The Prince of Peace

NativityEvery now and then, some­one in my life nudges me to write my mem­oir. I nod and make rea­son­able excus­es for putting it off. I’ve got this chil­dren’s series to fin­ish first; my com­pre­hen­sive work­shop notes require all my atten­tion; I’ve got a con­fer­ence keynote to pre­pare; my car needs a tune-up; the win­dows need wash­ing; isn’t it time for a pedi­cure? Some of these are actu­al­ly legit­i­mate oblig­a­tions, of course, but authen­tic or con­coct­ed, they all get in the way of progress on the memoir.

Some­day, I’ll get around to craft­ing a com­plete mem­oir, but God keeps telling me that it’s time to share a bit of it, right now. No, I don’t hear voic­es, except for the occa­sion­al char­ac­ter from one of my sto­ries. But God does effec­tive­ly com­mu­ni­cate to me through oth­er peo­ple, through my devo­tion­als, through his Word—pretty much any way that he can get my atten­tion. Which, I admit, can require a con­sid­er­able amount of effort on his part. Some­times, I can see God bang­ing his head against the wall of heav­en, say­ing, “What is with this chick? Is she deaf?” Of course, we both know that I’m not, and soon­er or lat­er, God gets through, and I tell him, like I did this morn­ing, “Okay, Lord. Mes­sage received.” He wants me to share, so I’ll share.

Ready? You’ll need to sit down for this one.

I once had a beau­ti­ful lit­tle girl named Taw­fiqa. If you’re a dear and espe­cial­ly old friend, you know that. Oth­er­wise, this may be news to you. I don’t talk about her much, most­ly because I don’t want to go there. In 1974, my gor­geous girl drowned in a pool at the babysit­ter’s. She was just shy of 4 years old. I won’t try to con­vey the depth of my grief, because it was bot­tom­less. Besides, lan­guage is thor­ough­ly inad­e­quate to the task. What I can tell you, though, is that, in all the years since, when­ev­er I learn of the death of a child—anyone’s child—my heart is hurled back to the emo­tion­al tsuna­mi of my own loss. What’s more, in those ago­niz­ing moments, noth­ing sep­a­rates me from the moth­er of that oth­er child. In that instant, the moth­er and I are one. As such, the mas­sacre in Con­necti­cut laid me low.

My imme­di­ate thoughts were not of the red-flag issues oth­ers raised fol­low­ing the massacre—gun con­trol, men­tal ill­ness, and the per­va­sive nature of vio­lence in our cul­ture. No. My imme­di­ate thoughts were of the moth­ers, whose hearts had just been ripped from their bod­ies, just like mine. No past tense was nec­es­sary. This kind of pain is present con­tin­u­ous. No lan­guage can approach or con­tain it.

Wrench­ing as this news was, and con­tin­ues to be, I know exact­ly where to go with my grief. I gath­er the shat­tered pieces of my heart, and the hearts of all those moth­ers, and fathers too, and lift them up to God in prayer. I’ve had a bit of practice.

When my daugh­ter died, all those years ago—yesterday?—a sound came out of me that was more ani­mal than human. Then, once I could catch my breath, I began to whis­per the most the­o­log­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed prayer I could muster: Help me, God. Please, help me. I fol­lowed that with three days of fast­ing, at the end of which I asked Jesus to come into my life and fill me up. And he did. Best deci­sion ever!

Yeah, yeah, I know. You’ve heard it all before, but I don’t care. I had come to the end of myself, and I need­ed help to take that next breath. The child, who bare­ly filled that tiny cof­fin, was­n’t just any human being. This was the pre­cious soul I’d car­ried in my own body for nine months, the warm, wig­gling infant I’d nursed at my breast. This was flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, and her sud­den, hor­rif­ic, inex­plic­a­ble absence—from my life, from the world—sucked all the air from my lungs, and left me prone. The death of your child will do that to you. Even the mem­o­ry clogs my windpipe.

In those dark days, I need­ed solace, com­fort, and strength. I went to the Cross to find it, and I did. But I received some­thing more, in the bar­gain. I was grant­ed a gift of peace. I’m not talk­ing about some warm fuzzy feel­ing, or numb­ness, or the absence of pain. No. I’m talk­ing about an unfath­omable, pal­pa­ble, pure sense of peace about the loss of my child. Did that peace eclipse my grief? Not even for a mil­lisec­ond. But it did sus­tain me through­out my mourn­ing, and it gave me the assurance—no, the certainty—that there was both light and life-abun­dant for me at the end of this unimag­in­able, pain-paint­ed tun­nel. God’s peace made it pos­si­ble for me to live, heart open and hope­ful, going for­ward. And that, as they say, is worth shout­ing about.

