June 21, 2020

Conversation with Christine Taylor-Butler (Part II)

        This is Part II of a conversation with Christine Taylor-Butler, author of many many books for kids, including The Lost Tribes series.  (If you need to start at the beginning, you can find Part I here.)

Anne:  You mention giving characters to readers who don’t often find themselves in the pages of the books they read.  Tell me your thoughts on representation (in your fiction) and how to make it substantive instead of just tokenism.

Christine:  That's easy (I don't know why people make it so hard.) Writers should just let them be kids. Honestly. When I got an agent and we shopped the book around to editors who "swore" they loved diversity we often got "Why are they living in the suburbs?" "Why don't they sound like (fill in the ethnic minority background)," etc.
        Here's the deal: When you grow up in a family that practices its culture, then the way you speak or the way you respond to a situation might vary from another culture. That's why there are several on the cul-de-sac. So you can see the kids trying to get through the same set of challenges but the family reactions to their behavior are both similar and different. I set the family in Southern California, but they are upper middle class and the kids go to private school. There would be a different dynamic if they were in public school. Or in Ohio. Or Boston. Or the Midwest. They'd be different if they grew up in a rural area than if they lived in the middle of a city hours away. There is no one ubiquitous minority experience to write from. So let them be human first. Emotion is often as much about biology and surroundings as it is about culture.
        If people could just focus on how would a person who was --let's say 13-- react to this situation rather than think "how would a Black kid (or White kid, or ......) that is 13 react to this situation?" you get closer to the truth of the character. It's about nuance. It was something I objected to in a recent "popular" superhero movie. The story starts with the uncle living in Oakland in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood. Fair enough. That's the director's truth. But I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood that was nothing like that and my friends and I didn't spend our time thinking about how to steal things. We walked to the library and to summer plays and to the Art Museum. Still struggling financially but not emotionally. We were in close knit communities. But the movie depiction fit the narrative that most people believe is ubiquitous. A lot of authors learn that's an easy way to sell a story to gatekeepers - "minorities in ghettos," "Latinx as migrants," "Asians as the model minority," etc.

Anne: This is such a good point.  The example that sticks out for me is that I feel like every depiction of a suburban high school in every movie or TV show I ever see is the same, with the same cliques and the same bullies and the same “cool kids” – yet this scene bears very little resemblance to the suburban public school I attended or the school my children attend, or either of the schools at which I taught.  It’s just like you say: writers use stereotypes as shortcuts, and publishers want everything to fit into the narrative they believe that people expect, even if it is not the only truth.  But characters in books, just like people in real life, should be their own unique person before being a representative of some group.

Christine:  So I put my character's families in high power jobs and set them all on the same boring upper class cul-de-sac. They all attend the same private school but keep ties to their own cultural communities. Until you find out where those ties actually go and what their common bond really is. A lot of editors objected to the wealth and the lack of familiar stereotypes. Some wanted a main character they could "cuddle." Funny - the readers get what's going on right away - something is up with the parents, something is driving the uncle's pathology, and the kids are just like them - goofy, snarky and don't always get along but do best when they're sneaking around the parental rules.  
        I write for kids. The trick is getting the narratives past gatekeepers who think all Black people live in housing projects with no A/C. True story (is the statute of limitations up yet?) I went from a stable inner-city neighborhood to a highly selective boarding school in New England. Stereotypes there were the norm. One year I got tired of the English teacher telling me that the stories we were supposed to write based on our real lives weren't realistic and I shouldn't be "ashamed" of my background. One of the seniors clued me in on how to revise. So I wrote a story about a prostitute, living in the ghetto, and I think there was a pimp in the story. None of it was true but okay - I was playing to my audience. Got an "A" on that paper and a pat on the back for my willingness to go deep and let it all show in my work. Sigh. There are still publishers who cater to gatekeepers who think that diversity means the same functional silos they've been buying for years. I think - what century are we living in? Don't answer that. The question is facetious.

Anne: It’s so frustrating because I think you’re right that kids are more than ready to accept a full range of people; it’s the adults who can’t get past their expectations.  In many cases I think they have the best of intentions, but it’s not helping the situation.
        You said, "Books that resonate operate on multiple levels so that each reader can find something of themselves in the pages.”  It has certainly been my experience as a child reading that many of my favorite books do not feature a protagonist who looks like me, therefore clearly kids can find resonances for themselves in aspects of character other than just their physical race or gender.  At the same time, I have also experienced that feeling of getting really sick and tired of “all” the protagonists being male, for example, and I know it feels really good to find someone in a book who does reflect some aspect of yourself (whether that’s sex, appearance, culture, gender identity, or whatever) that usually feels too invisible.  So how do you strive to balance those things?   What do you think goes into making a book that will resonate on those multiple levels?

