Stereotypes in First Drafts


This week I attended the Kweli Children’s Book Writers Conference and had the opportunity to hear from and meet some inspiring people from the publishing world who are passionate about diverse representations in children’s books. I loved talking about my picture book and YA book manuscripts (in progress) with people who got the point.

All participants received a copy of American Book Review’s issue on “The Color of Children’s Literature,” and reading it today, I was thrilled to come across the transcript of a talk by Gene Luen Yang at the National Book Festival. (Read the full speech here.)

Yang, author/illustrator of the graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, encourages writers to get past their fear of offending people while writing diverse characters (but to do their research, of course). His advice is brilliant:

I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human.

Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don’t, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.

Also, it’s okay if stereotypes emerge in the first drafts of your colleagues. Correct them – definitely correct them – but do so in a spirit of generosity.

As an editor, part of my job is to point out stereotypes or cultural inaccuracies when I come across them, and I can offer useful perspective as someone who studied anthropology and Latin American studies, and identifies as Chinese American, mixed race, hapa (part Asian), and gay—and many other things, but these are some of the most obvious.

Yang’s speech also inspires me to keep writing and to seek feedback, lots of it, from many different kinds of colleagues and friends.

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