Diversity Part 2

I originally posted this article on WritersRumpus.com.

mosquito01As one of my heroes, the Dalai Lama, once said…“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  Let’s each one of us be the mosquito!   —Lin Oliver

This week Lin Oliver, co-founder and Executive Director of the international Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), posted a great article on making all forms of diversity in children’s publishing more mainstream to reflect our world. Many of her action items are for the gatekeepers who publish or otherwise make books available for kids, while others are aimed at writers and illustrators. SCBWI has been offering panels, workshops, and hiring diverse speakers for years. During the New England regional SCBWI15 conference in May 2015, there was a panel discussion on diversity; additionally Kwame Alexander and other diverse authors and illustrators gave inspiring talks and workshops. A similar scope of diverse offerings happened at the organization’s summer conference in Los Angeles last week. Probably the biggest news on this issue is that SCBWI and We Need Diverse Books have struck up a collaborative venture through the SCBWI Blueboards. And SCBWI has posted a Diversity Resources goldmine here.

artistic-2063__180Last June I posted an article on Writers’ Rumpus titled Naturalized Diversity, which covered many aspects of this topic. In my view, all writers and artists can make a difference by including diverse characters in our books, which will accurately reflect who we are as Americans and citizens of this planet. Progress continues to be made, especially in awareness, but there’s lots more that can be done. Each of us can devise ways to help children see themselves or people familiar to them in the books they read.

Current attention from We Need Diverse Books and other groups ensures that this emphasis will continue. Their writer’s page lists many resources for creatives who are diverse or who want to include diversity in their books. Here’s one example: Malinda Lo’s thoughtful post Avoiding LGBTQ Stereotypes, which was written for straight authors in particular. And I’ve slapped my wrist upon reading Mitali Perkins’ list of things to avoid when writing race. A mistake I’ve made with two recent short stories is that I used the Americanized version of the country names. Eesh. I do know better. I have fixed these: Iceland should be Ísland (which I did use correctly in a recent novel, but not in the short story) and is pronounced like eesland but means ice land. Also España is the authentic version of Spain. That won’t work in the case of country names that use other alphabets, though.

I asked three questions of Lee Wind, SCBWI 2015 Member of the Year. Lee Wind, M.Ed. is a writer, blogger and speaker out to empower LGBTQ Teens and their Allies.

These are Lee Wind’s responses:

JAZ:  What in your view was the biggest stride forward for LGBTQ and other diverse  books in 2015?

LW: I think it’s maybe the “yes, and” idea that just like there’s always a place for first straight-love stories, we’ll always need new stories where coming out is the big deal (like Jandy Nelson’s beautiful “I’ll Give You The Sun”) AND that in addition we can have stories where the characters’ being LGBTQ isn’t the main focus. Stories where there are other things going on, like monsters destroying the planet (here I’m thinking of Andrew Smith’s wild-ride “Grasshopper Jungle.”)

JAZ: Does 2016 have some amazing things in store?

LW: I sure hope so!

JAZ: What more can children’s book authors and artists do than they already are?

LW: Challenge yourself on diversity. Recently, during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks chat at the 2015 SCBWI Summer Conference, @eastdateswest asked “Are your systems of magic Anglo?” which I thought was brilliant. We writers and illustrators need to examine our defaults, and challenge ourselves to do better. And to remember that we’re all MORE than our ‘diversity.’ As author Varian Johnson said in his keynote at the same conference, “Your characters deserve to be three-dimensional.”

I’m also really excited about seeing more LGBTQ nonfiction, particularly the narrative nonfiction “Stonewall: Breaking Out In The Fight For Gay Rights” by Ann Bausum. There’s a trend to make Nonfiction more gripping, more page-turning and I’m excited for more.


Overall, the rise of #WeNeedDiverseBooks in the last year – and maybe more important, its holding its place in the spotlight – is heartening and gives me hope for more diverse books for kids and teens.

JAZ: Thank you so much Lee for all of these insights. The nonfiction aspect is one that is not brought up often. Great points!

Publishers and agents are sensitized about the need for authors and illustrators who reflect their diverse audience not only in terms of their books about diversity, but also any other themes these diverse authors choose to focus on. For those of us who are not overtly in one of the diversity categories, we can still think realistically about including a wide range of characters in our stories, which will make them more believable, more like our world.

One danger is the possibility of misrepresentations. What can be done to avoid those? Vetting is a tradition among publishers not only for verifying accuracy, but also for avoiding instances of cultural or other forms of stereotyping. I illustrated many stories in Cobblestone and Faces magazines, and two books for the same publishing family, in which Native Americans or other non-mainstream cultures were represented. These publications had a Native American advisory board and other people who vetted written works before they were published.

problem-98376__180Racial, ethnic, economic, and religious diversity still appear to be at the forefront of categories so far in terms of visibility, but stories dealing with inclusion and non-sexist topics are catching up. Are stories that include characters who are physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged or live with non-traditional gender roles appearing to meet the demand?

Marianne Knowles describes the refreshingly nonchalant diversity of The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, a middle grade book that came out in 2014:

I bought [the book] from the author, Dana Alison Levy, when she did a signing with Paul Czajak and Ben Clanton at the Andover Bookstore last fall. The Fletchers are two dads, four sons, and as you’d expect in any family, lots of drama, comedy, and conflict, absolutely NONE of which have to do with the family having two dads and multiple ethnicities–not even the conflict with the cranky neighbor.

It is a good story about one of the many kinds of families who live nearby. The novel, Will Grayson, Will Grayson (©2010) by astute authors John Green and David Leviathan is a chorus of characters who live the various emotional facets of being gay or being friends with a gay person. David Levithan has said of his book Every Day (©2012), about a sixteen-year-old boy named A who wakes up each day in the body and life of a different person of a range of genders, sexual orientations, and personalities:

When I started writing Every Day, there were two questions I wanted to answer – first, what would it be like to be a person who grew up without gender, race, sexual orientation, parents, friends, and all of the other things we usually classify ourselves by, and, second, what would it be like to be in love with someone who changed every day – would it be possible?  I wrote the book to figure out what my answers were. – from the author’s website.

Authors and illustrators also need to be personally responsible about where their depictions originate. If not from personal experience, meaning that the author is of the culture, persuasion, or situation he or she is writing about, then from the next best resource. Christopher John Frances Boone, the main character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (©2003) is autistic, although the author is not. A note at the front of the book says, “As a young man, Haddon worked with autistic individuals.” Mr. Hayden writes from experience, one step removed. Still experience, though. And the book is an amazing insight into another’s mind.

The Stories for All Project from First Book, a terrific Washington, D.C. based non-profit which is committed to expanding cultural and religious diversity, is making strides in getting diverse books into the hands of economically disadvantaged kids. They have distributed over a million dollars’ worth of books, in addition to their other book-related initiatives.

There are many lists out there for reference if you are considering including more physically or emotionally diverse characters in your stories and would like to know what’s already being done. These books were identified by readers as LGBT on Goodreads, for example. Do an online search for your category, and you will find other mentor texts.

We Need Diverse Books suggests that an easy strategy for getting diverse books into kids’ hands may be to focus on aspects of the story other than the diversity as an issue. That is also a clue for writers and artists. Regardless of whatever the story is meant to instruct, it must first be a good story.

It is our job to hold a mirror up to the world! Either as facilitators or creators we can provide kids and teens with stories that are honest depictions of our beautiful human diversity.

What memorable diverse books have you read or written?

All images courtesy of Pixabay.

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