October 24, 2014

KidLitCon 2014: A Retrospective, Part II - Reflections on Floating Heads

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The one and only Floating Head of Shannon Hale! It rocks! It talks! It silences its viewers!

I didn't take as many notes as I should have, when author Shannon Hale "visited" KidLitCon on our second day. Mainly because I was on edge, hoping against hope that the Skype would stay hooked up (it didn't) and that laptop wouldn't blow up (oddly enough, it kind of did. Was it because I was thinking about that??), and that all would go well (somehow, in the end, it did). I regret that lack of note-taking and apologize for it.

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Even if you've never met her, reading her blog will reveal a Shannon Hale who comes across as such a lovely, genuine person. I appreciated much of what she had to say. She gave us a little background about who she is, and how she came to support greater diversity in children's literature. While sharing a personal experience, she spoke movingly about the lone girl she imagined needed her stories - and the variations on that girl that she has met, the one little girl who looked at a Hale book and said, "Oh, that girl is just like me," and whatever her color, truly believed it. She also talked about moving to a high school and going from being in the majority to being a definite minority, and what an unusual and freeing experience that was for her. She talked about what a hoot THE GREAT GREEN HEIST had been for her, and how much she'd loved the cover, filled with faces across the (human pigment) color spectrum.

But, there was one thing Shannon Hale said that caught me right across the solar plexus, that made me strain vainly to catch my breath (and I wonder if I am making this up, or if I was the only one who heard it, because I'm a little surprised no one else has blogged about it. Guys, seriously: did I hallucinate this???). She said, and this is not a quote, because I didn't take good notes, that books with nonwhite characters on the covers don't sell as well as those with white characters on the covers. Shannon went on to explain how she'd seen that as truth with her own books, that sales of the arms-and-hands girl on the hardcover version of BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS sold much, much better than the paperback whereon the whole of the girl with Asian arms, hands and features was revealed.

...wait, what?

BOOM. Sucker punch.

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Further, Hale explained, the sidekick character in Rapunzel's Revenge was nonwhite, and the sequel, which starred him on the front cover, has sold poorly in comparison to the first, with Rapunzel in her titian-haired glory on the front cover.

This is where I started taking notes... much of which did not make all that much sense:

* You can't compare apples and apples! I scribbled. (I'm pretty sure I meant "apples and oranges." Or kiwis. Or, ooh - let's go with star fruit - the star fruit on the a.m. snack buffet was really good. Okay, back to the topic.)

* Different market conditions between Rapunzel 1 & 2, I added.

* Could be anything: change of narrator = ugh?

* Is "white" vs. "other" all that matters? if "white" is all what sells, ...sad, shrug? Must be answer for this - parents, teachers, librarians ==>readers.

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To decode: two like things cannot effectively be compared. True, Hale's BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS were in paperback and hardback form, but: the two books were sold at different times; there's the possibility that everybody had already gotten their copy of the book, in hard-back, and didn't need or want a second copy; the marketing would have been different, as would its placement within bookstores; etc. The only way for this kind of "test" to be fair would be to test the same book - with the same price - and different covers, either in the same store, or in different regions.

Further, in referencing the Rapunzel books, the issue of poor sales for the sequel might have been something as simple as... It was a sequel. There was a change in narrator. Maybe it came out in the summertime, the springtime, the autumn, when school just started, deep winter, post-Holiday blahs.... In short, there could have been all sorts of reasons.

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Slightly on-topic example: I really love Seanan McGuire's bizarre InCryptid series. I haunted my library for them, and actually bought and donated a couple when they were too (*cough*) slow procuring them, and then I saw the cover of the third one, and I hit a wall. Half-Off Ragnarok. Had a boy. On the cover. Oh, no. NO. My favorite insouciant and smarty pants narrator is a girl, Verity Price. Some dude? I didn't even wanna know. I put that book aside for an embarrassingly long time, out of sheer pique. I didn't want to read it, because Who Was This Alex Person, Anyway? In the end, Alex was hilarious and just fine. It just... took me a minute. Readers - even dream readers like me (*cough*) sometimes choke when an author changes things in a series. So, case in point, with the sequel? It could have been something that simple which affected sales.

My point? There is not enough data to generate meaningful information in response to questions about what sells better. Giving credence to this evidence-free argument is another way to hide behind the idea that The Market is to blame for z, y, and x. The Market did it. It's not anyone's problem but The Market's. Just sort of summarizing like that makes the issue of publishing's diversity pitfalls all so much less... distinct and specific, and I think Shannon Hale erred when she gave credence to a free-floating publishing paranoia that will neither get data nor die, as my friend Ashley Pérez puts it.

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It wasn't the most coherent rant there in my notes, especially that last bit ("sad shrug" - ??), but I've still kept thinking about Hale's talk. And thinking about it. And, thinking, this is ridiculous (not Shannon Hale's talk - this publishing thing). Ashley is right -- we need to either get data, hard data, or we need to let this one die. And, we need to think ahead -- because if we GET the data that says definitively that books with nonwhite characters on the covers don't sell, is the answer really to close up shop and say, "Welp, the colored people gave it their best shot, better go home now" -- ??? REALLY?


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A problem exists, and it is systemic - involving us all - teachers, librarians, readers, writers, publishers, bloggers, reviewers - and I think it's not going to sort itself until all of us are involved. I also think that people in the dominant culture are simply given what it's assumed that they want, which is a world that appears to be a monoculture - which is then what they buy - which revolves around itself like an ouroboros, as bookstores stock those books, which then are the books purchased over others, and it goes on, and on, and on. A monoculture is certainly an easier world to find, in stock-photographyland, which is from where a great many book covers come, and certainly businesses are all about easy and inexpensive. Art? Individual photo shoots? The money those things represent is pretty significant.

I know the challenges. But, I still can't blindly give credence to the evidence-free argument that books with diverse and multicultural people on the covers don't sell. I appreciated Elizabeth Bluemle's perspective a few years back. She lives in Vermont, one of our smallest states which is 93.4% White, as of the 2010 census, and somehow manages to stock and sell diverse books in her tiny bookstore.

