Books and Stories · The World We Live In

Through the Magnifying Glass: Racism in Beloved Books

I have been thinking about and writing this post for about a month and a half. As a reader, parent, and writer, it’s one of the biggest elephants in the room when it comes to books. Racism and xenophobia are prevalent amongst some of my favorite authors, but what do we do about it? Chuck them in the burning pile?

This post really began back in March when I read L.M. Montgomery’s Further Chronicles of Avonlea. I have read and loved many of her books, but this one short story collection I hadn’t read before. In it I revisited not just one of my favorite author’s delightful writing style, but prejudices and xenophobia as well.

At the end of the book, full of Montgomery’s humorous mishaps, reunited lovers, and a few other items that belong in their own class, Tannis of the Flats is the tale of a woman in the wilds of Canadian frontier who falls in love with the man who spurns her for a Canadian-born woman.

Oh my.

If I wasn’t aware of Montgomery’s xenophobia before (such as Marilla’s insistence that they only get a Canadian boy, and I’m paraphrasing), this story couldn’t leave anyone in the dark. In the small town where the story takes place, the native peoples are called breeds, or half-breeds if their origin is mixed. There is the stereotypically lazy, no-good native man. Tannis is the ‘heroine’ of the story, referred to as a ‘half-breed’, and has been distinguished by some education in Prince Albert, but it has only served to add

[…] a very thin, but very deceptive, veneer of culture and civilization overlaying the primitive passions and ideas of her nature.

The next paragraph is worse and further illustrates the fact that even a good education cannot make one of these “breeds” into a respectable person, and that their intelligence and value is already determined by their ancestry. They are not the white person’s equal.

Notice how the white woman in the story, at her point of choice, is portrayed:

The good, old Island blood in Elinor’s veins showed to some purpose. “Yes,” she answered firmly. “No, Tom, don’t object-I must go. Get my horse-and yours.”

I’m not sure if that “Island blood” is Great Britain or P.E.I.(probably Great Britain), but it makes the point.

Tannis is the hero of the story, not primarily because of her deeds, but because she overcomes her nature, her ethnicity, which is apparently the source of her evilness:

In a white woman, the deed would have been commendable. In Tannis of the Flats, with her ancestry and tradition, it was lofty self-sacrifice.

Anybody ever said that about a white person’s ancestry? With the possible exceptions of references to socio-economic class, I don’t think so.

Now the first time or two I read Anne of Green Gables, Marilla’s comments went over my head. That’s not really surprising as I’m privileged, and it took a few more obvious examples of racism for me to pick up on it in Montgomery’s stories. I think it was Alicia Montressor from the story “The Red Room” in Among the Shadows that first opened my eyes. The brooding Italian boy Neil Gordon in Kilmeny of the Orchard is another glaring example.

You know the saying, the victor writes the history? I’d say the same is true for much of literature.

Little House in the Big Woods and all Laura Ingalls Wilders’ books hold a place in my heart as the first novels I ever read. Pa and Ma’s pioneer spirit is admirable and inspiring. But what kind of language is used to describe the Native Americans? It’s the kind that caused her name to be removed from a children’s literature award.

I love many of the characters in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, but have you noticed that an entire nation marked as the enemies of Aslan’s country are identified by their brown skin and culture reminiscent of Middle Eastern countries?

Likewise, the breathtakingly vast and detailed world of Middle Earth inspires many imaginations including mine. But what about the fact that, again, many of the human-like enemies of the good guys (who also happen to be referred to as “Men of the West”) are dark-skinned?

Sometimes people say that these authors were simply a product of their time, and we shouldn’t take these elements too seriously. If Montgomery and Tolkien are products of their time, well, so are we. Today, we know better. Try putting yourself in the shoes of someone of a different culture or with darker skin than yours and then try not to take seriously the fact that books with protagonists like you seem to be the development of recent decades or less, rather than centuries. Try to overlook the fact that most books written about people of color aren’t actually written by people of color.

As a mother and reader, I can think of two things we can do to address this. First of all, welcome and pursue people of different backgrounds. On social media, in stories, person to person. Listen to their voices. It’s not something to check off our list. And obviously you don’t have to be either a mother or a reader to do these things!

