Thursday, June 20, 2019

Debut YA Author Karol Ruth Silverstein On How Volunteering for SCBWI Led To Her #OwnVoices Breakthrough

SCBWI Volunteer Karol Ruth Silverstein's debut YA novel is called "Cursed" (June 25, Charlesbridge Teen).

Karol sporting her Disability Pride in a t-shirt she designed!

I interviewed Karol to find out more...

Lee: Hi Karol! So please tell us, how did volunteering for SCBWI lead to your getting a book deal?

Karol: Actually Lee, I have you to thank! My journey really started when you invited me to become a coordinator for the Westside Writers Schmooze (now called the Westside Writers Mingle) here in Los Angeles. For any readers who aren't familiar with the Mingles (or LitMingles), they are monthly meetings held by many local SCBWI regions where writers and/or illustrators get together to discuss topics related to children’s books. I ended up coordinating with fellow SCBWI-L.A. member Charlie Cohen for four years. Toward the end of our "reign," I was prepping for a Schmooze on social media for writers. Though I'd had a Twitter handle for a while, I barely used it. Twitter seemed so confusing! I went onto Twitter determined to familiarize myself with the various things one can do on the platform. I spent some time tweeting, retweeting and commenting, and then I decided to follow a few hashtags. I happened to stumble onto the last 15 minutes of a Twitter pitch event (#PitMad)--just enough time to get out a few pitches. Literary agent Jen Linnan “liked” one of my tweets, which meant she wanted to read my manuscript. Long story short, she signed me! (I think it would be responsible of me to add a disclaimer here: results not typical!)

Though my debut YA novel Cursed wasn't the book I'd pitched in the Twitter event, Jen read an excerpt and loved it. She helped me fine tune the manuscript before we went out on submission and we eventually found it a home with Charlesbridge Teen. Cursed was not necessarily an easy sale and I was extremely lucky to find an agent who fell in love with it. I was in the right (virtual) place at the right time. And I was there specifically due to my SCBWI volunteer gig.

Karol's debut YA comes out on June 25, 2019

Lee: Wow, what a story! Why do you say Cursed wasn’t an “easy” sale?

Karol: The easy/most direct answer is that the manuscript had a lot of profanity in it. Like - A LOT. Plus, my main character was originally 13 (though she's now been aged up to 14 to put the book more squarely into the YA category). The cursing is an integral part of the story, so it wasn't like I could cut it all out. The protagonist, Ricky, is newly diagnosed with a painful chronic illness and cursing is one of her main coping mechanisms. As she adjusts to her new reality, she does learn better ways of handling her anger and curses less. But it was important that she be able to fully and realistically vent her frustrations, anger, and fear at the beginning of the book. That meant real cursing—f-bombs and all. Using "darn" and "heck" was not going to cut it in terms of authenticity, which was tremendously important to me.

Cursed is also what some refer to as "younger YA" - for readers aged 12-15 or so. This can be a somewhat tough market in general. Publishers Weekly had an article a while back explaining that, while readers in this age range are underserved and definitely in need of great reading options, agents aren't always sure how to pitch these books, publishers struggle to market them, and booksellers aren't clear where to shelve them. So that added to the challenge.

Lastly, Cursed is about a teen with a chronic illness who experiences chronic pain. Despite the incredibly valuable push for all kinds of diversity in kids books over the last decade, books featuring physical disability and/or chronic medical issues are still not exactly abundant on bookshelves. My editor Monica Perez said that she noticed a lack of these kinds of books in YA in particular, and that was one of the things that drew her to Cursed. The fact that the book is #ownvoices was icing on the cake.

Lee: #Ownvoices of course leads to the question: How much of Ricky’s story is your story?

