#WeNeedDiverseBooks. It’s a hashtag meant to serve both as a wake-up call to the rather homogeneous state of kidlit (in particular and literature in general) and a call to action to change that.
The campaign is officially over, but the challenge is ongoing – and it spoke to me, so I’m speaking to you. Writers, librarians, editors, agents, and book store employees (yes, apparently they still exist) all tweeted and wrote about why we need diverse books. They provided a rainbow of inspiration and occasional heartbreak.
And then there was this one:
I read it and thought “huh.” And then a few moments later, it struck me that what he wrote was true for me too. I have grown so accustomed to not seeing myself in children’s literature that it did not occur to me that it did not occur to me that I should see myself in books. Multiply that statement by the millions of different people currently not adequately represented in kidlit, and you begin to see the problem.
Yes, as others have framed it, people should be able to see themselves as the heroes in stories – and not, at best, the quirky sidekick or, arguably at worst, the person in need of fixing/saving (when not absent altogether). But that’s only part of the reason we need more diversity in books.
As author Emily Jiang put it, we need more diversity in books because perspective is empowering. It benefits everyone – those who gain more perspective about themselves and those who are exposed to the wonder and insight of the myriad of possibilities the world has to offer.
And then, there’s the fact that diversity makes good business sense. As an agent, I can tell you that when I see a submission that is both well-written and different, my heart goes all aflutter – and that is very good news for the writer. While people are scurrying around revising old folk tales and Greek myths, there is literally a whole world of fresh stories waiting to be told.
Writing an Authentic Story
It is not enough, however, for characters to “look” different. They have to feel the part, too. The solution to lack of diversity is not to dust off an old manuscript, change the main character’s skin tone, plop him in a wheelchair, and call it a day. That’s not diversity – that’s dressing up mainstream thoughts and values with superficial differences. Nor is the solution to highlight one attribute of a character to the exclusion of all others – that’s misunderstanding the intricacies of what makes a person. The best characters are those that feel like real people, and real people contain multitudes.
Doubtless, some of you are rearing to go by this point, if you don’t have a magnificently sensitive and representative manuscript already. But I’m also sure that there is no small number of you who are thinking “I buy what you’re saying, Ella, but how am I – middle-class suburban white person that I am – supposed to write authentically diverse literature?”
If most of your knowledge of an ethnic group, a disability, or a gender identity comes from Hollywood’s portrayal, you are probably better off not writing about it – at least not until you do some major research. But that hardly means you cannot contribute to widening the diversity of books.
Diversity means “a range of different things; variety” – so widen your definition of diversity. It’s not just minorities and kids with disabilities who are under-represented in books. Where are the picture books starring kids with asthma, diabetes, nut allergies, or weight issues? Where are the kids from single parent homes or blended homes? The kids in the 5th percentile on height, or the 95th? The ones juggling the perils of being left-handed? Where is the religious diversity, the lifestyle diversity, the richness that is just a reflection of our everyday reality?
Or take the plunge. You don’t have to “write what you know.” You should write what you care about – and if you care enough about someone to attempt to inhabit their point of view, then that might be worth sharing. Whether diversity plays a main role in the story or just adds to the richness of the character is up to you – both ways are valid and can contribute not only to our literary canon but also our understanding of our world.
Most of us have bought into what a book is supposed to look like so thoroughly that people end up writing different versions of the same story over and over while major gaps in the literature remain. This can be true for people who are under-represented in kidlit as well as those who fall into “mainstream” categories.
In short, as Tor editor Marco Palmieri puts it,