The Dirt Diary Author Anna Staniszewski on Creating Diverse Characters

Posted by Katie L. Carroll on December 11, 2013 in Anna Staniszewski, Book Trailer, Books, Guest, Middle Grade, Writing |

Let’s give a big welcome to returning guest blogger Anna Staniszewski, author of the upcoming tween book The Dirt Diary, as she discusses creating a diverse main character. I was very pleased to receive an ARC of this fabulous book and shared my thoughts on it in my 5-star Goodreads review. Welcome, Anna!

The-Dirty-Diary-Cover-w-Blurb-smallWhen I first began writing The Dirt Diary a few years ago, I knew early on that the main character, Rachel, had a white mom and a Korean-American dad. Perhaps this character detail emerged because the story took place in middle school, a time in my own life that I associate with one of my closest friends (then and now) who is Korean. Or perhaps Rachel appeared in my head that way just because that’s who she is.

For several drafts of the novel, however, I struggled with how overt I should make Rachel’s ethnicity. It didn’t play a large part in the story, but it was part of her character. Also, did I, a Polish-born, American-raised author have a right to write about a character who wasn’t like me?

As I mulled this over, I came to two realizations. First, why couldn’t Rachel’s race be part of her character without it affecting the plot? Rachel being biracial was just as much a part of her as being a girl or an only child.  It didn’t guide the story; it just felt like a natural part of her character. And second, I realized that none of the other characters I had written were “like me.” If I stuck to the “like me” criteria then I could only write about characters who had lived in Poland until they were five and then moved to New England. How boring would that be?

So I set out to write Rachel not as a biracial character but as a real character, one whose desires and emotions I could tap into and understand. I realized that my personal experiences did play a part in shaping her character. Not only do I know a thing or two about teen mortification, but having been raised bicultural made it easier for me to imagine how Rachel might feel about being biracial.

Have I made any missteps in depicting a biracial character? Perhaps. And it’s precisely that fear that kept me from acknowledging her ethnicity in early drafts of the book. Ultimately, though, I felt like it would be worse to ignore her true identity than to not try writing it at all.

The Dirt Diary blurb:

Cleaning up after the in-crowd gets Rachel all the best dirt.

Rachel can’t believe she has to give up her Saturdays to scrubbing other people’s toilets. So. Gross. But she kinda, sorta stole $287.22 from her college fund that she’s got to pay back ASAP or her mom will ground her for life. Which is even worse than working for her mother’s new cleaning business. Maybe. After all, becoming a maid is definitely not going to help her already loserish reputation.

But Rachel picks up more than smell socks on the job. As maid to some of the most popular kids in school, Rachel suddenly has all the dirt on the 8th grade in-crowd. Her formerly boring diary is now filled with juicy secrets. And when her crush offers to pay her to spy on his girlfriend, Rachel has to decide if she’s willing to get her hands dirty…

Anna_StaniszewskiAbout the Author:

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of My Very UnFairy Tale Life series, published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. Look for the first book in Anna’s next tween series, The Dirt Diary, in January 2014, and visit her at www.annastan.com.

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  • Thanks so much for having me!

  • Mary Waibel says:

    Anna- I love how you showed how to make a a well-rounded character, including race, by making it all a part of who the character is. Great points!

    Katie’s talked this book up, so I added it to my TBR pile. Can’t wait to read it.

    Best of luck and congrats on the release!

  • Meradeth says:

    Great article! I totally understand, too. I was really worried about having more diverse characters in my latest piece, but finally decided that it was okay to try it. I needed them, and that was just who they were. And it turned out to be so much fun!

    • I was so excited to have Anna talk about diverse characters. It’s such a tricky thing to write characters that are not like me racially. I always worry about misstepping, but it’s important to try it, especially when it’s just a part of who that character is.

  • Great post! It’s funny, but I never “choose” who my characters are or what they are like; I just let them tell me. Excellent blurb, cover, and trailer. Nicely done, Anna!

  • Loren says:

    I was planning on commenting on Anna’s post, but then I saw the trailer…it must be the funniest book trailer I’ve ever seen!
    Thanks for the laugh tonight!

    Can authors write about diverse characters? Reminds me how in my psychotherapy training we would discuss if therapists can relate to diverse clients to treat them.
    I believe the answer in both cases is the same. As Anna says, even if we didn’t experience the same exact challenge, we can relate to the issue at it’s core, and to the feelings it elicits in us.

    • Loren, Anna writes some of the most entertaining MG out there. Her writing and characters always make me laugh, even as they’re breaking my heart.

      Great points about writing diverse characters. I totally agree that the basic issues and emotions characters face and deal with are what’s important, no matter what their race or background, and as writers we can bring those to the table through diverse characters that are not necessarily the same as us.

  • This sounds great!

    I love Anna’s debate about having a bi-racial character. It’s fun to see how an author’s mind works while they are plotting a book. I’m glad Anna didn’t let the “What you know” stop her from writing this character.

    • Hi, Kelly! I’m also so glad Anna didn’t let the uncertainly of writing a bi-racial character stop her. And very grateful that she shared her experience of writing Rachel on the blog.

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