I am both heartened and depressed with the recent push for diversity in children’s book publishing. I’m heartened because I find something about diversity almost daily in blog posts, magazines, newspapers and on Facebook pages. The SCBWI, an international organization at the forefront of children’s writing and illustrating, has even added a new diversity discussion board where members can meet, discuss, learn, and plan for a new way forward.
And I believe to my core that We Need Diverse Books.
Stories (and story illustrations) are one way children learn and interpret their world. It’s how we show them that their world is not divided into an US and a THEM. Race, religion, disability, or sexuality. Different isn’t bad. Different isn’t something to be afraid of. Different is interesting.
Then there are the children of diversity. Without stories, which include them as characters, we relegate these children to supporting characters. Tokens. Or worse, they become invisible. If children cannot see themselves in story, how can they ever recognize themselves as heroes? Not just in the story, but in life?
I REALLY want this initiative to succeed. But…
There’s a lot of reactionary social media madness flying around these days. Accusations, condemnations. Equally dangerous are the empty platitudes about diversity.
Way back in the 80’s we fought for diversity and against appropriation of voice. (There are a lot of you out there who are too young to remember this.) Now, it’s 2015 and we’re still fighting. Hence the depression. think success must involve adopting a BEST PRACTISE approach where everyone can feel free to identify and discuss potential missteps and brainstorm possible solutions without all the mudslinging. Likewise, I’d hate to see publishers be given a free pass just because they the took the Diversity Baseline Survey and didn’t suck.
Here are some of my Red Flags I’d welcome a chance to discuss
1. “We know what we don’t know.”
At a recent diversity panel, an editor from a big publishing house was asked if there was a vetting process for diversity in manuscripts. The publishers response was, “We know what we don’t know.”
I get that there is a serious and honorable attempt by many publishers to be watchful, considerate and inclusive. This publisher was no exception. She’s intelligent and, I believe, a good woman. But when she offered a successful 2003 title as an example of diversity, I felt ill. Followed immediately by a frantic waving of hands while I tried, and failed to get her attention. The novel that she was so proud of, featured a character who reeked of cultural cliché. (And no, I’m not going to say which novel it was). It was a red flag for me. Apparently she didn’t know what she didn’t know.
2. Please include Diverse Voices in Fiction BUT…
At the same panel writers and illustrators were being openly encouraged to include diverse voices and characters in their fiction. One brave soul put up her hand during the Q&A. She’d clearly embraced the ethos of diversity and wanted to be part of the solution. But, she was concerned about getting it right and was asking for some guidance. Her’s was a good question. The only question really, if you don’t want to contribute to clichés. What followed was cringe-worthy. A panelist actually asked her why she would chose to include a diverse character if that character’s diversity wasn’t integral to the plot. This, just minutes after novels were lauded for doing just that. For having secondary or tertiary characters who just happened to be physically handicapped, gay, lesbian, etc. Clearly they had no good answer for her but couldn’t admit it. Instead, they risked alienating a caring, ethical writer who had listened carefully to what was being discussed and wanted to help. We need to do better. I’d love to hear ideas and resources for how this can be accomplished.
3. Whose Voice should we hear?
As Camryn Garret said in her Huff Post article, “Look, sometimes white people write good characters of color. But the idea is that we don’t want them writing all of them. We want to write our own stories.”
This isn’t a new debate. Far from it. Back in the 80’s in Canada, Bill Kinsella (Shoeless Joe, The Hobbema Indian Stories) and Rudy Wiebe (The Temptation of Big Bear) argued loudly about who best told the story of First Nations People. The irony of course is that they were both old, white, male university writer-professors writing First nation stories. Translation…Privileged and Powerful.
I’m not advocating that only minorities should write minority stories, nor would I ever say that the voice of one member of a minority or disenfranchised group can speak for all its community. But if we’re seriously interested in generating diversity, we need more books FROM these communities and not simply about them.
4. Affirmative Action in Publishing?
Milestone or Millstone? Affirmative action has been implemented in other parts of our lives. Would it work in publishing? “Affirmative action programs are meant to break down barriers, both visible and invisible, to level the playing field, and to make sure everyone is given an equal break. They are not meant to guarantee equal results — but instead proceed on the common-sense notion that if equality of opportunity were a reality, African Americans, women, people with disabilities and other groups facing discrimination would be fairly represented in the nation’s work force and educational institutions.” (www.civilrights.org)
Would this work for publishing? I’m not sure, but I’d be very interested to hear this debated.
I don’t want another 30 years to go by and have us continue to get it wrong. I dream that by the time I have grandkids they’ll have buckets and buckets of diverse books at their fingertips.