Bedtime stories that challenge gender stereotypes

My favorite bedtime stories are ones with soft rhymes that roll off your tongue like lullabies. One of our family favorites is Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker. 

After a day filled with hard work and tough manual labor, the trucks are ready to turn in and rest before another invigorating day at the construction site. The rhythm is relaxing; the illustrations are beautiful. 

There’s just one problem. All of the trucks are males.

I could go on about all the masculine stereotypes of this reinforces, or stand on my soap box shouting, “gender is not binary.” But my point here is that stereotypes around gender are deeply rooted in our culture and society. 

I advocate for more inclusive children’s literature, but changing society’s, editors’, writers’ and publishers’ mindsets, investments and habits takes time. 

So what can we do while we’re working toward larger, longer-term societal change? 

Read books that challenge gender stereotypes

Add books that challenge gender stereotypes to your bedtime routine and reading repertoire. A few of our family favorites include:

Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

The illustrations are mesmerizing. But it’s message? It will melt your heart. This Stonewall Book Award winner captures the warmth and beauty of true unconditional love. When Julián pretends to a mermaid, his grandmother’s does not yell or tell him to wipe the lipstick from his face. Instead, she moved me to tears of happiness with her acceptance and compassion. 

Not Every Princess by Jeffrey Bone and Lisa Bone

There are no limits on what we can dream, so why should society get to place such rigid gender roles and limitations on us? This book reassures readers that their imagination, their ability to see an opportunity that may not currently exist, is the foundation to making their dreams come true. It allows readers to see themselves beyond stereotypes.

And a helpful bonus: the book includes a special note to parents and caregivers with additional ways you can encourage children to challenge gender roles.

The Prince and The Dressmaker by Jen Wang

This graphic novel is about a prince who likes to wear dresses. At first he feels like he must hide his true self from those he loves, his kingdom and his father. But through the friendship and love of his dressmaker, he is able to see he is strongest when he is free to be who his is, dress and all. 

Pink is for Boys by Robb Pearlman

This book aims to teach young readers that they can love, use and wear any color of the rainbow. It helps me fight the belief that some colors are girly and some are “for boys.” Colors are for everyone. 

Mint green, sky blue, rose pink, plum purple paint dabs sit on a white table

Are the colors on your website accessible?

Colors choice is important. It helps sets the tone for what you, your brand/business and your website are all about. If you’re a middle grade or picture book writer, you might use warm, primary colors to evoke a playful sense of youth. If you’re a fantasy writer you might look for more mature, deep colors to strike a serious, adventurous tone. But there’s one more important thing you should consider before selecting your color palette–make sure your color choices are accessible to all users, regardless of visual or cognitive disabilities.

What is web accessibility and why should you care?

Simply put, web accessibility means that your website is designed and developed in a way that allows ALL people to use it, regardless of any chronic or temporary disabilities they may have. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are developed by The World Wide Web Consortium in collaboration with individuals and organizations. It strives to define a single, shared, international standard for accessibility across all digital content.

From a font perspective, this means that your font needs to have enough contrast between it and its background so that it can easily be read. For example, imagine an individual who is color blind is trying to navigate and read your blog content. Can they see your headlines and the body of your post?

There are a number of benefits to ensuring your color (and your whole website for that matter) are accessible. In addition to building content that all can experience and enjoy, you’re also optimizing your content for search engines (SEO).

Search engines want to be sure they’re delivering the highest quality results to their users. This means search engines not only evaluate WHAT the content on your site is but also HOW it’s built and displayed.

In this regard, there are a number of ways that SEO and accessibility overlap: page structure and heading tags, image alternative text, as well as size and contrast of text, to name a few.

Double-check colors in pre-built website templates

You might be thinking, “I picked a template from Squarespace or WordPress, so I’m good. They must screen or ensure those meet standards right?”

Unfortunately, that’s wrong.

Few sites screen template designs (especially their free ones) to ensure accessibility standards are being upheld. So it’s your responsibility to confirm the colors you want to use are accessible.

How to test contrast and accessibility

How much contrast do you need? WCAG requires a 4.5:1 contrast ratio between the foreground (your text) and the background.

