We could learn something from the penny dreadfuls

My latest read is a departure from my normal fiction fare: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. We start off getting some biographical details of Edward Stratemeyer, who headed the Stratemeyer Syndicate—which, far from being the organized crime ring the name sounds like, was the company that created Nancy Drew back in the 20s.

Stratemeyer got his start in the late 1800s writing for penny dreadful magazines, the newspaper equivalent of dime novels for kids. The first chapter goes into a brief history of St. Nicholas magazine, and here’s the point of my post today, a quote from chapter 1:

The very existence of so many papers for children was a relatively new phenomenon. Most of the early nineteenth-century children’s magazines had been connected to religious orders of one sort or another . . . and all of them had a tendency to be didactic and somewhat dull. But by the middle of the century, secular papers that took as their task merely the amusement of children were beginning to make their presence felt. . . . Just prior to its [St. Nicholas’s] launch, Mary Mapes Dodge—St. Nicholas’s editor and the author of the international children’s bestseller Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865)—announced that, in something of a departure, the magazine would contain “no sermonizing . . . no wearisome spinning out of facts, nor rattling of the dry bones of history . . . the ideal child’s magazine is a pleasure ground.”

That last part is an important one, and one to remember for those writing children’s books. “The ideal child’s [book] is a pleasure ground.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that we won’t absorb facts along the way or learn a little history as we set off on adventure, but the most important thing to remember when spinning your tales is that it’s about entertaining your readers. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it will be natural to the course of the story because it springs from character growth, not the other way around.

Fantasy and SF touchstones (MG and YA)

I’m making another book list again! I’d like to know what books you think are the most important (and give me a good reason) middle grade and YA fantasy books of all time/their time. What changed things? Which were important signifiers of culture at that time? Which were the most important in literary merit? What books had little literary merit—according to some—but changed the way things were done in that genre, or started a huge trend?

I’ll break it down for you and start off with a few obvious ones. What I’d like to know is who you feel fits some of the later categories. I have my own list of titles/authors, but I’m wondering who you’d pick.

Christina Rosetti
George MacDonald
Water Babies

Edwardian/American of the same era
A.A. Milne
L. Frank Baum
E. Nesbit

Early fantasists
C.S. Lewis
J.R.R. Tolkien

Following in their footsteps (60s-80s?)–these categories are nebulous because these authors’ works span decades; I’ll narrow it down later, as this is just a starting point.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Susan Cooper
Lloyd Alexander

80s-90s fantasy of the 2nd wave feminist variety
Tamora Pierce—Alanna especially
Robin McKinley
Donna Jo Napoli

Today’s fantasy

Real world: fantastic elements

Urban fantasy
Holly Black

Paranormal (sometimes romance)/Supernatural horror
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Alternate/fantastic world

Epic fantasy/sword and sorcery

Fairy tale retellings/related to fairy tales
Shannon Hale (among others, who overlap with 80s-90s fantasists)
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Real world traveling to alternate fantastic world
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Victorian SF
Jules Verne

Pulp “Golden Age” SF (***NOTE: I’m only looking for stuff published FOR CHILDREN, which might make this category hard to pin down)

Post-pulp SF
Robert A. Heinlein (actually, though, is Heinlein considered part of the Golden Age?)
Andre Norton

Today’s SF

Dystopia (not always SF)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Feed by M.T. Anderson
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

ETA: Postapocalyptic
How could I forget this category? And zombie plagues also fall under this—some books will fall in more than one category. Such as the dystopias—some dystopias are post-apocalyptic, and some post-apocalyptics are dystopian.

Space adventure
I have several titles in mind, but what are the BIG standouts in this genre, gamechangers, for you?

Zombies and other plagues
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (are there any predecessors I’m forgetting within children’s lit—not adult?)

Futuristic/techy, not fitting in above categories
The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer (or would this be dystopia?)

AGAIN, please note that I am ONLY looking for titles and authors who were published FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS. Please don’t go starting a whole new thread of adult titles that I can’t use in this list. This happens all the time when I’m doing book lists, and when I’m working on it for recommendations to parents or whatever that’s fine, but in this case I’m looking for touchstones that changed the genre and/or have great literary merit.


So, what do you think are the most important, most controversial, most talked-about, most meritorious fantasy and science fiction titles over the years for young people? My categories are vague, and will probably change, but I’m looking at overall eras (and those “eras” I just defined are vague too and will change, but let’s just use them as general outlines that get us from the Victorian era to today).

I’d like, in particular, to know about early women writers we might have previously overlooked, and important multicultural contributions. Surely our list of multicultural fantasy—heavy on the more recent years, and more sparse as we go backward—includes books that should be considered touchstones, such as Wizard of Earthsea, several “juveniles” by Heinlein, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm and House of the Scorpion.

