The children's lit world is a-buzz over diversity! Everybody’s talking about how we need diverse books and diverse writers (and to a lesser extent, diverse illustrators), and they should be . . . But nobody is talking about the white chick in the room—especially not the white Writer chick in the room. I’m that chick.
There are two parts to the diverse books issue. Both of which, as a reader, educator, grandmother & citizen I recognize. Neither of which—beyond letting my book buying dollars speak for me—am I in a position to do much about. And, both of which are making middle-aged, female, marshmallow ME want to pull back into the corner I crawled into as a child to read, and crawled out of when I became a writer.
Social Media is to bless . . . and to blame.
Back in my youth (the second half of the last century), writers—authors—were invisible. What we young readers focused on was the story: if a story was compelling, interesting, engaging we read it, and shared it. With the exception of a select few we studied in school, none of us knew who wrote the books we read. No one cared much either, except when it was time to check out a new book.
This anonymity was both good and bad. Lightly brushing the surface, on the bad side, anonymity was partially responsible for the gross stereotyping, misrepresentation, and historic inaccuracies in literature we are trying to correct by pushing to support diverse writers, artists and books.
On the good side, this pre-social media anonymity allowed this white chick writer to hide behind my words. I was the girl who, while learning cursive back when we used No. 2 pencils and were graded on spelling and punctuation, wrote as lightly as possible so my teachers would have a hard time reading what I wrote, or notice any mistakes. The girl who, used books as invisibility cloaks at home. The girl who wrote her feelings because I would have had the crap beaten out of me if I’d dared say what I was thinking. Children in our house were only supposed to do what we were told—quietly—and smile.
I loved to write, and teachers praised my writing. But, lacking confidence in my own stories, I found my voice by telling other people’s stories. I could be anything I wanted to be, and write about anything I wanted to—Poof! Use initials and I’m a man! A pseudonym and I’m an abused wife! An Indian—(with tribal approval)! A Cambodian! A boy! Poof! Poof! Poof!
YES! Those who cares about literacy, education, community—children—know: We absolutely do NEED diverse books. Children like—and deserve—to see themselves and their ancestors accurately reflected in stories; children learn about others by meeting them in stories.
The graphic above shows books published in 2015 (and represents 2016 percentages too, according to Associate Professor and author of the post "Picture This", Sarah Park Dahlen, author/teacher Molly Beth Griffin & illustrator, David Huyck , the trio responsible for recently updating graphic.)
A huge majority of newly published books for children, 73.3% depict white characters; 12.5% animals, trucks & others, and the whole rest of humankind depicted in a mere 14.2%, while according to Wikipedia, about 62.6% of Americans identify themselves as white. BTW: no figures were included for gender, religious, ableness diversity…Due cause for another chart?)
YES! We do need people of diverse backgrounds writing for our children! For the same reasons stated above and more. If every story was the same, who’d ever need to read, or hear—or buy—more than one? (And goodness knows, as a kid, I wanted to read about anything else but my boring old self.) This isn’t the reason no one is talking about the white chick the room. In truth, much of the Diversity Matters talking is being done by white chicks.
As Sarah Park Dahlen noted in her post unveiling the graphic, the Minnesota Children’s Lit community which supported this updating is, "comprised mainly of white authors, illustrators, and editors working to promote anti-biased and anti-racist children's literature, support writers and artists from underrepresented communities, and remove barriers to inclusivity." Similar groups are forming all over America, including WNDB, We Need Diverse Books, and my own VCFA’s Young Writer’s Network connecting authors with children in an effort to “raise a new generation of diverse writers.” (I can’t speak for the world efforts...)
Who better to tell diverse stories than diverse authors and illustrators? This is the diversity question that has everyone ignoring the white chicks in the room. But is it the question we should be asking? Really?
Blogger, Kevin D.Hendricks a “work-at-home dad [who] wrestles with faith, social justice & story", charted the books he’d read during 2014, and wrote about his findings in his Jan.8, 2015 post “Defining Diversity is Kind of Tough.” When explaining his findings, Hendricks noted, “Sometimes you don’t know an author’s or a character’s ethnicity," and went on to explain: "In this case I made my best guess and counted any book with a non-white author or primary character (I didn’t chart other kinds of diversity—gender, sexuality, disability, religion, etc.—just because it was getting complicated). I’m sure I’m off in places.”
Writer Chick Me cringed when I read this. Not because Hendricks charted his booklist with an eye to reading more diverse stories. And not because he included authors (not illustrators, BTW) in the list. I cringed because he seemed disappointed that it was “kind of tough” sometimes to know an author's ethnicity from "the writing." Isn’t the goal of good writing for the author to be invisible?
Yes! Yes! Yes! Diversity in our literature, especially in our increasingly more global, changing, interconnected world does matter. We need to nurture and “support writers and artists from underrepresented communities, and remove barriers to inclusivity."
But does it have to be an OR situation? When it comes to writers & writing, should:
- WHO wrote the story matter to a reader sounding out her first books all-by-herself?
- WHO drew illustrations that sucked that child so deeply into that story he can’t even hear the TV matter, either?
- Should Diversity Matters mean AND?
If it shouldn't, then where does that leave white, middle-aged, marshmallow writer chick me?
Right now, striped of my invisibility cloak, I'm feeling more like a plucked chicken: raw, exposed, maybe even a tad too close to my sell by date, than I am a chick. What are my stories to tell? . . . Animals? Trucks? Songs about Rainbows?