Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why We (Still) Need Diverse Books -- Jen Doktorski


I learned a lot about the need for diverse books the year my child was in fifth grade. It was 2013-14 school year. That fall, thanks to my daughter’s teacher, I was introduced to the work of poet Phillis Wheatley for the first time. That spring, I was outraged to hear about BookCon’s YA panel that consisted solely of white men and took part in the We Need Diverse Books campaign spearheaded, in part, by author Ellen Oh.
The campaign quickly went viral and I remember thinking, “Why hasn’t something like this happened sooner?” We need only to be somewhat aware of the world in which we live to realize there’s a need for diversity not just in books, but in, well, everything.  

By a show of hands in her fifth grade classroom, my daughter learned that nearly every child was bilingual and spoke another language at home. At the PTA-sponsored International Night last year, 17 countries were represented during an evening of food, dance, and song.
I’m proud to live in a diverse community with a school system that strives for inclusion and fosters awareness and acceptance of all kids regardless of their sexual orientation, physical limitations, ethnicity, culture, or faith. It’s time for the publishing community, which I am also proud to be part of, to do the same.

Despite the fact that around 40 percent of the U.S. population is non-white, only about 10 percent of the children’s books published each year include people of color. Statistics vary slightly depending on the source and the year, but you get the idea.
We’d all like to see ourselves in a character; to see the experiences of someone who’s just like us come to life on the page. It makes us feel like we matter. Like we’re not alone.

The main character in my YA book, HOW MY SUMMER WENT UP IN FLAMES, is half Ecuadorian and half Italian. One of my best friends happens to be Ecuadorian. Over the years, we’ve shared stories about our families, and laughed about how similar my Italian-American upbringing was to hers. She and I also have similar passionate, determined, impulsive personalities. We often joked that a kid with our shared genes would be a lot like Rosie, the main character in my book, who accidentally sets her ex’s car on fire after having her heartbroken. Even though I had my friend's blessing, and she and I talked at length about Rosie, I was nervous about writing a book with a character who is half Latina. I didn't want it to seem forced, or disingenuous. I wasn't sure if it was my place, if I had the right.
But my friend loved the finished manuscript and when it was published, she couldn’t wait to give my book to her then 15-year-old goddaughter. “This will be the first time she reads a book with an Ecuadorian main character.”

Yes, every child deserves to see herself in a book. But it’s more than that. As readers, we can also learn from characters who are nothing like us. Recently I read BROWN GIRL DREAMING, an amazing book by National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson. Although she is only slightly older than me, her childhood experiences were very different from my own and I enjoyed being drawn into her life and getting to know her world and her family through her wonderful words.
We come to understand people through their stories. Understanding leads to empathy and empathy leads to better resolutions to some of society’s biggest problems from bullying to senseless violence. Recent events have shown us that perhaps we could all use a little more understanding; time spent walking around in someone else’s shoes.

Diversity in books can begin with a writer sharing her unique perspective through characters and storytelling, but accomplishing this goal on a much wider scale requires diversity among the decision makers in the publishing industry. As authors, we know how subjective this business can be. Books sales often happen when an editor feels a deep connection to an author’s work, and those connections often spring from shared experiences.
Increased diversity in books also depends on decision makers outside of publishing—parents, librarians, and teachers like my daughter’s, who instead of assigning her a research project about some old, white guy, chose to introduce my child (and her mom) to Phillis Wheatley—the first African-American woman to be published and the second published African-American poet. I wish someone had introduced me to Phillis Wheatley when I was ten years old, or twenty for that matter when I was an English major in college reading the works of old, white (often dead) guys.



Admittedly, I feel as if I’ve been late to this party and I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject, but as authors we have the power, and perhaps the responsibility, to keep the conversation about the need for diverse books—and diversity in our industry—going.
If you’re interested in learning more, visit: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/

 

3 comments:

  1. Great post, Jen. When I was teaching high school English, I was always looking for diverse voices but most were locked out of the approved Canon of Dead White Guys. There was one poem by Phillis Wheatley in the lit book. One poem by Langston Hughes. No pieces at all by Zora Neale Hurston. I taught American Lit in an inner city school in Memphis, Tenn and the kids lit up every year when we finally made it to Raisin in the Sun and the Harlem Renaissance units.

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  2. Thanks, Jody. It's a shame isn't it? We need more decision makers in schools who are committed to a diverse reading curriculum so these voices don't continue to go unheard.

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  3. MAN, this is true. My first MG came out last year, and featured an African American protag. I spoke to a few predominantly (or completely) African American reading groups--they ALL assumed the character was white, until their instructor pointed it out. I was floored. We DO need diverse books.

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