A while back I heard a presenter talk about a middle-grade book she'd published. It received great reviews. It had some hard things in it, including a traumatic death. Later she happened to meet a member of the Newbery selection committee for the year her book had been published and he commended her on her book. Then he gave her a knowing look and said, "It's really too bad about that one scene." She gathered from his exchange that her book had been considered for the NEWBERY, but the committee was scared away by a traumatic death scene they didn't want to recommend to children everywhere.
I expected her to defend her art, to explain why the story had to end the way it did and to say she didn't care that her creative decision had possibly cost her the most prestigious award in children's literature. Instead she said, "Make sure you really think through every decision you make in your writing." She reminded us that we get to decide where the plot goes and why. She encouraged us to remember our audience and think about what we want to convey to that audience. To her, it wasn't good enough to say that's how the story came to her and she had to remain true to it. Once the rough draft is down, you do have the ability to decide if this is the kind of plot that will please your intended audience and make changes if there's a chance you've gone too far.
I think about this presentation every time someone questions me on why my first novel writes against borders. I had an agent turn me down recently in part because I write about Asians and I'm white. Is my creative decision costing me representation and eventually selling the book? Maybe. I didn't make the decision very deliberately---it's just the way the story came to me. Maybe my main character is Asian because Claudia is secretly still my favorite Baby-Sitters Club character. Or because Valynne Maetani is one of my coolest friends.
Even though I didn't think it through very well, I think my reasons for writing a minority main character draw from something deeper: my values. Having a unique and distinct family heritage and feeling like I both fit in and at times feel isolated are themes that resonate with me.
So today I'm making the deliberate decision to keep my character the way she came to me instead of trying to please or not offend potential audiences. I just hope the next character who comes to me is less controversial. :)
And speaking of Newbery, any advice on how I can be Kate DiCamillo when I grow up? Congrats to all today's ALA winners!