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For this issue to be resolved, someone (meaning: someone with proper research chops, plus a willing publisher, READ: not Sarah and me) needs to put together an experiment wherein a book is distributed with two different covers: one with a Caucasian-looking character, and one with a non-white character, with everything else exactly the same. Whether the two versions go to the same stores, or whether they separate out the covers to different distributors, I don't know. I do know, however, that we need an answer, and there ought to be people who are interested in studying the problem, if only we could find them. If we truly seek the answer, we can then move forward (and there is a "forward" to move to, for sure. Simply identifying the needs for diversity isn't enough). If it turns out that there is no effect, one way or another on sales with diverse or non-diverse covers, then we can argue that much more strongly for more diversity in cover art. If it turns out that the American public is racist in their purchasing ... well, we can at least know for certain, identify our lack, and make a specific and pointed campaign to effect change. Either way, though, it is my heartfelt wish for argument from evidence rather than from gut-feelings and suspicion.

Meanwhile, I, as blogger, will continue to blog about what's important to me - diversity - just as Shannon Hale, in her less floaty, smaller head incarnation, will continue to think about and write stories whose diversity, energy and imagination captures ours.

October 23, 2014

Thursday Review: COMPLICIT by Stephanie Kuehn

This cover is really awesome.
Summary: Protagonists whose past is hidden--even, sometimes, from themselves. It's something author Stephanie Kuehn does well, if you've read her first book, Charm & Strange. Complicit is another suspenseful read, in which protagonist Jamie Henry's life is turned upside down (again) when he finds out his sister Cate is getting out of juvie. Cate is...well, everyone knows she's a psycho, and everyone knows Jamie as the psycho's sister, so nothing good can come of this. After all, before she was put away, she set fire to a barn and almost killed someone.

It's two years later, and now Jamie's seventeen, with his life more or less in a routine. His home life with his adoptive parents is okay, but not great. He's seeing a therapist, but he still doesn't remember a lot about the traumas in his past. He's avoided by most people at school, but the new girl seems to like him. He struggles with a mysterious neurological thing--a cataplexy--that seems to be stress-induced: his hands go completely numb and paralyzed, but it doesn't happen that often. Until, of course, his sister comes back into the picture, prompting not only the return of Jamie's physical symptoms but a whole host of questions and unpleasant flashbacks about their traumatic childhood. But she's the only one who really knows what happened the night of the fire, and in their past. So Jamie will have to confront the truth--and his sister--if he wants closure.

Peaks: The suspense created by the structure of this story--movement between the past, before the fire, and the present--is very effective, and makes this a real page-turner. The author does an amazing job treading the balance between what the reader knows (or suspects) and what the protagonist knows (or suspects). One of my pet peeves in books where the protagonist unconsciously knows more than s/he consciously knows is when it's obvious to the reader, and therefore it feels like I'm being manipulated as I read, which boots me out of the story faster than you can say "obtrusive storytelling."

In Complicit, though, the mystery is heightened by the fact that Jamie knows there are things he doesn't know. He's trying to figure them out, and we know trauma has made him not remember. I didn't feel deliberately misled because I felt very close to the character as he fumbles his way toward the truth, frightening as it is. He's relatable, and the stark contrast with his troubled sister, Cate, elicits even more sympathy.

Valleys: This was a really good book. I don't have any major criticisms--I was impressed by how the author handled the slow reveal of information and clues, so that the reader (well, this reader) only begins to suspect what truly happened as we near the end of the story. And I don't think it's really a negative criticism to say that a book's ending made me exclaim "WHY!! Why did you do this to me?" (I shan't elaborate, for fear of spoilers, but that's what happened.)

Conclusion: Fans of mystery and suspense, as well as dramatic family stories, will really enjoy this one, I think. If you liked her first book, Charm & Strange; if you liked E. Lockhart's latest; if you like Swati Avasthi and Laurie Halse Anderson (particularly her latest, The Impossible Knife of Memory, which I think I still need to review), I recommend Complicit.

I purchased my copy of this book from an independent bookstore at KidLitCon. You can find COMPLICIT by Stephanie Kuehn at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 21, 2014

Dear Author, Whose Book I Read and May Have Negatively Reviewed, Your Anger Will Not Silence Me.

By now, the flurry of comments on the Guardian essay of last week have turned into their own weather system. I won't link to or add to the storm, but should you want to sort of track the round-up, Leila has stood in the eye of the hurricane, Beth Revis has responded as an author, and Kelly Jensen has some good thoughts on blogger privacy.

I was disappointed, though, to hear that a couple of bloggers are considering leaving blogging over this. I am... baffled. Okay, I know - I'm often baffled, but seriously, I don't understand. NOT that I don't get the fear that something like this could happen - there's another tale of insanity online at a Goodreads review where a woman said that the author struck her over the head with a wine bottle - yikes. There's a case, and it's ongoing in Scotland and London. Authors are not always acting with genteel restraint, to say the least, and frankly, Wonderland is embarrassedsince both of us are authors, too.

But, what I don't understand is reasonable people's inclination to quit blogging over it. Because of stupidity? Oh, no. The egregious we will always have with us. I understand the feeling - seriously, I do - but I strongly feel... we need to keep blogging.

♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦ ♦♦ ♦♦ ♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦

Dear Author, Whose Book Of Yours I Read And Reviewed:

Your narrative piqued my attention. Your jacket copy raised an eyebrow. Your plot arc had all the elements we enjoy - a beginning, a middle, an end... Well, I liked your book enough to finish it - or, at least it intrigued me that far. And now, it's my turn: I'm going to talk about it.

Despite YA bloggers having been labeled the queens of nice, you may not like what I have to say.

I won't be mean - you can count on that. I don't find personal attacks necessary. However, the fact remains: I might not have enjoyed your book.

You know, I'm sure, that when a book leaves your hands that it is no longer yours. Of course you do - you've experienced the same moments of dismay, as your critique group read deeply into something you hadn't even put into the voice. You even experienced this same thing in school, where you read a novel, short story or poem, and the teacher tried to drill MEANING into your head, where you only saw words. Discussions ensued and you had no idea what the rest of the class was talking about. Theme? Symbolism? What? Sometimes, that's how it goes: we all come to a work of art from varying angles of privilege and background, we all bring different things to the metaphorical table. No one of them makes us better or worse - just who we are, and inform where we're coming from.

