Why I Write Diverse Books That Are Outside-The-Box

The Boys of SPINNER

As an urban high school teacher for twenty-five years, I primarily taught kids of color. And yet, in the books and stories we read, almost all of the characters were Caucasian, and most with reasonably stable home lives. I decided as an author to write about the kids I knew best – kids of color, gay kids, marginalized kids, poor kids, kids with disabilities, gang members, and incarcerated kids – because I want all youth to see themselves represented in a positive light within the pages of teen literature.

To that end, I crafted a five-book series called The Children of the Knight Cycle that takes a fantasy concept – King Arthur in modern-day Los Angeles – and uses it to showcase a laundry list of crimes this society perpetrates against kids who don’t “fit the norm,” or won’t be shoehorned into the “one size fits all” mentality of public education, or don’t want to be a mini-me version of their parents. Virtually all the main characters in my series are teens of color, including Native Americans. Some of them are gay. But all are dynamic, memorable individuals that readers can relate to. Every day in America such kids are kicked to the curb. We don’t want them in our homes or classrooms or in our books. We’d rather they just disappear. In recent decades, we’ve decided we like putting them in prison. A staggering number of states arrest children aged ten (and younger) and charge them as adults for imitating the anti-social examples of adults, or for copying illicit behaviors popular media models every day.

I present these kids as real human beings with the same hopes, fears, needs, and wants as everyone else. My characters benefit from adults who choose to love them no matter what and who show them how to do what’s right, rather than what’s easy. The kids learn that every one of them can make a positive difference in this world, and that’s a message the students in my urban, working-class high school seldom got from the books I was forced to teach them. In those books, only “white” kids succeeded.

In my teen horror thriller, Spinner, I highlight the other forgotten kids I taught for many years – those with disabilities. These kids tend to be the most overlooked of all high schoolers because it is “assumed” by adults that they will never amount to much in life. Kids with physical or learning disabilities are no different from those without them – they can learn and achieve, but maybe not in the same cookie-cutter fashion school systems like to employ. I know what I’m talking about because I have a disability of my own – hearing loss. I’ve lived with a severe sensorineural hearing impairment my whole life, and did not have access to hearing aids until I was in college.

I also didn’t know anyone with hearing loss until after graduate school. I was the only kid like me, and that kind of singularity can be isolating. Even though people don’t always mean to be insensitive, not a single day went by that I wasn’t made to feel “different” because of my disability. On the plus side, my isolated childhood gave me true empathy for every youngster who was “different” in some way, and likely directed me to seek out such kids and work with them. After graduate school, I joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, wherein adults mentor kids with no father in the home. I was matched to a 14-year-old boy with hearing loss, and the experience was revelatory. Even as an adult, the relief that I felt to finally know someone who grew up with hearing loss was palpable. Imagine what it’s like for kids like me to see themselves in books they read, to understand that they aren’t alone or broken or crippled, to see hope for their lives because they see others like them achieving greatness. We all need to know that being different is not wrong. In fact, being apart from the norm is most often a net positive. But, my disability never defined me, and I want kids to see that theirs don’t define them, either.

I think publishers are skittish about books like mine that mash up various genres and focus on outside-the-box characters, stories that don’t fit an established pattern that can be “pitched” easily, and can’t be described as “the next Hunger Games” or something of that nature. Children of the Knight was released by an indie publisher that seemingly lost faith in the project because there was no visible attempt to promote it to the target audience. They even labeled it a romance on Amazon and it’s not a romance. I made a big push with Spinner to engage the interest of an agent or larger publisher and got nowhere with either. An indie publisher, YoungDudes Publishing, saw potential in the book and chose to release it. As a startup, they have no budget for promotion, but they are awesome people and working with them has been wonderful. But without the marketing arm of a big publisher, without those necessary journal reviews, like School Library Journal, nobody knows the book exists. This is the dilemma every writer must face, especially if, like me, you write outside the box and outside the genre mold.

Having said that, I would not change what I write to fit those molds or to make my books more “white,” assuming that is the goal with publishers. The main character in Spinner is Caucasian, but his friends are kids of color and they all have various disabilities. I took an interesting class last year about cover art on books for teens and children, and learned that even if the main character in those books was a child of color, the cover had been whitewashed in some fashion so the race or ethnicity was obscured. That class opened my eyes to how the publishing industry works and maybe showed me that, just as I never did in life, I might never fit into their predetermined “molds.”

One reviewer of my Children of the Knight series applauded me for breaking the teen hero mold by presenting a strong teen boy who is conflicted about his sexual orientation: “Lance is the hero around which the action pivots. Not many authors would have given such a character the heartthrob role. But Bowler takes a chance, fashioning something completely different by having such a key figure question his sexuality.”

I suspect a major publisher would have told me to “make him straight” like every other teen boy hero. I never had the chance to make such a choice, but I hope I would have said no. Lance is far more interesting and real for his inner turmoil, and for his desire to “fit in” the way society says he must in order to be a “real” boy.