Submissions update

For those of you who submitted PARTIAL manuscripts, I am nearly up to date on everything that has come in up through June 1. I’ll post when I am, so that you’ll know that if you haven’t heard from me, the answer is no. But I’m still working my way through a few.

For those of you from whom I asked for FULL manuscripts, I’m working my way through that reading, getting back to people with editorial letters, feedback, or (sadly, yes) declines as necessary. I respond to full manuscripts; it just takes me a while. If it’s been more than four months since I got your manuscript, a reply to you might have slipped through the cracks. Feel free to follow up to see where your manuscript is in such a case. If it’s been less than four months, I should be getting back to you sometime this month.

Also, if you are a member of a writing community, listserv, message board, or other group for which this might be interesting—to which I haven’t already posted a call for submissions—you are welcome to share this around:

Call for submissions

TU BOOKS, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS, publishes speculative fiction for children and young adults featuring diverse characters and settings. Our focus is on well-told, exciting, adventurous fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels featuring people of color set in worlds inspired by non-Western folklore or culture. We welcome Western settings if the main character is a person of color.

We are looking specifically for stories for both middle grade (ages 8-12) and young adult (ages 12-18) readers. (We are not looking for picture books, chapter books, or short stories. Please do not send submissions in these formats.)

For more information on how to submit, please see our submission guidelines at http://www.leeandlow.com/p/tu_submissions.mhtml. We are not accepting unagented email submissions at this time.

What I’m particularly interested in seeing lately: Asian steampunk, any African culture, Latino/a stories, First Nations/Native American/Aboriginal fantasy or science fiction written by tribal members, original postapocalyptic worlds, historical fantasy or mystery set in a non-Western setting.

Stacy Whitman
Editorial Director
Tu Books

Oh hey, look what I found

Pictures from a recent visit to NYC by Cynthia Leitich Smith! These were taken in Feb. 2011, but I completely forgot to post them.

What’s that? You don’t know Cyn? How could you miss this unyielding advocate for children’s literature? In fact, I’m surprised you somehow managed to make it to MY site if you haven’t been to Cyn’s first. But just in case you don’t know all the cool things she’s doing, from her blog—where she interviews and champions other authors more than herself—to her main website, where she keeps a bunch of annotated bibliographies of multicultural literature broken down by communities and a whole part dedicated to children’s/YA lit resources, not to mention a whole bunch of other stuff, well, now’s your chance to check it out.

And while you’re at it, go read her books.



Beyond Orcs and Elves, part 3

And finally, part 3. Read parts 1 and 2 here and here.

So now let’s talk about writing cross-culturally!

Writing Cross-culturally

A few months ago, I answered a reader’s question on my website, in which she asked, basically, “Is my character ‘black enough’?” which prompted a wide variety of responses, some voices expressing why the question itself hurt the readers, most particularly that the question comes with baggage that implies there’s only one way to be black. But much as it might be a painful process, with perhaps many mistakes made along the way, I think it’s important for us to be talking about writing cross-culturally. White writers have started to examine their privilege, have started to critically think about why they don’t include more diversity in their writing. So they start out with some incorrect ideas and a LOT of questions—and the way they ask the questions might not always be the best way to phrase something. Not to mention—getting back to that Le Guin quote that everyone has someone who is Other to themselves—that maybe black writers might be interested in Japanese culture, and East Asians might be interested in  Indian culture, and all those intercultural interests that are so healthy for everyone to have.

It’s not the responsibility of your average POC on the street to explain Racism 101 to anyone who asks, and sometimes those responding have heard it ALL before. But there are ways for people who want to include a wider variety of people/cultures/ethnicities/races in their writing to figure out how to do so. In fantasy, sometimes it’s especially easy, because often our worldbuilding involves MAKING STUFF UP! If it’s not set in the real world nor directly influenced by it, why would everyone need to be white?

But then what about setting stuff in the real world, or in a world inspired by a specific culture, say, ancient China? That’s where research comes in. And as any writer knows, research means a number of different sources of information.


  • Read! Get educated!

I know I’m going out of order here, but this really is one of the most important things  someone who’s just starting out thinking about writing cross-culturally can do. And I don’t mean just walking up to a person on the street or a random work acquaintance and saying “so, tell me about you people.” If you don’t already know and trust someone from the culture you want to write about, ask yourself why that is—both that you want to write about it, and that you don’t know anyone. Then figure out how to fix the second part of that sentence. Find museums and cultural centers if you don’t know someone from that culture and ask them to point you in the right direction. It’s their job, at least, to field such questions, and it’s a better solution than asking the only black/Native American/Asian person you know. And besides, you can’t assume that if someone’s Asian, for example, that they’re from the culture you want to write about (BIG difference between Chinese/Japanese/Korean/other Asian cultures) or that they’d have any more experience than you do with it if they’ve lived here in the US their whole lives. They might. But they might not.