So, dear author, whose book I read, when I say that it troubles me that your dominant culture characters talk down to your deaf character, or when I express disbelief that your African American character from an urban landscape shows facility with country activities, such as raising cows; when your male character uses the word "Mamí" to a minor Latina character, and comments on her backside, or "don't be a retard" and "that's so gay" escapes the lips of a straight female character with no context or explanation - you can bet I'll comment. I'll be talking about the book, not you, but sometimes, the book might feel like you, like your baby. When I comment, you may feel attacked, and angry.

And your anger is really and truly okay. As long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, it's just fine.

So is mine.

And, your anger will not silence me -- nor will the potential you have, as everyone does, for unhinged assault, stalking, or violence. Your anger does not silence me, because I've already had that childhood, and I'm old now, and cranky, and cannot live my life in fear of what you might do if you don't like what I say. Your anger will not silence me, and I will not quit blogging for you. I will not cease critically engaging with books. You can't make me.

There is a way to be a fan of problematic media. There is a way to say "I LOVE Buffy," and turn around and say, "but she should have gotten the heck away from That One Guy Whose Name I Can Never Remember," because the relationship was abusive, and that relationship, Mr. Wheedon, reclined all too comfortably on the lumpy cushion of the tired stereotype of the female's honest desire for an alpha male to come and tell her his crazy was her fault. There is a way to love Game of Thrones, and voice your concern, Mr. George R.R., about the violence toward women, and how somehow it feels a little skewed, because there's a blonde over the slaves, and so many of the slaves - when the series is otherwise flirting with the monoculture, so many of them are not of the dominant culture. There's a way to enjoy engaging with video games, but want to speak out incisively about certain games' pervasive might-makes-right storylines, gratuitous violence and inability to consistently make avatars of reasonably bodied females or minorities. There's a way to love what you love, and still SEE it.

This is what smart people do. I like to think of myself as, if not smart yet, thinking my way hard toward that direction. I can't be afraid of my own thoughts - or expressing them. Not for you, dear author whose book I have read and reviewed.

Sometimes things in books are problematic. Sometimes cultures are appropriated, genders and ethnicity are slandered, races and nationalities are "othered" and marginalized. Bloggers, as we see those things, need to speak up. And you, dear author, might come to my home, call my workplace, stalk me online, warn me that just "as a friend," that I should know that some nebulously scary "people" can "find me," and that you'd hate to see anything happen. You might hit me over the head with a wine bottle with no explanation.

But, you know what? YOU CANNOT SILENCE ME.

Just sayin'.

October 20, 2014

KidLitCon 2014: Further Thoughts (and Sketches)

I meant to do this post last Thursday, but work spun dizzily out of my control, tossing me into a whirling black hole (do black holes whirl? I feel like they do) of getting-caught-up. Tanita's done some amazing posts with lovely photos of the KidLitCon last weekend, and while I can't compete with the photos (mainly because I forgot to take any...sigh) I do have a couple of quick sketches I did during sessions, which is a Thing I Do at Conferences when I'm not jotting notes. And I did jot notes, too, and was left with a lot of food for thought on blogging and on diversity.

Charlotte of Charlotte's Library--a fellow Cybil-ite and a good friend from previous KidLitCons--gave a very practical and thought-provoking presentation the first day on Finding Your Voice. You'd think this wouldn't be a problem after blogging for as long as I have (EONS!) but it really and truly is something I constantly agonize over. Here are some things I learned from Charlotte; things I'm still working through in relation to my own blogging and what I might want to do with it in the future, and making myself feel like it MATTERS:
  • What makes a blog interesting? Focus + intensity/passion + personality
  • However, in order to stand out and be authoritative, a personal approach needs reasons to back it up.
  • People will relate when you talk about what you care about--but to what extent should one talk about personal things? 
  • "Things that make the blogger a protagonist in their book journey" - that's what many readers want to see from a book blog
  • Consider who is the target audience, but also who isn't.
  • What is holding you back from writing strong blog posts? Is it diffidence? Or a desire not to hurt feelings?
Those were some big take-aways for me, especially the idea of showing one's personality through a conscious attempt to share our journey with books. Also diffidence--because I have trouble getting very personal with blogging. 

Another great session I attended was Getting Beyond Diversity, with Jewell Parker Rhodes (pictured), Hannah Gomez, and Edi Campbell. One point that really resonated with me was something Jewell said, which is that when considering diversity in books, we have to think about what we don't see as well as what we do see.  Hannah added that it's important to know your own biases as well as your readers' biases. Edi shared a list of diverse reads she recommended, and I was reminded during this session that posting a themed roundup of books is always a good thing for book bloggers to do now and again, and something I haven't been doing.

I honestly can't gush enough about keynote Mitali Perkins or the Skype presentation from Shannon Hale. They were awesome! I think my tweets are probably the best record of those particular sessions, as well as the one by the folks from #WeNeedDiverseBooks. There were a lot of provocative ideas brought up, and not-so-provocative things we should all think about and remember. A few of my tweets from the conference sessions (and a drawing of S.E. Sinkhorn from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel):
  • Zetta Elliott: blanket policies that exclude self-pubbed books uphold the status quo. @zettaelliott #kidlitcon
  • Diversity: Review books that you think matter. @shgmclicious #kidlitcon
  • A child's imagination co-directs story along w/writer, & accesses all 5 senses. W/movies, director is in charge. #kidlitcon @MitaliPerkins 
  • Tropes, good or bad, when repeated again and again, begin to acquire power. @MitaliPerkins #kidlitcon
  • Writing diversity: how is race defined, if at all? If not, is it assumed that white is the "default race"? @MitaliPerkins #kidlitcon
  • If you're going to cross a border of power in your story, have you done the work to authentically tell that story? @MitaliPerkins #kidlitcon
  • An important job of writers: stop being safe & scared and start telling the truth of the world. @haleshannon #kidlitcon
  • The assumption is that stories about men & boys are universal, while stories about women & girls are only for girls. @haleshannon #kidlitcon 
  • When will writers/books of diversity not be solely relegated to "diverse reads"? @haleshannon #kidlitcon 
  • Making a personal/emotional connection helps readers engage with your blog or campaign. @karensandlerYA #kidlitcon 
  • Kids need to see others, see diversity, so they can learn to be empathetic. @karensandlerYA #kidlitcon #WeNeedDiverseBooks 
  • .@karensandlerYA on reading outside our comfort zone: "I think it's good to be a little uncomfortable. #kidlitcon #WeNeedDiverseBooks 
  • .@farre talks about how diversity is more than race or culture - it's also socioeconomic status. #kidlitcon 
  • "Caring is not trying, and trying is not succeeding." @shgmclicious #kidlitcon #WeNeedDiverseBooks 
  • Bloggers have an important role in reaching people who care but who don't know where to go from there. @shgmclicious #kidlitcon 
Thanks to Unconventional Librarian Pam, I also took a SHELFIE with Mitali's upcoming book Tiger Boy, but I'll leave you to find that for yourself on Twitter if you really must see it. I always think I look weird in photos (and selfies possibly even more so) and this is no exception. Don't forget to check the #kidlitcon hashtag on Twitter to read more live tweets from the conference--believe me, they were flying fast and furious, and it was a great simultaneous discussion.