In this tech­no­log­i­cal­ly evolved age, many in our cul­ture make light of the Chris­t­ian faith, but it is no feath­er on the wind. It is stub­born, and stur­dy, and more pow­er­ful than some imag­ine. What hap­pened in and through me in the days fol­low­ing my daugh­ter’s death made that clear to all those around me.

One evening, I got a call from the adult son of the babysitter—we’ll call her Jane. Jane, it seemed, was incon­solable. Since my daugh­ter’s drown­ing in her fam­i­ly’s pool, Jane had tak­en to bed, wracked with guilt, swim­ming in tears, and unable to func­tion. Her wor­ried son asked if I would please agree to see her. I did.

I vis­it­ed Jane’s home, the house in which my daugh­ter had breathed her last, and I found a woman bereft indeed. She was unable to care for, or even engage, her own chil­dren, safe in the next room. It was impos­si­ble that I should feel pity for her, but I did. I took her in my arms and I rocked her, and com­fort­ed her while she wept. I told her that I held no mal­ice toward her, that I did not blame her for my daugh­ter’s death. I’d leave it to God to sort out blame, I said. As for me, I clung to the belief that I would see my daugh­ter again, some day.

Slow­ly, Jane calmed down, and I gath­ered myself to leave. I encour­aged her to ral­ly her­self. After all, she had a fam­i­ly who des­per­ate­ly need­ed her. Then I left, nev­er to see Jane again.

I look back on that day, and I shake my head in won­der. Whose arms were those wrapped round the woman who was, at least indi­rect­ly, respon­si­ble for the death of my child? Those arms were God’s. He loved her through me, spoke words of for­give­ness and com­pas­sion through me, accom­plished some­thing I nev­er could have done on my own. When I talk about the pow­er of faith, and of God’s love, and of God’s peace, that’s what I’m talk­ing about. And when I think of those moth­ers in Con­necti­cut, it’s the love of Christ, and his heal­ing, and his per­fect peace that I pray for—for them. As for that bot­tom­less grief I men­tioned? Only God’s reach is long enough to touch it.

Each Christ­mas, as I the dec­o­rate the house and trim the tree, gath­er with loved ones and sip cider, write my Christ­mas poem and wrap presents, I remem­ber the gift of peace I received from the Prince of Peace him­self. His gift is avail­able to all who seek it, and that’s some­thing worth cel­e­brat­ing, isn’t it?

Mer­ry Christmas!

The Chick-Fil‑A Fiasco

speech bubblesThe ques­tion must be asked: What is Amer­i­ca com­ing to? A pri­vate cit­i­zen who owns his own busi­ness, albeit a large one, makes a state­ment about his per­son­al opin­ion on a hot-but­ton issue, and those who hold a dif­fer­ing point of view respond by orga­niz­ing a move­ment to put said cit­i­zen out of busi­ness. Real­ly? Seriously?

Cor­rect me if I’m wrong, but haven’t we buried thou­sands of young men and woman who gave their lives to secure the rights and free­doms all Amer­i­cans are blessed to enjoy? And don’t those rights and free­doms include the free­dom of speech? And, unless some­one altered the Con­sti­tu­tion and all its amend­ments when I was­n’t look­ing, that free­dom applies to all Amer­i­cans, not just those with whom we hap­pen to agree. Trust me, I’m none too fond of state­ments by, say, mem­bers of the KKK, with regard to their opin­ions of Black folk. How­ev­er, as hate­ful as I might find their speech, I acknowl­edge their con­sti­tu­tion­al right to it.

The sim­ple fact that we dis­agree with some­one’s stat­ed opin­ion, no mat­ter how vocif­er­ous­ly, does not give us some sort of moral high ground to threat­en their liveli­hood. And, do keep in mind, we’re talk­ing about a pri­vate cit­i­zen, here, not some­one hold­ing pub­lic office, serv­ing at the fed­er­al, state, or even city lev­el. Nor are we talk­ing about some­one in a posi­tion to leg­is­late pub­lic pol­i­cy. The brouha­ha might make a bit more sense if we were. As it is, what this sit­u­a­tion boils down to, in my hum­ble opin­ion, is one set of Amer­i­cans ham­mer­ing anoth­er Amer­i­can for hav­ing the audac­i­ty to express a per­son­al opin­ion con­trary to their own. If we keep down this road, we won’t have to wor­ry about ene­mies from with­out. We’ll be doing a pret­ty bang-up job of sab­o­tag­ing our­selves from within.

