Tag Archives: writing

Books with Biracial Characters


images-3In the US census between 2000 and 2010 people identifying as more than one race increased by 32%. It is, by most methods of calculation, the fastest growing racial group in the county and one that also needs representation in children’s books.

I didn’t set out to write a book about a biracial child, but I grew up in a neighborhood that seemed outwardly monocultural. As I got to know my classmates and their families over time, I learned that my neighborhood was far more diverse than it appeared. Several friends spent part of  the year living in the Middle East. I regularly babysat for a family with white and Native Alaskan parents.  One of my childhood friends spent every summer in Japan with his grandparents. He was fluent in Japanese and English, passionate about martial arts, and sometimes misunderstood by classmates who found his pride in his grandparent’s culture silly. He bore a strong resemblance to his American father and I remember watching him, and other biracial classmates, navigate the balance between body language, speech patterns and cultural convictions that set them apart and the convenience of looking white enough to blend in.

In writing a story with a biracial character  and thinking through my childhood experiences with an adult’s perspective I’ve found that biracial characters are magnets for conflict in ways that make them useful for story-making though not easy in the actually living of the biracial experience. Here are some avenues of conflict you might explore if you are considering writing biracial or bicultural characters.

1. “But you don’t look Indian!” I actually heard someone say this to an accomplished Native American author recently and she responded with what I felt was the perfect balance of firm resolve and compassion. It’s a terrible thing to say to someone–essentially, “you are not who you are.” That comment, and a dozen equally offensive variations, confront biracial people regularly. The relentless explaining of your identity is soul-wearying and makes a great plot point because even the most confident and well-nurtured biracial person can develop doubts of ever find a place where they belong.

images-22. “Shouldn’t you be more_____?” Is another phrase a biracial person frequently hears. Many minorities feel a pressure to behave in the expected mold of their culture, the intellectual Jew or the violin playing Korean child or the athletic black teenager, for example. imagesIt is hard enough to live up to the imagined-by-outsiders standard of one community, let alone trying to meet the expectations of two or even several. images-1The burden of living up to an impossible standard makes for great internal conflict in a story.


3. For many biracial people the aspect of their racial and cultural identity that comes to the fore varies with circumstance. So a family might choose to emphasize the heritage that blends most readily with the community at hand. Or the most advantageous one. For example, if the local schools are substandard, and a Jewish day school with better resources is available, then a family might choose to identify more strongly as Jewish and become more observant than they might have otherwise.  For the biracial child this can feel like  playing favorites with one parent over another or one set of grandparents over another. The tension between wanting the advantage the easy racial identity provides and wanting to see justice done for the disadvantaged racial identity is great food for complex story telling

4. I had a fascinating conversation with Pico Iyer a few summers ago about raising biracial and bicultural children. He’s found that both his own kids and those he knows from his many travels are masters of observation and highly attuned to cultural nuance. Not that the insights they have are unavailable to others who take the time to be attentive and make connections, but that the connections others overlook are blindingly obvious to a biracial or bicultural child. A keenly observant child always makes for a more interesting viewpoint character and the kind of observations readily available to the child who straddles a number of cultural groups is particularly valuable.

5. And here’s the tough part (at least from my perspective as a bicultural but not Unknownbiracial person). Often what white people do to acknowledge and respect cultures other than their own is so awkwardly done that it makes matters worse rather then better. The dressing up as pilgrims and indians in one glaring example. Here’s another. I recently heard hip-hop poet Merlyn Hepworth perform a poem about his 8 year old self and the school fiesta. He is Mexican-American and grew up in Idaho, a state well known for active white supremacist groups. Nonetheless, his 2nd grade teacher wanted to  broaden her students’ world view, so they had a class fiesta. Young Merlyn, all excited, asked his abuela to make tortillas, his favorite food. So she did and on fiesta day he brought them all fresh and warm, with the delicious little scorch marks that hand-made tortillas have. He set this treasure on the table alongside an array of Ortega products, Fritos, salsa in a jar, and chips with melted cheddar cheese. His whole class and teacher and school principal came to the table to eat and not one person would touch his grandmother’s tortillas. And for the first time in his young life Merlyn was ashamed to eat them himself. And so the whole event had the opposite effect from the one the teacher intended. She had wanted to celebrate Merlyn’s culture and ended up making him feel ashamed in a way he  hadn’t before and might not have ever been if he hadn’t brought real Mexican food to a pretend fiesta.

Here are just a few stories with biracial characters you might enjoy.