I really hope to be there next year in BALTIMORE for more amazing book talk. I always end up feeling much more energized about blogging, with all these wonderful ideas (which I currently have no time to implement, argh) and I honestly couldn't recommend this conference more if you are a kidlit or YA blogger or author. Really really.

October 17, 2014

KidlitCon 2014: Notepad Forum, Part ii ~ The Weekend Word: "Appropriation"

This weekend's word is actually a phrase - Cultural Appropriation.

I've blogged a bit about KidLitCon over the last week, and talked about how last weekend, Charlotte Taylor, our program director, came up with a great way to keep us thoughtful during those brief moments when people were at loose ends. She started a notepad conversation which was ongoing throughout the weekend, and one of the things on the pad was the somewhat plaintive question about how to judge cultural appropriation in fantasy.

And the follow-up question someone else asked was even more direct: "Is using elements of another culture or lots of cultures always a bad thing? When does it become cultural appropriation?"

Both questions are huge and complex, and in the name of not choking on this, let's take it in small bites:

Q: What, first, IS cultural appropriation exactly?

A: By the book (in this case, my sociology book), Cultural appropriation is the taking of pieces of a minority culture by a culture in the majority, which commodifies, invalidates, homogenizes, romanticizes, or otherwise misrepresents the culture in the minority (emphasis mine).

I tried to define it with more words and fewer sociological terms... and I fell short on a slip of paper teetering on a lightweight easel with a purple marker in my hand, between meetings. This question - and that answer - needs a lot, a lot, a LOT more time and space and brain put into it (and a keyboard, thanks), to understand what it means and how to apply it to our writing and to our lives. And, before I touch on what it means to story - to my understanding, anyway, fully knowing that YOUR understanding might be different - I'm going to start somewhere else... I'm going to start with clothes.

(Two reasons for that: one, because Halloween, and WOW, let's just rename it Cultural Appropriation Night RIGHT NOW, and save the hassle, and two, because this is where it touches on my life, and where I can pull a quick and dirty illustration.)

When we lived in Scotland, I had myriad South Asian acquaintances, and a few friends. We patronized the shop of a South Asian importer who frequently went back to Mumbai and elsewhere to load up with items for resale in his spiffy little shop. Glasgow in the wintertime is cold, wet, dreich and dull and I was longing for life and sunshine. Going into his shop was like a little visit to a world nearly as bright as California. I spent a shocking amount of money there - and when we were invited to a wedding at a Hindu temple, I was thrilled to bits to wear culturally appropriate gear! In a temple! I wore my own dress, but wrapped saree fabric around my shoulders and wore a jewelry set from India. Tech Boy wore a boring old tux, because... well, cultural appropriation is a bit different for him. (More on that later.*)

William and Julie's Wedding 89

Bride and Groom at their first wedding - in lovely but familiar modern Scottish wedding garb.

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A tiny piece of Groom at the Hindu wedding - I don't have pictures not showing their faces, and they didn't ask to be featured on the blog, so...

As I put on the clothes for the wedding, wrapping the saree fabric around myself, I wondered silently, Am I appropriating South Asian culture? I took a moment to seriously think about it, because I do care about this kind of thing. I concluded: I wore unique clothing to support our friend's South Asian heritage and recognize her support of her grandparents' traditions and faith (which was why she was having a second Hindu wedding when she's fairly ambivalent about cultural things in general and her family's traditional faith in specific). I spoke to South Asian people and asked what would be worn to a wedding, and bought, from people of that culture, an appropriately celebratory purchase with the understanding that it was made specifically for being worn to a celebration. I went out of my way to know what I was doing and why, and was proud to wear my finery and be appreciated, and in turn appreciate the finery of the South Asian folk in attendance. I wore it in the correct context, for reasons I understood, and not to exoticize or make a display of myself. I felt I could say that I was not appropriating, but appreciating.

William and Julie's wedding 129

(Note: a selfie with a MUCH taller person can make you look a bit ridiculous.

You may disagree, and feel I should not have worn what I did, but I did so deliberately. I remember being at the first wedding, the Scottish wedding, and seeing a.) people in kilts who were not Scottish, and b.) family members in South Asian wedding outfits who were stared at by other guests. I wish people hadn't stared like they'd never seen a saree before - I mean, come on. We all, in our own ways, needed to remember that we were there to support the combining of the two people and cultures represented. We were invited to the celebration, and that day we celebrated individuals AND their cultures.

This does not mean that I would EVER wear a saree for Halloween. Why? Oh, let me count the reasons: A.) Because India is a country, not a costume. B.) because Indian or South Asian-ness is not something for sale. C.) because India and its many language groups and people are alive and well; they're not some romantic and long-lost thing like unicorns that you need to bring back in costume form, or they'll be forgotten and lost in the mists of time. D.) because a girl wearing a bindi in public school might be looked at strangely or treated differently, and if you, a member of the dominant culture, in the same bindi would be thought of as cool it's NOT because you wear it better. D.) because taking items of meaning, like bindis or henna and applying them willy-nilly to your life, because you think they're cute or on-trend is NOT CUTE AT ALL. It can be deeply disrespectful of something you didn't even attempt to understand. E.) because not everyone in India wears the same thing at the same time for the same reasons. Also, keep in mind: not all South Asians share the same faith, or speak the same languages. (Imagine saying in a pub that England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland are all the same. Yeah, you can say that, but you'd better DUCK. They've got dart boards in pubs, and most are fairly handy with the darts.)

