I just returned from my first ever SCBWI annual summer conference, and I left with some wonderful takeaways about diversity and representation in general that align with A Novel Mind's specific vision around neurodiversity in kidlit.
Represent the diversity within diversity
Represent the joy within adversity
Let mental health conditions complicate the plot rather than constitute the plot
There was talk everywhere not just of diversity and representation, but about their refinement and evolution. I sensed a shared vision of diversity and representation becoming more granular, more nuanced, and more integral. Here are some of my key takeaways:
Diversity is not enough- Renee Watson called on the industry to represent the diversity within diversity.
Adversity isn’t the whole story. Meg Medina, Renee Watson and others reminded us to represent the joy within adversity.
These themes showed up with regard to mental health and disability representation as well. Anna Shinoda encouraged authors to let mental health conditions complicate the plot rather than constitute the plot, and hopes to see these main characters break out of contemporary realism and show up (as protagonists, not antagonists) in fantasy, speculative fiction, and other genres.
Agent Molly O'Neill said that any manner of diversity factors can and should work their way into the 2nd or 3rd notes of the next wave of novels, as opposed to staying pigeonholed as “top notes” of “issue books.”
Many emphasized the special power and responsibility authors have to readers. Anna Shinoda noted that with mental health topics, that responsibility can literally be a matter of life or death, as suicide contagion is real and readers of fiction about depression or trauma are often materially vulnerable.
She also announced the launch of Books Change Direction, a new initiative of The Campaign To Change Direction that educates about the importance of responsibly representing mental health and illness in stories, identifies and promotes books and authors that contribute to the culture of mental health, and helps people in need access these books.
Anna Shionda and Meg Medina both emphasized the transformative opportunity that authors have to stand up for themselves (and thus their readers). Our characters can hold people accountable, ask tough questions,and take action in ways we wish we could have as children- and maybe even embolden readers to follow suit.
I got a chance to meet Susan Adrian and Elana K. Arnold, both of whom have generously contributed to this blog, and am the proud owner of signed copies of their respective books! I thought of both of them during Anna Shinoda's talk, as Susan integrated a neurodiverse character into a fantasy world, and through the Bat books, Elana is telling everyday stories in which neurobiological differences complicate - but don't constitute - the plot.
Kate Piliero is an author working towards the publication of picture books that feature neurodiversity with humor and heart. She lives in rural San Diego county with a motley crew that includes a husband, a pair of goofy, wild dogs, a pair of even goofier, wilder kids, and dozens of other pets ranging from fish to fowl to rabbits. When she's not reading or writing picture books she can be found assembling/cursing/purging toys with hundreds of small parts, snowboarding, binge-listening to podcasts, exploring tide pools, or baking layer cakes.
She is also involved in The Messages Project, a wonderful non-profit that helps maintain the bond between incarcerated parents and their children through filmed picture book read-alouds.