Danika Dinsmore is a multi-talented writer, spoken work artist, and educator. Her writing career has transformed from writing poetry books like Traffic (1997) and Every Day Angels & Other Near-Death Experiences (2002) and collaborative spoken word performances, to screenwriting her short film “Stick Up” (2004). Presently she writes middle grade and young adult fiction. Danika’s writing has won her the Washington State Poets Association award for Performance Poetry and the Best Fresh Voice Screenwriting Award from the Female Eye Film Festival. Throughout her writing career she has shared her love of writing with her community by traveling across North America to schools on her Imaginary Worlds Tours. Danika has taken some time out of her busy schedule to sit down with us here at Phenom to share her experiences as a writer and promoter of diversity.
Phenom: Your most popular literary work is a series entitled Faerie Tales of the White Forest. The books follow Brigitta, a water faerie, on her adventures protecting her home. What was your reaction to learning Brigitta’s adventures appealed mutually to children of all genders?
DD: Actually, I wasn’t surprised, I was more annoyed when people would dismiss it or label it as a “girl book” before even reading it. Although that didn’t surprise me either, because, hey, it’s about faeries – which have often been reduced in the mainstream to being cute, petty, and two dimensional.
I don’t always feel like I pick what to write about, that really it picks me. And when the adventure story of two faerie sisters told me it wanted to be written, I decided 1) it would be a true adventure (the first book is essentially a quest story), 2) I wanted the faeries to be as complex as human beings and just as diverse, and that 3) Brigitta wouldn’t be a “warrior” (I was tired of the “kick-ass” trope for heroines), that she’d be imperfect and clever.
I remember once at a school assembly a boy in the front row saw my books and groaned, Oh no, it’s about faeries. I just smirked because I knew better. Wouldn’t you like to be able to fly? I asked him Yeah, he said. I described a scene where these faerie boys were daring each other to drop from the tops of trees and see how close they could get to the ground without opening their wings and he was convinced that’d be pretty cool. The boy student decided he’d have black wings with gold dollar signs (“destiny marks”) on them because he wanted to be an entrepreneur. One giant caterpillar, a few flying eyeballs, and a rock dragon later – – and this boy was one of the first in line to grab my bookmark and have me sign it.
I do look forward to the day when there are no terms like “girl toys” or “boy toys” – that they’re all just toys. Because if a boy wants to play with a flying rainbow sparkle unicorn, then why the hell not?
Phenom: As someone who continues to publish a growing children’s literature series and has taught at many elementary and middle schools, what is something you specifically would wish to instill in your younger readers?
DD: I want them to exercise their imaginations, experiment, and play creatively. I recently moved to this beautiful quiet coastal area in BC, and I’ve taught six workshops in the library and at an alternative school with kids ranging from 9-15. I haven’t seen one personal device among them (cell phone, iPad, etc.) in six workshops. I’m not saying these things are evil, I use them myself, but studies have shown (and, trust me, I have seen the effects) that personal device addiction, especially in kids under 12, stunts certain kinds of growth. What I’ve seen on the coast, with a significant decrease in this addiction, is inspiration from their environment, a lot more focus, and an engagement in imaginary play that leaves me giddy.
I’d just love for kids to step into their imaginary worlds in a more physical way and let their minds wander around inside of them on a regular basis.
The other thing I want students to experience are the joys in the process, and that creation is messy. I’ve had so many kids (especially the ones I work with in the film industry), who are so concerned about getting things “right” or “perfect.” When a 10 year old gets depressed because her artwork isn’t “good enough” or because she didn’t draw a character “right” that makes me sad.
Phenom: You mentioned in another interview that you utilize a focus group consisting of parents and children who provide feedback before the final rewrite of your books. What was the most impactful suggestion you have had received from your focus group?
DD: I can’t say as there was one thing that was most impactful. One of the most helpful things is that if more than one reader has the same comment or issue, I know it’s probably something I should take a look at. I don’t change everything. There was a certain death a few readers didn’t think I should have in Book Two, but I needed it happen for the larger story.
I love that kids don’t hold back their opinions on things either. My favorite venue for this is a parent – child book club at a literary arts center in Vancouver. Everyone reads the mss and later gathers around to discuss it. (The program director also makes crossword puzzles out of things from the book, which is fun. She says no author ever gets all the answers.)
Mostly, if someone is “confused” at any point in the story – I go back to make it more clear. No one’s ever faulted an author because she was “too clear.”
Phenom: In your upcoming novel, Winterspring and Summerfall, which is about a person’s coming of age and opening into sexual identity are there any specific experiences that especially contributed to the creation of the story?
DD: I think this is the most honest book I’ve written. The one I’ve really wanted to write for a long time, but needed to hone my novel writing skills first to do it any justice.
I had a crush on this bad-ass girl when I was in high school. She was a shout-it-out-loud lesbian, and I didn’t know exactly what I was, but I didn’t think I was gay. I liked boys. Nothing ever happened between us, not just because I was so self-conscious around her, but also because I was this sort of “straight” dorky side-kick in a pack of gay teenage girls. Looking back, I see what a manipulative bully she was. At the time, I couldn’t really process it, but there was abuse perpetrated by a few of the girls on other girls within this group. This is something I so rarely ever hear discussed, and it happens.
