by Adria Quiñones
The last year has seen heightened awareness and active discussion about the importance of providing diverse books for children. Inspired by the recent Children’s Book Center report on the lack of diversity among writers of children’s books and the rise of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, in February SCBWI offered a panel discussion about diversity with six professionals: authors Matt De La Peña and Rebecca Alexander, illustrator Eric Velasquez, publisher Stacy Whitman (Tu Books, a middle grade and YA genre fiction imprint at Lee & Low) and editor T.S. Ferguson (Harlequin Teen), moderated by Metro-NY Co-Regional Adviser Bridget Casey.
The panelists had similar visions of what diversity means. For illustrator Velasquez, diversity is “not just inclusion;” it’s about making a minority character the hero instead of the sidekick. Harlequin editor Ferguson noted that, “Everyone should have an equal voice. The loudest voice in the room shouldn’t be that of a white man.” Author De La Peña described a scene where, “We’ll read a description of someone walking into a coffee shop where there are three guys and a Mexican girl–she’s not just a girl, she’s marked [by being described as Mexican]. Diversity is focusing on the marked character.”
Velasquez continued, “We’re race-obsessed, but maybe we should be story-obsessed.” What kinds of stories should we try to tell? De la Peña suggested that diverse characters should be “in books for everyone, in stories that have nothing to do with diversity.” And what about trying to tell someone else’s story? Moderator Casey quoted Kwame Alexander’s session on diversity at the recent SCBWI Midwinter Conference, where he encouraged his audience to do their research and be respectful. Harlequin editor Ferguson advised the audience to “be open to criticism. Be willing to make changes.” Illustrator Velasquez was equally blunt: “Go out and meet somebody and have a conversation.” Rebecca Alexander, who writes about her experiences with disability, suggested authors write with eyes covered or ears blocked to gain empathy towards what it might be like to be blind or deaf.
The panelists agreed that to bring diversity to children’s literature, writers, illustrators and purchasers of children’s books have to take action. We must write, draw and buy books about characters who are diverse across all of the elements that make up the diversity spectrum. Tu Books publisher Whitman noted “11 axes of diversity,” including ethnicity, socio-economic stratum, gender identification, sexual orientation, beliefs and abilities. She suggested people not only buy diverse books but demand them when we can’t find them. “Take a list of books that you want to buy to your independent bookstore,” Whitman urged. “And if they don’t have them, ask them to order them for you.”
Several panelists mentioned the need to fight the belief that diverse books are only of interest to people of a particular subgroup. “When I published my book,” Alexander explained, “I would find it only in the Disabilities/Special Needs section of the bookstore, back in a corner behind a pillar. But able-bodied people also found themselves in my book.” Author De La Peña agreed. “It’s common for librarians to say, ‘We don’t need your book because we don’t have any students like that at our school.’ To which a writer-friend of mine responds, ‘Really? How many wizards do you have at your school?'”
Diverse books provide kids with a mirror, panelists agreed, but also with a window that shows how other people think and feel. As writers and illustrators, we should look to offer both.
For more resources, visit:
We Need Diverse Books Campaign: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/
Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Blog: http://www.cbcdiversity.com/
School Library Journal on “Embracing Diversity in YA”: http://www.slj.com/2013/09/teens-ya/embracing-diversity-in-ya-lit/
The Show Me Librarian’s post, “Selection is Privilege”: http://showmelibrarian.blogspot.com/2015/02/selection-is-privilege.html