I won­dered if I might offer some small col­lec­tion of poet­ry that would speak into that. Hence, the sto­ry-in-verse book, Poems in the Attic.

The answer to the ques­tion of where sto­ries come from is rather ran­dom, isn’t it? It’s mys­te­ri­ous. It’s mag­i­cal. It’s sim­ple: a sto­ry, and the idea that gives birth to it, is—a gift. Yeah. That sounds about right.

Mister Cellophane

A Good Long WayI recent­ly read a blog post by author René Sal­daña, Jr., that got me wondering—and not for the first time—how much effort teach­ers and librar­i­ans, espe­cial­ly, go to when search­ing for books by authors of col­or. It is a ques­tion worth asking.

The oth­er day, out of curios­i­ty, I Googled myself. I found a whop­ping 1, 470,000 results list­ed under my name. These include bios, videos, inter­views, peri­od­i­cal fea­tures, pho­tos, and, of course, books and audio-books. Wow. And yet, I reg­u­lar­ly meet teach­ers and librar­i­ans who are whol­ly unfa­mil­iar with my work. How is that possible?

Talkin' About BessieNow, I’m not say­ing my work is the great­est thing since sliced bread, because there are writ­ers out there whose word­smithing I envy. What I’m say­ing is that my titles are not exact­ly in hid­ing. In fact, through­out the course of my career, I have worked dili­gent­ly to make sure they’re not. From seek­ing out book­store sign­ings, in my ear­ly days; to doing school vis­its; to pro­duc­ing post­cards and book­marks; to cre­at­ing a com­pre­hen­sive web­site; to invest­ing in teacher guides for my books; to devel­op­ing an online pres­ence via Face­book, and now Twit­ter—in these ways, and more, I have made a con­cert­ed effort to put my work out there. How is it, then, that many peo­ple still man­age to miss it?

Pocketful of PoemsBefore I go any fur­ther, let me say that I am extreme­ly grate­ful for those teach­ers and librar­i­ans who have sought out and found my work, over the years, and then went on to share it with the stu­dents they serve. Obvi­ous­ly, I would­n’t have much of a career with­out these lit­er­a­ture-lov­ing pro­fes­sion­als. They have kept a good­ly per­cent­age of my 46 trade, and 20-odd mass-mar­ket books in print. I’m hop­ing they receive to my next two titles with equal kind­ness. How­ev­er, after 30+ years in the busi­ness, I still rou­tine­ly hear peo­ple say, “I’ve looked for your work every­where and can’t find it,” to which I respond, “Huh?”

Almost ZeroI have a web­site fea­tur­ing all of my titles, awards, audio-clips, and select reviews, with post­ed links to IndieBound.org and Amazon.com. In addi­tion, I have a Wikipedia page, as well as an Amazon.com page. How hard have you been look­ing, exact­ly? I’m confused.

Sylvia Vardel­l’s must-view Poet­ry for Chil­dren web­site lists many of my poet­ry titles. TeachingBooks.net fea­tures my Coret­ta Scott King Award and Hon­or win­ners (six in total). I, thank­ful­ly, have books on any num­ber of Best Book lists. Tell me again how hard it is to find my work.

Bronx MasqueradeClear­ly, there’s more to the lack of diver­si­ty in chil­dren’s books than whether or not POC are cre­at­ing and pub­lish­ing them. Could it be that some lack the moti­va­tion to seek out the books that are already there? That’s what René Sal­daña, Jr., is ask­ing. Now, I am, too.

Mind you, I’m not say­ing that we don’t need more books by peo­ple of col­or, because we most cer­tain­ly do. The num­bers show that we are woe­ful­ly off the mark in pro­duc­ing diverse books in num­bers com­men­su­rate with the pro­por­tion of our ever-increas­ing­ly diverse pop­u­la­tion. But that said, I am sug­gest­ing that we, per­haps, look at the issue a lit­tle more close­ly, that we ask a few more uncom­fort­able, but nec­es­sary, questions.

René Sal­daña, Jr., spoke to this issue from the point of view of an author with a lit­tle less vis­i­bil­i­ty than mine. And yet I have to agree with so much of what he has to say.

The jug­ger­naut that is #WeNeed­Di­verse­Books is hard at work to raise the vis­i­bil­i­ty of books by, and for, peo­ple of col­or. This is great and impor­tant work. Still, I can’t help but won­der if there’s more going on beneath the sur­face that would explain why the gate­keep­ers in this busi­ness con­tin­ue to miss the POC books—including Coret­ta Scott King, Pura Bel­pré, New­bery, Calde­cott, Printz, and Nation­al Book Award Winners—that are already out in the marketplace.

Where, exact­ly, is the dis­con­nect? Is it the want-to that’s miss­ing? If so, how do we begin to address it?

Let’s talk.

Under the Gun

Nikki's friends
My friends come in many sizes, shapes, and col­ors. I am open to each one because I judge accord­ing to char­ac­ter, not color.

So the argu­ment goes some­thing like this: Police­men come into con­tact with any num­ber of vio­lent, crim­i­nal black men dur­ing the course of their careers, and so it is only rea­son­able that they should view all black men as poten­tial threats, and should have their loaded guns at the ready, when­ev­er, wher­ev­er, and ph_nikki_groupunder what­ev­er cir­cum­stances they hap­pen to encounter a black male, no mat­ter his age, size, appear­ance, or demeanor.