No matter what we look like or how much money we have or how smart we are; no matter our race, ethnicity, gender, or orientation; no matter our abilities or disabilities – at the end of every day we’re all the same. We’re all human. We’re human first, and everything else second. We spend way too much time in this country focusing on what we perceive to be the weaknesses or differences in others. The teen characters in my books prove that our strengths always outweigh our weaknesses, and our diversity, i.e. our differentness, is to be celebrated, not hidden away. If more adults would focus on the natural talents and gifts of kids instead of always trying to make everyone “fit in,” then all children would have a real chance to soar. As a writer of teen lit, my goal is to empower every kid, not just the ones most Americans “look like” or even “act like.”

The Children of the Knight

 

Lance Statement

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should 14-year-olds Have the Right to Vote?

Children of the Knight Mid Res CoverIn the United States today a citizen must be 18 years old to vote in any federal, state or local elections. How many of you out there believe, as I do, that the voting age should be lowered to fourteen? A crazy idea? Let’s explore it, shall we?

The cons are easiest to start with since most adults would instantly say them: Fourteen-year-olds aren’t mature enough. Heard that one before? Fourteen year olds aren’t smart enough. Fourteen year olds aren’t educated enough. Fourteen year olds are just kids and they don’t have any life experience to go by. How about this one – if we let them vote, they’ll get to sit on juries. Then what’s next – they drop out of school and join the work force? That would cheapen the adult workers because non-union kids would work for less and take jobs away from adults! And if they can vote, they’ll want to drive cars and join the military. That would undermine the entire social fabric because we’d have a bunch of immature kids on equal footing with mature and capable adults. Are these arguments sound? Do they seem reasonable to you? Is it idiotic to allow fourteen-year-old kids to “be” adults and participate fully in the adult decision-making world? Maybe. Maybe not.

How many of you out there are aware that in 45 out of 50 states, juveniles as young as fourteen, sometimes thirteen, are already considered legal adults? You didn’t know this? Oh, maybe that’s because the adult voters in those states decided that juveniles are adults in only one way – when they get in trouble with the law. In every other way, hell no, they’re just immature kids who don’t know anything! But when it comes to crime, to life in the streets, to gangs and their overreaching influence, to resisting peer pressure – suddenly and magically they become adults. But only for that moment when they made the bad choice. Oddly enough, when they do something good or positive for society, they’re still just punk-ass kids who know nothing and should be seen but not heard, and sometimes not even seen unless they’re good-looking or get good grades.

Make sense to you? How many of you out there truly believe that thirteen or fourteen-year-olds can be an adult today to get caught up in a crime, but not be an adult tomorrow to sit on the jury to hear that crime, or to vote on the very laws that “adultified” them in the first place?

I have spent my entire life working with kids, particularly teenagers. And they’re not adults. Not yet, even though many states like to pretend they are when they get in trouble. Kids don’t have the experience to process feelings like we do, and they can’t reason things out as well. It’s not built in yet. This country wants to pretend children are adults so we can put them in prison when they screw up because we are too lazy and caught up in ourselves to give them a second chance, or a third, or even a fourth. Kids screw up. That’s been the case throughout all of human history, and when they do, those kids need adults to help them become better so they don’t keep screwing up. They don’t need adults who just want to toss them into prison, out of sight and out of mind.

Too many adults in this country want kids to be magically grown up so they don’t have to parent them and role model for them and set good examples for them, but the bottom line is children are children and need to be allowed to be children. Children can’t, and never will, think and feel like adults because they aren’t adults. Not yet. And the adult society in this country has a throw-away mentality. If the kid screws up, throw him away. We’ll just get another. That’s like the farmer who leaves the barn unlocked and his horse escapes and tramples his crops. Farmer’s solution? Shoot the horse and just buy another. After all, it was the horse’s fault right, for trampling the crops?

So we return to my original question – should fourteen-year-olds be allowed to vote and by extension sit on juries to hear the cases against them? I say yes. If, in our collective idiocy, we are going to pretend they’re adults for doing something wrong, then they sure as hell can be adults to do something right! Or are we, as country, simply afraid of our young people? We seem to be incarcerating a vast number these days, so the answer would appear to be yes. But are we even more afraid of giving them the power to decide laws, to elect presidents and representatives, to pass or reject propositions that would seek to criminalize them just for being kids?

I say if fourteen-year-olds are adult enough to commit a crime then they are more than adult enough to vote! Who’s with me? C’mon, people, let’s start a revolution. . . a children’s crusade for equal rights. . .

Sir Lance says, “I’m fourteen-years-old. I can go to prison, but I can’t drive a car. Crazy, huh?”

Arthur’s Camelot and Its Relevance to 21st Century America

The story of King Arthur and his Round Table of knights has great relevance to modern America in the 21st Century, especially within the context of my new novel, Children of the Knight.

First of all, the Britain of Arthur’s time was a fractured, divisive land with disparate groups of peoples like the Gauls, the Gales, the Normans and others vying for power and prestige.  In America today, many in the public sector make their livelihood and base their political survival on pitting this group against that group or this race against that one and they never allow for real unity because with unity might come an end to said public person’s career and funding base. The media is even worse, always stirring the pot, often by dispensing inaccurate or incomplete information in the hopes of generating controversy. In simpler terms, divisiveness is profitable.

