This past Monday I drove to Cambridge, Massachusetts for a panel at the Cambridge Public Library for the anthology Break These Rules: 35 YA Authors on Speaking Out, Standing Up, and Being Yourself (Chicago Review Press, 2013), to which I contributed an essay. Joining me were anthology editor Luke Reynolds and two other contributors, Anna Staniszewski and Francisco X. Stork. Each of us wrote about a rule we thought young people should break. Mine was “Always Sit in Your Assigned Seat.” Anna’s was “Don’t Clash with the Crowd.” Francisco’s was “Don’t Be Alone.”
I had originally thought we would read our essays, but the 20 or so people at the event actually wanted ADVICE! Given that most of my recent advising has consisted of where to eat and what to do in Portugal, I found myself at a loss. However, Luke set a perfect tone when he talked about the rule “Be Successful,” which he broke when he quit his teaching job several years ago to be a stay-at-home dad while his wife pursued her career. Her quest took the family to London, where they promptly ran out of money. Failing to find teaching work, Luke ended up becoming a paperboy at the age of 31. He described what it felt like for everyone to look down on him because of his work; the fact that he was supporting his family, albeit marginally, was small consolation. Toward the end of his time in London, the small kindness of an elderly woman made him proud of his decision.
Luke’s story resonated with me because — as I later told the people in attendance — last fall and winter I faced the possibility of my own writing career coming to an end. In fact, I had submitted my resume to work at the Apple Store, with the goal of one day becoming a Genius Bar technician, and had readied it for submission to the various Starbucks and Lego Stores in New York City. I was also trying to develop my photography skills so I could illustrate my unpublished fiction on this blog. I had written about failure in one of the unpublished novels. Now I stared it in the face.
Anna and Francisco also talked about their essays in ways that meant a lot to me. Anna’s piece, full of humor and insight, described about how she and one other girl were the only ones to wear unmatched clothing to their 7th grade Clash Day. She presented herself as a person who rarely broke rules and felt uncomfortable doing so. She learned from Clash Day that people rarely noticed her minor transgressions. I stayed overnight with her and enjoyed hearing of her experiences as an immigrant from Poland — she moved to the United States with her family at the age of five and tried very hard to fit in — and how being bilingual and bicultural has enriched her writing. Her current middle grade series, The Dirt Diary, includes a girl who is half-Korean, and I look forward to featuring her when she goes on her book tour this summer. She also teaches Writing for Children at Simmons College’s prestigious Graduate School of Library and Information Science. From her, I gained insight into the relationship between following rules and having a successful writing career. In short, it helps a lot to write in clear genres and categories, something I don’t do. I guess I’ll have to keep those resumes and photos on my hard drive, even as the companion to Gringolandia makes its way toward publication.
The adjective that comes to mind when describing Francisco X. Stork is “wise.” He, of course, will deny it. He talked about being in his early 60s and still not knowing his purpose in life. But whether or not he articulates it, anyone who hangs out with him for any length of time will go home with a new perspective on life from the experiences and thoughts he has shared. His books for teens — Marcelo in the Real World, Last Summer of the Death Warriors, Irises, and a forthcoming (fall 2015) and for me eagerly anticipated novel about a girl with depression — feature memorable characters and dilemmas. Rather than reading his essay (which also touched on this subject), he talked about a girl who spurned him because he was “Mexican,” and how that led him to cut back on social activities and focus on reading and thinking about the larger questions that make their way into all his books. Even though the girl’s parents’ prejudice caused him to isolate himself to (eventually) positive results, he urged the attendees to treat those who are different with civility, because this first contact may blossom into a lifelong friendship. And personal contact — friendship — is key to our survival personally and as a society.
As part of my own presentation, I talked about embracing diversity — not sitting in the place to which your peer group has assigned you but reaching out to those who are different — and tied it to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. I wanted the attendees to take away a plan for action, and for those who do not now have personal contact with people who are different, books are a good way of opening minds and easing the anxiety of the initial contact.
At the end of the evening, we agreed to pursue other avenues to talk about our anthology. Not that we have all the answers, but all of the questions raised at the session, by ourselves and the audience, are important ones to ask.