Cynthia Leitich Smith is a bestselling, award-winning author of children’s and YA books, a faculty member in the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a board member for We Need Diverse Books, and a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Before trying to write any character outside one’s lived experience, I recommend reading at least 100 books* by authors from that community. One hundred books—to start.
It sounds daunting. It should be daunting. But it’s only a foothold. An opportunity to begin shrugging off societal misconceptions and miseducation. A way to more fully consider an authentic perspective rather than rushing to regurgitate bite-sized nuggets of misrepresentation.
I write both within and across identity elements. My Native fiction—my Muscogee fiction—is what people now call “ownvoice,” written from lived experience. But I’ve also crafted protagonists across race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic class and secondary characters more broadly.
As children’s-YA MFA writing faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I teach my students how to do the same. All writers must stretch beyond our immediate frames of reference, if not with main characters, then at least with our supporting casts. Otherwise, we’ll engage in erasure and fail to portray our diverse world in such a way that young readers find credibility and resonance in our fictive dreams.
That said, the question of whether to craft a protagonist, especially in the first-person point of view, from outside our own perspective is a personal one. It’s a matter of craft, character, and conscience.
The writer who’s not able to do so in their debut novel may succeed in their fifth. The writer who can frame, say, a hero outside their faith may not be able to stretch outside of their race or gender identity. Or they may be able to sustain the narrative for the length of a short story but not a novel.
Where to begin? Again, 100 books. To start. They should include picture books, early readers, chapter books, poetry, nonfiction, prose novels, and graphic novels.
But 100 books. For every single character, no matter how small. Then we keep reading.
Every agent and editor, every reviewer and award-committee member should to do the same.
Have you read 100 “ownvoices” books by, say, Native authors? If not, then you’re in for an education. A journey to heightened awareness and appreciation, but first you must commit.
100 books. Read.
*The advice to "read 100 children's books (of any type) before writing one" has become children's writer lore. If anyone has a definitive source, I'll joyfully edit to attribute accordingly.
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