Thankfully there are a number of sites that offer free tools that help you test the accessibility of your colors. I prefer this contrast checker by Web Accessibility In Mind, because it’s easy to see if your color passes or fails WCAG standards, and allows you to manipulate a color’s hue to see if deepening or lightening the color improves the contrast ratio.

A screenshot of WebAIM's contrast checker shows a light purple color on white background fails accessibility test

Crumpled pieces of yellow paper sits next to a laptop, pencils and a cup of coffee.

Why your broad blogging approach is harming your online presence

crumpled piece of paper lies on table next to pencils and a laptop

What’s the number one mistake bloggers make? They cast their nets too wide. They blog about anything and everything that comes to mind. And, as a result, their content is typically broad, unfocused or too basic to be helpful.

Casting a big net doesn’t mean you’ll reap bigger rewards. You’ll spend a lot of time trying to draw in readers who will only stick around to read one article. Or worse, they might not find much meat, quality or merit in what you’re saying because it’s too broad. The number of readers visiting a page isn’t necessarily the most important measure of success when it comes to SEO (Search Engine Optimization.

More traffic doesn’t mean better search ranking

If 10,000 people view your post, but leave your blog after only a few seconds–that indicates to search engines like Google that your content isn’t very great or informative. Google is all about helping users find the most relevant content when they need it most. When Google sees users quickly leaving your blog, they tag your post with a lower quality score. As a result, your search ranking will typically be lower as well.

If you only have a few hundred readers but a majority of them spend several minutes on your page, and possibly even click through to read other articles, Google marks your content with a higher quality score, that will help improve your rankings in organic search results.

That’s who we’re after here–those highly-engaged and dedicated readers who are deeply interested in the specific subject matter.

This is why your first step of creating a blog should be to define your niche audience. Get as specific as possible. For example, my niche audience isn’t just authors (that’s too broad). Instead, it is children’s and young adult authors (narrowing in), who are beginning to build or rethink their digital presence (narrowed–ding, ding, ding).

Write deeply in order to build audience engagement

Once you’ve defined your niche audience, move on to define your value proposition. What unique insight or needs are you going to fulfill for this audience? What questions are you prepared to help answer for them?

The Internet has turned humans into instant-gratification seekers. We have very specific questions and we want to find the best answer right now. We live our life in what Google likes to call “micro moments.”

Blogging is all about answering those specific micro-moment questions.

You might be afraid that narrowing your focus limits the blog topics available to you. But I think you’ll be surprised at the number of micro moments and questions that emerge the deeper into the issue or topic you go. As you plan your blog content, you’ll be able to explore one facet/angle, deeply and thoroughly over the course of your blog’s lifetime.

Writers, please note, your blog does not necessarily need to be craft and publishing related. Your blog doesn’t even need to target the same audience as your novels (i.e. your readers).

As you begin to launch your blog, here are a few questions to consider to help you think through your value proposition and determine your blog’s purpose and theme:

  • What are the re-emerging themes in your novels?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What issues are you passionate about?
  • What subjects or topics are you passionate about?
  • What skills do you possess that others might like to learn?
  • What issues or pieces of the writing process/industry interest you the most?

If you’re having trouble coming up with topics within a narrowed category, re-evaluate whether or not you have the knowledge or skills to write on that subject matter. You should select the topic that you’re most qualified to and interested to write about.

And don’t give me that “I’m not qualified” excuse. I believe we’re all skilled at something. We all have unique talents to share. 

A woman reads Google Analytics on her laptop in a conference room.

3 tips for building an awesome author website

over a shoulder we see a man reviewing website analytics on his laptop

If you’re reading this post, it’s probably safe to assume you’re getting ready to launch your author website. So let me start by saying, “Congratulations!” You’re taking a big step forward in building your digital brand and presence!

No matter what layout or design you choose for your website, here are three things you’ll want to keep in mind:

1. Building a brand takes time

Building a brand doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and consistent energy, so be thoughtful in what you publish.

Search algorithms are constantly trying to improve results for users—they want to be sure they’re pointing users to the best possible content. Your website will be ranked based on it’s authority and relevancy (among other factors).

How can you improve your site’s authority? One way is to have other sites of authority link back to your content. And the best way to get others to link to your content is to have content worth sharing in the first place.

