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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What is Normal?” – Guest Post From Author Mia Kerick

Bryan the hero

Mia Kerick is a best-selling author I had heard a lot about on Facebook, and our paths often crossed in commenting on the same pictures or articles. As she points out below, because I saw her name so often I thought we were already FB friends and was startled when she sent me a friend request and I realized we were not. That has been corrected, much to my delight. She is an amazing lady filled with compassion, boundless energy, enthusiasm, the ability to multi-task so well that I’m envious, and she’s a terrific and successful writer.

To celebrate the unfurling of her newest, and already a best-seller, book for young adults, The Red Sheet, I offered to host Mia on my blog because she and I are very much on the same page. Be sure to check out the links to her book and (YES!) there are giveaways at the rafflecopter link. I have not yet read The Red Sheet, but it is on order and I will dig in as soon as it arrives.

Mia’s post is about the definition of “normal,” a subject I address in my own trilogy of books that began with Children of the Knight. I’m going to add my own little spin to what she said and then you will hear from this great lady yourself. Having worked with special education students for most of my life, and being one myself in the sense that I have always been hearing impaired, I sought  to make a distinction for my kids. They always felt abnormal, as did the gay kids I worked with in the Gay Straight Alliance, because people kept telling them that, often their own parents, siblings, or relatives. I would  tell them to keep this in mind: people who are hard of hearing or visually impaired or gay or learning disabled or physically disabled or whatever are not “the norm” in life because “the norm” would be considered what is standard or typical. But they, and myself, are completely normal because these things are part of how we were born and are thus “normal.”  Everyone one of us is normal because every human being is unique and special, even the ones who think they are perfect because they fit the arbitrary “norms” society has created. The bottom line is, people need to stop trying to make everyone exactly like them and accept inherent differentiations from “the norm” as normal. There, that’s my little soapbox to piggyback on Mia’s post. So without further adieu, I bring you the one, the only, the magical Mia Kerick! Yea!

Hello and thanks for inviting me over…

I recently “met” Michael Bowler during a Facebook conversation about YA books. I must admit, I tried to tag him and I couldn’t. We weren’t friends! Well, not in the FB “official” sense of the word, which came as a surprise to me. We quickly remedied the not-friends thing, and since then we have very quickly come to be real friends. We certainly have a lot to talk about.

So I would like to thank Michael for allowing me to post on his blog, and I don’t think he’ll be too surprised by what I say.

Anybody have a soapbox I can stand on? I think I’m gonna need one.

What makes something seem “normal” to us? Well, first of all, let’s take a look at the word “normal”. (I love examining definitions!)

For the most part, I trust Merriam-Webster, do you?

Here’s what MW had to say:

1nor•mal adjective \ˈnȯr-məl\

: usual or ordinary : not strange

: mentally and physically healthy

Synonyms can tell you a lot about a word’s meaning. Here is Merriam-Webster’s list of synonyms for the word normal:

average, common, commonplace, cut-and-dried (also cut-and-dry), everyday

But do you want to know what can tell you even MORE about a word? What it is not. In other words, a word’s antonyms. (Also very informative!)

MW’s list of antonyms for the word normal:

abnormal, exceptional, extraordinary, odd, out-of-the-way, strange, unusual

And these “Near Antonyms” further illustrate the point I plan to make:

Near antonyms for the word normal include:

curious, funny, peculiar, quaint, queer; aberrant, anomalous, atypical, irregular, untypical; rare, recherché, scarce; fantastic (also fantastical), phenomenal; bizarre, far-out, Kafkaesque, outrageous, outré, wacky (also whacky), way-out, weird, wild; eccentric, idiosyncratic, kooky (also kookie), nonconformist, oddball, offbeat, unconventional, unorthodox; freak, freakish

There were a lot more…

So, can we agree for the sake of argument that the word normal refers to that which is usual? That which is ordinary? Something that is not strange. And for something to be considered ordinary, we must see it a lot. Cheeseburgers are ordinary. You can get one (or two-who’s counting?) at every fast food store and cookout you attend. You never stop and stare when you see a guy eating a burger. It is NOT a strange sight; you see it every day.

But chowing down on a Witchetty grub? I can tell you this much: if you stand on the corner of Main and Maple streets, and sink your teeth into an oversized, juicy white moth larvae, you might solicit some strange looks. A fair amount of staring would be directed your way. Let’s admit it: in the United States of America the consumption of Witchetty grubs is unusual. Bordering on peculiar.

Dare I say abnormal? Yes, I dare. Eating grubs is abnormal behavior in our neck of the woods.

SO now that we have a working definition of the word normal, let’s apply it to an important topic: relationships. What constitutes a conventional romantic relationship? A normal, ordinary, garden-variety love affair… We should start with a boy and a girl, right? You see standard M/F couples like this absolutely everywhere in real life—and also in fiction—including in movies, television, books. The more you see and read about the boy and the girl—entwined on a hammock, holding hands on a beach, kissing on a sidewalk—the more commonplace it becomes. So normal.

