Stories That Cross Borders and Boundaries

Multicultural literature is the new buzzword in town and authors Jennifer Cervantes, Christina Gonzalez, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall have some great tips on how to do it right! The following tips on authenticity with a multicultural voice was shared at the 2010 SCBWI LA conference.

A Little About Each Author:

  • Christina Gonzales – “I am the author of The Red Umbrella. I am an SCBWI success story. I met my editor at an SCBWI Event. I wrote my book in 6 weeks (to finish it, per the editors request to see it at the conference). My parents are Cuban. My mother-in-law was part of the exodus which takes place in my book. My heritage is part of me and part of my passion.”
  • Guadalupe Garcia McCall – “I am from Texas, and before that Mexico. I came to the USA at the age of six. I teach poetry. I tried marketing a collection of poems, and found an editor interested in my work but who doesn’t sell poetry. She asked me to re-write the book as a novel in verse. Under the Misquite was the result. It is the story of a girl dealing with her mother’s cancer.”
  • Jennifer Cervantes – “I am a bi-racial child. I am half Mexican half Anglo. My book Tortilla Sun is an exploration of identity, and it does reflect my own personal experience.  My culture is strongly reflected in my books.”

Why is Multicultural Literature the New Buzz Word?

  • Multicultural Lit is the newest buzzword that you hear from editors and agents.
  • The real question to ask is why do editors and agents want multicultural literature?  The answer is it’s all in the numbers. On half of all kids under the age of five are minorities. They can see where the future of the market is going.
  • Multicultural kids want to see themselves in books.
  • These books are a window to a new culture for everyone one else.

There Are Two Types of Multicultural Books: Culturally Generic and Culturally Specific

Culturally Generic Books:

  • These books are wink to a culture, but not meant to teach about culture.
  • You will often see a supporting character with an ethnic last name like Hernandez, but they don’t speak Spanish.
  • Race is not the point of these books. Being multicultural is a character trait but it is not the crux of the novel.
  • Examples: Gaby Triana’s Riding the Universe, The Gone Series, Leading Violet.
  • There is definitely a place for these kind of stories.

Culturally Specific Books:

  • This is a traditional multicultural story.
  • The culture is endemic to the story. These are often historical or truly immersed in the culture.
  • Examples: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian By Sherman Alexie.

If You Want to Write a Multicultural Story, You Should Be Aware Of…

  • You must ask yourself if you are writing a culturally specific or generic story, and why.
  • What are you trying to achieve? Does culture add to the work or is it superfluous?
  • Beware of stereotypes when writing.
  • Are you an insider or an outsider? How does this affect your writing? (Insider is a term for someone who grew up in the culture).
  • Don’t paint all multicultural characters with the same brush stroke.

How Do You Approach Multicultural Books the Right Way?

  • Take evaluative measures. Be aware of how to avoid stereotypes. These can be the greatest pitfalls.
  • No distortions! Befriend people in the culture. Ask questions, check facts. Find primary and secondary sources and have them help check your dialog, etc. People love to talk to writers!
  • Beware of insulting those in the culture. Make sure your characters are fully developed and multi-layered.  Complex!
  • Be aware that there are different dialects within the same language (Spanish for example). People speak differently in California vs. Arizona vs. Texas vs. New Mexico. Think about this like the use of the word soda. It can be called: soda, pop, or coke, all depending upon where you live and the slang for that area.
  • Characters should be strong enough to solve their own problems. Don’t have another culture bail them out! There should be personal strength within the character.
  • You don’t have to be PC on every little thing. But be careful, there is a fine line.
  • The idea of the hero is important in race related books. Don’t have the characters bail out, or undermine the culture.

How Do You Show Culture When Writing?