If you don’t like the opin­ion of Chick-Fil-A’s CEO, or any­one else, for that mat­ter, feel free to say so—even loud­ly, if you must. But once you’ve made your point of view clear, for good­ness sake, move on. This is Amer­i­ca, after all, remem­ber? Every­body gets to have his say.


censorshipBan­ning books, rip­ping them from class­room shelves, de-fac­to cen­sor­ship at the point of publication—what the bleep is going on, here?

Okay. I’ll try to calm down, but the effort required is tremendous.

Deep breaths. Let me begin, again.

When I was a lit­tle girl, I was an avid read­er. The library was my sanc­tu­ary, and sto­ry was my safe place. I lived between the pages of a book. That said, the books of my child­hood let me down in one respect. Too few of them fea­tured char­ac­ters who looked like me, or who shared my life expe­ri­ence. Read­ing book after book after book with­out see­ing my face reflect­ed began to make me feel invis­i­ble.  No child should ever feel that way between the pages of a book.

As an author of books for chil­dren and young adults, I have devot­ed more than 30 years to address­ing that imbal­ance, by cre­at­ing lit­er­a­ture fea­tur­ing chil­dren of col­or, pri­mar­i­ly African Amer­i­can and His­pan­ic. The impact of that work, and the work of oth­er authors of color—Latin, Asian, Native Amer­i­can, as well as African American—has already been felt in the gen­er­a­tion that fol­lowed ours. But we’re still play­ing catch-up, in many ways. There remain gen­res in which our voic­es have been too sel­dom heard, fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion among them.

Now, just when our chil­dren are final­ly begin­ning to feel a sense of inclu­sion and empow­er­ment, our books our being banned from school class­rooms. And, yes, I said our because I align myself with any eth­nic group tar­get­ed for cen­sor­ship. There is no Latin chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty, or Asian chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty, or Native Amer­i­can chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty. There is only the chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty, and what affects one mem­ber affects all.

Cen­sor­ship harms all chil­dren, not only the tar­get­ed eth­nic group du jour. A book is the safe place for a child to learn about anoth­er cul­ture. It is there that chil­dren come to under­stand that all humans are more alike than dif­fer­ent. I was remind­ed of that in a let­ter I received from a read­er who wrote: “I learned that no mat­ter how dif­fer­ent we are on the out­side, we’re all pret­ty much the same on the inside.” That is one of the great lessons to be learned from books fea­tur­ing Latin, Asian, Native Amer­i­can, Mid­dle East­ern, African, and African Amer­i­can char­ac­ters. Only some­one, or some state, that wants to per­pet­u­ate the racial divide would take issue with that.

Are you lis­ten­ing, Arizona?

Of course, race-relat­ed cen­sor­ship is not the only kind out there.

Today, I’ve got anoth­er itch to scratch.

What set me off more recent­ly? An attack on author Rachel Held Evans for her blog about the stran­gle­hold Chris­t­ian book­stores have on the Chris­t­ian pub­lish­ing indus­try. She wrote about the frus­tra­tions felt by many believ­ing authors who find them­selves cre­ative­ly straight-jack­et­ed by a mar­ket­place that prefers its lit­er­a­ture san­i­tized, and a lit­tle left of real­i­ty. I res­onat­ed with much of what she had to say, and felt pressed to add my voice to the argument.

I’m livid about peo­ple try­ing to dic­tate what a Chris­t­ian writer can, and should, write.  Or, for that mat­ter, try­ing to dic­tate what can and should con­sti­tute “Chris­t­ian fic­tion.” Let me explain.

I’m some­thing of a rar­i­ty. I’m an author who pub­lish­es on both sides of the aisle, name­ly with both Chris­t­ian and sec­u­lar pub­lish­ers. Over the years, I’ve noticed that as long as I’m focused on pic­ture books, the prob­lems are, for the most part, slight. How­ev­er, the minute mid­dle grade and YA fic­tion is the genre, hold your hors­es. “Lan­guage” sud­den­ly becomes an issue. And by “lan­guage” I mean so-called edgy words like “damn” or “hell.” (“Shit” is com­plete­ly out of the ques­tion.) As for sub­ject mat­ter, let’s not men­tion witch­es, or pros­ti­tutes, or—gasp—homosexuals. Mind you, I’ve nev­er fea­tured gay char­ac­ters in any of my fic­tion, nor used the word “shit,” but I most cer­tain­ly object to the idea of being told that I can’t.