Let’s, for today’s purposes, focus on reading material, though. Would it be fair to say that almost every time we crack open a book, from the age of infancy (“that’s a mommy and that’s a daddy”) to school age (Fun with Dick and Jane) to high school (much less fun with Romeo and Juliet) to YA parent-approved free reading books (Twilight’s Edward and Bella), all kids see is the “conventional” male-female couple. And thus, this pairing becomes “normal” to us. Usual. And somehow, usual morphs into acceptable.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I never came across two boys kissing in any of my middle school English literature books. I never had the option of choosing a novel about a girl discovering her feelings of attraction to other girls in my high school summer reading book options. Were there books covering those topics? I didn’t know.  I never thought of that. I never thought of them. “Them” being gay and lesbian young people. Bisexuals and transgenders? Huh? Books about trans-what certainly weren’t on the Young Adult shelf of my local town library.

I never read about these kinds of relationships. Seeing a gay couple, up-close, live and in-person was rare for me, as well as for most of the kids I knew. Reading about them in any of the literature to which I had access was practically unheard of.  It is not a very far leap from rare and unheard of to weird and strange. And from weird and strange, it is a mere hop, skip, and jump to abnormal.

I have illustrated that due to the fact that preteens and teens rarely have exposure to LGBT young adults and their love relationships, it has become widely considered NOT NORMAL to be LGBT and in a same-sex relationship. (Hold the applause… there’s more.)

NOT NORMAL= odd, bizarre, funny, aberrant, freakish. Hmm….

Now, just say you are an LGBT young adult.  How does feeling peculiar, weird, and abnormal—simply for being who you were born to be—affect your emotional growth and development? Your ability to form relationships with friends as well as with possible romantic partners? Not positively, I’d wager. People who feel weird and abnormal tend to hide or act out because being who they are is, in its very essence, wrong.

Next, say you are not an LGBT young adult. When you see a student you suspect is gay, or a gay couple, how do you react? Well, you stop and stare, never having had much exposure to this unconventional type. You giggle because it is funny and peculiar. You become uncomfortable because what you see in this person or couple is freakish. Because this sight is not NORMAL to you.

See where I’m going with this?

For something to be normal to us, we must be exposed to it. We must allow our youth to be exposed to it. We, as adults, must offer to young adults a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, showing protagonists and heroes, lovers and friends, saints and sinners, lovers and enemies, in all of the sexual diversity that exists in the real world.

We must integrate LGBT literature into Young Adult literature.

Mainstream LGBT literature in school and libraries and everywhere.

Because LGBT IS normal.

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One October morning, high school junior Bryan Dennison wakes up a different person—helpful, generous, and chivalrous—a person whose new admirable qualities he doesn’t recognize. Stranger still is the urge to tie a red sheet around his neck like a cape.

Bryan soon realizes this compulsion to wear a red cape is accompanied by more unusual behavior. He can’t hold back from retrieving kittens from tall trees, helping little old ladies cross busy streets, and defending innocence anywhere he finds it.
Shockingly, at school, he realizes he used to be a bully. He’s attracted to the former victim of his bullying, Scott Beckett, though he has no memory of Scott from before “the change.” Where he’d been lazy in academics, overly aggressive in sports, and socially insecure, he’s a new person. And although he can recall behaving egotistically, he cannot remember his motivations.
Everyone, from his mother to his teachers to his “superjock” former pals, is shocked by his dramatic transformation. However, Scott Beckett is not impressed by Bryan’s newfound virtue. And convincing Scott he’s genuinely changed and improved, hopefully gaining Scott’s trust and maybe even his love, becomes Bryan’s obsession.

With a foreword by C. Kennedy

Book Links:

Dreamspinner  Ι  Goodreads

Excerpt:

I was back to being the very same guy I had been before the change—

insecure, lazy, selfish, uncharitable—

a guy I didn’t like….

and a guy I didn’t want to be….

but here he was again.

Looking at the world with his frightened and egotistical eyes.

And that’s when it hit me. I popped up off my bed and walked rather hurriedly over to the dresser. I gazed into the mirror that hung above it, and I saw Bryan Dennison.

I reached out my hand and placed my fingertips lightly on the image of the person looking back at me—the vulnerability in his eyes revealed how very lost he was. The person who looked back at me, my very own reflection, had absolutely no direction in his life. None whatsoever.

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Mia Kerick is the mother of four exceptional children—all named after saints—and five non-pedigreed cats—all named after the next best thing to saints, Boston Red Sox players. Her husband of twenty years has been told by many that he has the patience of Job, but don’t ask Mia about that, as it is a sensitive subject.

Mia focuses her stories on the emotional growth of troubled men and their relationships, and she believes that sex has a place in a love story, but not until it is firmly established as a love story. As a teen, Mia filled spiral-bound notebooks with romantic tales of tortured heroes (most of whom happened to strongly resemble lead vocalists of 1980s big-hair bands) and stuffed them under her mattress for safekeeping. She is thankful to Dreamspinner Press for providing her with an alternate place to stash her stories.

Mia is proud of her involvement with the Human Rights Campaign and cheers for each and every victory made in the name of marital equality. Her only major regret: never having taken typing or computer class in school, destining her to a life consumed with two-fingered pecking and constant prayer to the Gods of Technology.

My themes I always write about:

Sweetness. Unconventional love, tortured/damaged heroes- only love can save them.

Author Links:

http://miakerick.com/

https://www.facebook.com/mia.kerick

http://www.amazon.com/Mia-Kerick/e/B009KSTG9E/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1389575652&sr=1-1

Rafflecopter Giveaway:  http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/91bbb15/