Notes from SCBWI Winter Conference

I had such a great time talking to everyone at SCBWI Winter Conference this weekend and teaching the multicultural books breakout. In one of my sessions, we didn’t get to this part of my notes, and for the others, we had to go through the list quickly because it was so long.

One thing we talked about is how the industry itself is working on awareness and furthering diversity among the books themselves and future publishing personnel. Last night, we launched the CBC Diversity Committee, which is working on these goals with other publishing partners. We have a brand-new website (which will gain content as time goes on) and plan a variety of events such as panels discussing diversity, visiting school career days and job fairs, and just continuing the conversation about diversity in all platforms, such as social media. See also some press coverage, where Robin Adelsen, the CBC’s executive director, shares our goals:

To make a difference, we will focus on recruitment by visiting high schools and colleges, providing resources on the CBC Diversity blog and promoting discourse by hosting panel and roundtable discussions.

I also promised attendees of my session that I would share with them the list of questions we discussed that might help us to know what questions to ask when thinking about deep cultural differences, whether we’re talking about writing cross-culturally in the sense of writing from a perspective not our own, or whether we’re thinking about reaching a readership that isn’t entirely our own culture, and if perhaps there might be some ways to express/acknowledge those differences in our writing. In the case of writing from our own cultural perspective, these questions may be less useful, but nonetheless I think they might get us all thinking about how culture affects decisions we make—not as a form of conditioning, at least no more than any other culture, but as a framework by which we interpret the world. Thinking about these questions may help us in our writing as we apply them to characterization, worldbuilding, plot (how a character reacts to certain problems may certainly be affected by cultural attitudes, whether he or she goes with mainstream culture or not, as does how other characters interact with that person, which eventually over the course of a book turns into a sequence of actions that turn into plot), setting, and so forth.

These questions are from chapter 9 of the excellent book A Beginner’s Guide to the Deep Culture Experience: Beneath the Surface by Joseph Shaules. The author was writing to an audience of potential U.S. expats living abroad, with the idea of helping them to think about cultural differences and ways to adapt to their new countries and enjoy the journey, but as I read it, I found so much that is applicable to ways we might think of culture in terms of writing about it, not to mention the adaptation experiences I had living with college roommates from other countries The intercultural experience goes both ways—though I didn’t live in another country, and so my experience wasn’t quite as deep, I still found I had to adapt and learn from my roommates if I wanted to get along with them.

I highly recommend reading the whole book, or at least chapter 9, where he expands on these questions and discusses how the answers are not either-or, good/bad—just choices that don’t have a value attached to them that show how different people choose to handle universal human questions in different ways.

  1. Whom are people loyal to?
  2. Who gets respect?
  3. How do we ensure fairness and efficiency?
  4. How do we manage our emotions?
  5. Who is in control?
  6. What time is it?
  7. How can we judge goodness and truth?
  8. How different are men and women?
  9. Am I in your space?
  10. Shall we look forward or back?

Also: I loved that there were several Koreans in my seminar over the course of the day, two in one session alone! After that session, we got to talking about why and how I’m learning Korean, so I wanted to give a shout-out to the excellent Talk to Me in Korean and their sister site, HaruKorean. I think for those with middle-school aged kids and older, and for us adults looking to learn, it’s a great place to learn Korean both by ear (with the short podcasts that feel like you’re just listening to your Korean friends bantering, yet you’re learning at the same time) and in writing (at HaruKorean you can practice Korean sentences and get corrections from native Korean speakers).

And lastly (but not least), one thing I didn’t get to include in my presentation for lack of time was bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle’s anecdote about how she talks up diversity to her customers, which illustrates well the bookseller-reader part of the diversity in publishing equation. She noted,

“Thinking about our own approach to race in children’s books requires ongoing self-assessment for all of us booksellers, me included. For instance: when I handsell books to customers, I usually gather three to five possible titles and booktalk each one.”

She said that in that stack, she tries to include at least one book featuring a character of color, and if she sees resistance on a customer’s face about the book about the character of color,

“…and they say those coded things like, ‘I don’t think that’s really for him,’ or ‘Oh, she wouldn’t like that,’ you can say, ‘Kids in town LOVE this book!’ (Of course, that has to actually be true. You never compromise your integrity or reputation by pretending a book is good or popular when it isn’t.) And you can make one more gentle try, by saying why you chose that book for that customer’s grandchild…”

…focusing on what’s great about the story—the adventure, the specifics of the plot.

“If they still say no, at least they will be more aware of why they’re saying no.”

Read Elizabeth’s whole post here at the Shelftalker blog.


5 thoughts on “Notes from SCBWI Winter Conference

  1. I love all you’re doing to promote diversity. I teach English as a second language to immigrants from all over the world and I love getting to know them and learning about their cultures and the challenges they’ve faced and how they are overcoming them.

  2. Wish I could have attended your session. Sounds like you’re in such great things to promote diversity. Too bad about the customers and so sad that response is not an isolated incidence.

    I’m impressed that you’re learning Korean with all you do. For 3-4 years I was learning Chinese until I started writing. With work, family, and writing, I sadly didn’t have time anymore.

    1. I personally like to think about it in terms of the way confronting the issue as she does helps the customer to be more aware, in a subtle way so that they don’t walk away offended.

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