Here’s my prob­lem. I’ve been a stu­dent of the Bible since 1974 and, in all that time, I’ve noticed the fol­low­ing: sto­ries in the Holy Bible include pas­sages on witch­es, sor­cer­ers, medi­ums, pros­ti­tutes, pimps, racists, adul­ter­ers, despots, and homo­sex­u­als, among oth­ers. These sto­ries do not sug­gest that one should become a pimp, witch, pros­ti­tute, etc. But the Word of God does not shy away from their men­tion, or instruct read­ers to ignore the real­i­ty of their existence.

Some of the sto­ries we find in scrip­ture are cau­tion­ary tales, some are tales of redemp­tion, while oth­ers focus on trans­for­ma­tion. Instead of push­ing for a lit­er­a­ture that is “safe”—something the Bible nev­er was—why not allow the cre­ators of Chris­t­ian fic­tion the free­dom to fol­low the mod­els found in scripture?

Con­sid­er this: Father Abra­ham pimps out his wife, Sarah, not once, but twice. The prophet Hosea mar­ried a whore, and did so on God’s instruc­tion. Rahab, a pros­ti­tute, became a hero of the faith, and an ances­tor of King David and, through him, an ances­tor of Jesus Christ. What, exact­ly, do Chris­t­ian book­sellers do with those sto­ries? Are you going to tell me that such sto­ries are good enough for the Holy Bible, but not good enough for con­tem­po­rary Chris­t­ian authors?  Really?

I real­ize noth­ing I say here is going to con­vince these book­sellers to take off their blind­ers, but still. One must speak out. Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, for tak­ing the lead.

I’m not sure I know how to take on the cen­sors. I only know that silence won’t work.

The Lord nev­er neglect­ed to call a spade a spade. Nei­ther will I.

An Award by Any Other Name

Planet Middle SchoolMy lat­est nov­el, Plan­et Mid­dle School, was nom­i­nat­ed for an IMAGE Award, the only award for which it was nom­i­nat­ed, in fact. It did­n’t win.

Plan­et Mid­dle School received won­der­ful reviews includ­ing one star. It’s got­ten great feed­back from fans. Every­one who has read it loves it. But the nov­el did not win an award. Does that matter?

On the eve of the Oscars, my thoughts turn to awards. Actu­al awards are worth sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle. I’m talk­ing about the medals, stat­uettes, and crys­tal fig­urines them­selves. They cost only a few dol­lars. Yet, we imbue those awards with mean­ing that makes them seem price­less. But, why?

Sup­pose I write a great book, but a pan­el of three, or six or twelve judges deem anoth­er book to be the year’s “best.” Is my great book no longer great? Is great no longer good? Is good no longer good enough?

Here’s a thought. We are not called to be the best. We are called to be our best. It’s cru­cial that we under­stand the dif­fer­ence between the two.

I love watch­ing fig­ure skat­ing. It is the sport I fol­low most close­ly dur­ing the Win­ter Olympics. But one thing that always dis­turbs me is how often win­ning sil­ver or bronze for an event is treat­ed as a fail­ure. All the emphasis—by ath­letes, coach­es, and com­men­ta­tors alike—is on the gold. Win the gold and, well, you’re gold­en. Win any­thing less and so, it seems, are you. That’s cer­tain­ly the way Debi Thomas felt the year she was beat out by Kata­ri­na Witt for the top prize. She took home the bronze in the ladies com­pe­ti­tion, the first African Amer­i­can woman to do so, as I recall. Yet, her third-place fin­ish was prac­ti­cal­ly mourned.

How many hun­dreds of ath­letes did every skater, ski­er, luger, have to beat out to even win a place on that Olympic team? For my mon­ey, any­one who makes the team is already a win­ner. How about cel­e­brat­ing that? The argu­ment works for authors, as well.

I remem­ber the first book con­ven­tion I attend­ed. it was the ABA con­fer­ence held in Las Vegas (yes, I’m dat­ing myself. This con­fer­ence is not even called ABA any­more. But nev­er mind.) I walked onto the exhib­it floor and gasped. There were acres of books laid out before me, a sight I’d nev­er even imagined.