  • Don’t say “so and so is __________ (insert ethnicity/race here).”
  • Use sensory details to show ethnicity. What type of food do they eat? What is their name? What type of music do their parents listen to? What kind of nick-names do they have? What slang terms do they use?
  • Beware of cliché areas that certain cultures are thought to live in. For example there is a cliché that Hispanic cultures in books about Hispanic teens should be set in Los Angeles, Miami, or New York. In reality there are very large Hispanic populations all over the place – particularly Oklahoma, Minnesota, and North Carolina.

Must You Be An “Insider” to Write a Multicultural Book With Authenticity?

  • There is a controversy that only insiders (those brought up in the culture) are the only ones who can write multicultural books with authenticity. We disagree.
  • With the proper amount of research and homework you can be very authentic. You have the skills!
  • Saying only an insider can write an ethnic story is like saying no one can write historical fiction unless they were alive in that time period! But there are lots of historical fiction novels! The key is research!
  • There is even pressure for those that are insiders to “get it right.” We all have fear as we write, and we all want to do it well.
  • In the end, know that not everyone is going to like your book. This is true for all books. Embrace it and move forward.
  • The best you can do is know that you did your research and you wrote the story you wanted to tell.

Where Do You Get Good Sources?

  • Try international students at colleges or universities. They love to talk about their cultures and experiences. Do note that they may be privileged.
  • Beware of internet information.
  • Friends and Family.

Good Stories Transcend Culture:

  • Most stories will transcend culture. Find the universal themes in your book and use them.
  • Grow your novel.

Other Points of Interest:

  • Code-switching is when someone fluidly changes from one language to another such as Spanish to English.
  • Hispanic-Americans are looking for stories about them! But they are looking for multicultural generic books, not just the history of the culture. They want to see themselves reflected in modern culture and in contemporary novels.

Writing Exercise:

  • Write about a multicultural character who has come home for dinner at night. But don’t tell us their ethnicity. What would they do. Have a friend read it and see if they can guess the character’s ethnicity.

Jennifer Cervantes grew up believing in the magic of story and often asked “what if…” She is the author of Tortilla Sun and is a faculty member at New Mexico State University where she teaches writing, and young adult literature. You can learn more about her at

Christina Diaz Gonzalez is the author of The Red Umbrella a compelling novel about a 14-year-old girls journey from Cuba to the USA as part of Operation Pedro Pan. Christina is an SCBWI success story as she met both her agent and editor at SCBWI Conferences. You can find out more about her at

Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite a novel-in-verse. Guadalupe was born in Piedras Negras, Cohuila. Her family immigrated to the US when she was six, so she could attend school. She is an English/Language Arts teacher in San Antonio, Texas.

How to Wow an Editor With Your Book

“This book needs to be read!” Assistant editor, Rachel Abrams, of Harper Collins shared her insight as to how to get an editor to say these very words, at the 2010 SCBWI So Cal Writers Day. The following is her recipe on how to hone your craft and make your writing the very best it can be.

Your opening paragraph needs to…

  • Grab the attention of the reader and hook them.
  • Be powerful and punchy.
  • Set up goals for the rest of the book.
  • Establish perspective and voice.
  • Introduce your protagonist.

Abrams shared the following three examples of strong opening paragraphs:

1) An Abundance of Katherines by John Green: This has a strong opening because it has a punchy first sentence which also tell us a lot about the main character. We immediately get a sense of the quirky voice of the book. We become aware of the conflict – that the main character has been dumped. Every detail is actually pertinent to the plot, including the bathtub, Archemedies, and the eureka moment (all of which come back later in the story). Everything is carefully planned and well thought out.

2) Gorgeous by Rachel Veil: We get a sense of an authentic teen voice right from the beginning. The setting is established, and the plot is introduced. Abrams was really pulled in by the snappy first sentence “I sold my cell phone to the Devil.”

3) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: This book opens with suspense, and immediately the plot is set into motion. Even though it has a somewhat ambiguous feeling you are still sucked into the mystery and the story. It also uses punchy, descriptive, plot driven words.