So USE YOUR LIBRARY. (Aside: Our libraries are under constant threat of budget cuts right now because of the economy. If you want to be able to keep using it as a resource—and you really should—make sure to also think about advocating for it in your communities/counties/states.)


  • Examine your privilege before you walk this road

Normally at this point, I read parts of “Things I don’t have to think about today” by John Scalzi, an SFF author and the current president of SFWA. Rather than reproduce his blog post, I’d rather you go read it here in its entirety. It’s one author’s musings on his privilege, which I think will be a nice springboard thought exercise for anyone thinking about their own privilege—and most of us have privilege of some form, even if we’re from a poor background, even if we have health challenges, and so forth.

  • Get to know people outside your own “community”

This one’s fairly self-explanatory. Reaching beyond our everyday patterns to befriend people who are different than us helps us to see a bigger picture and understand others’ perspectives, even if we don’t share them.

  • Learn the line between “respect” and “appropriation”

Note to especially examine appropriation of Native American and other First Nations/Aboriginal cultures, whose voice has been suppressed/oppressed ever since Columbus over 500 years ago. I hear from a lot of people who want to use Native American beliefs (or often, what they believe are Native American beliefs, from a 70s-media-influenced point of view, conflating all Native American people into one spiritual-close-to-nature pot). But most Native Americans would probably rather see fantasy from other Native Americans because of their sensitivity to cultural appropriation from outsiders.

How do you know, then, whether you’re using a culture of inspiration appropriately? Nisi Shawl has a lot of great thoughts on cultural appropriation in her articles Appropriate Cultural Appropriation and Transracial Writing for the Sincere. I think the most important one from Appropriate Cultural Appropriation is the idea of the difference between Invaders, Tourists, and Guests. She says:

During the same panel which inspired Goto’s poem, audience member Diantha Day Sprouse categorized those who borrow others’ cultural tropes as “Invaders,” “Tourists,” and “Guests.” Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.

Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.

Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.

I think those are important distinctions. You may start as a Tourist, but learn enough and you might be invited as a Guest. But it’s an invitation that comes from the host—you can’t demand an invitation. But I think the occasional outsider writing as Tourist, as long as you’re learning, is an important part of this step of the process we’re in, working to build awareness and bring out more SFF books for young readers that feature POC.

But go read BOTH articles! Both have more to say than I can express here without just repeating what she already said so well.

And I really don’t have much more to say on how to write cross-culturally. Really, what I’d like you to take away from this for your writing is to consider who the readers are, where they come from, the issues involved in reaching all readers and potential readers, and then for you to become advocates for diversity in whatever way is appropriate for your writing. But let me leave you with this thought on appropriation from Ursula K. Le Guin from that same book, The Language of the Night:

“If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate or deify it; but in either case, you have denied its spiritual equality and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality. You have, in fact, alienated yourself.”

And for those wanting more reading, check out these links:

Resources For Writers: Writing About Another Culture

Nisi Shawl’s Writing the Other—both a workshop and a book. More info at http://www.sfwa.org/members/shawl/other/

“Appropriate Cultural Appropriation” by Nisi Shawl http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10087

“Transracial Writing for the Sincere” by Nisi Shawl http://www.sfwa.org/2009/12/transracial-writing-for-the-sincere/

Le Guin, Ursula K. “American SF and the Other,” The Language of the Night. New York: HarperCollins, 1979/1989.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” The Language of the Night. New York: HarperCollins, 1979/1989.

“Being Poor” by John Scalzi http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/

“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf


“Things I Don’t Have to Think about Today” by John Scalzi http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/10/18/things-i-dont-have-to-think-about-today/ paired with his next post on narrative usurpation, covering why he wrote the previous post, at http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/10/18/narrative-usurpation-quick-thoughts-on-the-previous-post

Teen blogger Ari’s Reading in Color blog, which reviews only books by and about people of color: http://blackteensread2.blogspot.com/ She’ll give you plenty of places to start reading if you’re just starting out—and really anytime you might be stuck and wanting more to read.


Color Online focuses on women POC writers and books for POC teen girls, including a local library one of the bloggers runs for teens in her area. They often run reading challenges to get their fellow bloggers reading and thinking about POC in children’s/YA books, though they don’t limit themselves to children’s books. http://coloronline.blogspot.com/

Doret runs The Happy Nappy Bookseller, where she reviews books about POC and raises awareness, sometimes doing features on particular themes. http://thehappynappybookseller.blogspot.com/

And the obligatory last slide for more info about me—which of course you already know if you’re here!