As I strolled down aisle after aisle, past booth after book filled with new­ly pub­lished books, I won­dered how on earth I would ever make my mark in a field so enor­mous. Then, the impos­si­ble hap­pened. I did. So did a lot of oth­er authors.

A few authors, a pre­cious few, have won the New­bery, the gold medal of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. I’m not one of them, but I am in great com­pa­ny. (Jane Yolen, any­one? Gary Schmidt? What about Nao­mi Shi­hab Nye? The list is too, too long.) Does not win­ning the New­bery mean that our books aren’t good, or even great? Of course not.

We have all made the team.

We are already winners.

Out of the thou­sands, upon thou­sands, of man­u­scripts sub­mit­ted to pub­lish­ers each year, ours were select­ed for pub­li­ca­tion. Ours were noticed. Ours won fans. Ours moved read­ers to laugh­ter and tears. We need to let that be enough. I need to let that be enough.

Say it with me: We are not called to be the best. We are called to be our best. You can’t get bet­ter than that.

The Color of Character

Book CoversFor the record, I’ve nev­er had a nose job, or tried to bleach my skin. I do not straight­en my hair—not that there’s any­thing wrong with that. The fact is, for decades now, I have worn my hair nat­ur­al in cel­e­bra­tion of my African her­itage. I am now, and have always been, black and proud.

That said, I take issue with the fact that review­ers rou­tine­ly begin every dis­cus­sion of my books by iden­ti­fy­ing my char­ac­ters as African Amer­i­can. Now, before you chime in with com­ments about eth­nic pride (“My Greek friends refer to them­selves as Greek Amer­i­cans,” one woman told me, while anoth­er said “I’d nev­er call myself Greek-Amer­i­can”) that’s not what I’m talk­ing about, here. Under con­sid­er­a­tion here are how books are defined in terms of race.

As I not­ed in a con­ver­sa­tion on Face­book, if I were Ital­ian, no review­er would refer to the char­ac­ters in my book as Ital­ian-Amer­i­can, unless that her­itage was of par­tic­u­lar con­se­quence in the sto­ry­line. Yet, when it comes to my books, no such dis­tinc­tion is made. The specter of race is raised right out of the gate, with every title, near­ly every time, sub­ject notwith­stand­ing. Just recent­ly, I read an oth­er­wise won­der­ful review of my lat­est nov­el, Plan­et Mid­dle School that did exact­ly that.


I know it’s pos­si­ble to write a thought­ful review of this book with­out men­tion­ing race because K.T. Horn­ing cre­at­ed one for Book­list. Now, since I’ve been in the busi­ness for more than 30 years, and most of my books have cen­tered on char­ac­ters of African Amer­i­can descent, it can be assumed, with­out prej­u­dice, that my new book does so as well. How­ev­er, race is by no means ger­mane to the sub­ject or treat­ment of this par­tic­u­lar nov­el. You’d nev­er know that, though, accord­ing to the first review ref­er­enced above. Why does that mat­ter? I’m glad you asked.

I under­stand why librar­i­ans might want to be able to quick­ly iden­ti­fy titles of par­tic­u­lar inter­est to African Amer­i­can read­ers. And were I a first, or sec­ond, or third time author, with no track record, or body of work, or sta­tus in the chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty, one might argue the impor­tance of men­tion­ing race, at least ini­tial­ly, in con­nec­tion with my titles. How­ev­er, none of that is the case.

At this stage of the game, most peo­ple involved with, or mak­ing use of, chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture know that I’m African Amer­i­can, and that my pri­ma­ry char­ac­ters are, in the main, African Amer­i­can, too. Mind you, I’m not sug­gest­ing that I’m “famous” in the sense that we speak of celebri­ties (God for­bid!), but mere­ly that I am well estab­lished in the chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty, and it is a fair­ly sim­ple mat­ter to ascer­tain that the char­ac­ters of most of my books are African Amer­i­can with­out hav­ing the fact men­tioned in review after review after review. Besides, the cov­er art makes it plain, does it not? (I’ve all but begged pub­lish­ers to con­sid­er cre­at­ing cov­ers for my books that are not always race-spe­cif­ic, but to no avail!)