Short answer? Find a way to appreciate and celebrate not homogenize or steal bits and pieces of another culture. It is not there to decorate or embellish you.

We're clear now on one small portion of cultural appropriation, at least, right?

When it comes to fantasy fiction, there are many settings and characters who are amazing, and we often find that the writers took their backgrounds from already existing cultures. The great and bow-down-to-able Tamora Pierce uses tons of cultural details in her work. When she spoke in 2007 at SCBWI's Summer Session, she told listeners that she uses the maps from National Geographics and encyclopedias and spreads them out and examines land masses and rivers, to find a place to begin. She uses children's research books as her source books, and finds in them simplified accounts of the ancient history of various places - and inserts it into the story. She uses cookbooks, old song books, topographical maps, baby name and language phrase books to help her get a sense of a place, its language, and its people. She stockpiles fashion books to find out the sumptuary laws of various countries during various times, and buys Vogue's Spring Edition to create casting files of people with difference faces - all of which are well lit and detailed. She does all of these things because human beings thrive on detail. Detail enriches a story, and specific cultural detail enlivens a text.

This sounds like a lot of specific, careful work, this way of including cultural detail. This sounds deliberate, like it shows specifics that summarizing a culture by saying everyone was "almond-eyed" or had caramel-colored skin or whatnot isn't doing. THIS is, to my mind, the first step in how we judge when made-up cultures in fantasy are cultural appropriation - you'll know those books by seeing how little work the author actually did to use their creativity and recreate a place using historical detail as guidelines, rather than a springboard from which to reiterate pervasive cultural stereotypes and move on.

I don't want to move from clothing too deeply into literature just yet, but let me just begin dissecting the books we read and write with an easy story to pull apart in film -- Avatar.

Many people struggled to understand why Avatar was offensive to so many. It did not occur to them how ridiculous a story is told of an exceptional guy of the dominant culture basically good-guying his way into this closed society of blue people, then becoming the best of them, and, because they needed him, and could not possibly have helped themselves, eventually saving them all. The word "marginalize" means to make someone or something unimportant, and peripheral. Not only does this pervasive and long-lived narrative match stories told by members of the dominant culture since the 18th century, elevating themselves and emphasizing how lowly, useless, helpless and dorky the Native cultures are, this type of narrative carries forward the stereotypes that indigenous Americans still have to face today. That's a serious MISuse of a made-up culture in fantasy, and a clear example of marginalizing, as it makes the blue people, who kind of stand in for "natives" everywhere, not the main characters in their own story.

If you read a novel where a fantasy people need an Earthling of the dominant culture to intercede for them because they are unaware of the gold mine of, well, gold or gems or whatever resource Earth would take right off their hands, or if they need this dominant culture Earthling to become their chief because he's better at being an alien than they are, or if these fantasy people are mystical "primitives" -- really look hard at the book you're reading - or writing - and ask yourself if the little bits and pieces of the culture you're taking are yours to use in this way.

This was still a big chunk of thought, so that's enough for now! Tune in next time as I ramble further on exoticism, respect, and reading fantasy from OTHER cultures, and the fun to be had there.

(* Cultural appropriation for a person of the dominant culture, as Tech Boy is, is... well, almost more egregious. During the Raj, the time of British rule in India, which was from around 1858-1947, lots of white-skinned Britons donned South Asian clothing, emigrated to India, started sucking on opium pipes and wearing curly-toed slippers and "went native..." and yet still managed to close their society to the people of India, despite using native servants - and prostitutes - still judged and cut off those people who intermarried with South Asians, and whose children were mixed, and basically used and abused and behaved like they were morally, ethnically, ethically and otherwise in all ways superior to the people in whose land they lived. Does this mean that no white-skinned person should don South Asian clothing? No - but the run of history shows Westerners having a history of imperialism, colonialism and a lot of other hateful -isms [not the least of which is RACISM] that make it doubly problematic for a person of the dominant culture to casually assume elements of an Eastern culture. At least, that's our opinion here - your opinion may, of course, vary.
My opinion is that Tech Boy just looks cute in a tux, and should wear one as often as possible. Preferably when taking me fancy places. ☺)

[Cross-Posted at fiction, instead of lies]

October 15, 2014

KidlitCon, 2014: NOTEPAD FORUM, part i.

Charlotte Taylor, our program director, has clear Leadership Skillz, and came up with a great way to keep us thoughtful during those brief moments when people were at loose ends. She put a note pad up in the foyer space of the library, right next to one of the (oddly hidden) bathrooms, and put pens out. Just... a blank piece of paper, and some markers. And she wrote, "Ask some questions!" or something to that effect. And the weird thing is, people DID. Charlotte may have asked the first one, to get us started, but then other questions - and answers - and arrows appeared.

It was probably just as well that the pad of paper was on an easel. It made it harder to write super-long messages on. Maybe next time, we'll cover a table with butcher paper and let the pen-and-question crew go to town.

One of the questions was about how to support diversity within the kidlitosphere.

At first I thought the answer was obvious... to support diverse bloggers, follow them and comment, right? That's how we support ANY bloggers. But then I thought about it...and realized I was maybe more confused by the question. To wit: does diversity need to be supported within the kidlitosphere? Online? Do I need to follow diverse bloggers specifically? Is that the best or only way to find diverse content?

