I recently spoke with JL Powers, author of two novels for young adults, The Confessional and This Thing Called the Future. She is also the editor of That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone, an anthology of essays.
I first learned about her work when I spotted The Pirate Tree, a blog about social justice literature for children. The blog is a fantastic resource and Powers is one of its co-founders. I chatted with her to explore the concept of social justice in her own work and find out more about how the blog came about.
Can you tell me about your background, and in what ways your writing life intersects with your commitment to social justice?
My dad is a geologist and took a job in El Paso in the early 1980’s. My parents are very religious and made some interesting choices about where and how they wanted to live. We moved into a barrio near the US-Mexico border, so all of our neighbors were recent immigrants, many undocumented, and refugees. This is how I grew up.
I remember in high school, my mom walked a family through the documenting process. It took a decade. The family lived in a chicken coop, trying to raise seven kids on $25 a day. The documenting process could be onerously expensive, so my parents would lend people money for the paperwork and then hire them to pay it off. My parents have always been very aware of the systemic problems that prevent people from living legitimate lives.
I am often drawn back to the work my parents are doing. My parents are immersed in their community, and when problems come along everyone does their bit. This has really influenced my work as a writer.
As an adult, the issues that have been in my heart are homelessness, hunger, immigration, economics and politics of disease, war and conflict, and how children are impacted as the most vulnerable members of the human race. I don’t set out to write social justice books but what captivates my own heart and the questions I feel like I have to pursue.
When I wrote my first book, The Confessional, I was living in El Paso and teaching at a high school. Many of the boys at my school had crossed over the border and it was interesting to see the dynamics among them and their national loyalties. Violence could so easily start. There were many questions swirling around about “us” versus “them,” – of class, race, sexual identity, and citizenship.
My second novel, This Thing Called the Future, began during the time when I was working on my PhD in African History and spending extended periods of time living with families in South Africa. I started to think about what it would be like to be a young person growing up in a place where many people are dying of an illness that is transmitted through sex, and the political and community ramifications of HIV.
I’m really captivated by forces of exclusion and inclusion. Growing up in an immigrant community surrounded by people who were legal and “illegal,” though I am white and American, created the trajectory of my writing career.
You blog at The Pirate Tree, “a collective of children’s and young adult writers interested in children’s literature and social justice issues.” How did the blog get started? What are your hopes for the site?
Around the time I gave birth to Nesta (he’s 2 and a half) I thought I’d like to do something to highlight social justice issues in children’s literature. But I didn’t want to carry it alone, so I contacted a few writer friends.
I was already in touch with Ann Angel, Lynn Miller-Lachmann and Nancy Bo Flood. They invited the others (Varian Johnson, E.M. Kokie, and Peter Marino).
All of us are very concerned about literature not only as entertainment, or important educationally, but as something that has the potential for transforming individuals and entire groups of people. Literature is fundamental to how people grow, and grow as citizens. There is probably no more effective way to transform the hearts and minds of people than art.
I am not interested in didactic books. I don’t ever want to say that social justice books are the ones that should be published. Any book can be analyzed for how it supports or tries to tear down and transform the status quo into something better. At The Pirate Tree we’re trying to look at the best books. We want the site to be a useful place for educators, teachers, parents, and other writers to find books that are dealing with tough issues in good ways.
What are some of your favorite children’s books with social justice themes?
My all time favorite young adult novel is Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. It is set in 1969 in a small barrio in New Mexico and is about the lives of very poor teenagers during the draft in Vietnam. I’ve read it a dozen times.
I also love A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer and Deborah Ellis’ work.
What issues would you like to see more attention given to in contemporary children’s literature?
When I moved to the US-Mexico border at age eight, I was an avid reader. But I was always reading about other places. No one wrote about the border or about immigrant communities. So I wanted to go to a “real place” like in the books I read.
I didn’t grow up in “the mainstream.” I couldn’t read about the place where I was from and that made me feel bad about myself. This experience has shaped why I write about places that aren’t mainstream.
Often, the books that are published are written to provide a window into a world outside the mainstream for kids who don’t have that experience. There’s a belief that the kids who live in the communities these stories are about aren’t going to be reading the books. It’s really tragic. Literature is about creating citizens of our nation. These children are going to be the majority in the United States and we will regret if we don’t make books a part of their lives.
Have you seen hopeful developments getting these narratives published and into the hands of more children?
From teachers and librarians there is a real hunger for these books. Part of the problem is getting information about these books in front of the people who are looking for them.
I think the Common Core is helping, since it gives teachers the ability to buy books, both fiction and nonfiction, that they didn’t have before. It is opening up avenues for teachers to use these books in classrooms. I have heard from small independent publishers that there is a noticeable rise in their sales.
Are there sites or resources you would highlight for writers and parents interested in social justice and multicultural children’s literature?
Here are some of the publishers I would recommend:
- Groundwood Press
- Cinco Puntos Press
- Allen & Unwin
- Frances Lincoln Publishers
- The Global Fund for Children (see my interview with Cynthia Pon, director of the Global Fund for Children’s Books)
The International Board of Books for Young People is a great organization that gives awards and provides funds to support children’s publishing around the world.