This article was originally posted on the Children's Book Council Diversity Blog in 2015.
“I remember the day that I became colored,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote in How it Feels to be Colored Me. In that essay, she related how she’d never thought much about her own skin color until she turned fourteen and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where she encountered discrimination that transformed her from “Zora of Orange County” to “the little colored girl.”
I first read that essay when I was in college, and it blew my mind out of my ears and onto the pile of pizza boxes in the corner of my dorm room. I’d never imagined that experience for anyone. What was it like to have your identity redefined into a category you never knew existed? What was it like to go from just being a girl to being “just a girl”? To go from being one of the guys to being “one of those guys”? To realize that, no matter your achievements or accomplishments, people would first notice the color of your skin?
Years later, I would understand that the very fact I’d only just then been exposed to those feelings was, in itself, a similarly defining revelation. Having the freedom to live without such discrimination and restriction is the essence of Privilege, as is being blissfully unaware of what the heck Privilege is and how it affects life (you might recognize that state of being from its proliferation on Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and Facebook).
When I decided to write The Troubles of Johnny Cannon, I hoped to open the eyes of middle-school readers to the reality I didn’t see until I was an adult. I had been thinking about the “default protagonist” in literature, i.e. the Straight-White-Male character that we often imagine until a rogue character description informs us otherwise. And when that darn character description tells us the character is not straight, or not white, or not male, we expect the story to be about what it’s like to not be the default character.
In other words, Diverse Characters often teach the reader what it’s like to be different, while Straight-White Characters get to go on any adventure they want and happily ignore their own state of being.
And so, like Kristoff when he almost told Olaf what happens to snowmen in summer, I felt compelled to clue the little white guy in on how the world really works.
When Johnny’s story begins, he has it pretty bad. He lives in poverty. He’s in a single parent home. His father is disabled. He doesn’t fit in at school, doesn’t know how to talk to his dream girl, and can’t stay out of trouble to save his life (hence the name of the book, right?). If you told Johnny that he was privileged, he’d laugh in your face. “If I’m privileged,” he’d probably say, “then whoever ain’t privileged is better off dead and buried.”
But everything changes when he is forced to befriend his African American neighbor, Willie Parkins, and realizes there’s a difference between privilege and prosperity.
As a minister’s son with both parents, Willie ought to be better off than Johnny, but he’s not, and it doesn’t make sense. Johnny is as poor as Job’s turkey, but he can go into any place of business even if he can’t afford anything. Johnny has to hunt for his food, but at least the community trusts him with a gun. Johnny gets into fights at school, but when they’re over he doesn’t have to hear about how violent his kind of people are.
The unexplainable disparity between them helps Johnny finally see the world he’s in for what it is. Like it or not, this is a world in which the cards are stacked in favor of Straight-White-Male characters.
And so, in the midst of all his other troubles, Johnny encounters one he can’t fix, and that’s kind of the point. The story isn’t about turning Johnny into a Civil Rights Messiah, swooping in and making the world better for minorities. That would be counterproductive. Instead, the point of the story is to help Johnny, and hopefully the reader, learn empathy. In middle-school.
Empathetic middle-school students. What will the world think of next?
Special thanks to the Children's Book Council for the opportunity to write a guest blog.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Some great reviews have come out for AbrakaPOW, and I'd like to share them with you guys. First up, the review from Kirkus Reviews:
An aspiring young magician relocates to a camp for German prisoners of war in Abilene, Texas, in 1944 and inadvertently becomes part of a prisoner escape.
A native New Yorker, 11-year-old Max, her mother, and her ferret, Houdini, move to Camp Barkeley, where Max’s father’s in charge of captured German soldiers. White, Jewish Max doesn’t understand why her father’s “babysitting the Nazis.” Max muses to herself that “finding a kindred spirit here in cowboy land would be a magic trick even I wouldn’t believe.” Her smart mouth and superior attitude alienate classmates until the Gremlins, a group of misfits, adopt her. A prisoner named Felix convinces Max’s father to let her entertain prisoners with a magic show, and she accepts Felix’s offer to be in the final, vanishing act. When Felix disappears and other prisoners escape through a tunnel, Max feels responsible and participates in a series of dangerous plots to capture the escapees. Based on a real prisoner escape at the historic Camp Barkeley, this fictionalized version teems with kid pranks, friendly enemies, deceptive friends, and wartime xenophobia, all held together by a pushy heroine who “brings the magic.”
Illustrated magic tricks add hands-on entertainment.
All the excitement, surprises, and tricks of a magic show.Next up, the review from the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books:
Orders are orders, and even the best of Maxine’s magic tricks can’t disappear the commands from the U.S. government that have her family moving to Texas so her father, Major Larousse, can oversee a Nazi POW camp. Even at eleven, Maxine’s a pretty darn good illusionist, and her skills with sleight of hand garner attention from two surprising places. A misfit group called the Gremlins wants Max to prank the school’s golden girl, but even more intriguing—and somewhat frightening—is the notice by Felix, a German inmate who shares Max’s affinity for magic tricks. When her dad asks her to perform a magic show for the prisoners, she and the Gremlins pull out all the stops, but it’s Felix’s vanishing act—and that of eleven other prisoners—that steals the spotlight. Escaped Nazis aren’t usually fodder for comedy, but Campbell manages a deft balancing act, with a third-person narration that moves from droll wit to a more serious tone. Spunky Maxine and her friends are kids of their time, with Maxine referring to her Japanese-American friend as an “Oriental cowboy” and another girl referencing “devil-worshipping Jews.” Contemporary youngsters will nonetheless sympathize with her school dilemma, and she’s a relatable character. Maxine’s father and Felix are well drawn supporting roles, each recognizing a fellow soldier in the other. The rosy ending requires more than smoke and mirrors to be realistic, but it’s nonetheless satisfying. For aspiring Houdinis, comic-strip-formatted instructions for various magic tricks are interspersed throughout the chapters.I'll update this post as more reviews become available.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
The first promo video for AbrakaPOW is HERE! Watch it and let me know what you think. Then go preorder the book through one of the many booksellers you can find online. (Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookstore)
Anyway, here's the promo video!