I'm a diverse blogger as is AF... and it's a weird thought to imagine that people are following this blog specifically because we're non-white bloggers. (Is anybody doing that? Nobody is doing that, are they?) Here's the thing:

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We here at Wonderland blog books. Period. If you're coming to this blog to receive the AfAm and biracial Pakistani-American perspective on books... well, good luck with that. I don't know that I give readers the African American perspective on...anything. I give visitors to the blog the Tanita perspective, which is obnoxious and opinionated and pretty much stabby sometimes. Sarah gives the knowledgeable and amusing, slightly snarky, mostly goofy, much-quieter-than-Tanita perspective, which is all her. None of that has to do with who we are by our labels, by our "groups." Know that little thing Chimamanda Adichie said about The Danger of a Single Story? Yeah. There IS no differently-abled perspective. You already know there is no one gay or trans or bi perspective. There is no Pakistani-American or African American perspective. We don't all have one diversity "experience," and no matter how many times people go on about "the Black experience," I honestly don't know what that means.

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And, the danger of a single story is not only that sometimes simplistically written books or the media portrays people with one story but that we believe -- it's that on the other side of the fence, we think we're the only ones put upon in a certain way, the only ones who understand certain things, and the only ones who feel a specific way. And pretty soon, we have lines in our heads and labels that say "Us" and "Them" and "They," and we're pulling back, just that tiny bit internally. You know what else this kind of "Us" and "Them" thing leads to? Segregation - which is just the polar opposite of the aims of true diversity. I'm not about to stay in "my" people's camp, are you? True diversity is an invitation to broaden, not an excuse to limit.

One of the things touched on briefly - really briefly - this weekend was identity struggle and imposter syndrome, how easily we feel un-genuine and how our insides don't always match our outsides, and we forget who the world perceives us to be when we speak out on various issues. It's easy to make assumptions based on stereotype and then be looked at at just some Angry Brown Person - easily dismissed because the assumption is that someone else has the shorthand explanation on our "experience." Eh, no. Let's not make that mistake here. While we have differences in where we've come from, we're all in this together - let's not assume or summarize, underestimate or dismiss.

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YES, we view life through the lens of our privilege and our background, but each of us has our own set of lenses. My privilege is not yours. My myriad hang-ups are not yours. My sense of smell, love of snakes, unwieldy hair, and clunky shoe tastes are not yours - why, then, would anyone expect our "experiences" to match? If you're not coming here for the Sarah and Tanita Find Wonderland show, you're out of luck. You can see things from the perspective of A Latina person, a biracial or transsexual or single or married or blue-shoe-loving person, but there's never ever been any one tabula rasa onto which the "experience" of your or my specific group is written... and there never will be.

So, do you need to support me in the Kidlitosphere because I'm sharing something specifically here as an African American? Not to my mind. But, you tell me. What do you think?

October 14, 2014

KidLitCon, 2014: A Retrospective, Part I

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KidLitCon: Brought to you by these fine people.
l-r: Maureen Kearney, seated. Standing, me (aka tanita), Jen Robinson, Charlotte Taylor, Melissa Fox, Reshama Deshmukh, and Sarah, aka aquafortis.

Can't remember the last time I was more excited that an event was finally here, and was so relieved to have it over. I had fun - and I'm so grateful for the co-chairs and the support of a great programming team, but planning a Con can drive you crazy, if you're a bit obsessive and a worrywart. I probably also drove Charlotte, Reshama, Melissa, Jen and Sarah equally mad, but there you have it: it's what I do, and I bow before the KidLitCon 2015 Baltimore team in advance. If you're an obsessive, begin to brainstorm now - it won't save you panic, but you'll at least know you've got everything you CAN control, controlled. (There will be technical difficulties. The room may be inaccessible for forty-five minutes, and the caterer will either screw up a delivery, be detained by security, or both. [No, seriously.] The Skype will fail and the laptop may explode. Plan now to just take a deep breath.)

There was never really anything to panic over, of course. We were a room - or, at times, two rooms - full of brilliant, zany, intense, opinionistas, just listening and thinking together. There was more we could have said, given time -- and I have some few regrets about unfinished conversations, but on the other hand, we now have a lot of fodder for the blog.

Myriad people live-tweeted this Con -- and we hope it was fun for those of you who weren't there to follow along in little bites. I feel like I took a bite the size of my head, and I'm still chewing, thus I'll be blogging about this for the next few... whatevers. I'm sure you don't mind.

One of the best things about observing and listening to the conversations around me was the feeling of watching people find their tribe. Regardless of what specifics we thought of, agreed with or disagreed with about blogging, commenting, critical analysis, or diversity, when people came into the room, the conversations buzzed, and the noise level grew higher and higher as blog names and Twitter handles became flesh-and-blood friends.

It was funny watching people come in cautiously, sort of edge around the periphery, and then be snagged by someone admiring their shoes (Not gonna lie, that was probably the first conversation Hannah Gómez had with EVERYONE), discussing the book they'd both just taken a copy of, peering at each other's name tags, and just suddenly warming up, opening up, smiling and gravitating toward the another like-minded group of people and a cup of tea. Meal times were even funnier - the minute people COULD talk, the noise level in the room trebled. The topics were wide-ranging, from serious to ridiculous, some of them spurred by Charlotte's fantastic idea of throwing them on a notepad in the entryway. Thoughts on how to write a bad review - or if anyone ever should - how to critically review a book written by someone about a culture not their own, thoughts, oddly, on Slankets, blue hair, the Maine-loathed Kokopelli (probably only That One Guy in Maine, but still), and Pam Margolis' "what's your ethnic ancestry" uncovered some fascinating answers. (I'm probably related to Leila. Just, you know, because. The Acadian-to-Creole French connection. Be afraid, Josh, I am now, like, your OTHER sister-in-law. And I'm MUCH, much more annoying.)

A number of people talked about their kids - and showed pictures - discussed their book-related shirt collections, the state of funding for school libraries, the frustrations of librarianship, and opinions about Roger Sutton and whether or not Horn Book is actually going to give self-publishers a fair shake (or whether self-publishing SHOULD be given a chance, and how they've not really thought about dipping a toe in, because "awful books"). Discussions changed some minds - and didn't others. Everyone was civil anyway. Conversations ranged through topics of racism and diversity, types of diversity, activism, social justice, and the realities of the world we live in vs. the world in the books we see -- and they were fascinating discussions, too. If we'd only had more time, we'd have plotted a way to change the world.

As it is, we simply came away with ideas on how to affect our little corner of it... which might be just enough.

