Thursday, November 29, 2012

Industry Q&A with author Tanita S. Davis

Tell us about your most recent book and how you came to write it. 

I read a newspaper account of Theresa Sparks, who was formerly a man. I was struck by what she had to say about love and family, and I wondered if my own family could have survived a transgender member intact. During this time, the hatemongers under the banner of the Westboro Baptist Church were up to some headline-grabbing stupidity, and I found myself wondering if people who claimed Christianity could ever love someone enough to accept them thus Happy Families came out of a lot of quiet thoughts. It challenged me to explore my own hidden fears and beliefs and to make a personal resolve in favor of love.

Do you think of yourself as a diverse author?

Um... not really. In the mirror/window illustration made famous by Mitali Perkins☺, I consider myself a mirror I'm turning my work around toward my community, and these are the people I see. I try to be inclusive of the sometimes invisible things the differently abled or those with other challenges, multiracial blends, blended families, various faiths, etc. because that's real-world stuff, and I really feel there's too much culture-less, colorless fiction being published.

Who is your favorite character of all time in children’s or young adult literature?

A tough question; the answer changes almost hourly, but today, my favorite character is Dicey Tillerman, from Cynthia Voight's Homecoming, Dicey's Song, A Solitary Blue, etc.

Dicey is kind of a harder-edged Anne of Green Gables. Homeless, orphaned, has to make unpopular decisions to care for herself, and yet she believes in the intangible against all expectation. Her reality is ugly and yet, she can still take the leap of believing that something is going to break, and things will get better, and to make it happen.

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say you are forced to sell all of the books you own except for one. Which do you keep?

I would keep In Every Tiny Grain of Sand by Reeve Lindbergh. This is both a picture book, prayer book, almanac and multicultural celebration. I've been thinking about this for about an hour, and ...this is the book I come back to, because it sort of reflects my internal world.

What does diversity mean to you as you think about your own books?

Diversity means embracing all of my stories all that makes up me and yet not letting any one part of what makes me always be the winner or the victor or look the best. Diversity for my own writing means letting reality percolate through my stories, and then stretching the story wider so that everyone can find their place, and the commonality of the human experience is lifted above all.

What is your thought process in including or excluding characters of diverse backgrounds?

I try to write inclusively, and yet, you can't stuff the U.N. into every scene and have it be good writing. I don't want to condescend "Here, we can add your little group in there, too!" yet I want to acknowledge that we are privileged to be given this blank slate, as writers, and we can people our worlds with anyone. Especially in areas of society or thought which are traditionally dominated by either sex, or dominant-culture populated, we have the opportunity to give the gift of allowing a young person to choose Option C, instead of the A and B choices with which they've been presented for much of their lives.

Please write an example of a paragraph that is tone deaf when it comes to cultural diversity, then write the correct version. Explain the differences in the third paragraph.

The almond-eyed girl stood in the lunch line, the silken black curtain of her hair nearly obscuring her exotic beauty. As usual, she walked very slowly, since her nose, as usual, was buried in the physics book cradled in her arms. Behind her, Marisol clicked her tongue impatiently. “Chica, wake up!” She snapped. “Some of us have things to do!” She shot a glance across the cafeteria, and blew a kiss to a table full of boys. Laqueesha shook her head, her gold hoops swinging. “Girl, don’t you be messin’ with Anna. You know she always got her face in a book.” The chocolate-skinned girl leaned over Anna’s shoulder, her smile sly. “Now, Anna, honey, how much smarter than everyone else do you got to be?”

Paragraph 2  

Anna, scowling over her phone, only moved up in line because Marisol practically stepped on her heels. Anna shot her a dirty look, then took an exaggerated step forward in her leather combat boots. “Sorry,” Marisol muttered, grabbing a pencil from the bun on her head. “Physics test.” In front of them, Laqueesha turned, looking amused. “We went over those proofs last night,” she reminded her friend. She turned to the texting girl behind her. “Hey, Anna, what’s Aric up to?” Anna grinned, ruffling her hand over her nearly shaved head as she gave Laqueesha an exaggerated leer. “I don’t French and tell, baby!” 

The predominant stereotypes addressed, of course, are that Asian females are exotically beautiful, demure, submissive and, like all Asians within stereotype-land, scholastically brilliant, Latina’s are hyper-sexualized and hyper-emotional the fiery Latina is always ready to go off. The African American stereotype I chose is of the large, anti-intellectual and grammatically challenged Mammy figure. Other problems are linking people with comestibles to describe them. While there’s nothing wrong with having heavy characters, grammatically challenged characters, or even hypersexual characters, I prefer to avoid the stereotypical labeling. Anna is both Asian and more edgy, speed-texting her man; Laqueesha studies with Marisol, who completely obsesses over physics. The best way to keep from being offensive is to see one’s characters as real people, and not a sort of collection of characteristics that “everybody knows” are just like them. One size never fits anyone.

Tanita S. Davis is the author of Happy Families, the Coretta Scott King Honor Book, Mare's War, and A La Carte. She lives in Northern California.


  1. Excellent post!!! Thanks for your insight Tanita. I love that Happy Families was born out of a sense of the injustice of a situation. Loved the paragraphs and the explanation to help readers (and writers) understand aspects of cultural diversity and the pitfalls a writer can fall into.

  2. I agree absolutely, Tanita. However, I am trying to write a middle grade in which a fourth grade boy from a small, largely white Midwestern community moves to Miami, Florida,and has difficulty adjusting to his new, highly diverse neighbors. He does come to like and appreciate them as individuals, but they have some characteristic likes and speech patterns that I don't want to change. I realized that I had unintentionally provided my own daughter with such a "sheltered" life when she went away to college and remarked that "no one looks like me!" I was shocked. Editors, however, are reacting rather negatively -- "characteristic" (such as liking baseball) immediately equating to "stereotypical" for them. Any suggestions?