Secondly, I think we need to employ critical thinking skills when we read. I’m not going to hide Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books from my children. I’m not going to throw out Tolkien, Lewis, or Montgomery. But understanding how characters are portrayed is important. Understanding cultural context from the author’s point, even in fantasy worlds, is important. My friend and elementary teacher Tamara Russell offers three simple questions to consider when it comes to the voices present in any story. Even if you are not a teacher, you’ll find this (and her blog) to be informative and challenging.

You guys, I still have so much to learn. Sometimes I’m terrified of saying ‘the wrong thing’. I’ll admit I was sad, deeply grieved, when I began to see evidence of  racism in literature. I’d be lying if I said part of that wasn’t  because it be so much nicer/easier if life were simple and racism weren’t a thing? But it is real, people deal with it daily, and I can’t look away. If Jesus came with a message that included liberty for the captives and oppressed (Luke 4:18-19), then I cannot pretend to be blind to systems of thought and acton that uphold oppression. (There’s a lot to unpack there and I don’t have all my thoughts put together yet, but I’m not arguing that Jesus simply came to improve our life’s conditions. I hope that makes sense, but shoot me a question in the comments if it doesn’t.)

Later I’ll write about how these discoveries are influencing me as a writer. For now, here’s a fantastic article written by a woman and mother of color: Does Race Matter if Books, Like Anne of Green Gables, Touch Your Heart? 

As always, I welcome thoughtful, respectful comments and discussions.

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Books and Stories

Waiting for the Magic by Patricia Maclachlan

My kids and I just finished Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It always feels like an accomplishment to finish a book that big with them! Afterwards, I was more than ready for a shorter read-aloud. I picked up Waiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachlan from the library.

Patricia MacLachlan is probably best known for Sarah, Plain and Tall. This story has its similarities: two siblings grapple with a missing parent. In Waiting for the Magic, the older brother, William, is the protagonist. The missing parent is the father, who has left the family for an unknown period of time. MacLachlan treats a difficult topic with just the right amount of gravity and gentle prose, and ties up the story with a neat, happy ending, which children may or may not be able to relate to.

The four dogs and one cat in the story provide much of the humor, along with Eleanor, William’s little sister. MacLachlan writes Eleanor’s dialogue like you’d expect a four-year-old to talk without being cliché-ic or annoying, and she gives the dogs and cat their voices without falling into some of the worn-out ‘talking pet’ themes in many books and movies. All of this illustrates and provides contrast for, rather than detracts from, William’s own internal struggles.

This sweet story belies MacLachlan’s skill for conveying childhood struggles through simple words and actions. I think, as a read-aloud, it might require a bit of audience awareness, because children who have experienced a parent walking out on them might find this story to be a reminder of how it didn’t turn out for them. Otherwise, I’d recommend it for sure.

A Writer's Journey

Writing Personalities: Introverts & Extroverts

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Happy Friday! In collaboration with other lovely writers, I’m answering some questions today related to introversion/extroversion dichotomy and my writing. I decided to stick to the Q & A format. Be sure to read the other bloggers’ posts at the end of this one!

  1. Are you an extrovert or an introvert?

  2. Introvert!
  3. What stigmas have you come across with your personality type in life?

I’m not sure I’ve personally experienced anybody associating any stigmas directly with my introverted self. It’s been more like people shaking their heads because I expressed a need to be alone. *Chuckle*

3.  Do you view your introversion/extroversion as a help or a hindrance?

I think both have their advantages and disadvantages. Introversion most often feels like a hindrance when I consider the energy output certain tasks require. And as a parent with young children, I have to weigh and plan so that I don’t burn out during the day without some sort of downtime space for us all, so that I can make it through bedtime. Simple outings can be exhausting. Part of that is just the stage of parenting Mike and I are in. (No doubt both extraverted and introverted parents can relate to that in one shape or another.)

On the plus side, I am never ever bored when I’m alone. My imagination is vast and complex, which feeds my writing.

4.  What stigmas have you come across, specifically in the writing community, in terms of your extroversion/introversion?