I have a pad of paper on which I jotted down my thoughts and observations from the first day, in between welcoming late comers, explaining to the nice lady from the library who we were and what we were doing, and popping in/out of the other breakout sessions. Some of them are a little random -- others of them are actually things I need to think about:

  • Omnibeasts Are Beautiful, Says Charlotte. Good thing; pretty much the whole blog = Omnibeast.
  • "Don't let diffident language stop you from making strong statements about books you like or dislike. Don't be afraid of your voice."
  • Charlotte is far nicer than I, but diffidence in her would be severe disingenuousness in me. How to maneuver through that minefield?
  • Is there some way to ask authors what is useful to them in a review, like we ask each other in writing group? After the book is published, IS there any point to a critical review... it changes nothing, yes, but informs. What's my job as blogger? What would *I* need? (or, do most other authors avoid reviews like I do).
  • What's my purpose? Who are reviews for?
  • Argh, Hootsuite, TweetDeck - what? EVERYBODY and God is on Twitter, apparently.
  • Kim Baccellia's students illustrated themselves as white. Not a tragedy, in some ways (cute kid confusion) - but this is only normal if we only see the dominant culture illustrated everywhere... which is NOT NORMAL AT ALL. Okay. Got it.
  • Love Nathalie's accent.
  • "...the innocence and vulnerability of black youth... is something we never get to see." ~ Zetta Elliott
  • Must find out more: Pirate Tree, Blood Orange Press, Reflection Press and Zetta's Rosetta.
  • "If I didn't read self-published books, I would have not half of my books to read." Libertad (Twinja) Thomas
  • (People who wondered about 9th Ward:) Jewell Parker Rhodes doesn't write magical realism. Not magic. It's...belief. Oral tradition = passing forward a people's truths in narrative. Slaves were not a blank slate, imagine that.
  • "I'm always writing about these themes of spiritual awakening." ~ JPR. Apparently authors can actually do this on purpose. ...should level up.
  • "Do. See. Feel. Survive. There's a variation on that in all three of my children's books." ~ JPR
  • Miss Frizzle for another (differently privileged) age. "Take Changes! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!" is almost the equivalent of "Do. See. Feel. Survive." Almost.
  • Dear Writers, Ms. Yingling wants to know where the books about the civil rights movement/diversity/bussing/ in '60's/'70's Ohio are. They are thin on the ground... Not a topic I know zilch about!

Yep, those were my musings from THE FIRST day.

I haven't even covered how energetic and powerful Mitali's keynote was (I'd LOVE to get she and Ms. Jewell in a room together - that would be a dynamic talk to be a part of, as writer or reader) or discussed the uses of anger, some thoughts on The Floating Head of Shannon Hale, gushed about the bathtub in the hotel, the authors who showed up, the weather or anything else... and I do have more to say (of course). Until next time - keep reading, thinking, and sharing.

tl;dr: KidLitCon. ~ Here, have some pictures.


It's not every day you read a book that reads like... a movie. Though the book took a little more than ninety minutes to get through, from start to finish I kept muttering "movie." Even the cover has cinematic aspects (though I don't love it, and think all the people look entirely wrong. WHERE is Cal's faux-hawk, I ask you? Why does he look more ten than sixteen?); it looks like a movie poster more than a novel cover. And the novel itself? Fast-paced, action infused, with lots of running, explosions (okay, mostly hydrants and Porta-Potties - not so much the rain of fire), harrowing, high-stakes drama, and plenty of adventure. Less character development than I would have liked but plenty of plot. Most of the relationships make emotional sense, and are, if not entirely satisfying, reasonably so. The romance isn't insta-love, and if the danger sometimes seems more superhero/comic book hyped than real, that's because it's kind of a superhero-comic book kind of book...except like a movie.

How does one write a novel like that? Maybe the magic is if one writes with one's mother? Suzanne and Melanie are a mother-daughter team, and Suzanne Brockmann, occasionally writing as Anne Brock, is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling romance author, has won 2 RITA awards, numerous RT Reviewers’ Choice, and RWA’s #1 Favorite Book of the Year three years running. She has written over 50 books, and is widely recognized as a “superstar of romantic suspense” (USA Today). NIGHT SKY is Mel’s debut and Suzanne’s 55th book. Maybe Melanie is planning to follow in her footsteps. If so, this is a great start.

This novel is apparently set in the Fighting Destiny series of adult novels Suzanne writes, though the reader needn't know anything about her adult books for this one to work. At the time of this posting I've also just discovered that there's an e-prequel to the novel which I missed, which explains how Calvin and Sky meet. While it's not necessary for enjoyment of the novel, it certainly might explain some things I wondered about.

Summary: In this near future, dystopia-flavored novel, China is a corporation, not a country, the United States is not really united and parents are still hyper-worrying pains in the neck. Sixteen-year-old Skylar Reid has no license - not for lack of whining about it - a ridiculously early curfew and too far too many rules. After a terrible accident in which her best friend is almost killed, she's been hustled from Connecticut to this little poky town in Florida, and if not for her neighbor and friend, Calvin, an African American boy confined to a wheelchair, she'd be completely at sea in the small town. Her mother is acting SO weird - trying to control all of her activities, having secret meetings with her awful band teacher, and altogether being annoying. Good thing she's got Sasha - the nine year old she babysits - and her family to secretly idolize. They're the perfect, beautiful family, and Sasha is a funny, weird, precocious and completely precious kid...which makes it doubly tragic when one night, Sasha turns up missing. And, her father, Edmund's gone, too. Sky will do anything to get her little friend back - anything, including teaming up with a scary, motorcycle girl and her hot sidekick, going into the bad side of town, and finding the truth about herself. Maybe none of that will help find Sasha - but unlike the rest of the adults and the police, Sky will never, ever stop looking.

Peaks: The plot is huge and while there are a few areas that don't get quite smoothed out to my satisfaction, it's clear that this world is already built and ready for action, and that there could be any number of sequels set in it, as there seem to be any number than budding superhero "greater than" characters running around.

Sasha is my favorite character in the whole novel and though she's missing for much of the the time, the storyline about retrieving her is urgent and real and works well. While Sky is the main character, and she handles the part of a being a budding superhero well enough, with occasional bouts of disbelief and frustration, she's frequently eclipsed by the awesomeness of Cal.