“But,” you ask, “what if the cov­er art is not includ­ed in the review?” No prob­lem. Take two sec­onds to go to or or the Barnes and Noble web­site, click on the title in ques­tion, and up pops the telling cov­er art, in no time flat. Prob­lem solved. And oh, by the way, if race is the only com­mon denom­i­na­tor book buy­ers are inter­est­ed in, they’re free to check out the spe­cial list­ings pub­lish­ers pro­duce each year to high­light their own black and mul­ti­cul­tur­al titles. Most pub­lish­ers’ cat­a­logs I see, these days, have a sec­tion set aside for those titles. And don’t for­get the annu­al Pub­lish­er’s Week­ly issue on black books in—when is that? February?

Of course, my issue with the whole race ques­tion in dis­cussing chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture (or any lit­er­a­ture, for that mat­ter) is, if you will, more than skin deep. I have a prob­lem with seg­re­gat­ing teach­ing or read­ing prac­tices in all schools, whether a school is seg­re­gat­ed or racial­ly mixed. Be a stu­dent black, brown, yel­low, or white-skinned, he should be encour­aged to read a diverse selec­tion of good books by authors of every race. Period.

Is a book well writ­ten? Is the sto­ry well told? Will the sub­ject mat­ter res­onate with read­ers? Does the book have the poten­tial for mak­ing an emo­tion­al con­nec­tion with read­ers? These are the kinds of ques­tions teach­ers and librar­i­ans should be focused on. In the case of books in which race is cen­tral to the sto­ry­line, race should absolute­ly come in for a men­tion. But where it does not, it should not. That is my contention.

Race, as an explic­it des­ig­na­tion in books, has a mar­ket­ing com­po­nent that can’t be over­looked. Books iden­ti­fied as “black” are fre­quent­ly mar­gin­al­ized in the mar­ket­ing plan. Their appeal is auto­mat­i­cal­ly con­sid­ered to be nar­row­er than books writ­ten by Cau­casian authors, some­times even when those books are about non-white char­ac­ters. The point-of-view is assumed to be uni­ver­sal, sim­ply by virtue of the white author’s race. In the sell­ers’ mind, a so-called “black book,” i.e., a book writ­ten by a black author, should be exclu­sive­ly mar­ket­ed to black buy­ers. As such, said books are rarely made avail­able in out­lets locat­ed in pre­dom­i­nant­ly white neigh­bor­hoods. This makes me crazy because I have avid fans in those neigh­bor­hoods, too. I know because I meet them dur­ing my school vis­its, and find their let­ters among my fan mail. Luck­i­ly for me (and them?) they were exposed to my work at their local library.

I can’t help but won­der how many stu­dents are miss­ing out on these read­ing expe­ri­ences because my “black books” aren’t being mar­ket­ed to a broad­er audi­ence. I nev­er know whether to ball my fists or cry.

I find myself annoyed by review­ers who give my books left-hand­ed com­pli­ments. In the first sen­tence of their review, they’ll men­tion the African Amer­i­can lead char­ac­ter. Then, in the final sen­tence, they’ll offer some ver­sion of “but the sto­ry has uni­ver­sal appeal.” Well, duh! If that’s the case, why both­er to point out the fact that the char­ac­ter is African American?

(A ques­tion just came to me. Can you imag­ine refer­ring to a com­put­er pro­gram design, or a med­ical break­through, or a work of archi­tec­ture as “black” sim­ply because the cre­ator was African Amer­i­can? I’m just won­der­ing. Where do we draw the line?)

As I sit at my com­put­er, typ­ing this blog, I think back on some of the gor­geous­ly craft­ed, well-imag­ined books I read last year as a judge for the Nation­al Book Award. I would hate to think that African Amer­i­can stu­dents will miss out on the titles that don’t hap­pen to fea­ture African Amer­i­can char­ac­ters, or that white stu­dents will miss out on those books that do. What a cry­ing shame!

I might be inclined to shrug my shoul­ders and say, “Maybe it’s just me,” except I know it isn’t. There are oth­er authors of col­or who are bugged by this issue, as well. (And what about those authors who are from South Africa, but are not black? What kind of box do review­ers put their books into? Oh, what a tan­gled web we weave when first we prac­tice to give race more than its due!) Still, I can’t speak for all authors of African descent. It’s quite pos­si­ble that some are con­tent to have their entire body of work boiled down to the col­or of their skin. As for me, I’d rather be known for writ­ing books that are mov­ing, inspir­ing, impact­ing, emo­tion­al­ly charged, beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, clev­er­ly con­struct­ed and—oh, yeah—universally appealing!