Finding your voice…

Voice is something that is very difficult to teach. As an editor, Abrams feels like she can’t teach you voice, but she can help you to hone it. Things that will help you to hone your voice include:

  • Know your market. Watch what teens watch. Read what they read. Get into your market’s head.
  • Find a unique perspective.
  • Get to know your characters.
  • In regards to historical fiction, know that the issues the characters encounter are similar – parents, friends, relationships. It is the setting that is different.
  • For the broadest audience, don’t use swear words.

Effective dialog will…

  • Reveal character.
  • Increase the pace of the scene/novel.
  • Add conflict.
  • Establish voice.
  • Reveal only limited back story.
  • What is not said is often more powerful than what is said.

Dialog pitfalls (to be avoided) are…

  • Revealing too much back story (aka: the information dump).
  • Characters who blurt out everything.
  • Chatty on the nose gabbing.
  • Adverbial speech tags – the emotion should be expressed in the dialog itself, which will make the speech tag unnecessary. (This is a personal pet peeve of Abrams’).

In regards to character development…

  • Character development is what Abrams really likes to focus on. In her opinion, plot is secondary to the characters.
  • Nothing should feel random or tacked on.
  • Detail does not equal development.  The details must matter.
  • Map out your character arc. Know how your characters will evolve.
  • Equip your characters with the tools to help them to get from point A to B and then to point C.
  • Know how the traits of your character affect the plot as it evolves.
  • Equip your character with motivation and a full set of personality traits.
  • Try and keep the number or characters in your book to a minimum.
  • Understand why your characters do things. This is about motivation, why do your characters act the way they do?

Lets talk about plot and pacing…

  • It is always good to fall back on a three act structure. Act One: Introduce characters, reveal characters, set plot in motion, establish setting. Act Two: This is longer and where the plot develops, the story becomes more complex, and you explore subplots. The act ends with a major event that helps to build to the climax. Act Three: climax and resolution.
  • Avoid episodic structure.
  • It’s a great idea to at least outline the major set pieces of your book. These are the big scenes that really affect the direction of the plot. Major set pieces are packed with a lot of emotion and are the scenes that your smaller scenes are leading up to.
  • Think of your scenes as mini stories with a beginning, middle, and end. There should always be a goal, conflict, and outcome.
  • Always push to raise the stakes of the plot!
  • If you are stuck in a scene try to throw in something that will raise the stakes. This is a great way to get out of writers block. Remember, you don’t have to keep it. Find out where the boundaries are by going past them.
  • There is nothing better than a good wrench in the plan! “A good story is only a good story because bad things happen” – ? What your characters do to get out of the situation is what makes reading the story rewarding.
  • Don’t bog down the plot with too much back story.

Ways to develop your own personal style…

  • The art is in the details. Editors want writing that sparkles. They want writing that will give them chills.
  • Dip into you. Look inside at yourself, and how you feel.
  • Editors will help you to make lovely sentences.
  • Weigh your words. Find the right word.
  • Details are a red flag to the reader which tells them to slow down and savor the moment. It tells the reader to pay attention. Therefore, details must be intentional.
  • Revealing sentences will tell the reader what they need to know.
  • “Fondle the details.” – Nabokov
  • Slow down and explore. Use as few words as you can to express as much as you can. A good example of this is the introduction of The Grey (a large horse) in The Graveyard Book. The author describes the horse has being 19 hands long versus using the word enormous. This has more impact.

Why it’s a good idea to get an agent…

  • An agent will help you to get a more experience editor for your book.
  • They will help your book get seen by more people.
  • They are the first filter for you, and will help you revise your book before you send it out.

Rachel Abrams is acquiring and she is looking for…

  • Mostly middle grade and young adult books. Also, a few picture books.
  • Paranormal and teen romance.
  • Middle grade series’.
  • Her favorite middle grade gooks are Walk Two Moons, The Wimpy Kid Books.
  • Her favorite young adult authors are Libba Bray and E. Lockhart.
  • Her favorite picture books include Spoon, Hip Hop Dog, and books that are quirky.
  • Editorial pet peeves include clunky dialog, adverbial tags, and underdeveloped characters.

