Friday, November 15, 2013

Diversity, Authenticity, and Kindred Spirits: Thoughts from Kidlitcon 2013

I had the most inspiring, enlightening, empowering, and yes, fun, weekend. That's right — I was at Kidlitcon 2013 Austin, or as Sherry Early called it, the "Austin Kindred Spirits KidLit conference."

Kidlitcon has always been a small conference, and that's part of its appeal. This year was even smaller in terms of attendance numbers than the last few, but what it lacked in size it made up for in heart, spirit,  and community. I felt that the smaller size was an advantage; I think I talked to everyone there at some point, and all of us there formed such a strong connection.

It would be impossible to try to recap everything about the conference, so I'm just going to hit some of the highlights. For more recaps of Kidlitcon, see the round-up post on the Kidlitosphere.org website.

Themes

Several themes recurred throughout the conference:

Kindred Spirits

I'm not sure if the actual words "Kindred Spirits" came up until the final session, when Sarah Stevenson asked everyone for one or two words that summarized what the Kidlitosphere meant, but the feeling was definitely there throughout the conference. We all felt an instant connection created by a shared passion. I think it was Jen Robinson who said that what makes us different as a community is that we all care deeply about children and reading, and so we connect on a deeper level than other blogger groups, whose primary connection is about the blogging and financial aspects.

Authenticity

From the keynote speech by Cynthia Leitich Smith to the last words in the "Past, Present, and Future of Blogging" session, authenticity was an idea that came up over and over again. Our authenticity as bloggers and/or as writers, authenticity of characters in books, and our authenticity as a community.

Diversity

Diversity was another topic that resounded throughout the conference, not only in the sessions but in many conversations over meals, at the hotel bar, and anywhere else we happened to be. Lee Wind challenged us to be upstanders, not bystanders, and Cynthia Leitich Smith said that it's essential to let the powers-that-be know that there are loud booklovers. Lee had some eye-opening statistics, such as that 24% of the U.S. population are Latino, but only 1.1% of books have Latino characters. I think that everyone at the conference cares deeply about making sure that as many kids as possible find books that are "mirrors" and "windows," but it's clear we have a long way to go to get there, and that we bloggers, as a public voice for children's lit, have a responsibility to call out both good and not-so-good examples of diversity.

One thing that really struck me is how diversity, true diversity, is not about representing "groups," but about representing authentic (there's that word again) individuals. Lee talked about how we are all made up of hundreds or thousands of characteristics, and none of us are any one thing, yet too many books have "the" gay, "the" black, "the" Asian character. Charlotte Taylor said in her session that "Every child is a different target audience," and I think that's an important thing to keep in mind. Every child is different, so the more different, authentic, diverse individuals there are in literature, the better chance a child will find books that they can relate to.

People

The people were the best thing about the conference. It was great seeing old friends, and I met such wonderful and interesting new people. I wanted to try to mention everyone, but I'm afraid I'll miss someone, and I don't want to make this too long. So I just want to post a few special shoutouts:
  • To MotherReader Pam Coughlan, for being such a terrific host. As an extrovert in a group of mostly introverts, she was the glue that held us together.
  • To Jackie Parker-Robinson and Tanita Davis, and anyone else who helped with the planning but couldn't attend. I can't imagine anything worse! Thank you, thank you, to everyone who worked to make this conference a success.
  • To Charlotte Taylor, a special friend who is incredibly funny and intelligent. I enjoyed hanging out with you and comparing books on the flight back. I hope I didn't talk your ear off.
  • To my roommate Maureen Kearney, who was as great a roomie as you could ask for. We both gave each other space when we needed down time after the excitement of the day. Even if she was playing Candy Crush when I thought she was reading.
  • To Jen Robinson and Sarah Stevenson, who have been Kindred Spirits for a long time.
  • To Lee Wind, for being funny and fun and for your special talent for making people feel at ease. And for reminding us how important it is to be upstanders, not bystanders.
  • To Sherry Early and Camille Powell, both longtime friends online whom I finally met in person.
  • To Molly Blaisdell, who was a fascinating person. I learned a lot from listening to her.
  • To Allie Jones, for sparkling dinnertime conversation
  • To everyone else! This list is already longer than I meant it to be, and I feel bad about the people I didn't mention.

Thoughts and Quotes from the Sessions

I wanted to end with some of the thoughts and quotes that came out of the sessions. I culled these from Twitter, so some may not be exact quotes. I apologize in advance if I made any mistakes. Thanks especially to Melissa Fox, Maureen Kearney, and Jen Robinson for live-tweeting so much of the conference. 

What happens at kidlitcon13 stays at kidlitcon13.
—Pam Coughlan
We're passionate and with passion comes peril.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
Blogs are a battlefield, but pick your battles and pick them wisely.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
Diversity: "Finding yourself on a library shelf."
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
Diversity: Letting the "powers that be" know that there are loud booklovers is essential.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
Authors don't want to do it wrong, so they avoid diversity. "You might make a mistake, but not trying is so much worse."
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
You may write for adults, but if you're writing about Percy Jackson, fourth graders will find you.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
In many ways we just have to take it on faith that we are doing SOME good getting books into the hands of readers.
—Unknown, Blogger Burnout Session
Give yourself permission to NOT do things!
—Sarah Stevenson
No one is just ONE thing.
—Lee Wind
The way you empower a child is to let them know that variety exists. (How better than through books?)
—Lee Wind
Stories/words are powerful, they can challenge stereotypes that people hold dear.
—Lee Wind
what does it mean when you don't see yourself? You feel written out of history.
—Lee Wind
Characteristics of sticky ideas: simple yet profound, surprising, credible, concrete, emotional, relatable.
—Molly Blaisdell
Every kid is a different target audience.
—Charlotte Taylor
Books are not "good and "bad", it's just a matter of finding the right reader for each book.
—Sheila Ruth (me)
You have to trust that, as a reader/blogger, that you DO know what you're talking about.
—Unknown, Critical Reviews Session
Words of kidlitosphere: Community. Literacy. Connection. Opportunity. Kindred spirits.
—All of us

And finally, I wanted to leave you with a thought from Lee Wind that I can't stop thinking about. I feel like this one idea profoundly affected my thinking:

Diversity is not "the other" it's the diversity within ourself, and we are all the other to someone.
—Lee Wind
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