Category Archives: Op-Ed

The Best (Fictional) Mom in the World

Hey, MUF peeps! Mother’s Day is just around the corner (yay for moms!). We all know that being a mom isn’t always an easy job (even more so in literature, where the moms are often clueless, absent, or well, lucky to be alive at all…).

So! In honor of all the awesome moms out there, I’d like to celebrate some of my favorite mothers in middle-grade fiction. Without further ado, here they are!

Caroline Ingalls: What can I say, when I was a kid I really, really wanted to be Laura Ingalls and live in a little house on the prairie with Ma and Pa. I even had the bonnet. See?

The author at age six, in her bonnet waiting to move to the prairie.

The author at age six, in her bonnet, waiting to move to the prairie.

Mrs. Quimby, Ramona’s mom: Another favorite from my childhood, not that I was a pest or anything. Just ask my brother, he’ll tell you… um, I mean, nevermind. Ahem. Anyway, Ramona’s mom was great, because she seemed like a real mom (and I kinda loved that she let Ramona be Ramona–quirks and all).

Gigi’s mom in The Truth About Twinkie Pie: No spoilers, but I loved this charming story about motherly love that is part mystery and part coming-of-age — with recipes, too boot!

But my all-time favorite fictional mom is, hands down: Molly Weasley of Harry Potter. Maybe it’s just that we have so much in common — I mean, MY kids are redheads! And of course, I can cast spells and create a patronus and… okay, well, we do have the redhead thing in common. But I guess Mrs. Weasley just speaks to the mom in me — she loves, encourages and protects her kids, she’s kindhearted but tough (and more than willing to send a Howler when her son does something he shouldn’t…)

Then, of course, there’s this, which is quite possibly the best mom moment in all of book/movie history:

Yeah, don’t go messing with Mama Bear and her cubs…

So tell me, who is YOUR favorite fictional mom! Let me know in the comments below. And Happy Mother’s Day to all of our Mixed-Up Files mommas–enjoy your day. You’ve earned it!

Jan Gangsei is the author of ZERO DAY (Disney-Hyperion, 2016), and several middle-grade series for Working Partners Ltd. She’s the mom of two awesome redheads (who are both probably relieved Howlers are not an actual thing…). Say hi to her at www.jangangsei.com.

How social are you?

So today I finally activated my Instagram account. I know! How very 2010 of me, right?!? (I’m just mildly behind the times… Give me another six years and I might actually post something on it!)

Now, I’m not anti-social media. Not at all. In fact, I probably spend a little too much time there. I love the connections, the real-time updates from friends, and communicating with fellow writers and readers. I’m pretty active on Facebook (great for keeping my mom up-to-date on my whereabouts, or so she tells me); and Twitter (which I understand is an excellent place to beg Mark Zuckerberg for money, haven’t tried yet though). And I’m actually rather excited about following the whole #bookstagram community (some of the photographs are truly works of art!).

But.

(And I know I’m hardly the first person to say this… ) But… all of it can be a bit daunting, right? So. Much. Information… In so. Many. Different. Places. And just when you think you’ve mastered one social media site, a new one pops up and takes its place (I know, I know, this is coming from the person who just discovered Instagram. Please, whatever you do, don’t try to Snapchat me, okay?!?) I mean, I haven’t even ventured into Google+ territory. Or Tumblr. And my YouTube presence is limited to watching music videos while I work out. There’s only so much time in the day, and that laundry isn’t going to do itself… (um, is it?)

So, I’m curious — how social are you? Do you do Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapstagramchat… or would you be just as happy if people started communicating with tin cans and strings again? Do you have a favorite social site? And why? Tell me in the comments below… And maybe we can @ each other!

Jan Gangsei is the author of ZERO DAY (Disney-Hyperion, 2016), as well as several MG series for Working Partners, LTD. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and yes, now Instagram (where eventually she may even post a picture of what she ate last night!).

Every galaxy needs more than three people of color

A Wired headline caught my attention the other day. The article it linked to featured commentary from an episode of a science fiction podcast on the topic of diversity in the genre. Every galaxy needs more than three people of color. That struck me on two levels: as a child of the 70s and 80s, who grew up on science fiction with a notable lack of diversity; and as an author of today, with a literary galaxy of my own.

First that number, three people out of a galaxy. That’s not an exaggeration. For the sci-fi franchises I grew up with, it’s a generous overestimate.

Foremost among the fictional galaxies of my childhood was the one depicted in the original Star Wars film trilogy, where people who looked like humans mixed with people who looked like aliens and people who looked like robots.

The people who looked like robots were kept by the others as slaves, but that’s a separate issue.

The people who looked like aliens often endured second-class treatment, like how Han gets a medal at the end of Episode IV but Chewbacca doesn’t? What’s up with that? Wookiees don’t get equal treatment from either the Empire or the Rebellion, but that’s also a separate issue.

The main issue covered by the Wired article was how the people who looked like humans were overwhelmingly portrayed by white actors, although there’s no logical reason even within the story why this would have to be the case.

