RAWing with e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
I’ve always been a writer and a filmmaker. It’s what I know. Writing for teens, I think comes from a place of wanting young people to feel seen, heard and not alone. I had struggles growing up in a volatile home and not enough books mirroring my struggle. Writing has a lot to do with holding up a mirror for all kinds of kids. C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone,” and if that’s true, then part of my work when I’m writing is to create authentic characters that can connect with kids.
Last year the #we need diverse books movement kicked into high gear and interest in a more diverse body of literature for and about diverse populations, in particular kids of color. What do you think are some of the barriers to making YA more diverse?
This is a very layered question. Here are a few thoughts. There are great stories about diverse characters being written. Bottom line. But how do you get those books, covers faced out, on the shelves. Yes, consumers have to be part of the conversation and demand books of diversity. Major bookstores also have to be willing to take risks on books that feature characters of diversity. There seems to be this whispered belief that books with African American, Mexican American and/or Asian protagonist won’t sell. Can we begin to have a real conversation about dispelling that myth with the people who put books on the shelves? Can we have a conversation about how absolutely rockstar cool it is to read a book when your culture is reflected on the cover? This #weneeddiversebooks is a campaign of awareness of what is missing on the shelves. Awareness that young people need to see themselves reflected in all kinds of books. It doesn’t mean that stories that feature Caucasian characters are wrong or oppressive. That’s all value judgment stuff. It’s a campaign to suggest the need for “other” in all its forms. Also, diversity is a broad term. It deals with race and ethnicity but also with sexuality. Not every kid is having a heterosexual, Caucasian, growing up in the suburbs experience.
I know you do many visits to schools to promote your books as well as meet your readers. Tell me a little bit about how those visits inform your books, but also why teachers should invite authors into their classrooms.
Actually, I do school visits to promote ideas, creative thinking and empowerment using arts more than promote any of my books. The books are a vehicle to have the conversation about evolving into your voice, truth and self. School visits keep me in the know of what kids from all over America are experiencing, thinking and feeling. Maybe a moment at a school visit in Holyoke, Massachusetts will be a speaking point to something a group needs to know in border-town McAllen, Texas. Also, I believe being a professional artist who steps onto their campus, after school program or even juvenile detention facility demonstrates the possibility of thinking about personal strength and creativity in a different way. It might open up an entirely unimagined way of seeing themselves, their peers and the world. And I’m not a polished looking presenter. From my hoodies to my beat up skate shoes, I don’t always fit the paradigm of a lot of the adult women these kids may know. What I do represent is a way of being your authentic self from clothing to discussion.
In the Summer of 2013, I had an idea to go on a very different kind of book tour for my third novel FAT ANGIE. Inspired by a small-town Texas teen without access to creative mentorship, I packed my belongings into storage, rented a tiny Ford Focus and drove across the U.S. for several months. The goal was to empower at-risk youth through creative writing at no cost to their programs. This wasn’t funded by the publishing house. There were no big sponsors. This was about an idea to see if providing access to creative mentorship would have impact on this kind of kid. My cross-country journey became the focus of the feature documentary At-Risk Summer. In early April 2015, the film premiered at the prestigious Through A Women’s Eyes and Sarasota Film Festivals. While the film chronicles my journey, it is a story about the many kinds of kids in America that are at-risk. The film also features educators, librarians and multiple award-winning, New York Times Best Selling authors such as: A.S. King, Matt de La Peña, Kathy Erskine, Meg Medina, Ellen Hopkins, Pat Zietlow Miller and Michele Embree . Each of these authors talk about why they write for young people, what at-risk is in America today and how to begin a new conversation about why we need to show up for this population of youth.
From the At-Risk Summer experience, I learned that empowering youth on the fringe via creative mentorship does have impact. Showing up has currency with this population of young people and that art in all of its forms can change the trajectory of how these young people see themselves. So, I co-founded with author and educator C.G. Watson the non-profit Never Counted Out. The organization’s primary goal it to provide at-risk youth access to creative mentorship and resources. We are amassing a database of artists (writers, filmmakers, musicians, painters, photographers, street artists) who are willing to donate one hour a year to rock the art and inspire youth in their community or a community they visit. Our campaign, If Someone Only Knew, allows teens across America to share their truth with NCO as an essay and/or other art and be published online and part of a larger printed anthology., I am deeply affected by the loss of just one young person to suicide. So in the wake of a number of recent teen suicides, I felt the time to hear what teens are going through is now and not in a suicide note. So at this moment, any teen ages 13 – 19 can go to the Never Counted Out site and find out how to share their writing and art to empower others and most importantly, to be heard!
I’ve got four novels in the pipeline. My next novel, WHEN WE WAS FIERCE (Candlewick Press, 2016) takes my love of voice and culture right back to the page. It’s the story of four inner city teens trying to maneuver through temptations of gangs and violence. The novel is in verse and adds an unexpected layer the ways we think about language. It’s definitely raw.
Teens share your words with Never Counted Out!
Educators celebrate the film At-Risk Summer.