Cal is the sort of over-the-top, loud-mouthed funny guy who frequently ends up being a sidekick. He's "the comic relief," and it's clear that's his purpose. Fortunately, he gets to do other things (though not be sad or too serious). There's a game Calvin plays throughout the novel called "Would You Rather." It is basically two awful scenarios and you're meant to choose the least awful. It always cheers Skyler, and it always amuses the reader as to how Cal's mind works (answer: horribly, horribly well). He's from a very well-off family, is somewhat tone deaf as to how other people live (the very first scene in the novel, he's disparaging a store and a woman slumming there because it is peopled by lower class shoppers and is dirty - and in the end, he's right, they shouldn't have been there, but not for the reasons he thought), and I wondered briefly what his parents did and how Sky, raised in equal, if not greater wealth, is written as the character who is more down-to-earth. Cal is an interesting enough character to have a book of his own.

Interestingly, the females in the novel (with the exception of the moms - maybe teen females?) are very aggressive and take-charge, and the males are the supporting cast - Cal chauffeurs Sky around, lets himself be bossed, and basically finds most of his excitement following her around - she's a trouble magnet. Eventually Cal lets Milo do the same - in return for the odd kiss. Milo - a sidekick with his own mysterious past and nascent...something... seems to do the same for Dana, and then Sky even takes responsibility for the thoughts he's having. It's an interesting switch.

Valleys: The novel starts with a very harrowing incident, then jumps back in time to the week before the harrowing incident, and then jumps forward from there to after said incident. While only slightly confusing, the timeline jumps may act to lose the momentum of the story for some readers for awhile, but eventually they will find their feet again.

Adults in the novel seem unnecessarily mysterious. Cal's mother, Stephanie, is meant to be reasonable and sweet, in contrast to Sky's worrywart parent type, but as I mentioned, Stephanie also carelessly doesn't seem to notice when she loses her wheelchair-bound son for hours and, once, days at a time. "I'll just tell Mom I'm at your house." I found that dubious -- it's as if "the worst" has already happened to her son, so she's kind of ambivalent about whatever else he gets up to? Or, is Stephanie supposed to be the cool Mom of Color who is down with anything? Or, I wondered, is that attitude because he's a boy? That casual, "he'll come home when he's hungry" thing just stood out so HUGELY for me, it pulled me out of the story with my questions. I don't know too many parents of school-aged kids, able-bodied or not, who are so disinterested in their children's whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Sky's mother seems to be a neurotic bundle of nerves wrapped in ironclad enigma and secret dating. The details of Sky's mother are never revealed. She drags Sky from Connecticut for some reason - why? She's jumpy and overly worried - and yes, partially because Sky was in an accident, but Sky wasn't driving, doesn't drive, and finds trouble when she's not even in a car... so, why the continued nerviness and attempts to enroll her in everything and manage her free time? Worse, Sky - who is confrontational and mouthy and very teen in every other way - will not talk to her mother about it. At all. Except for snarks and slamming doors, she never asks the questions she has, leaving the reader to wonder again...why? Why is her mother so weird? Why is she huddling with the band teacher? What does he know? Is he, as Sky has a horrified suspicion, her father? (If not, where IS the guy, and what's the story on that?) Why does the band teacher send Sky out to find Calvin? Is he good or bad? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

I found other issues with the book, but it doesn't necessarily detract from this book being good for certain audiences who enjoy fast-paced, plot-centric fantasy adventure novels. That being said:

What follows is a dissection of this novel, which may contain SPOILERS of some of the detail of the issues of a sidekick character in a wheelchair. Read at your own risk.

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Some of the characterization was problematic for me. While I loved that Cal was a character in the novel, I felt like he was a foil, in some ways, for the main characters, despite having some agency. I had a lot of questions of how he'd gotten there, and why. I wish we could see what brought an able bodied Caucasian girl to be best friends with a chair-bound African American boy. *NOT that it wouldn't happen, but I think it's important to be able to clearly identify what brings characters together at the beginning of their journey, and why they're in a story - what their purpose is. Was Cal only there to be a sidekick, the chauffeur? To be a witness to Dana and Sky's and even Milo's stories? What about his past, his history, his family? What makes Cal's mother the way she is - very easygoing, and not at all concerned that sometimes he doesn't come home, etc. (despite the fact that he's in a wheelchair). Where's his dad?

I know - inconvenient questions. But, because of how Cal was placed in the novel - obviously in the middle of things, but sort of anonymous all the same, I had even more questions. wished I understood more of the extent of Calvin's injuries. If you are differently abled, how you deal with your disability is part of you, and not something which can be left to individual readers' guesses and assumptions. Not to include spoilers, but he's lifted out of his chair at one point - sans tubes and connections. First of all - the wish-fulfillment aspect of that is disturbing, and speaks to an incomplete understanding of the freedom Cal has in his chair under his own direction. The novel makes it sound as if he would be ecstatic to have the appearance of mobility-via-magic -- and I disagree strongly -- I think he would have felt out of control and HORRIBLE in that instance, and I think it's a crock that all people in chairs want Magic Insta-Walking skills. (Honestly, I was terrified FOR him - it seemed so hideously invasive.)

Second, apparently Cal can leave the chair for toileting? He's not often seen shifting in the chair, so apparently he's not always in it, and has no issues with pressure sores, or -- ? While it's awesome, great and amazing to be inclusive in one's writing, and I can see not wanting to get mired in the details of his life, I can see the Disability in Kidlit people gently asking many pointed questions and questioning the authenticity of this character's experience in his chair. I had questions, and I'm not that knowledgeable. Authors who include differently-able people in their novels need to do a tiny bit more research - and since it's worth writing inclusively, it's worth doing it right. Even just a couple more sentences could have cleared some of this up easily.

Conclusion: When I discovered that this is the first book in a trilogy, I realized some of the "whys" will be answered later on. Readers satisfied with delayed gratification will survive the mysterious-mysteries feel of the novel and the unanswered questions. If you like movies like X-Men First Class, love comic books, wish for nascent paranormal powers, wise-cracking sidekick types and boys with ponytails, this action-filled romance is for you.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Sourcebooks. You can find NIGHT SKY by Suzanne & Melanie Brockmann at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!