The deck seems to be stacked in favor of introverts here. Much of the writing community seems to be geared towards introverts; we might even be the dominant half of the writing world in terms of percentage. I personally have not come across any stigmas, other than the general stereotypes such as the dramatic artist or the starving artist, and most of those are applied by those outside looking in. However, we all know that while those stereotypes aren’t complete, but they can be part of the writing life!

Just ask me about why I considered driving a garbage truck as a career option yesterday. Hint: it’s not because I love garbage trucks.

5. How would you say your introversion/extroversion affects your writing? Does this have a positive or negative effect on you as a writer?

Well, I don’t need environments like coffee shops to get my best work done, so I love writing at home. In fact I’m too easily distracted/drained if I write anywhere but home.  I think and work best in quiet, so that can also be hard to find in a household of six, but it’s possible to find the time. And it can be recharging for me.

6.  Do you write characters with a similar personality type? If not, how do you write characters with a differing personality?

I try to write different character types. My current protagonist is so much like me, though. I didn’t mean to do that, and when I kept discovering our similarities, even my attempts to change her didn’t work. She’s just too real and wants to be who she is too much for me to fight it now. So, I embraced it. With other drafts I wrote last year, I intentionally researched and made choices about my characters’ personalities before I wrote. It helped.

7.  Does your personality affect which genre you write in?

I hadn’t thought of this before. I think it’s more my imagination that affects my genre choice here. My imagination is too big and sprawling to not make up my own new worlds, so I gravitate towards fantasy.

8.  How are your storylines affected by your extroversion/introversion?

This may or may not have anything to do with it, but I haven’t yet attempted an epic with multiple main characters. I’m having a hard enough time getting the events straight for my one protagonist!

9.  How does your introversion/extroversion help or hinder your marketing of yourself as a writer? What challenges or benefits does this create?

Navigating social media has its challenges for me as an introvert. Even though it’s not face to face interacting, engaging on line feels overwhelming and exhausting at times. In order to really connect with future readers and be genuine, I’m trying to cut back on pointless scrolling (which helps no one) so I can be intentional when I’m on Instagram. I haven’t been on Facebook much since last year. For me, it’s about pacing myself and learning, but being content for now with slow growth. However, I really want my stories to genuinely touch people’s lives, and I dream about the day someone tells me that my book had an impact on them. That will be the day.

Do you think your extroversion or introversion influences your writing? If so, how?

This blog was a collaboration with other bloggers. You can read their take on this subject at their blogs:

Jaq Abergas
A Writer's Journey

Revisited: The Wood Between Worlds

Hello there! I’m sharing this post from June 2015, when we said goodbye to our home for several months. This morning we said goodbye to Central Florida again, perhaps for good. As we greet this next adventure, I thought I’d revisit this place and the solace I’ve found there in the past. June is a time of transition for us. I will always remember this place with gratitude, and many others. The words at the end of this post ring true once again. 

Past the playground, around the “sandbox”(aka volleyball court), past the dock, towards the trees that rustle with the perpetual breeze from the water, the sidewalk winds its way out of sight. The kids and I have enjoyed this park for a couple of years.  How has it taken me this long to find this little bit of solitude?


The other day this park was my sanctuary when I needed a few minutes to regroup. I started walking towards the pond, but there was a party nearby. So I turned right down the sidewalk. That’s when I found it.

It was just what I needed. When I can’t do anything because it’s been so long since I had any solitude that I can’t even hear myself think, this is where I find quiet.

A place where I can bid my heart be still

And it will mind me

A place where I can go when I am lost

And there I’ll find me.
(“The Girl I Mean to Be” from The Secret Garden.)


When I returned from the walk, the pond reflected a brooding sky, and the breeze had picked up, rustling the water into agitation. Change is coming, warned the wind. You entered the woods and have returned to a different atmosphere. Soon you’ll be in a different place altogether.


I love this little wood between the worlds. Though I am leaving it soon, I can only imagine the new secret places I will find in the next few months. They are sure to be worth discovering.

My little adventurers love it too. They have their own new stories ahead of them.
Books and Stories

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander

Theo goes on the run when an attack destroys his master’s printing press and kills his master. Now a fugitive from the law, he travels through the country of Westmark, falling in with a con man, a revolutionary, and a girl with a gift for mimicking voices. Against the backdrop of growing political unrest, Theo wrestles with his own motives and actions: is he as good as he thinks he is, or is he a coward? Where does he stand in rising tumult?