Rachel Abrams is an assistant editor at Harper-Collins Children’s Books. Since joining the company in 2007, she has worked closely with authors Avi, Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, Chris Lynch, and Rachel Vail, as well as illustrators Brett Helquist, Dave McKean, and Vladimir Radunsky.

Write With Reckless Abandon

You must write with reckless abandon! This was the first sentiment author, Libba Bray, shared at the SCBWI New York Conference in January. Her most recent novel Going Bovine indeed pushes the limits of narrative storytelling when a teenage boy gets mad cow disease and goes on a road trip with a dwarf and talking garden gnome in order to save the universe from black matter. Sound like a crazy adventure? Well it is, but it is also this year’s Printz Winner. “It is our duty as writers to explore fears, grudges, hopes, dreams, and oddities. We must explore the things that we hide, and craft them into our characters.” Bray says.

The following is Libba Bray’s Four Rules on Risk Taking and Writing:

1)  Be the Giraffe!

  • Push your work! Look for the unexpected! “Be the giraffe” is a reference to a conversation Bray had with her son. She asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said a giraffe. He was too young to understand one can’t grow up to be a giraffe, of course, but it forced her to think about what we take for granted.
  • Explore what we don’t know! We write to open up a whole new conversation with ourselves and the world. Don’t have the same conversation as you’ve heard before, push the conversation to new places.
  • Avoid your first instinct. Inevitably your first instinct is what everyone else would do too. Don’t force your work down the conventional track. Let your characters surprise you. Look to the book How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Sandiford as an example of pushing the boundaries and doing the unexpected. In this book, the author doesn’t let sexual tension stand in for under developed characters.
  • People are frustrating. Let them be!

2) Find the Cracks and Let in the Light.

  • This topic is based on the song lyrics: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light comes in.”
  • Make your characters fully human. Humans make mistakes. We need the nitty-gritty bits!
  • Put your characters in the way of painful truth – that is what allows for growth and transformation.
  • Find an authentic beating heart.
  • Sit at the kitchen table with your characters. See what they would say. See how they would hold a spoon, or fold their napkin. Don’t just stop at the dermis. Perform your due diligence and get to know your characters.
  • Keep asking yourself “Is it true yet?”
  • Don’t fall in love with your characters. You will miss out on who they can really be.

3) Say No to the Pterodactyl Boyfriend

  • The pterodactyl is the super beautiful and good-looking boyfriend who is flawless (as in she’s taken out the word vampire and replaced it with pterodactyl). These characters are not interesting, and they are too easy a stereotype to fall into. Get rid of them!
  • Beware the thought “Should I….”  (As in, ‘Should I bring in the beautiful boyfriend now?’) Follow yourself and not what you think others may want you to be doing, or even what the industry may want you to be doing. When in doubt, follow your own instincts.
  • There is no sure thing other than writing the thing you want to write the most.
  • “I write for myself.” That’s all you can do. Don’t think about teen voice. Make it true for you!
  • Write with no one looking over your shoulder. “Find out what you want to say, it is all you have to offer.” – B. Kingsolver

4)  We Made it!

  • “Jump off the cliff, then build the wings.” – Ray Bradbury.  There is nothing without the leap of faith.
  • Libba’s book “Going Bovine” was a huge departure from her previous work which was historical/magic. But this was the story she wanted to tell.
  • Experience the weightlessness, feel the fear. (Reference back to the R. Bradbury quote above). If it is not scary then there are no stakes. And if there are no stakes then it is not worth writing.
  • Put your marrow on the page.
  • Make this year the year of writing dangerously. Write with your heart and soul.
  • “Never avert your eyes.”
  • Start building your wings – lace them with courage and vulnerability.

Libba Bray is the author books for Young Adults, including Going Bovine and the Gemma Doyle Series: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. In 2010 she was awarded the Michael L. Printz award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.