When Arthur became High King of Britain his first order of business was to unite all the distinct groups warring against him and each other, which he eventually did through numerous costly battles. However, once done, he had to keep the peace, so as he tells young Lance in Children of the Knight, “I gave them all a purpose in life other than hating one another.” He brings that same purpose to the warring gangs and unrelated street kids he recruits as his new Round Table in the newly released novel.

America of today has systematically failed her children in every area of life, from education to criminal justice to media influences. The one-size-must-fit-all-or-you-can-get-out approach to modern public education is disgusting and antithetical to human nature. Since we can never all be the same, what happens to those kids who just don’t “fit” that one size? They drop out, join gangs or crews, do drugs, make babies they can’t take care of, and engage in all manner of anti-social behaviors they have learned from adults. And what about the war adults have waged against gay youth with their preposterous notion that these kids willingly made a choice to love someone of the same gender and thus willingly chose the hate, mockery, bullying, and marginalization that go with being gay in America today? Let’s face it, there are a lot of stupid, selfish people in this country, and kids are paying the price.

In my book, Arthur returns from Avalon and finds all of this discarded and wasted “might” at his disposal, kids no one else wants, most of them boys with a lot of potential energy within them for good or ill. There are a lot of homegirls on the streets, as well, but most gangs are male-dominated because of the sense of empowerment these usually poor, ethnic, marginalized kids desperately seek. Before Arthur, all the combined might of these gangs and street youth has been directed toward the detriment of society because that’s all they’ve been taught by the adult world that raised them. They make war on each other and on the innocent. But Arthur comes along and teaches them discipline through mastery of swordplay and archery, and he convinces them, as he convinced the various factions all those centuries ago in Britain, to put aside their own petty rivalries and use their collected might for right in order to finally gain the power they had previously sought through violence and mayhem.

Arthur’s objective is to win the approval and support of the voting public and use that support to take on the feckless, self-absorbed politicians who run Los Angeles. From LA the crusade will then move on to all of California and then to the country as a whole. Its ultimate goal: restoration of the right of children to be children, and human beings, and not the mere property of adults. Will he succeed? You have to read the book to find out.

ChildrenoftheKnight-Bowler_bookmarkV_Harmony

Oh, and why did Arthur come to America rather than Britain? Since his purpose is to save childhood it is also, by extension, to save this most promising child of Britain from itself. After all, a country that fails its children is ultimately doomed to assume a well-earned place on the scrap heap of history.

Are Children in America Merely Property?

In Children of the Knight, most, if not all, of the young characters have been tossed out by their parents or society-at-large like yesterday’s trash. Sadly, these characters are all based on reality, on real kids I’ve known over the years who were treated like property, rather than vulnerable human beings in need of love and nurturing.

Has America become such a throwaway nation that even our kids have become expendable? When I was growing up, if something broke we did our best to fix it. Nowadays if anything breaks, it’s thrown away and replaced with something new, even car fenders or doors that become dented. Hammer out the dent and repaint? No way! Too old school. Now we just junk the door or fender and put on a new one. Sadly, our children and teens have become just as disposable.

The characters of Mark and Jack were kicked out of their homes by their parents and had to live on the streets as prostitutes to survive. Did they do something virulently anti-social? Did they commit a serious crime? Did they assault and batter either parent? No. They were gay. That was their crime. They committed the most grievous offense kids can commit against parents – they weren’t carbon copy mini-me’s of the adults. So the adults discarded them as having no value. My parents taught me growing up that good character and honorability were more important than anything else. Sure, my dad wanted me to play sports and I sucked at sports, but he didn’t kick me to the curb because I didn’t play sports. Kids who are gay are just gay. They aren’t a failure or a mistake––they’re just kids. Those parents who mistreat them or mock them or discard them are less than human and should be severely punished. Sadly, they never are. Only the kids suffer.

And what of the gang kids like Esteban and Jaime and Darnell? Did they join gangs because they were filled with hope for the future and were rife with opportunities in their run-down ghetto neighborhoods? Of course not! And like so many gang members I’ve worked with over the years, they wished for a way out, something to latch on to other than the gang, but sadly there wasn’t much out there for kids like them. Other than Homeboy Industries, a program in LA to help gang members earn honest money and leave the lifestyle behind, there’s not much else. Do the adult society and the powers that be offer them any hope? No. All our society is willing to offer them is life in prison, despite the fact that it was the adult society who created the problem in the first place! I suppose to a disposable country like ours, that’s an equitable solution. We adults teach the kids how to be anti-social criminals and then throw them away when they act exactly how they’ve been taught. It’s almost like an age-based genocide. Shameful!

In Children of the Knight, Arthur’s new Round Table provides every kid a place to be on equal footing, from the jocks to the nerds to the gang members to the gay boys. With a common goal and a strong, caring man at the helm, these kids prove just how “not property” they really are. They prove to the city, nay the whole world that the might of kids is powerful and fierce and the spirit of kids is indomitable. Check out the book and decide for yourselves if kids have real value or are simply property to be disposed of when they break, kind of like that old iPad that can’t even be recycled. In the case of broken children, however, we can always make new ones, right?

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