Westmark is Lloyd Alexander’s first book of the trilogy by the same name. Plot driven, this is one of his largest and most complex casts of characters. Westmark is a land where cruelty and corruption have left their gruesome marks, making it one of Alexander’s darker books for young people. Despite this, Westmark showcases the author’s humor and clever turns of phrase, if somewhat less so than in his other books.

This short book packs a lot into its pages. As always, Alexander’s prose is sparse and vivid. Fans of well-developed inner conflict, action, and epic-type plots will enjoy Westmark. I’m looking forward to tracking down the other two books, The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen, this summer.

For a peek at a few of Alexander’s other books, read  this post about Tamar of  The Iron Ring. This post also has a few lines about The Arkadians and The Illyrian Adventure.

 

A Writer's Journey

Guest Post at Ink & Grace Editing

Remember how I planned to revise my novel in January, then I changed my mind? And then I changed my mind again. Recently I had the honor of guest posting over at Ink & Grace Editing. Read below and follow the link to read about what kept me back, and what pushed me forward. Can you relate? Let me know!

Do you ever find it difficult to pick one writing project? After a year of practicing short stories, flash fiction and poetry, I knew that 2018 was my year to tackle a longer project. The problem was, I had four of them waiting to be finished, and I was in agony over which one to pick.

These projects included two novels and two short story collections I wanted to expand and revise. Of all these, my darling was the YA fantasy novel I’d begun five years ago. I really wanted to return to it. But it just felt so big. And scary.

Read the rest of the post at Ink & Grace Editing.

A Writer's Journey

A Creative Process

Recently, a dear friend and writer asked me what my creative process looks like. I had to think about if for a while since it’s not something I’d ever defined before. Thinking about this process has highlighted some important elements for me, and maybe you can relate.

The first thing I realized about my creative process is that writing, like most things I do, is an intuitive process. So far my stories have begun with either a character or a setting.

With a character, I usually see an image or ask a ‘what if’ question. What if so and so actually did this instead? What if it this character is more than meets the eye? Or, as in the rough draft of a short novel I wrote last year Fences and Forest, if I can imagine a character whose personality is almost opposite of mine, what would he/she do? Most of my questions about characters put a spin on something familiar to me.

Little maps I’ve sketched become places of interest. Who lives here? What are the tensions and friendships that exist between them? Whose secrets will come to light? How will these secrets impact others? These are the kinds of questions that drive me to write about these places. Whether I start with a character or a setting, writing starts with getting curious about them and exploring their stories.

After I’ve written a draft, I sit back and read with a slightly critical eye. Without fail, I discover that it contains an element of therapy for me. That means that I have unintentionally begun to process a life event through the story. I have not yet chosen which life event before I start a story. Even in the stories where I tried to avoid that by choosing a polar opposite character from myself, I still managed to draw significant parallels between transitions in my life and my protagonist’s story.

Since this cannot be escaped, I can develop it into an asset. In fact, it is an asset. Some of my favorite stories are ones in which I can draw multiple parallels between the plot and my own life events. I know I’m not the only reader who feels that way, either. So by tapping into this process, it can help create resonance with my readers. Resonance reaches people like few story elements can. (See this article.)

At some point in writing, I take a break from the story to gain a fresh perspective. It might be a day. It might be a year, as in the case of last year and my longest-running project. I have certainly found this to be helpful and I always gain something from this break that improves my story.

In finishing the story, I always try to get feedback first if it’s something I want to publish. Writing can be a solitary endeavor. That is necessary, but writing and the writer need community. Asking for feedback is a great way to invite a trusted writing buddy or even non-writing friend into the creative process.

Ultimately, the stories that I find most rewarding to write are the ones that end on a hopeful note. Not perfectly, not neatly. The protagonist doesn’t get everything she or he wants. In fact, it’s often when characters face loss and hardship that we as readers connect with them the most. It’s how they face, overcome, or grow in the midst of these challenges that inspires readers. That’s one reason I love writing stories. I want to acknowledge my Creator in them, and I don’t want to use Christianeze. (In fact, I joke that I’m allergic to it.) Stories teach in a way that teaching and sermons can’t. Stories can take facets of invisible realities and offer them in a different light.

