Diversity in Children’s Literature: The Search for the Missing Characters (and Authors!) of Color

courtesy scholastic.com

courtesy scholastic.com

A recent study conducted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin discovered something shocking. Of 3,200 children’s books released in 2013, a mere 223 were by authors of color, and 253 were about people of color.

If you break that down by ethnic group, that amounts to 93 books about African/African American characters (and only 67 by African/African American authors); 57 about Latino/as; and 69 about Asian and Pacific Islanders. And it was an embarrassing 34 books about Native American characters, with only 18 of those books actually written by Native American authors. No matter how you slice it, it’s no where near enough; a mere fraction of the percentages of those communities represented in the U.S. population.

courtesy bookriot.com

courtesy bookriot.com

At least it has generated some serious conversations. In last month’s New York Times Sunday Review, Walter Dean Meyers asked: Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books? In Meyer’s words, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

In the same issue, Meyers’ son, Christopher Meyers wrote of The Apartheid of Children’s Literature, suggesting that a dearth of characters of colors in children’s literature results not only in children being unable to see themselves in the stories they read (what we might call the ‘mirror’ function of literature), but also in children being unable to chart their future possibilities (what we might call the ‘map’ function of literature, in other words ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’). He argued,

[Children] create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations…We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.

Subsequently, there’s been a lot of buzz about ‘diversity’ in children’s literature. Interestingly, most of that ‘buzz’ has been about YA books, including this CNN post which asks, “Where’s the African American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?” (Ok, never mind that Katniss was described as olive-skinned in the books, I won’t even go there..)  Author Heather Tomlinson has done a terrific round-up of some of the recent ‘diversity’ conversations taking place here on her blog, including this comprehensive post from bookriot (with even more links) which urges “We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kidlit.” In the post, author Kelly Jensen asks,

In a world where John Green takes up nearly half of the New York Times YA Bestsellers list… why aren’t more people like him, with enormous social platforms, giving a little time to these conversations? What does he — or any other of a number of well-positioned, socially-connected YA authors (white men and some white women) — stand to lose from addressing these concerns? Would a reblog or a retweet of one of the first of a series of stories kill their career? Or would it help the voices of those who deserve to be heard get that attention? Would they reach members of their fan bases eager to discover more stories that they have been craving?

Diversity talk seems to be all around the industry right now. When, in mid-March, an attendee at the the New York City Teen Author Book Festival asked why she had only seen  one author of color speak all weekend, no one had a good answer for her. Agent Jim McCarthy, who had an author speaking on one of those all-white panels, subsequently wrote about the experience, asking the following interesting questions: “…where is the root of the problem? Is it in the largely white make-up of the publishing industry? Are we weeding out material by and about experiences we simply don’t understand? Is there an institutional racism that hasn’t been broached yet?”

The issue of institutional racism is a huge one, and it’s one that negates the claim that maybe authors of color don’t write, or at least, don’t write as well as white authors. In a powerful essay called “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power and Publishing,”  called the children’s publishing industry to task. The Market, he argues, is not a mysterious and ineffable thing (Who knows! It’s just The Market!), but rather, something constructed by people — people who chose which books to publish, which books to write about/share/review, and which books to economically support regarding promotion and marketing. Blaming authors of color for not knowing ‘their craft’ is simply “the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of a mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being at the bottom. If it’s not the intangible Market that’s to blame, it’s the writers of color, who maybe don’t have what it takes and don’t submit enough anyway. Read the subtextual coding here – the agent first places the onus of change on the folks with the least institutional power to effect it, then suggests we probably won’t be able to find the time (i.e., lazy) to master the craft.”

Older quotes from this Vanity Fair interview with actress Anika Noni Rose, in which she says, “There are so many writers of color out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’ Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the color of what they are?”

enhanced-buzz-3576-1389829729-25

courtesy juliedillonart.com, courtesy buzzfeed.com

The issue is one that is as central to Middle Grade novels and Middle Grade authors as YA novels and authors. Is there an apartheid in MG literature? The numbers surely suggest yes. Rather than blaming The Market or, worse still, middle grade authors of color, perhaps we as a community need to come up with some solutions. These solutions might include:

1. As the CNN article suggests, BIGGER MEGAPHONES. Who are the biggest middle grade names and voices out there? Kate DiCamillo, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, WE NEED YOU (and people like you) to not only support books by and about people of color, but lend your voice and considerable authority to the conversation.