Beyond Orcs and Elves, part 2

See here for part 1.

Many authors have broken that mold & followed Ursula K. Le Guin’s admonition to write more of the “other.” But there’s still a strong British tradition—among the  biggest touchstones for kids from the 70s and 80s era are arguably Susan Cooper, Roald Dahl, Diana Wynne Jones, etc.

All touchstones for a reason—they’re REALLY GOOD books. But told from a particular cultural perspective, and there is a danger to just one single story—and if you haven’t seen that TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, I highly recommend you googling “the danger of a single story” and watching all twenty minutes of the talk, because she has a lot of really great things to say about how important it is for ALL children to see themselves mirrored in the books they read.

Yet despite our gains in diversity in fantasy and all of children’s books, we still have a long way to go. Just in the last few years, I’m sure you’ve heard of the problems with intentional or unintentional whitewashing that goes back as far as Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. You probably know that the main character of Earthsea, Ged, has copper skin, and that all the characters in the book except for the invaders are people of color. The myth was that “black books” don’t sell, so many versions of Earthsea didn’t feature people on the cover to avoid that “problem”—even to the point of featuring dragons. There are no dragons in Earthsea. EDIT: Wait, there were dragons in Earthsea? I honestly don’t remember them! But my point is that whether dragons are important or not, Ged is not white. Whoops!


And when people were featured on the cover, what does Ged look like?


It’s easy to say that’s all in the past, but as we all know, we’re still dealing with the problem now.


There’s the question of whether “black books” sell to a “mainstream” audience (I hate this term, because “mainstream” here implies “white,” without the nuance of all the other people in the audience—74% isn’t 100%!), not to mention it assumes that white people wouldn’t be interested in reading a story that features a black (or Asian, or Native American, etc etc) character.

In a world in which Will Smith and Denzel Washington are doing just fine, why is this a problem in our books??

Several months ago I attended a panel that featured several NY publishing house editors, a School Library Journal blogger, and an NYPL librarian (sorry, it’s been so long I can’t remember who was on the panel, but someone who was there might pipe up). One thing that was brought up by someone (sorry! can’t remember who!) on the panel is that part of the problem is that we’re defining books by “black book”/“white book,” rather than “awesome mystery,” “exciting historical adventure,” “thriller,” “space adventure.” That’s what we’re working on at Tu—exciting books for young readers that are all about the story first and foremost and just happen to feature a person of color as the main character. How silly is it to assume that the hero always has to be white?

A lot of my colleagues in editorial are looking for books featuring a wide variety of characters. It’s a change that we all need to implement as writers, readers, parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers, marketing, and anyone else involved in bringing books to young readers.

Let’s look at the readers themselves for a minute.



Note that this is from 2008 or 2009 estimates from the US Census Bureau & that we’ll have a more accurate view once the 2010 data is available. I’ve heard that soon, if not now, about 50% of kids in schools across the nation are people of color, including Latinos. Right now, if you add up those sides of the pie, even in 2008 people of color were 32% of the population overall.




You might want to run by those again. I think just seeing how the green part of the pie just grows… and grows… and grows…

Why is that?

Okay, then I just wanted to show you this last thing. NOW REMEMBER—not all people of color live in poverty, and not all people in poverty are people of color. But when thinking about how kids access books—who buys them, where kids find books to read, etc.—it’s important to remember that a large percentage of those in poverty are kids of color, and that affects how they’re able to access print materials.


Note that because of the demographic breakdown, a lot of the kids who only have 1 book to share with 354 other kids will be kids of color.


And you get a pretty good picture that the majority of the book-buying public being white has a lot to do with who’s in poverty as much as any other reason. Of course, correlation isn’t causation—I’m just saying there’s a link here for us to consider, and that there’s a lot of work to do in making sure that kids in poverty also see themselves mirrored in books. There’s a privilege situation that means that most of the demographic writing books aren’t necessarily the same demographic as the kids looking for books in our schools and libraries. (I first heard of this data when Andrea Davis Pinkney shared it at the A is for Anansi conference; later I found a study that confirmed the numbers, but I don’t have the link here on my home computer.)

We often talk in multicultural book circles about the idea of mirrors and windows—mirrors to see your own experience reflected back, windows to see into another world. Author Zetta Elliott recently added a dimension to that which I like, the idea of “sliding glass doors” to walk in and experience someone else’s world. That’s what reading is, isn’t it? That’s where true interculturalism begins.

In 2009 when I was starting Tu Publishing as a small press in Utah—before we were acquired by Lee & Low—I talked to a few neighborhood kids about their reading habits. This is by no means a scientific study, and I want to warn you that often, kids at this age don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings about reading, so it might seem like I’m leading them, but the questions I’m asking in the video are questions that use information their parents supplied to me. Let’s watch them first, then I’ll discuss.