But that’s just me.

The Push to Publish

Kids WritingWhile chan­nel surf­ing the oth­er day, I came across a real­i­ty show about child beau­ty pageants. A four or five year old con­tes­tant was asked what she want­ed to be when she grew up, and her answer was “famous.” Her par­ent seemed pleased with that response, nev­er once sug­gest­ing to her daugh­ter that, per­haps, she should iden­ti­fy a career or pro­fes­sion for which she would like to be known. Being pret­ty and being known for any­thing seemed to be the point of it all. I myself found the child’s answer wince-worthy.

To be sure, I’ve met many a child, and not a few adults, whose chief goal in life was to achieve celebri­ty. They clear­ly crave the sta­tus of being famous for being famous, nev­er mind iden­ti­fy­ing and hon­ing a tal­ent, or learn­ing a trade, or devel­op­ing crafts­man­ship in some cho­sen field of endeav­or. And we won’t even dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pur­su­ing a career in high­er edu­ca­tion. No. Fame’s the thing.

What’s all that got to do with the push to pub­lish? Every­where I go across the coun­try, vis­it­ing schools and libraries, I encounter young peo­ple whose sole focus is on get­ting pub­lished. Note, they are not focus­ing on becom­ing good, let alone great writ­ers. They sim­ply want to be known for their writ­ing, and that acknowl­edge­ment or fame, if you will, comes in the form of publication.

There’s cer­tain­ly noth­ing objec­tion­able about want­i­ng, or need­ing, val­i­da­tion for one’s work, but that assumes one has actu­al­ly worked. That is to say, one has striv­en to hone one’s craft over a rea­son­able peri­od of time, through study and prac­tice. In the case of a per­son inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing pub­li­ca­tion, it is assumed that one has first done the hard work of sharp­en­ing lan­guage skills, study­ing a cho­sen genre and mas­ter­ing that sin­gu­lar skill of ines­timable val­ue, revi­sion. Said per­son knows what it is to read, read, read and to write, write, write. (I love Jane Yolen’s answer to ques­tions about the secret to writ­ing a book: Butt in chair!) Once a young writer has done all of the above, I think he or she is ready to pur­sue pub­li­ca­tion. But, it appears I would be in the minority.

Nowa­days, as ear­ly as ele­men­tary school, I hear stu­dents being referred to as “young authors.” I cringe every time I hear the phrase. Don’t get me wrong. I under­stand the desire to give chil­dren a sense of suc­cess, and desk-top-pub­lish­ing their work may achieve that, in the short term. How­ev­er, that suc­cess won’t be real unless it is earned.

I, for one, would like to see a move away from the push-to-pub­lish mod­el, a shift from “How can I get pub­lished?” to “Am I ready to pub­lish?” That shift has to begin in the classroom.

We all know teach­ing is one of the world’s tough­est and least-appre­ci­at­ed jobs. And we under­stand that most teach­ers are doing the best they can, despite being ham­strung by require­ments to teach to the test. So the last thing I want to do is crit­i­cize. But might I gen­tly sug­gest that there are ways to encour­age stu­dents to improve their writ­ing that don’t begin and end with pub­lish­ing? After all, not every child will be inclined to dig deep to do the hard work of revi­sion if he knows he can slap any­thing on paper and get it pub­lished by his teacher or school librar­i­an. Why not make pub­li­ca­tion an end-of-year goal that stu­dents must strive for? Mean­while, here are a few ideas to keep them writ­ing, along the way. Obvi­ous­ly, since I am not in the class­room myself, I won’t know the best ways to apply these ideas, but those of you who teach will. I’m just throw­ing my thoughts out there for you to consider.

Chal­lenge stu­dents with com­pe­ti­tions. Include winners—and not every­one is a win­ner, oth­er­wise the word would have no meaning—include win­ners in an end-of-year school pub­li­ca­tion. Cre­ate cat­e­gories for recog­ni­tion: Voice, Orig­i­nal­i­ty, Descrip­tive Lan­guage, Most Chal­leng­ing Vocab­u­lary, etc. No one child will achieve in all cat­e­gories, but sev­er­al chil­dren will achieve in one or more.

Assign stu­dents the task of research­ing mag­a­zines and jour­nals that pub­lish work by juve­niles, and then encour­age those stu­dents whose writ­ing mer­its it to sub­mit their work.