2. Agents and Editors willing to believe in, invest in, and market authors of color (and stories about characters of color). But agents and editors need support too – so we need agencies and publishing houses committed to issues of diversity. (While recognizing that some are already so, I’m looking at you, Tu Books)

How can you help your organization put diversity on the agenda? Maybe your agency/publishing house needs to regularly read and share blogs addressing diversity like that of the  CBC diversity committee. Maybe your agency/publishing house needs to have a book club, google hang out, or twitter chat where you read, discuss and recommend to each other stories by and about people of color (even from among books you don’t represent!). Maybe your agency/publishing house needs to hire more agents or editors of color! Maybe your agency/publishing house could publicly pledge to increase the number of authors of color they represent, or books they publish by and about people of color! (And become an industry leader and role model for doing so!)

3. Librarians, teachers, parents, and readers to promote and embrace stories by and about characters of color – and not just during African- or Asian American history months! Stories that represent our diverse world are needed by all children all year round – not once a month, and not simply trotting out special ‘ethnic’ books for ‘ethnic’ children. And think about genre, too — are all the stories about African American characters historical fiction addressing segregation and slavery? Does your science fiction and fantasy collection feature any Native American, Asian American or Latino/a authors?

4. Authors Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo established the Diversity in YA blog (and reading series!), perhaps there needs to be a similar blog set up called Diversity in MG!

5. Established authors paying attention to ‘who else is at the table’ (or on the panel, as the case may be). Is there a wonderful author of color or book about a character of color you love? Pass it on to your editor or agent! Talk it up on your blog! Tweet, Instagram or shout from the rooftops about it! Someone helped you get where you are, why not pay it forward? (while this is related to point #1 above about bigger megaphones, I also don’t think you need to be a ‘major name’ to support diversity.)

Authors, how’s this for an easily achievable step: When invited to speak somewhere, take the responsibility to ask who else is coming. I learned this trick from several white male academics I know who, when asked to speak somewhere, always ask who else is going to be there. If they realize it will be yet another all  white panel/speaker series/conference, they suggest other names. I actually know of one man who has bowed out of several panels to make room for other voices. Now I’m not advocating for tokenism (stick that one person of color on the panel!) but for us as colleagues to think how even small everyday actions can help us be a part of the solution, rather than  part of perpetuating the problem.

6. All authors paying attention to the diversity present in their stories. Now, like my comment on panels above, this doesn’t mean ‘stick in a token kid of color/disabled kid/LGBTQ kid’ into your story, but rather, that we all write stories that reflect the world around us (and most of us live in a pretty diverse world). There are plenty of good resources on writing cross culturally out there – but I recommend this post on the “12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other (and the Self)”  by , and this one by Cynthia Leitich Smith called “Writing, Tonto and the Wise Cracking Minority Sidekick who is the First to Die.” 

N.B. Although obviously important, I put this point about writing across cultures purposefully last. This is because I think it problematic that conversations about diversity in children’s literature so often become only about non-POC authors being ‘brave’ enough to write racially diverse stories. Now, I’m not endorsing any type of essentialism – ie. suggesting something ridiculous and limiting like authors should only write about characters whose ethnicities, sexualities, genders, etc. are exactly like theirs. Of course not. But I still want to borrow here a slogan from the disability activism movement: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us.’ In other words, I think that any conversation about racial diversity in kidlit has to be first about encouraging, nurturing, publishing, promoting and celebrating authors of color. (Right? Right.)

What other solutions do you as a readership suggest? Let’s use the comments section to  brainstorm – and of course celebrate your favorite middle grade stories by and about people of color!

5 Responses to Diversity in Children’s Literature: The Search for the Missing Characters (and Authors!) of Color

  1. Let’s not forget an equally important way to promote diversity in books: by creating characters like best buddies Jason and Chazz in my just published adventure novel Ghost Road. Jason is white, Chazz is African American, and their skin color isn’t any issue in their friendship. Far from being “color blind” they’re pals because they like each other, period.

  2. TRUE !!! I for one am dedicated to always include, or focus in on, children of other races, cultures and beliefs in my writing for middlegraders. It’s not that I only think it’s the “correct thing to do”, I can’t help but do it as I find these children much more interesting than the average computer-videogames USA kids, and I feel deeply that these same USA kids should get to know children from other cultures and other races, if at least through books. I felt this way even when I was an average USA kid.

  3. Hello there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my zynga group?
    There’s a lot of folks that I think would really appreciate your content.
    Please let me know. Thanks

    For the best response please check out this page … click here

  4. The issue is white privilege that exists in spades in the publishing industry and elsewhere. I found it in my town via our high school musical http://ilovenewton.com/18-white-people-understand-white-privilege/ … but it’s also benignly rampant in the mostly white publishing industry.

  5. Great post on an issue that concerns us all. I try and have a very diverse cast of characters in my books whether picture books or YA. Sometimes it is my protagonist and sometimes it is other characters, i.e., trying to reflect our society!