(Ignore the links to the Kickstarter campaign—that’s from way back when we were starting up.)

The last four kids were all siblings in a multiracial family. Note how the older sister had a lot more vocabulary to explain why she likes the books she likes! I’m sure that the boys and the youngest girl will eventually find the words to explain what they mean. But I want to talk about Austin in particular. He’s actually younger than his brother by two years—he was 8 and his brother was 10 at the time of filming. So his answers do reflect his developmental place in life—he just doesn’t have the vocabulary to express his frustration. In a family of readers, he hates to read, his mom says, not only because of his ADD but also because he can’t ever find any books that he feels he relates to. He would love to read a mystery, but when he picks up the mysteries his older brother is into, he flips through them and says in disgust, “Why can’t there be any black people who solve mysteries? Aren’t there any black people in this book at all??”

Anecdotally, that is one of the many factors that might affect why some kids of color don’t read as much genre fiction: not as many mirrors in as windows, which means it’s a bigger stretch for them to go out of their comfort zone every day. And they often do that so often, that in reading for pleasure, why would they want to yet again read about someone other than themselves?

Not every kid will have a need for mirrors. But shouldn’t we be providing them for the ones that do, and windows into their world for other kids?

Business-wise, it’s easier to sell windows than mirrors. Hence, when you look at the numbers of who buys books, of course the largest number of books currently sold will be to white people picking up books in which they see themselves mirrored, right? They’re the people who buy books by a large margin, both because whites are just a larger percentage of the population but also because a greater percentage of them are in a higher socioeconomic bracket. But then, we discount that low-income neighborhoods need public libraries and school libraries and all those other places where kids should have access to books and other reading materials, too. And we definitely discount the minorities who have money and are looking for great mirror books for their kids or themselves.

But hey, we’re publishing people. We can’t change the world, but we can do something. We can get involved in our communities and do what we can in our own spheres of influence. We can hope and work toward making sure that those opportunities are available through a lot of ways, like helping local libraries retain their funding, getting involved in mentoring, donating books, or donating money to book programs like RIF (which, if you noticed recently, lost all its federal funding due to severe budget cuts). There are so many opportunities to get involved like that.

But as that side of things improve, we also have to make sure that the actual books continue to grow toward reflecting the world that kids see in their daily lives, inasmuch as that is possible in a fantasy world, right?

As Andrea Davis Pinkney said at that same conference I mentioned above, “We’re doing okay, but we have a lot of work to do.”

Next time: Writing cross-culturally. What should writers take into consideration when thinking about writing from a perspective not their own? Should they even attempt writing cross-culturally/cross-racially?

Beyond Orcs and Elves: Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy for Young Readers, part 1

Here you go! The first installment. Note that this was written to be spoken, so sometimes the diction might seem a little weird for a blog post. But I’m just going to leave it as-is, because you’ll get the idea.

Beyond Orcs and Elves: Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy for Young Readers

Ursula Le Guin, way back in 1975 said:Slide2

The women’s movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that SF [science fiction, but let’s include fantasy too] has either totally ignored women or presented them as squeaking dolls subject to instant rape by monsters—or old-maid scientists desexed by hypertrophy of the intellectual organs—or, at best, loyal little wives or mistresses of accomplished heroes. Male elitism has run rampant in SF. But is it only male elitism? Isn’t the “subjection of women” in SF merely a symptom of a whole which is authoritarian, power-worshiping, and intensely parochial?

The question involved here is the question of The Other—the being who is different from yourself. This being can be different from you in its sex; or in its annual income; or in its way of speaking and dressing and doing things; or in the color of its skin, or the number of its legs and heads.

Slide3That was 35 years ago. (I know. I can’t believe it myself.) How are we doing today? I want to talk about the inclusion in speculative fiction for children and young adults of what 74% of the book-buying public might consider the Other in terms of mostly racial but also cultural differences. Perhaps this will help you in writing fantastic creatures or aliens, as well, this idea of writing the Other, but I want to focus on the human element today.


Old-school epic fantasy

  • Campbellian monomyth (guys who start off their adventures in inns)
  • ¨The British tradition”: Victorian fantasists to Tolkien & Lewis
  • ¨My elves are better than yours”
  • Dragonlance: The New Adventures

You may or may not know that fantasy as a genre started long before Tolkien was born. In fact, people have been telling fantasy stories for as long as there have been people. After all, the first fairy tales weren’t just what we now refer to as “myths,” creation stories and just-so stories. They were also fantastical tales told to pass the time or to warn children not to wander in the woods alone.

