by Shannon Stocker
If you’ve attended any SCBWI conference or followed writers on Twitter for longer than a minute, you’ve probably heard the message loud and clear.
Write what you know.
Know what you write.
We need #OwnVoices.
The push for diversity is strong, vital, and long overdue in the picture book world. I challenge you to go to any bookstore or library and pull books off the shelf, separating them by the protagonist’s race. Despite the recent push for #OwnVoices, over 50% of the books printed in 2018 depicted white characters.
Considering that the other 50% includes characters that are every other race as well as animals, crayons, vehicles, letters, and anything else inanimate or not human, you can see that we still aren’t where we need to be.
Granted, we’ve come a long way. In 2015, over 73% of picture books featured white characters.
Not exactly representative of the world in which we live.
In 2018, I really wanted to write a nonfiction picture book biography about Aretha Franklin. As a musician who used to close shows with her song Respect, I admired so much more than her voice. Her songwriting skills, her piano talents, her civil rights activism…when I was little, I wanted to be Aretha. So when she passed away in 2018, I thought, “Do it. Write her story.”
Then I attended SCBWI Midsouth and Cheryl Klein burst my bubble.
Someone asked, “How can you best write from the point of view of someone who’s a different race?” I leaned forward on the edge of my seat and curled my hands over the keys of my laptop, prepared to feverishly type her every word. And you know what she said?
“Don’t,” she said. “If you’re white, don’t make your protagonist black. Don’t make them Latino. Because you can’t know that voice.”
She went on to talk about the importance of the #OwnVoices movement. Now, not every editor will agree with her, certainly, but she was firm in her convictions. And it got me thinking.
I wanted so badly to write Aretha’s story, but now I felt stymied. I’m white…but I’m so passionate about Aretha.
And then it hit me. One of the reasons I’m passionate about Aretha is because…I am a musician.
My mind whirred. At the time, I was between agents. I hadn’t sold a book in almost two years. The last thing I wanted was to pour myself into a manuscript that no one would even open because they thought I was telling a story that would be told better by someone else.
So, I thought, whose story could I tell better than anyone else?
The idea struck like thunder.
I spent seven years actively battling illness, two of them walking with a cane or in a wheelchair. Although I’m now in remission, those years changed me. I can still picture the way people looked away from me in the airport. The discomfort on the faces of passing strangers who wouldn’t make eye contact. The sting of that kind of isolation doesn’t fade away.
So how could I use that experience to write a story that might help others?
My very first Google search for “disabled musicians” brought me to deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. I watched her documentaries, listened to her interviews, played her music, and just knew.
Hers was a story that I could write.
That I needed to write.
Within a month of interviewing Evelyn, that story wrote itself, went to Acquisitions at its first house, and brought me interest from five agents. Less than two months after writing the story, it sold to Dial.
So how can you apply this to your life? How can you turn #OwnVoices into your #OwnSuccessStory?
Get out a piece of paper. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now, make a list of things that you love. Subjects you’ve studied. Hobbies you’ve had for years. Instruments you play. Foods you cook.
What are you good at? Write it all down. What makes you different? Are you a redhead? Jewish? ADHD? Color blind? Write it down.
What makes you YOU?
Write it aaallllllll down.
Then, go through this list and ask yourself—which of those things make you happy? Which of those things are you passionate about? Which of those things makes you relatable?
Maybe, instead of listing everything at once, you can write a new passion each day along with your StoryStorm idea. Or maybe one of every five ideas can include something about which you’re passionate. But find a way to weave the things you love into your stories.
If you write from a place of passion, your reader will know. They will feel it. Racial diversity is certainly a major part of the movement, but #OwnVoices isn’t just about racial diversity.
It’s about owning your voice.
So write what you know.
Know what you write.
And own your voice. The world is just waiting to hear it.
Shannon Stocker is an award-winning author and proud word nerd who lives in Louisville, KY, with her husband, Greg, and their children, Cassidy and Tye. Her debut picture book, CAN U SAVE THE DAY (Sleeping Bear Press), released in 2019, her nonfiction PB bio about Evelyn Glennie entitled LISTEN: HOW ONE DEAF GIRL CHANGED PERCUSSION comes out with Dial (Penguin/Random House) in 2022, and several of Shannon’s nonfiction essays have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul. Shannon currently serves as SCBWI social co-director for Louisville, a judge for Rate Your Story, and she created the blog series, Pivotal Moments: inHERview, highlighting transitional life stories of female picture book authors. Cool facts: Currently writing her memoir, Shannon is a medical school graduate, a coma survivor, an RSD/CRPS patient and advocate, and a singer/songwriter who once performed two songs, including one original, as part of an opening act for Blake Shelton. Shannon is represented by Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio.
Visit Shannon at shannonstocker.com, Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @iwriteforkidz and Instagram @iwriteforkidz.
Shannon is giving away a copy of her debut CAN U SAVE THE DAY and a 30-minute Skype consultation (to discuss your writing career, writing in verse, a particular manuscript, whatever you’d like). Two separate winners will be selected.
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