Category Archives: Op-Ed

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?”

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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!

What a dinner party taught me about writing fiction

DSC_6119I recently hosted a dinner party. Not an easy task for me – especially since “Mom” got added to my title – so I planned it all out and made list after list (my husband would call it obsessive, I call it organized and prepared).

Ingredients for a great dinner party (and how it compares to fiction):

-       perfect guest list (characters)

-       spotlessly clean house (setting)

-       menu complete with drinks, allergy considerations and kid friendly food (plot)

The day arrived. Everything was going smoothly – according to plan.

One hour before the guests were due to arrive my husband received bad news from his family overseas. (Characters in chaos!)

Half an hour before the guests were due to arrive my seven year old had a melt down and tore apart the house. (Scene altered!)

Ten minutes before the guests were due to arrive the power went out. (Dinner was in the oven, so this messed up the plot in more ways than one…)

Did the party go on?  YESDSC_6109

Did our guests have fun? YES

Did I have fun? Well…

There were moments of worry as we lit candles and then tried kept the kids away from them. There was stress as I pulled pasta out of the freezer to cook on the gas stove and raided my non-working fridge for sauce ingredients. Anxiety as my husband and I listened for the phone in hopes of an update on our hospitalized relative. And every time I tripped over a toy I was reminded that I no longer had control of the situation (and I don’t like losing control).

But… was the evening memorable?  YES!!

I think the event would have been successful (and I would’ve had a few less grey hairs)  if it had gone according to plan. But it wouldn’t have been as memorable. And probably not as fun. It was the unexpected – the extra stress, the extra tension – that made it special.

So, for my next work of fiction I will plan – characters, setting, plot – but I won’t bother with a detailed outline. I will let it unfold in ways that I don’t expect, no matter how hard the task or how grey the hair.

And hopefully  the outcome will be special – more special than anything I could’ve planned on my own.

Yolanda Ridge is the author of Trouble in the Trees (Orca Book Publishers, 2011) and Road Block (Orca Book Publishers, 2012).

Saying No

ProtestThere are a lot of things that my kids do better than me.  But the one that stands out at this hectic time of year? Saying no.

When my kids don’t want to do something, they say no.  When my kids don’t have time to do something, they say no.  When my kids are in a bad mood, they say no.

Me?  I always seem to say yes. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I don’t have time. And even if it puts me in a bad mood.

I know I’m not alone. In this busy world, we are constantly being asked to do just one more “little” thing.

Parents are asked to do a lot of extras; join the PTA, bake for a class party, volunteer for the next field trip, coach a team…. so much that we often do it at the expense of our children.

Authors are asked to do a lot for free; one more blog post, a quick review of something a friend wrote, a writing workshop, an extra author visit… so much that we don’t have time to actually write.

Even Volunteers are asked to do just a little bit more; lead the next fundraising effort, organize a meeting, write the holiday newsletter… so much that we get burned out.

And I know it’s the same for teachers, librarians, and everyone else…

It’s hard to say no, because all these things are important and someone has to do it.  But I’ve started to notice that I’m not doing things as well as I could.  I’m not enjoying things as much as I should.  And I’m not helping anyone by always saying yes.

keep-calm-and-just-say-no-76As we head into 2014, my goal is to practice saying no.  Not because I’m in a bad mood but because I’ve prioritized my time to respect what really matters; my family and my writing.

I hope it doesn’t sound too grinchy, but I’m giving myself the gift of no this season. And I’m extending the present to all of you… parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and readers.

It’s not selfish to say no.  It’s important – and it’s something we can learn from our kids.

 

Yolanda Ridge is the author of Trouble in the Trees (Orca Book Publishers, 2011) and Road Block (Orca Book Publishers, 2012). Ironically, both are about a feisty 12-year-old girl who wouldn’t take no for an answer.