Stop to consider: What are you the expert in? What can you offer readers that others cannot? Then write and produce blogs or content of that nature for your website.   

2. Don’t wait until you have a book deal to build your website

Often times, I see authors cramming all of their marketing and digital brand development into that period between their book deal and publication date—all while simultaneously trying to complete final revisions and working on their next novel.

If at all possible, begin building your digital brand as early in your professional writing career as possible. I recommend starting your website when you’re starting to querying agents.

If you already have a book deal and are just now starting your website—don’t panic. It’s never too late to start building your digital presence.  My advice here is simply don’t procrastinate.  

3. Don’t skimp on buying a domain name

Gone is the day of paying an arm and a leg for a developer to build a website for you. Nowadays, there are a lot of free or affordable platforms that the everyday writer and business owner can use to design, customize, and maintain their websites (Squarespace and WordPress, to name a two).

Let’s face it, writers don’t make a ton of money. We can’t afford to spend more than necessary on business expenses. The one thing don’t want to skimp on, though, is your domain name.

Your domain name is the web address that individuals will type into their browser to find your website (for example my domain name is sacassell.com).  Search bots are crawling the web, indexing pages and content—looking for keywords users might be using in their search queries. Having a domain name that’s tied directly to your brand as an author, will help your website appear in search results related to you, your books and your writing.

When you use the free domains offered by these sites (i.e. yourname.squarespace.com or yourname.wordpress.com), you’re actually helping wordpress and squarespace improve their search rankings, not your own.

Both WordPress and Squarespace offer affordable, annual custom domains. If you have an annual plan through Squarespace, your plan actually includes one custom domain for a year.  Then, you’ll pay a small (currently $20) annual fee to Squarespace for the continued use of your my custom domain name.

Multi-colored books and succulent plants sit on four wood shelves

4 ways to trim your book budget…without sacrificing your to-be-read list

Like many avid readers, I have a problem.

While the piles of to-be-read books on my shelves do spark joy for me, they also spark anxiety over all the money I’ve spent on them. Those four books? That’s $100 I could have put toward a new laptop. And those three over there? That’s half a student loan payment. 

In 2017, I made the financial decision to go cold turkey. I didn’t stop reading, mind you. Only stopped purchasing books for myself. 

It’s one of the best decisions I have ever made. 

I am not the only one trimming my book budget these days. Fellow Rioter, Courtney Rodgers is in the throngs of her no buy year, which eliminates all unnecessary shopping not just books.

I wish Courtney the same luck I found. It’s nearly three years later, I am still going strong. 

So how do I manage to maintain the habit without hurting my budget?

Curate a wish list for gift ideas

I recognized that the root of my anxiety was my personal financial expenditure. If you were to buy me a book and it waited patiently on my shelf for its turn to be read, I felt no remorse. So for holidays and my birthday, I share my reading wish list with those who were looking for gift ideas. 

Curating the list forced me to really prioritize what I wanted to read, and what I was too impatient to wait for at my library. It’s truly a win-win. I get a gift I am excited about (like Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Gaudin) and my loved ones say they’re saved the stress of wondering, “Has Sarah read this yet?” 

Find a book swap buddy (or two!)

There’s no better friend than one who will lend you their books. I often find that some of my favorite reads have been titles lent to me by a loved one. (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, for example). 

Any time I am at my sister’s or aunt’s house, I browse their shelves and ask to borrow something if it catches my eye. 

If you don’t have a friend who shares your tastes, you can always explore community events. Books swaps, Little Free Libraries and Buy Nothing groups allow neighbors to share easily with one another.

The catch? Give as freely as you get. If you expect to borrow books, please extend the same courtesy and open your library in return.

Earn credit to the Google book store

Did you know you can earn rewards by participating in Google surveys? Simply download the app and surveys will be sent to you periodically. They are usually less than four questions each. You don’t earn credit for every survey you complete, but in the three years I’ve been participating,  I have earned more than $120.  I apply my credit to my Google Books app to support and buy the latest work of my favorite authors. (My latest purchase was Pride by Ibi Zoboi.) 

Get familiar with Libby

Libby by Overdrive, allows me to browse, borrow and read (or listen to) items from my local library all within one single app. The app also curates some great reading lists that make it easy to explore diverse topics and titles I might never have heard of before.