Dis­play the best writ­ing in class. Invite the best writ­ers to read their work out loud. Make this a sched­uled time so that stu­dents have ample time to pre­pare work for shar­ing. I know one teacher who has a poet­ry chair in her class­room. Once or twice a week—I can’t remem­ber exactly—a stu­dent gets to sit in that chair and read one of his or her favorite poems. There’s a great deal of pride attached to the expe­ri­ence of get­ting to sit in the poet­ry chair, and stu­dents look for­ward to the oppor­tu­ni­ty. The same idea could be applied to a stu­den­t’s own writ­ing. Why not? (Here, again, cat­e­gories might be use­ful. Stu­dents with dif­fer­ent writ­ing strengths could have those strengths hon­ored, week-to-week.)

Okay. Those are some sug­gest­ed “Dos.” Here are a cou­ple of sug­gest­ed “Don’ts” for teach­ers and par­ents, alike.

Every child can learn the basics of poet­ry, but not every child is a poet. Please stop telling them that they are. I know some of you will gasp at this notion, but not every­one who learns to draw has the poten­tial to be Picas­so. He is encour­aged to draw, any­way! I’m no Shake­speare, but my teach­ers man­aged to encour­age me to write despite that fact. In the process, I dis­cov­ered my own voice. Teach poet­ry? Absolute­ly! But don’t label a stu­dent a poet unless he tells you he is. And once he does, chal­lenge him to devel­op his skill. Guide him to poet­ry col­lec­tions to read so that he can dis­cov­er what is pos­si­ble in his own work.

Stop seek­ing men­tors for your pre­teen child who wants to be a writer one week, but will decide to be a bas­ket­ball play­er the next. I was sev­en­teen before I sought out my first men­tor, and I was pret­ty hard-core. I’d already begun pub­lish­ing my work in lit­er­ary jour­nals, and I sought out a men­tor on my own. Most kids, even at 17, aren’t ready for that lev­el of com­mit­ment. If they decide they want to make writ­ing their life’s work, they’ll grav­i­tate toward a men­tor on their own, when the time is right. Don’t force the issue. This is a tough career, with mas­sive amounts of rejec­tion. One should not set out on this path until he or she has reached a sol­id lev­el of maturity.

Let’s put pub­li­ca­tion aside, for a moment and talk about the work eth­ic, in gen­er­al. It’s dif­fi­cult to sort out, but some­how, in the last gen­er­a­tion, we’ve lost a respect for, and for­got­ten about the sat­is­fac­tion that comes from hard work. We’re all about instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, now—instant every­thing, in fact. What about the bone-strength­en­ing impact of achieve­ment? What about the self-esteem that derives from work­ing towards, and then achiev­ing, one’s goals? We’ve got­ten away from that and our fas­ci­na­tion with the new tech­nolo­gies has­n’t helped. We no longer stop to con­sid­er whether or not we should do a thing. We only ask whether or not we can, and that def­i­nite­ly applies to pub­lish­ing. Sigh.

Grade A+I had a great Eng­lish teacher in high school. Her name was Eve­lyn Wexler, or Mrs. Wexler to me. Mrs. Wexler encour­aged my writ­ing, and made sure I was famil­iar with the impor­tant African Amer­i­can authors of the day. But one thing Mrs. Wexler nev­er did was give me an easy A+. She made me work for it. I was already quite a good writer, but she want­ed me to strive to be bet­ter, and if I did­n’t chal­lenge myself to do so, she would not reward me with an A+ no mat­ter how much bet­ter my essays or book reports were than every­one else’s in class. She was push­ing me to be my best, not the best. It was a great les­son for me to learn.

Through­out high school, and beyond, I worked long and hard to cre­ate work that was wor­thy of pub­li­ca­tion. The result? When I final­ly saw my work in print, it was cause for cel­e­bra­tion. As for the rejec­tion along the way, it made my ulti­mate suc­cess all the sweeter.

I’m not sug­gest­ing that young stu­dents need to expe­ri­ence rejec­tion in the class­room, but they need not be hand­ed the reward of pub­li­ca­tion so eas­i­ly, either. In the long term, it will not serve them well.

I write for a liv­ing, and it would be easy enough for me to dash some­thing off and pub­lish it on my blog with lit­tle fore­thought. But I don’t, and there’s a rea­son for that. As a stu­dent, I was chal­lenged to make sure my writ­ing was the very best that it could be before I turned it in. Thanks, Mrs. Wexler. I’m still listening.