But let’s just start with the Victorian era, which had its own set of rules, morals and mores, body of literature, and cultural influences. We start with writers like George MacDonald, one of the primary influences on both Tolkien and Lewis, who wrote such tales as The Princess and the Goblin, The Light Princess, and The Princess and Curdie. His books drew upon fairy tales in their use of goblins, and they were fun, adventurous, and even allowed girls to have some adventure, which is kind of rare for the Victorian era!


There were also morality tales in the guise of fantasy—same as it ever was—such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, and the touchstone of fantasy touchstones, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

So even back then there was a wide variety of fantastical tales for children, but as often happens, when one book gets popular, a lot of imitations abound, trying to replicate the formula for success. The “British tradition” of fantasy was born not only in the UK, but also in the US.

Then we move through time, hitting upon authors like







I’m just going to let those slide on by, because I want to particularly focus in on the British—particularly Tolkienesque tradition of fantasy, which is popular not only amidst adult fantasy books—the majority of readers of which is teen boys—but also some high fantasy for children. The whole list is on my blog, which is stacylwhitman.com, if you’re interested in looking it up. I just wanted to post this to give us a better idea of where we’ve come from. [NOTE: I posted these in a text version somewhere, but I’m not sure where at the moment. I’ll have to come back and edit it with a link. Or you can just go to the tags on the side of the main page and click “booklists,” which should get you there eventually.]

So, focusing in on high fantasy—books like these:


Now, these are some books I worked on. I’ll get to them in a moment. But they arose out of a long tradition of high fantasy in both children’s and adult books.

My first job as a trade children’s book editor was at Wizards of the Coast, which some of you may know is known for its Dungeons and Dragons game. Or you might know it for Magic: The Gathering. Both games have popular tie-in fiction, and that’s what I first edited at this job: Dragonlance: The New Adventures. The original Dragonlance series by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss was published in the 1980s in conjunction with a D&D game by the same name, Dragonlance. The original books haven’t gone out of print in the 25 years since, and have spawned hundreds of books in the shared-world series, including the New Adventures, a series for middle grade readers that I edited.

Dragonlance was part of the larger body of epic fantasy work of the late 70s through the 80s—pre-Robert Jordan—that was eaten up by teens, mostly teenage boys (a trend that continues today). It’s great stuff! Kids and teens love it. Lots of adventure and dragons and elves and just a lot of fun.

One of the hallmarks of this kind of epic fantasy are worlds populated by what has become the standard fantasy races: any combination of elves, orcs, goblins, hobbit-like halflings—called “kender” in Dragonlance, halflings elsewhere—ogres, giants, and dragons (though usually the hero is a white human or light-skinned elf or half-elf, and most often that hero is also a man/boy). I think one of the reasons DrizztSlide14 is so popular is because he breaks this stereotype, though at the same time he reinforces others (he is the only “good” Dark Elf in an entire race of people). Mind you, it makes for good game mechanics (f0r this particular game) to make it easier to play characters. But it’s when individual characters have to fit a mold racially that it becomes problematic, especially now that we’re more than 25 years on from the publication of the original books, which were groundbreaking in their own right at the time.

There are some major tropes in high fantasy that we see a lot especially in older epic high fantasy titles:

  • Elves are beautiful, mysterious, and always good. Except dark elves, who are brooding and evil.
  • Kender can’t do magic.
  • Ogres are all evil. Half-ogres can sometimes be good.
  • Dwarves love to mine and live underground.
  • All hobbits (sometimes called halflings or kender) love to eat.
  • Gnomes are all engineers who blow stuff up, sometimes killing themselves in wild ways in the process.
  • Chromatic dragons are evil. Metallic dragons are good. They cannot change this fact by choosing to be good or evil, either.

Diversity issues have often been tackled in these books, though usually along strict “racial” lines which are really species lines. But each species was a kind of “people,” a sentient race of beings who could sometimes intermarry. All were humanoid. But it was a huge step in the right direction.

But how do we go beyond that?

Slide15Those involved with the adult book side of things are aware of these issues and many are working to address them in a variety of ways, but that’s not the focus of what we’re talking about here today. We’re going to talk about how it affects fantasy in children’s literature. So let’s look at a specific example. In Dragonlance: The New Adventures, we broke the mold a little bit. In original Dragonlance, the hobbit-like kender had a racial trait that they couldn’t do magic. Yes, an entire race of people, according to the rules of this world, were not genetically capable of doing magic.

An entire race of people were genetically incompetent in a skill which this world pretty much required for survival.

Well, not every human or elf was a magic-wielder, either, but the fact that humans and elves had the ability to choose whether or not to try to practice magic (or had the ability to find out if they were capable of it on an individual level, at least) makes it an interesting study in diversity to see that kender couldn’t do magic.

