by Peter Fields
Lora Hyler was a radio news reporter for NPR affiliate WUWM and ABC affiliate WISN, both in Milwaukee, Wisconsin before starting her public relations and marketing company, Hyler Communications, in 2001. She’s written hundreds of articles, several screenplays, short stories, and a Middle Grade novel, The Stupendous Adventures of Mighty Marty Hayes, which is the first in a planned three-part series.
UntitledTown blogger Peter Fields interviewed Lora Hyler over e-mail.
UntitledTown: How do you see the historical lack of representation for young readers of color effect how they interact with books?
Lora Hyler: All children need to see themselves reflected in the pages of a book. If the books they see are limited or has disparaging representation, this impacts their self esteem, as well as their interest in reading. As a child, I was a voracious reader and actively sought out books I could relate to, as well as those that opened my eyes to other cultures and experiences. There’s a direct link between reading and writing, and overall competency as a fully functioning adult.
UT: Can this problem of representation be solved by simply creating more characters that children of the color can relate to? Or, is a more complex answer for this deeply-rooted problem needed?
LH: Getting kids into libraries, and filling homes and libraries with books that provide mirrors (they see themselves), as well as other cultures, ethnicities, sexual preferences, disabilities (they see others) goes a long way. As parents, teachers, educators, librarians, our focus should be on nurturing minds and spirits, and opening up worlds. We truly are a global society.
UT: Can you tell me about your recent book, The Stupendous Adventures of Mighty Marty Hayes, and how you hope it impacts young readers?
LH: My debut Middle Grade novel was released March 6 by HenschelHAUS Publishing, Inc. My only child, William, was inspiration for the book. It features a multicultural cast of superheroes, who are working on the new CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology in their 7th grade classroom, and share a love of spy gadgets. Tidbits of American history and black spies are also featured. I wanted kids to enjoy a great story and see themselves in the hero of the novel, Mighty Marty Hayes, no matter what their color or nationality.
UT: Your main character, Marty Hayes, is seen in the book tackling complicated subject matter like genome studies, his grandma’s experience fighting during the civil rights movement, and trying to establish his identity through the special gift of superpowers. In your eyes, how important is it for readers to see characters that they not only identify with, but also ones that encourage and challenge readers to explore topics they may not have been initially aware of, or interested in?
LH: The superhero, science and spy elements entices kids to open the book. The history and real black spies adds another layer of depth and keeps it interesting as the kids pursue their mission. The reaction from kids has been amazing, so I would encourage everyone to give it a read. I must say kudos to my illustrator, Ian Wade of Barbados, who created a much lauded cover. The imagery entrances kids.
UT: Sticking with the theme of superheroes, “Black Panther” just came out and has been an international box office success, and rightfully so. Do you see this movie being another example of ways to empower young children of color? And if so, how?
LH: Be still my heart. I thought you were assuming The Stupendous Adventures of Mighty Marty Hayes is going to become a movie! Let me tell you, that’s on my radar. Many kids want to see that! Back to Black Panther, my book has been compared to Black Panther and Harry Potter.
Frankly, I think it’s a national disgrace that children of color, those with disabilities, of a different sexual orientation, and immigrants, have such limited reading options to see themselves in a main character. Of course, imagery is powerful. Black Panther represents everything that is right about movie-making. We’ve gone from Hollywood failing to greenlight movies starring people of color, to a predominantly black cast superhero movie breaking all box office records.
The themes of powerful Africans, women, and a technology-driven country powered by a young woman will resound for some time to come. The children I see in the theaters are leaving with wide open mouths. I see that look of wonder when I share The Stupendous Adventures of Mighty Marty Hayes!
UT: Finally, I’d like to ask a question about representation, which is a topic that can be tricky at times. Black Panther is a movie that’s been long overdue because of its representation of black characters. While we know it is important, and arguably necessary, for children of all races and genders to find characters they connect with—is it problematic to only have superheroes embody these roles?
LH: I say bring on the superheroes, scientists, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, activists, etc. So, I’ve been on this planet for a few decades, parents, guardians, teachers and librarians need to avail themselves of diverse book sources so they can offer a full complement of books. Sometimes, it takes a bit of research. For help, take a look at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators website. www.scbwi.org, as well as the We Need Diverse Books site: https://diversebooks.org/resources/where-to-find-diverse-books/
UT: I ask because it is not hard for white children, both boys and girls, to find movies where they find white characters represented as lawyers, doctors, teachers, parents, athletes, astronauts, or even just regular kids.
LH: I hope that Black Panther is used as a stepping-stone for Hollywood to create movies that focus on black characters in this array of roles. What are your thoughts on this? We have to keep in mind that children are looking for mirror and window books. First, they are often interested in books that open up their eyes to a culture or ethnic group, as much as they wish to see themselves. Second, it’s not just culture and ethnicity that interest young readers, it’s also books that reflect their disability, sexual preference, place in the world. The book world and Hollywood is paying attention.
My hope is we will see more diverse books and movies and the creators will be this next generation coming up. Take a look at the latest New York Times Best Seller list and movies based on books now in the works, we’re on our way.
UT: To wrap up, is there anything you would like for the Untitled Town audience to know, as it relates to your book or upcoming presentation, “The Audacity of Writing Children’s Books”?
LH: Writing children’s books is not for the faint of heart. It’s great fun and yet filled with the weight of meeting a young person’s expectations when he or she first opens your book. Writing any book is filled with lows and highs. A low point is when you sit hunched over a keyboard, questioning whether anyone will want to read your book. Author’s angst! A high mark is when you stand in front of an assembly of 200 kids, many eagerly squirming in the front row, holding a copy of your book. Then, you’re swarmed for autographs. That’s a lifetime memory.
Lora Hyler presents “The Audacity of Writing Children’s Books” on Saturday, April 21, at 10 am, in the KI Center Room A3.