For me, the creative process will always be linked to hope. Redemptive, creative, fragile yet resilient, hope.

Have you ever thought about your creative process?What does that look like for you? I’d love to hear!

Books and Stories · The World We Live In

Phyllis Wheatley

(I know today is President’s Day, but in honor of Black History Month, I wanted to share a bit about this remarkable woman.)

The last time we went to the library, I found a fantastic book for kids on Black History Month and brought it home. I plan on reading some of it with them today since they’re off from school. One of the first people I looked for was Phyllis Wheatley, America’s first female African poet. I had been introduced to her beautifully stirring poetry last year. America’s Black Founders by Nancy I. Sanders provides a few brief but vivid insights into the poet’s life and times.

Phyllis Wheatley was separated from her family and enslaved in America as a young child. Intelligent and creative, her short life was full of unusual triumphs and devastating hardships.

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She wrote poetry inspired by religious subjects and nature, including several poems addressed to people who had lost loved ones. Her first poem was published when she was a young teen. Not many years later, an entire book of her poetry was published. She corresponded with abolitionists and became friends with them, playing a role in the fight for the freedom she did not know herself in her entrance to the country. Phyllis eventually gained her freedom and married, but even as a published poet, their lives were anything but illustrious or comfortable. Indeed, the skill and feeling that endure in her poems illustrate the kind of faith and vigor that must have sustained her in a painful and obstacle-filled life.

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You can read more about Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry, her involvement in abolition and her family, here.

Maybe in light of the fact that it is President’s Day, learning about these unsung, forgotten heroes who fought so hard for our country is just what America needs.

 

A Writer's Journey

2018 Writing Goals

Not all who wander are lost, but some of us have a hard time picking a path to begin with. 😉

There are few things as exciting as a new year and new writing goals! At the start of 2018, I had the bare bones of one children’s novel, the fourth or fifth draft of an older novel, and two collections of short stories. They all need revisions and I want to look into publishing one of them too this year.

My biggest question was how far will I go with The Ravine, my oldest novel? I took a break from it last year. I don’t know about you, but I love starting new stories more than I love finishing them. (ahem.) But The Ravine deserves attention. I need to finish something-right? Would this be the year to pursue finishing it, maybe even self-publishing? The research I’ve done revealed tons of resources on self-publishing and stories of writers who completed that process well within a year.

Wow. A novel of mine, actually completed AND published?! Sounds good! Sounds amazing, actually!

The more I researched, though, the more my choice became clear: self-publication-at least for a novel in need of much work-is too big a chunk for this year. Right around New Year’s, my husband and I had to make some quick, life-altering decisions that will result in rapid-fire changes over the summer. Our lives will be in a state of flux for three or four months, maybe longer. Trying to revise, edit, AND publish a novel in one year started to sound life-draining.

So! After vacillating hilariously all January over what to do which month, I finally recognized what was holding me back from choosing a project to start on. It boiled down to two things.

The first was fear of missing out. What if I should be revising that short story right now instead? But if I do that, what if The Ravine isn’t getting the attention it deserves? How can I neglect my poor characters for another month?! Woe is me!

I know. Saying it out loud gave me a chuckle too.

If you have this problem too, and there seems to be no imposed rhyme or reason to project deadlines, then repeat with me: these projects aren’t going anywhere. The rest will still be waiting for you when you finish one. Bonus: you’ll finish one! Or at least bring it to the next stage, and that’s saying something. Importance of hard work aside, we aren’t what we produce.

The other reason for my chronic hesitation is that, as I mentioned, I love writing more than revisions (certainly more than editing, yuck!). Hence the always starting something new. Months of solid revision sound, well, painfully boring.

So here is the solution I’ve come up with: I”ll set a time to revise and a reward for myself. You can do it too, whether it’s a number of minutes in a day, a chapter a week, etc. Pick small weekly and monthly rewards. Right now my goal is to revise one chapter a week. Then my reward will be to write whatever I want afterwards.

Still thinking about that monthly reward. Any suggestions?

What are your goals for 2018? Do you have trouble with indecision or set rewards for yourself? I’m cheering you on!