Christine: That's hard. Like I said, there's this almost demented need by gatekeepers to fawn over guys and guy characters. In Tribes, the main protagonist is Ben. He just showed up that way. You can't change what will not be changed. But the book features an ensemble cast and after the "team" is assembled there are three girls and two boys. When my family was reading Harry Potter (my kids and my husband were addicted to the series) I heard my husband say the book should be called "Hermione Granger and that other guy" since she's always giving him the answers.  I laughed and thought my favorite character wasn't Harry, it was Ron Weasley. The Harry Potter series works because there are so many socially awkward kids that you don't have to love Harry to enjoy the series. You can find that person who resonates and there's enough story line for you to follow their own sub plots. Also, Hermione is a dead ringer for one of my best friends in college. 
        So in the second book of the Tribes series, Safe Harbor, I switched to multiple points of view so you could see the story unfold through multiple eyes. It also works because, in the first book, the kids work together but all of it is through Ben's eyes. In Safe Harbor, they are dealing with their new reality and how they grow as people is directly related to things happening to them off-stage. Rather than see everything through a single point of view, I wanted people who have a favorite character to get to see what happens to them and with them when the others aren't around. I think the growth of Carlos and Grace surprised me the most because their trajectory grew organically and wasn't part of the original outline. If people are watching carefully - each child has a fear or phobia that is the opposite of their parent's strengths. Carlos, for instance, will not hurt anything - not even a spider when they're on the run - despite being raised by parents who enjoy the thrill of battle and high tech weapons. So what happens when he meets the "team" and doesn't measure up? Grace is scared of the dark and scary things, but comes from a race of people who do scary things. Those were my absolute favorite plot points in Safe Harbor - when Carlos takes a stand against a brutal regime and sticks up for Ben. And when Grace is the first to go on missions but can't tell her friends that she's doing it. And the reader doesn't know what she's doing until the climax of the second book. Serise is the smartest person on the team because she's eidetic and can hack a computer better than any adult on the team. So she's assigned to mission control even though she's 13. And April, Ben's kid sister. She has a mouth on her. She's a badass you don't mess with even though she's much younger. She'll even stand up to their uncle. So she's the humor that de-escalates and says what other people are scared to say. I write smart, socially awkward girls and boys and give them equal weight in the series.

Anne: That’s one of the really cool choices we get to make as writers: whose point of view will tell the story best?  Sometimes I especially enjoy the contrast between how a particular character views the world and how that character is then viewed by others.
        Do you try to depict a world in which prejudice and discrimination exist, while still showing that not every “minority” kid has to have a life centered in or defined by that?  And if so, how do you find that balance?  Or do you tilt in one direction or the other, for example, showing a world in which the kids don’t really encounter discrimination (or at least, not based on race)?

Christine: I don't believe in the kumbaya scenario. So I tried to turn prejudice on its ear. The story starts out on an idyllic suburban cul-de-sac with parents of various cultural backgrounds who are all high achieving and are best friends. It's their kids who don't get along even though they live next door to each other and attend the same school. But in a reversal, over the parent's objections, Ben's uncle gives him a challenge and a deadline. Ben can't solve it so he has to cajole the other kids into working with him so he can finish in time. As they do - they notice all the parents are blocking their efforts. So the kids work in secret to see where the challenge leads. That leads to an unexpected alliance and a growing friendship. Later, towards the end of the first book, you meet the organization the parents work for. Those adults are all working in functional silos based on race even though they report to the same mission leader. Turns out the kid's parents were the only members of the team who work across cultural boundaries. That's why they were "marooned" on a beige cul-de-sac. It's kind of a punishment for breaking mission protocols. The third book, Trials, reiterates the continued dysfunction at headquarters (known as Safe Harbor) which is why the mission is going so slow. In one scene, Ben asks one of his mentors about the vitriol between the teams and she replies, "We are superior, that does not mean we are perfect." So through most of the series, the only group working well as a team and solving clues are the kids, even as the new mentors in their lives try to keep them separated from each other. In book three, the characters continue their habit of circumventing the rules and finally point out that if people actually looked at their similarities instead of their differences, the mission might go faster. 