Star Wars actors of color included Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and…and…and…yeah. If you’re feeling generous, you could give James Earl Jones half-credit for providing the voice of Darth Vader’s ventilator, but that’s about it.

After becoming a Star Wars fan, I discovered the original run of Star Trek, which had been produced a decade earlier but remained popular in syndication. The cast included Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, George Takei as Lieutenant Sulu, and…and…and…shoot. The Internet says there was a Doctor M’Benga who popped up in sickbay from time to time, but I’m not a committed enough Trekkie to remember him. I’d score this as two-and-a-half persons of color.

There was that one alien race that was white on the left side and black on the right, and their bitter enemies who were black on the left side and white on the right, but Kirk’s Enterprise otherwise sailed its overwhelmingly white crew through a galaxy of Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans, and other aliens portrayed by overwhelmingly white actors.

Star Wars took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, with human-looking creatures who didn’t share the cultural and evolutionary history of Earth-based humans, but Star Trek represented the optimistic future of humanity in our very own galaxy. At the time it was produced, Star Trek was revolutionary for breaking barriers and pushing boundaries. This was, after all, the show that gave us television’s first interracial kiss. And yet, there were still only two-and-a-half persons of color among the cast.

Then there was Battlestar Galactica–not the remake, which had its own issues, but the original. The ship led an armada of human refugees from the twelve tribes who were related to our own human ancestors, who supposedly came to Earth from space. The show name-checked multiple ancient Earth cultures and showed a special fondness for pyramids, but its cast was overwhelmingly white. Black actors portrayed Lieutenant Boomer, Colonel Tigh, and…and…and…no, just those two.

How is it possible that the one tribe of humans who colonized Earth had so much more diversity than the twelve tribes that stayed behind?

I also got hooked on Doctor Who, which was broadcast on our local PBS station because it was a British import, and therefore culturally superior to the shows on for-profit broadcast channels. Diversity among the companions on old school Doctor Who meant that Jamie could be a Scottish highlander, Turlough could be a ginger, Tegan could be Australian, and Peri could be American, as long as all of them still sported similarly pale skin.

Doctor Who debuted in 1963 and has run since then with a single continuity, give or take the decade-plus of hiatus separating the Classic and Modern Eras. And yet, this show didn’t get its first non-white companions until Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith and Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones, in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

There has not been a non-white, non-male Doctor, even though we’ve seen other Time Lords regenerate across racial and gender lines. The Doctor’s nemesis, the Master, is now calling herself the Mistress, for example. But the Doctor has consciously or subconsciously chosen to remain white and British at least through his first thirteen incarnations.

The show has ranged through all of time and space, including the entirety of human history, but non-white secondary characters in the Classic Era were rare enough to stand out. Like the black ringmaster in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, who, if I recall correctly, spoke in rap lyrics. Or the Chinese villain in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, who was portrayed by a white actor in yellow-face.

Then there’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which became a TV series in the late 1970s. Buck Rogers had…who? Tigerman? That’s one, I guess, and even that represented a huge step forward from its source material as a 1920s pulp novella with some jaw-dropping anti-Asian racism.

So here’s the final score:

Star Wars Original Trilogy: 1.5 Persons of Color 
Star Trek Original Series: 2.5 Persons of Color
Battlestar Galactica Original Series: 2 Persons of Color
Doctor Who Classic: 0 Persons of Color
Buck Rogers on TV: 1 Person of Color

Passing a “three people of color” test would have required each of these story worlds to introduce up to three additional main characters. Likewise, all would have also failed the “having a gay or transgender character” test, and would have done poorly in the “portrayal of women” test as well.

The franchises that are still active have become more diverse over time, but all of them failed the children of my generation. There were a total of seven characters of color in five of the most popular science fiction story worlds of the time, combined. These were: a high-tech phone operator, a helmsman, a part-time doctor, a smuggler-turned-businessman, the audible half of a villain, two military middle-managers, and a living punching-bag. Sidekicks, helpers, and villains.

The only black starship captain I ever saw on TV as a kid was Daffy Duck as “Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-half Century.”

So here I am as a writer of today, with a responsibility to capture all the wonder and imagination of my favorite genre and transmit it to a new generation of readers. This can’t be done without reaching back to the beloved stories I grew up with and recognizing their flaws. And then, fixing them.

In my Galaxy Games series, Earth enters a team of kids in the greatest sports tournament in the universe. If I’d have picked this book up as a child in the 1970s or 80s, it would have starred a white boy leading a team that begrudgingly included three obligatory characters of color and exactly one girl. Otherwise, it would never have gotten published.

Thankfully, that is no longer the case.

Logic dictates that a team representing Earth has to represent all of Earth. Anything less weakens the story, waters down the characters, and impoverishes the story world.

When there three persons of color or fewer in a story galaxy, each character has to bear the weight of every person who shares a culture or skin type. Even Lando Calrissian couldn’t bear that kind of pressure without tending toward caricature or stereotype.

With more characters who are similar in one way but different in others, there can be more balance. More nuance. More characters who only have to represent themselves. More chances for a reader to see him or herself in the story.