Misad51C5YsK3BLL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_ventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Levy9780688173975

Rain is not my Indian Name
by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones

Operation Redwood 9780385755528by S. Terrell FrenchUnknown

Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon51Q-2FElUvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

I’d love to hear about books that you felt did a good job of representing the biracial experience.  Let me know what books I should be highlighting and I’ll add them to this post and ask the buyer to get them for my bookstore.

When Writers Talk: Podcasts with Middle Grade Authors


Like many of you, I am an overscheduled person. As a way to fit in some work on the craft of writing for children, I’ve recently started listening to podcasts with my favorite authors. It’s been inspiring and thought-provoking, plus it’s really fun. I love getting to hang out with Kate Messner as I’m doing the dishes, Laurel Snyder as I’m driving, or Adam Rex as I’m running. Here are the ones I’ve enjoyed so far. All of these are available through the websites linked below or through iTunes.

This Creative Life by Sara Zarr

This was the first writing podcast I found. Zarr is a Young Adult author, but she interviews a number of middle grade authors, as well, including Varian Johnson and Gene Leun Yang. I love that she asks all of the authors about their writing process and the bumps they’ve encountered along the way. It’s somehow comforting to know that even bestselling authors have their moments of self-doubt and procrastination.

Let’s Get Busy Podcast by Matthew Winner

Winner is an elementary school librarian, and his podcasts are a celebration of books and how they’re made. He interviews picture book authors and illustrators as well as middle grade authors, and uncovers fascinating stories about their research and inspiration. Winner also has a tendency, when excited, to say “oh my word!,” which is incredibly charming.

Brain Burps by Katie Davis

I recently discovered these chatty podcasts with children’s book luminaries. They often have a business bent, on topics like marketing or the effective use of social media.

TED Talks

These aren’t focused on middle grade, of course, but I couldn’t leave this topic without pointing out a few great talks for writers. Mac Barnett has a fantastic talk on wonder and writing for children. Andrew Stanton, the filmmaker who did Wall-E and Toy Story, gives excellent tips on storytelling. Finally, Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on creativity is a classic.

I’d love to hear in the comments about any other writing podcasts you’ve enjoyed. Happy listening!

Katharine Manning writes middle grade novels and has three kids under ten. She reviews middle grade books at Kid Book List. You can find her on Twitter @SuperKate and online at www.katharinemanning.com.  


In Praise of L–O–N–G Books

QWERTY_keyboardWriters conferences, writing magazines, and literary blogs are long on advice for the aspiring writer, and one the things I hear fairly frequently is the admonition to remember that kids don’t have the attention span they used to what with the giddy spin of the internet forever at their finger tips. Kids want fast-paced, gobble them up reads! Or so we hear.

And yet, time and time again the market has proved them wrong. Some of the most popular books in recent memory have been long, including the last four tomes in the Harry Potter series, all the books in the Eragon series, the Wildwood series, the Game of Thrones juggernaut, and many of the Percy Jackson titles. Classics like The Lord of the Rings and the works of Jane Austin have held up rather well in spite of their length.

What’s up with that!? Here are five things that I think make long books particularly appealing to middle grade kids.

1. Middle grade readers have time. Too young to have a job and notBook Ends Beach allowed to roam the neighborhood alone while their folks are at work, the MG reader has hours of time, especially in the summer to dive into a book that really rewards a long stretch of attention.

2. Most long books are long because they carry a reader off into a richly detailed and lavishly described world whether it’s Harry Potter’s Hogwarts or the Hispanola of Treasure Island. Kids who can’t drive, didn’t pick their hometown, their house, or even the sibling they share a room with, love to be swept away.

3. Many long books are fantasy, science fiction, or magical realism, perennial favorites among MG readers.

4. There’s plenty of praise from grownups to be gained from reading a book of weight and substance and there’s plenty of pride in the accomplishment of reading a long story all the way through to the end.

WB Golden Compass5. Among traditionally published books there is pressure from editors to tighten up the story and tell it as economically and gracefully as possible. I tend to have confidence that a traditionally published book that goes on at some length has something worthwhile to say, something that could not be said in a more compact tale. There are masters of the short form who have made a career of writing lean and lovely tales like a long string of pearls, each one a tiny perfection. But many authors at the height of their powers, even if they have written other short books, write a marvelous long story and if they are lucky it stands the test of time.

IMG_1610-3-225x300[1]I am very much hoping Pam Muñoz Ryan’s new book Echo is one of these. I reviewed it on my website.

Here are a few other books kids have liked that approach Moby Dick in length.

Harry Potter and the Cauldron of Fire by JK Rowling

Brisigner by Christopher Paolini

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein

How about you? Do you have a favorite tome? Can you remember the feeling of accomplishment from the first long book you read? Please share in the comments.