Anne: I believe this whole issue of what worlds we show children through our writing, and where they can find themselves in those worlds, is vitally important for helping to give those children power and vision in their own real worlds.  This is part of my whole belief that speculative fiction can make the world a better place!  It has a unique ability to entice readers to rethink their own assumptions and to hold up other possibilities in a way that they are willing to consider.  If you called it “realistic” people would say, “oh that’s impossible,” but if you call it “fantasy” they don’t immediately dismiss it, and in the end may find themselves thinking, “Well, maybe that really could be possible.”  Do you feel that SFF has a role in changing the world, or in changing people’s hearts and minds about how they see the world and live in it?  If so, how does that appear in your work?

Christine: I agree. Speculative fiction is often just an exploration about what it means to be sentient. Stories that allow us to connect with a character sometimes force us to test our belief systems as well. Using a fictional setting that is familiar and yet unfamiliar allows us to hold the reader in suspense and gives them time to know and root for the character arc. Spec fiction is also about resilience when faced with impossible choices. Maybe the net result is speculative fiction can increase empathy and equip readers with additional tools to navigate their own reality. 
        Speculative fiction can transport readers out of their own reality while the characters actually grapple with real life emotions even if the setting is fantastical. There are joys and set-backs. Feuds and reconciliations. Certainly I take risks and allow the characters to make mistakes because too many books are about finding the right answer. Tribes is about finding the right answer too, but also how to take it on the chin when things don't work. I took a risk in the second book. I allowed for a major error in judgment that results in a devastating setback for the mission. And yet - there is resilience and a path forward. So my pet peeve is when books are about perfect kids who make tiny errors but always come out with the sun shining at the end. What life is like that?
        One of the best quotes I've heard was a NASA educational specialist who said, "At NASA, failure is not an option. It is mandatory." I tell people that all the time. I don't want to read about perfect characters that all the other characters fawn over. I want to write about people who make mistakes, misinterpret clues, and course correct. 

Anne: I confess that I like to read about good people – people better than me!  I get very quickly frustrated by protagonists with consistently bad judgement, or who make mistakes so avoidable that I think they made that choice only because the author needed to get them into danger or conflict!  However, I do agree that I don’t want characters who are “always perfect” and fawned over.  What I really enjoy seeing is how basically-good people deal with bad situations, which includes resiliency and persistence and creativity in dealing with their own mistakes as well as external forces.

Christine: For years I was an MIT interviewer. In the last decade I saw more more and more students trying to show they know the "right answer." My husband was a grad school interviewer for University of Missouri and saw similarly high achieving students who didn't know how to color outside of the lines.  So we would share experiences and he told me to ask them, "If you were a superhero, which one would you be and why?" I could tell who would be most successful at MIT by how they approached the answer. At least half would melt down and complain that their counselors (or parents or tutors) didn't prep them on questions like that and I was being unfair. I pointed out that life - and research - is not about the right answer. It's about getting the wrong answer and figuring out why it didn't work. Those students had never faced adversity and therefore never learned anything about resilience. So maybe that's the point of my book. Looking at what my characters want then turning those desires on their ear and subverting expectations so they experience growth.  I've met kids who aren't encouraged to dream outside of their current boundaries. So perhaps, our books create a broader landscape to play in and introduces the idea - yes - you could be these people or do these things too.

Anne: I am saddened and disturbed by these trends toward people with a stunted ability to think and act for themselves, take creative risks, and choose what superhero to be!  It’s my hope that spec fic is one of the antidotes to that: encouraging us all to ask “What if...?”
        Let’s end with your best advice for children (or adults) who are working on writing.

Christine: The most important parts of writing as an art:
        1. Allow the story to go in a direction that you didn’t plan. Give up control to allow the characters and the landscape room to breathe. The book isn’t about the author or the author’s life. It’s about the character’s journey and their connection with the reader.
        2. What you write won’t look the same as it does in your head. But that’s okay. It’s not supposed to be perfect. You can clean it up later or recycle bits into another book. No author or artist creates a perfect draft on the first - or second - (or third) go round.
        3. Look at the world around you. Imagine what would happen if one thing (or more than one thing changed). What would that be? And how would your character’s lives be different from your own because of it?

Anne: Thanks so much for joining me, Christine.  I hope to see you again when in-person conventions are possible once again, and in the meantime, Congratulations on Lost Tribes: Trials coming out quite soon now.

You can find info about Christine Taylor-Butler and her books HERE (and me and my books HERE).  Plus, here’s some additional reading alluded to during the conversation...
My post on Heroic Heroes

[Pictures: Christine Taylor-Butler, picture from Christine;
Ben, from video trailer for The Lost Tribes;
Covers of The Lost Tribes: Safe Haven and The Lost Tribes: Trials.]

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