Ellen Oh on Diversity in KidLit: Try Even Harder

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

via We Are Still Not Doing Enough for Diversity in Kid lit.

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.

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Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers Discuss Diversity in Children’s Lit in the New York Times


via The Storylines Project

Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers are two black children’s book authors who have written a plethora of books, both together and separate, that cater to the often ignored community of young black children. Walter Dean Myers, Christopher’s father, has written over fifty books including picture books and nonfiction. He has won the Coretta Scott King Award for African-American authors five times (thanks Wikipedia!). Christopher Myers is a writer also, who also illustrates his work and others’. They each wrote a piece for the NY Times regarding diversity (and the lack thereof) in children’s literature, each having decades in the business.

The Myers each have their own article stemming from the same abysmal percentage:

Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.”

That’s only 4%. And that’s in one recent year. I’m sure the numbers aren’t much better when you include figures from the last decade or the last century.

Walter begins by talking about his upbringing with books.

As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me. […]

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. […]

The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

What he says really resonates with me. I loved the books I read growing up and it wasn’t really until recently that I realized how few black children were in them. I actually can’t think of any at the moment–not too many black children in science-fiction/fantasy/mystery. Realizing that there are indeed books out there featuring children who look like me, even now, has seemed to–as Myers said–give me “permission” to write characters who were also black. The few stories that I wrote for school or for creative writing class or back when I was a kid had protagonists that weren’t really described, but were most often visualized as white. It’s so strange to think that the books you read have an influence on who you visualize when you write, but that’s another post I have in mind.

Myers then discusses an incident where two equally qualified people were reluctantly given an equal chance at a job–one was black, the other white–because the hiring manager couldn’t imagine a black chemist. Walter says that allowing for diverse children’s literature gives both black and white (and any other) children, a sense of black people as real and equal people in society.

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

We look to books, especially children’s books, to teach us about the world, teach us about things we haven’t yet experienced. So why is there a lack of books about non-slave, non-Civil Rights era black people? How can we get the books that are out there more visibility? So that future writers who are reading now don’t suffer the way I did, the way Walter Dean Myers did, and put reading to the side because they don’t feel represented. Or their writing suffers because they feel they’re not writing protagonists they can relate to. (Of course I’m not saying you can’t write protagonists that aren’t your race, but knowing you can and it doesn’t matter what genre you want to write in, is freeing.)

Christopher talks more about the separation of books about white kids from books featuring black kids.

“This apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth — has two effects. One is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated.”

 Christopher talks to children about the 4% figure and they’re confused as to why there are more books about talking animals than about black children, which reminds me of a similar issue on television, as tweeted by Wyatt Cenac: “No disrespect to monsters, but it’s weird that there are more TV shows starring vampires than starring minorities.” Seems the same goes for children’s literature.
Christopher goes on to talk about the publishing side of things. Publishers don’t publish books about black kids because they don’t see the demand for it.

The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.

He ends with this:

I will make a fantastic world, a cartography of all the places a girl like her can go, and put it in a book. The rest of the work lies in the imagination of everyone else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put that book in her hands.

It’s a personal mission statement, but also a call to action. Young black kids have a plethora of things keeping them away from books with characters like them. We all need to do our parts to make it easier for them to access them. Discussion helps. Telling teachers you know helps, librarians, parents, all of us. We need to help create more of a demand, stronger, louder demand for these books, so publishers have no choice but to provide them. Maybe we can get one made into a million dollar motion picture and it will start a new trend? Wishful thinking, sure, but if you shoot for the stars, even if you fail, you just might land on the moon.

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