Fast forward 20 years, and I witness two neighbor children being torn from their abusive mother by Child Protective Services. I’d never been witness to anything so heart-wrenching. It haunted me, and I wanted a way to incorporate it into a story. Not the story of the child being taken away, but of the child witnessing it with horror and helplessness through my own 10-year-old lenses as a sensitive, empathic child, and then plunking in versions of people I’ve known to inspire the supporting roles in her world. My bad-ass lesbian high school crush became the abused child and the story fell into place.
While not autobiographical, the events in Winterspring and Summerfall are an amalgam of my own experiences as well as those of friends and neighbors. Having grown up in the 1980’s, I wanted the story to take place in that era, as it was before the age of cell phones and Internet, which made it easier to create a sense of isolation. As well, when I was growing up in 1980’s suburbia, helicopter parents were rare. There was a freedom in childhood at that time not prevalent in this day and age.
Phenom: You were once part of a campaign called “Please Adjust Your Set” which advocated for more representation of women in the media industry. What do you think about the way women are currently being represented and how it has changed, if at all, since before?
DD: It’s so rare that I actually go to mainstream movies or watch mainstream television any longer because most of it doesn’t interest me, and frankly I find a lot of it dull or offensive (objectification and violence toward women). I’ve watched or read about so many movies where the entire cast, or at least all the principles were men, and in particular straight white men. I’d realize too many times that a show I was watching didn’t even pass a simple Bechdel test (and yes, I know some people don’t like this as a yard stick, but is it too much to ask that a show have at least one scene with 2 female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man? Some of my favorite shows often fail – Sherlock for example.)
What has changed is access to the entertainment I do want. I watch Netflix and listen to a lot of podcasts, to find content that I like. Where there are all kinds of women portrayed, their brains picked, and they deal with issues beyond the men around them. Orange is the New Black, Sense8, etc. It’s not that I only want to watch shows exclusively with women in them, I simply want my media to reflect a realistic cross-section in a society of complex people. Especially science fiction, because that’s supposed to reflect our future situation. I love the British show Scott & Bailey and would take it any day over something like CSI with its female characters doing crime scene investigation in their sexy shoes and tight, undone blouses.
One thing that has changed for the better is that I see far more diversity on set then I did about 10 years ago. I remember around the time of the PAYS campaign I was working on a TV show and one day I took a good look around and noticed that I was on a set with 60 crew members and I was one of only 2 females, including the cast. Even the hair person was a dude. There was one black man – one of the cast. I thought to myself, this is weird, right? And then I thought, if it were the other way around, people would take notice.
A little while later a local female producer/director decided she was going to make a feature film with an entirely female crew. This made the news. There was a lot of support, but there was also backlash and comments like, “They won’t be able to do it” or “that’s exclusionary.” It was a bit infuriating.
I consciously look around set all the time and I’ve definitely noticed an increase in women and minorities over the past several years. Yes, women are still usually relegated to certain rolls: Producers (not nearly as many directors), ADs, hair & makeup, script supervisor, and sometimes writers (or me, studio teacher). But it always makes me smile when I see female grips, sound and lighting technicians, electricians, and stunt people. I heard someone say once that there are more women producers because “producers take care and directors take charge.” This is the kind of statement that seems innocuous, but is really limiting to both women and the industry. I’ve seen directors of all kinds, from bullies to true artistic collaborators.
Phenom: There is a lot of movement among writers today about making sure to include diversity in their writing. What do you think could be done to help this movement gain further support?
Read diverse books! Read books about / set in a culture / subculture you’ve never read about before! Buy diverse books! Check out diverse books from the library! Write reviews for diverse books on Amazon and GoodReads. Follow diverse authors on Twitter! Attend readings by diverse authors! Go to a reading that makes you “uncomfortable” attending because it represents “other.”
Phenom: What kind of difficulties do you think that an author of YA books faces when handling diversity that authors of more adult fiction may not?
I think it’s the other way around, actually. I think there’s more opportunity and openness and acceptance in the YA market than the adult one. I think the doors have been blown wide open. I just finished Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens and it completely mocks the entertainment industry’s treatment of both girls and minorities (as well as the ludicrous mixed messages the media sends to both). You can do things in YA fiction that you probably wouldn’t get away with in adult fiction. Take Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith for instance: a story about an invasion of giant praying mantises told from the POV of a horny teenage boy who is both in love with his girlfriend and his best friend (a boy) and is having a sexual identity crisis in the middle of this apocalypse.
You might get banned in certain circles for writing this stuff (hello Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian), but that just means more people will want to read your book if you ask me. I’ve always wanted to get a book of mine banned. That would tell me I’ve done something right, something that pushed a few buttons.
By: E. Velasquez
Cover Photo © Danika Dinsmore