We broke that in the New Adventures, though—and some people weren’t terribly happy with us for doing it—and played with the rules of the world so that this one particular kender could do magic. There was an in-world way we explained it (he was given an older kind of dragon magic by a dragon spirit), but there you go. He wasn’t the only misfit in the group, either—the elf wasn’t all righteous and good, he was a thief. What matters is that each individual in a given group, including even minor characters, should be treated as an individual.

Part of this pattern is that much of high fantasy, at least until recent years, follows the British tradition I was just alluding to earlier—or rather, I should say, the Tolkien tradition. Tolkien did it this way and it worked so well, we should do it again and again!

Tolkien isn’t the only writer to be imitated in this way. We’ve seen it happen with every recent blockbuster, from Harry Potter to Twilight to Gossip Girls to whatever today’s new big thing is. How many boys-off-to-wizard-school books cropped up when Harry Potter first got big? But it is important to look at this tradition and realize how it’s stifled HUMAN diversity in fantasy and science fiction for young readers, and the ways in which writers are breaking that mold.

We don’t have enough time to really delve into a full analysis of each book that follows this tradition or breaks its molds, so I hope that what I say today will be just a jumping-off point for further thoughts and discussion, the end result being more writers of speculative fiction for children thinking consciously about diversity as they write.

How do we get past this old fantasy-world-trope diversity? Not in chucking elves and dragons altogether, in my opinion—it’s fun to play with made-up people and creatures!—but by examining issues of privilege and looking at how we treat individuals within groups, whether human or elf or orc. R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt broke those old boundaries—he’s a misfit. He decided to be good among a people who are dedicated to evil. That appeals to teen readers on a number of levels, but the one that stands out to me is that the character is an individual, who goes beyond the template that drow—dark elves—are expected to have in this fantasy world.

Next time: Let’s talk about whitewashing and demographics.

What I’m looking for: “The bright shiny promises of the future”

Dystopias are hot right now, that’s for sure. And I do love a good dystopia. After all, I’m a child of the 80s. Who doesn’t love The Terminator or Mad Max (especially the cheese of Beyond Thunderdome)? Or to use the example of a more present-day dystopia, space cowboys in Firefly? I love Joss Whedon, but his “shiny” futures (and presents) involve a lot of loved-character deaths, often in non-heroic, dystopian ways, and lately involving a lot of gunshot wounds to the head (I’m looking at you, Dollhouse). I call that dystopia.

But I’d like to see as much hope as I might despair. Oh, sure, dystopias often have a lot of hope, too—in fact, that’s probably one of the reasons I was frustrated with the last book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, because the end didn’t feel as hopeful as I wanted it to be. I feel like Matched by Ally Condie presents the possibility of a lot more hope—though we’re still waiting on book 2 and I could be wrong about that. And when your world is filled with zombie hordes, how much hope is left to the human race, let alone for any particular individual? I’m kind of scared to read The Dark and Hollow Places for this reason, though I’ve heard it’s really good. (And I loved books 1 and 2, so why am I so scared, even if it isn’t all that hopeful an ending?)

Science fiction is on a comeback slope, and most of it is dystopian. Yet kids, particularly, are all about hope for the future—even the teens who think we currently live in a dystopia hopefully have hope for their own futures, and plan to make the world a better place than the war-torn, disaster-filled world we’re living in right now. We need stories that address the hopeful side of life, as well, particularly in science fiction.

Farah Mendlesohn, a children’s book scholar, wrote an excellent Horn Book piece on this idea a couple years ago. While I don’t agree with her completely, she makes some great points (in my opinion, many of the old guard of SF don’t recognize children’s SF not because the writers aren’t SF experts, but because many old-guard SF writers still write as if it’s 1960 techwise—it baffles me that some of the old guard don’t recognize the genius that is Scott Westerfeld’s work as far as forward-looking tech, and I think addressing social concerns is vitally important too; not all science is hard science, says the social science major). (Equally important, though, is her point that many in children’s lit don’t understand the history of SF in children’s—those who don’t know who Norton and Heinlein are need to fix that problem!)

One point, in particular, is particularly important to my purpose here, though:

In their fiction for younger people, Heinlein, Norton, and their contemporaries wrote with an eye on concerns very similar to those found in adult science fiction: the world of work, the world of changing technology, and the bright new opportunities promised by these things. They could do this for two reasons. First, the world of teens was much closer to the world of adults than it is today. Norton and Heinlein’s audience was either already earning their own living or would be a few years in the future. Now the fifteen-year-old reader might be a decade away from the professional workplace. Second, Heinlein and Norton shared the values of the adult SF market and assumed that their role was to introduce younger readers to that material. They loved what teen SF readers loved: the bright shiny promises of the future.

