We Need Diverse Books: Diverse Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors Panel with WNDB

By Leah Heilman Schanke

Jennifer Baker, panel organizer for We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) and 2013 winner of the SCBWI On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Award, led a panel discussion on craft and world-building. She asked whether outlining played a role in establishing the rules of the world and fantastical elements. Do you outline or not?

Heidi Heilig, author of The Girl from Everywhere, said she outlined a little, then wrote, then outlined again, going back and forth. She shared that her musical theater background provided training in setting rules that it’s okay to have singing in a scene. She had to have rules for her novel to put restrictions on characters’ powers, otherwise all powerful characters would be boring. “It’s good to know where the boundaries are and to play with them.”

Tracey Baptiste took a more organic approach to her middle grade novel The Jumbies. “When I started writing The Jumbies, I had no idea what it would be; my first novel was contemporary. You have to explore when writing in a new genre and be willing to start over again.” In contrast, Baptiste outlined the sequel because she had to complete it in 6 months.

Zoraida Córdova, author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and the Brooklyn Brujas series, said she outlines “like crazy” because she works best with writing every day to meet deadlines she has set for herself. “Even with an outline, I let the story tell itself and go in different directions.”

Baker noticed that each author brings her own voice to her work. She asked, “How do you utilize your culture to weave into the story, and what advice would you give in doing that?”

Baptiste shared that she had read a lot of fairy tales, but there were no jumbie stories. “I was desperate for it as a small child—I had no choice in writing it—I had to do it.” Instead of only appealing to expatriates from Trinidad, The Jumbies “opened up a whole new world.” Baptiste discovered that “when we are compelled to tell a story, there is universality to it.”

The discussion turned to the essential difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult stories. MG has friendship but no romance beyond crushes while YA has romantic interests. Another difference is that MG limits violence and language in scenes.

Córdova pointed out that YA and MG are really not genres but represent age groups and stressed the importance of never writing down to children. “Write up to them, and they’ll meet you halfway.”

Baptiste added that “the younger the writing, the harder it is.” She explained that a character could do the same thing in MG and YA but with MG a different intention may be needed for the age group. For example, in MG, you would avoid a character having a vindictive intention.

An audience member asked whether editors provide a list of intentions that are appropriate based on the age group. Baptiste responded that they don’t. Intentions are addressed as they come up.

As writers of color, did you experience any challenges in the submission process?

Córdova said she was told her “writing is great, but we already have a Latino book for the season. For the next book, I took color out of it and got in the door.” Now editors allow her to write on any topic she desires.

Heilig’s debut novel was published in 2014, and she is grateful for the progress made by those before her who had already suffered. Baptiste kept hearing editors say they “don’t connect with the story” and slowly learned this phrase could be a code for “it’s not white.” She changed agents which opened up several new editors and “that made all the difference.”

All three authors agreed that change is coming. Inevitably, the industry is improving so the table becomes big enough to include voices that represent everyone.


Leah Heilman Schanke was a finalist two consecutive years in 2014 and 2013 in the PNWA Literary Contest in the children’s book category and was awarded an Andrea Davis Pinkney Merit Scholarship by the Children’s Book Academy in 2014. By day, Leah is an Assistant Vice President of Human Resources. Leah lives on Long Island with her husband and children.

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