Publishers need to tap into the reservoir of talented children’s book authors and illustrators of color for all children’s sake. Diversity in children’s literature doesn’t just benefit little Black and Brown kids. It’s important for all children to understand that other cultures are much more than a few historical figures or ethic traditions. Publishers must be committed to publishing books depicting non-white characters doing all sorts of things in all sorts of places. Equally important, educators must be committed to reading these books and promoting an appreciation and love of good children’s literature in all its varied forms.
Alvin Irby of Reading Holiday Project wrote this in an article about how children’s book lists, when they feature diverse books, usually feature works about the big historical events. These kinds of books, while important, can seem boring to a kid. Irby says,
It is important for children to learn about their history, but representations of non-white characters should be more diverse and not sacrifice the cultivation of wonderment that characterizes great children’s books or neglect the mission of children’s literature, which I believe is to help children better understand themselves and the world around them.
This is definitely a major reason why a lot of kids don’t want to read. The books that feature characters that look like them are always going through something rough or it’s a historical figure that they’re learning about in school. These stories are important, but can make a kid feel like reading is homework.
Young black girls and boys need stories that are about their everyday lives too. And stories that are about them going on grand adventures with aliens and time travel and talking animals. The same kinds of stories that feature white children. That way, reading is more fun for them and they feel they are being represented in the world. They feel like they can go on adventures and investigate new worlds, opening up their curiosity.
We must make sure that children are engaged in the books that we’re trying to get them to read. Appeal to their personalities and do the research to make sure that they read the historical books but also those that activate the imagination.
Irby’s Reading Holiday Project aims to provide black boys books at barbershops (say that 10 times fast!) and sounds like a really cool endeavor. Check it out!
Rosse writes regarding explaining cultural terms in her writing. Terms like “mami” or “papi” and the idea that constantly explaining them makes them “other” while things in British jargon, for example, are just quirks of being British–they don’t need to be explained. The reader will either figure it out or look it up.
I am currently reading Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. It’s cool so far, a mixture of technology, romance, and Middle Eastern culture. There might be a jinni soon! In the novel, Wilson uses Middle Eastern terminology regarding clothing, food, and even insults or praises between characters. Because I am reading the hardcopy and not an e-book, looking up things takes more effort (just saying that my vocab skyrockets when I can press and hold a word and the definition comes up–a point in favor of e-books from my hardcopy loving self). I have looked up a few things, but either you can figure them out or it’s there to lend authenticity but not knowing precisely what it is doesn’t hinder from the reading experience. If it comes up twice and you still don’t know, look it up.
I think some of the problem we have to day is that we are lazy. I know I can be. I will move on rather than look something up. But if Wilson had replaced or explained the cultural terms she uses, I would be even lazier and it would bog own the narrative of the story. I wouldn’t use context clues to figure out a definition or an insult. And I wouldn’t learn something new about a culture that isn’t my own. In America, where so many people are different, we sure do want to homogenize everything. We accept different European cultures and traditions as being the norm (Halloween but not Dia de Meurtos, Christmas but not Kwanzaa), but don’t even want to learn about the traditions of other cultures.
It’s a common argument that diversity in children’s literature will make them more aware of the larger world and knowledge of how to accept and interact with people of different backgrounds, but it also will help them be smarter. Learn from context clues, research definitions, learn about cultural traditions, and/or delve into new histories and world facts. Get those gears working.
[R]ight now, we are so underrepresented that we have to announce our presence, so we are no longer invisible. When enough of us do so, and seeing a Person of Color in a book, or movie, or TV show is no longer an event, but just normal, completely ordinary, then our ultra-visibility will become another kind of invisibility, but a good kind of invisibility, born of equality instead of otherness.
Click through to read via Book Riot a piece on getting more power players in the kid/YA lit industry to talk more about issues of diversity on behalf of those with not as many followers to their name (yet).
Several months ago, I was at a school event where a very young black girl was standing shyly off to the side as I was chatting with some 6th grade students after my presentation. She gave me her notebook and asked me to sign it, which I was glad to do. It was a book of her own poetry and short stories. I smiled and said “I’m so glad to meet a young writer!” She beamed at me and said “I love writing and I want to be a writer but I didn’t think I could because I’m not white.” I was surprised and asked her if she’d read any books by Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, or Linda Sue Park. She nodded and shrugged her shoulder and said, “But I’ve never seen them in person.” To this young teen, an author of color was a mythical creature, not to be believed, until she’d seen one in person. She couldn’t believe in her dream to become a writer until she saw for herself that a real life POC had done it. This is why we must continue to fight for diversity in children’s literature. For all of our children, so that they can see that we exist and that they can believe that their dreams of becoming whatever they want, can come true.
Ellen Oh talks about how enough isn’t being done to promote diversity in children’s literature. Yes, there are great publishers whose missions are diversity and yes some major publishers have diversity imprints, and yes it’s been in the new recently (the Myers’ Times articles and a recent CNN article) and yes there are PoC authors being published, but it’s still not enough.
We can’t settle. Less than 10% of children’s literature is by People of Color. We shouldn’t aim for 10% and consider it done when we reach it. Recently, admissions statistics for my alma mater were told to me and the percentages for admission for African-American students was 6%, but the school was proud of their 6%. For it to be better than last year is great, but an air of “let’s continue to do even better” was missing. Maybe it’s the idea of celebrating too early. I’m glad representation is increasing, but let’s do more work before popping the champagne at every turn.
The passage above is so real to me, because I fell off of writing for a long time because I wasn’t feeling it, and I think that reason was because I was writing characters who were white, while I was surrounded by people of color. My characters had been white washed and it took me until recently to consciously acknowledge this fact and it’s still taking me effort to stop defaulting my characters to white. But because most of the characters I read are white, my brain has taken to imagining all characters as white. I need to force my own imagination to populate itself with people of color and I’ve been reading instances where others had to do the same. A terrible thing for self-esteem and representation. More authors of color, especially in the children’s book industry would be so beneficial to children seeing themselves positively both in the world and their own imagination.
I learned early on that only white children had wonderful adventures in distant lands; only white children were magically transported through time and space; only white children found the buried key that unlocked their own private Eden.
When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.
Rudine Sims Bishop