To the above, I respond thus: As Negro, Col­ored, Black, African-Amer­i­can peo­ples, we indi­vid­u­al­ly, and col­lec­tive­ly, car­ry in our hearts, minds, and souls, the mem­o­ries of count­less lash­ings, lynch­ings, cross-burn­ings, cat­tle prod­ding, water-hos­ing, hang­ings, bomb­ings, whip­pings, rapes, muti­la­tions, tar­ring, feath­er­ing, and police-baton beat­ings at the hands of peo­ple with white skin. In addi­tion, we have in the past, and con­tin­ue to suf­fer in the present, acts of dis­crim­i­na­tion at the hands of peo­ple clothed in white skin, some of whom hurt, harm, mis­treat and mis­judge us every day. (For those of you who think oth­er­wise, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion is, sad­ly, very much alive in Amer­i­ca. We wish it weren’t.)

Hav­ing said that, it’s impor­tant for you to know that I do not spend my days enraged or even angry. Life is too short to walk through the world with a per­ma­nent chip on one’s shoul­der, no mat­ter the ratio­nale. The truth is, I’ve got bet­ter things to do. So have most of my friends. Besides, we pre­fer to inter­act with, and judge, each per­son we encounter based on the

con­tent of their char­ac­ter, not the col­or of their skin. Most African Amer­i­cans will tell you the same.

Now, re-read the ear­li­er para­graph, and note that none of the afore­men­tioned atroc­i­ties lead black peo­ple to leave our homes, armed to the teeth, and ready, with­out a momen­t’s hes­i­ta­tion, to mow down every white per­son we encounter, in whom we see the shad­ow of oth­er whites who may have hurt or harmed us or threat­ened our very lives.

What, ulti­mate­ly, is the key dif­fer­ence between a black per­son who refus­es to see every white per­son he encoun­ters as a threat, and a white per­son, police­man or oth­er­wise, who refus­es to see a black per­son, par­tic­u­lar­ly a male, as any­thing but? Choice. It real­ly boils down to choice.

Here's a novel that explores the complexities of the issue of race and gun violence in an even-handed way.
Here’s a nov­el that explores the com­plex­i­ties of the issue of race and gun vio­lence in an even-hand­ed way.

Shoot­ing to kill is not an acci­dent. It’s a choice. It’s a choice in Fer­gu­son, in Flori­da, in Chica­go, in New York, in Any­where, USA.

The argu­ments put for­ward by police and pri­vate cit­i­zens, for shoot­ing to kill any and every black man or boy they see in the street, day or night, does not pass muster. A refusal to hol­ster hate, or unpro­voked fear, is a choice. Not both­er­ing to tell the dif­fer­ence between a bur­gundy car and a tan car is a choice. Not tak­ing care to dis­tin­guish between a car full of school chil­dren, and one full of poten­tial adult male sus­pects, is a choice. Fail­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between a boy, or a man, on the attack, and a boy or a man with his hands in the air, is a choice. And, by the way, punch­ing, or pum­mel­ing an unarmed, mid­dle-aged woman on the side of a free­way is a choice.

A choice is a deci­sion, not a cause for mak­ing excus­es. Any mature, men­tal­ly healthy adult can tell the dif­fer­ence between the two.

Coming Attractions

I love it when chil­dren’s books do well in the world. I was excit­ed to join Kather­ine Pater­son at the film pre­mier of Bridge to Ter­abithia, a cou­ple of years ago, and can’t wait for The Great Gilly Hop­kins to hit the big screen. I’m all a‑tingle just think­ing about the wide release of Lois Lowry’s, The Giv­er.  I thor­ough­ly enjoyed The Fault In Our Stars, and the grow­ing num­ber of oth­er Hol­ly­wood treat­ments based on chil­dren’s and young adult books.  But—there is a but.

Where, oh where are the films based on chil­dren’s and YA titles writ­ten by authors of col­or? Why is no one option­ing some of the wor­thy titles by these authors?

Books into Movies

My ques­tion is as much to black film­mak­ers and black movers and shak­ers (and Lati­no, and Asian, and—well you get my drift) as it is to any­one else. There may not be as many mon­eyed POC in Hol­ly­wood as there are whites, but there are cer­tain­ly a num­ber of heavy hit­ters I could name. Why aren’t they step­ping up to the prover­bial plate? I know they have pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies of their own, so why aren’t they mak­ing moves to acquire the rights to works by Wal­ter Dean Myers, or Joseph Bruchac, or Angela John­son, or Grace Lin, or Sharon Drap­er, or Christo­pher Paul Cur­tis, or Matt de la Pena, or Jacque­line Wood­son, or—well, we’ve got a decent list of our own. (We may be small, but we are mighty!) And mind you, I’m talk­ing about award-win­ners, and best­sellers, so the book-to-film audi­ence is there, in case any­one asks. I just wish our afflu­ent coun­ter­parts in the film indus­try would rise up to the dol­lars and sense to be made by devel­op­ing our books for the big, or small, screen.

Oprah Win­frey, Will & Jada Smith, Spike Lee, are you lis­ten­ing? BET, what about it? Tyler Per­ry, what do you think?

What’s it going to take, huh? Look, I’m not say­ing it’s going to be easy. (Is any­thing impor­tant ever?)  I’m just say­ing it’s going to be worth it.