…And perhaps because of YA literature’s preoccupation with social problems, science fiction for teens became increasingly a place for adults to warn the young about the future. At first glance this might be seen as introducing a healthy skepticism, but it was relentless. Very few SF books published for the teen market since 1970 saw the future as something to look forward to, and the downbeat books are not merely skeptical, they are downright doom-mongering and disempowering.

…So we have a bunch of readers who want stuff that tells them about the world, and the future, and what they can do to take part in it, and they are mostly being told that it’s really depressing, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and now is the best of all possible worlds. Is it any wonder they head for the adult shelves? The potential readers of SF written for teens have little respect for it, because they themselves can compare it to what is on offer for adults and know it does not match up.

…We may want children to learn science and languages, but our societies regard children and adults who enjoy doing that as a bit odd. The conflation of all children into one pool is improper, as a general principle, but when dealing with the children who like science fiction, it ignores the issue that those children—and their adult counterparts, readers and critics alike—have developed their own system of genre-specific criteria.

Galaxy GamesThese are some good points, and I hope that books like Greg Fishbone’s Galaxy Games series will at least in part address the need for more hopeful, forward-looking science fiction for children. But those who warn of doom and gloom also have a point—socially, at least, and environmentally, we have a lot of things wrong with the world, and as Whitney Houston says, our children are the future, right? They’re our hope. So how about some good books set in the far future that did what Star Trek did, but in a way that doesn’t dismiss the conflicts that had to happen to get them to that state of happy-happy future? What about eco-engineering, and green space exploration? What about diversity in the future that also addresses our historical problems socioeconomic and racial conflict? That is, what’s interesting to me isn’t so much “We’ve solved all of Earth’s problems! No war! No need for money!” to paraphrase Picard bragging about the future to a 23rd-century woman in First Contact. What interests me is what brings us to that … not utopia, because certainly there was still conflict in Star Trek, but a better world, certainly, in many ways.

Tankborn near finalI’m excited about Galaxy Games because it’ll tackle some of these ideas for a middle-grade set in the context of sports, but I’d also be interested to see what a hopeful science fiction story for teens might look like. Space travel, new worlds, the final frontier, etc. One current book that addresses the world of work is David Macinnis Gill’s Black Hole Sun, though still in a dystopian way. Tu’s list for this fall also has one, Tankborn—at age 15, GENs have to enter the world of work. Still, dystopian. I’m not looking for utopian, necessarily—everyone’s utopia is someone else’s dystopia, often enough—but I am wondering what a modern Heinleinian (Heinleinesque?) tale might look like (perhaps Black Hole Sun IS today’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel?), and hoping for something like that in future submissions.

And feel free to suggest published books for a list of “hopeful” SF for teens.

Tu covers!

We’ve got some exciting news over at the Lee & Low blog that you need to check out.

Also, for those who were interested in the African American genealogy conference, I promised I’d post my Top Ten Tips slides here and have gotten quite busy this week and haven’t gotten to it yet. I’ll post over the weekend. Thanks for your patience!

Tu teasers

I find I don’t want to blog much anymore, and mostly it’s because ever since my site broke, it hasn’t been quite right. I’m seriously thinking of giving up hosting it on my own (I can figure out most things, but it takes time I no longer have) and migrating my blog over to WordPress. A friend was showing me her site, and if my non-tech-savvy friend can get her site to look great there, maybe I should just use their infrastructure. Any more-tech-savvy-than-me friends know whether I can keep my custom headers and such while using WordPress’s servers rather than my own?

I’ll probably keep my own domain name, etc. The only thing that would change would be that my database would hopefully no longer be corrupted, and that I’d actually want to blog again because it wouldn’t be a headache every time I logged in!

Of course, that would require having something to blog about, and today I do have a little bit of a teaser for you. We’ve been working on the design stage of our Fall 2011 books, which means that we’re getting in preliminary cover art, looking at interior design, turning things around fast between designer, author, and editor (me). Within a few weeks I think we’ll have some final cover art to show off.

Like I said, just a teaser. Not much to talk about in public yet, but I can’t tell you how excited I am to finally show off the cool things I’ve been working on for almost a year. We’re working on acquiring for Spring 2012, too, so keep those submissions coming.

Speaking of Spring, I haven’t shared the acquisition we made last month here yet, have I? That’s how behind I am on blogging! Here’s the announcement we made in PW Children’s Bookshelf last month:

Stacy Whitman at Lee & Low Books has bought Bryce Moore’s debut novel Vodnik, for publication in spring 2012 by the Tu Books imprint. The YA fantasy tells the story of Tomas, a Roma boy who returns to Slovakia and discovers that the folk tale creatures he befriended as a boy are more dangerous than he knew, and he must strike a bargain with Death to save his cousin’s life. Eddie Schneider at JABberwocky Literary Agency brokered the deal for North American rights.