Karol: I'm glad you asked! While Cursed is very much drawn from my personal experience, it's definitely fiction. People who know me sometimes get confused on that front, I think because Ricky's voice is so similar to mine. The set-up of the story mirrors my life the most: Ricky is sent to live with her dentist dad at his ill-equipped one bedroom apartment (which she dubs the Batch Pad), as a way to make things easier on her physically. Getting to school is still really painful though. Since her dad leaves for work before she needs to leave for school, she realizes she can just pretend she's getting ready for school—and then go back to bed once her dad's gone. She ends up cutting six weeks of school before her truancy is discovered. Basically ALL of that is taken from my life—other than the snarky name for her dad's apartment. Most of what follows in the story is made up, but there are moments, emotions, lessons learned, etc. that are drawn from my experiences throughout my lifetime of living with a chronic illness and figuring out how to partner with medical professionals and advocate for myself.

I remember fabulous YA author Sonya Sones (who blurbed Cursed!) once saying that one of the great things about writing YA is that you can have your characters make the same mistakes you made but figure out better solutions and/or end up making better choices than you did. You can clean up your past and hopefully provide more agency for your teen readers. I condensed a lot of what I've learned about living a life like mine with some modicum of grace into the six month timeframe of the book. Hopefully the book can speed up the process for readers who are dealing with similar circumstances (which I feel can be broadened to include any situation that hinders self-acceptance).

Lee: As a writer with a disability, what do you think the industry can/should do to be more inclusive, equitable, and accessible?

Karol: One of the toughest parts of disability advocacy is how incredibly varied the folks huddled under the disability umbrella are. There simply is no singular way to address the needs, preferences, experiences and sensibilities of all people living with disabilities. Likewise, stories featuring disabled characters are going to be—or should be—of every stripe and color. I think for too long, the narrative for disabled characters has been sorely limited. That's thankfully beginning to change, with #ownvoices disability books—where the author has the same disability or medical condition as the book's protagonist—really moving the needle in terms of authenticity and variety.

The kid lit industry has been a frontrunner in the charge for more inclusion and representation of underrepresented groups, both on the page and "behind the pen." Amazing progress has been made. Still, disability isn't nearly as present in the diversity discussion as some other groups, with physical disability garnering less attention than neurodiversity (a blanket term referring to variations in the human brain). But—as I've seen in a snarky meme—inclusion isn't pie! There aren't a limited number of slices. The We Need Diverse Books website gives an incredibly far-reaching definition of disability and I encourage all people involved in the children's literature industry to check it out and keep it in mind whenever discussions of diversity come up.

Lee: For readers, here's that We Need Diverse Book's definition of diversity:
We Need Diverse Books: Our definition of diversity: We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.
Okay, Karol, that totally makes me want to ask: can you shout out to some great disability books out there?

Karol: Interestingly, three that come to mind immediately all feature deaf characters - Cece Bell 's terrific #ownvoices graphic novel memoir, El Deafo; the amazing Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick and 2018 Schneider Family Book Award winner, You're Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner.

The Schneider Family Book Award is among the awards given annually by the ALA and honors books that embody the artistic expression of disability experiences for child and adolescent audiences. Their list of previous winners is a great place to start for anyone looking to learn and read more about disability, as is the website Disability in Kidlit.

I can also report that there are a number of 2019 debut novelists who've written books featuring characters with disabilities. This is definitely heartening! In particular, YA fantasy We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett completely blew me away. The book features a protagonist who's an amputee--and also training to be a fighter pilot. Bartlett handles the character beautifully and the whole book is an incredible thrill ride!

Lee: Any plans to write more books featuring characters with disabilities?

Karol: Yes actually! I'm in the early stages of a young middle grade novel that has a feline main character. But the human main character is young girl who uses a wheelchair. There's also another cat character who's been declawed--which many people don't realize is akin to amputation. This book is not #ownvoices because I'm not a regular wheelchair-user myself (or an amputee), but I liked the idea of including these characters because they exist in the world and should exist in books too! While the disabilities aren't a main focus in the story, they do resonate within the book's themes.

Lee: Thank you so much Karol! And congratulations on your debut!

You can find out more about Karol Ruth Silverstein and "Cursed" at her website here.

Illustrate and Write On,

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