I could have left today with a relatively humorous and inoffensive blog post, but why stop there? There’s one thing that’s been on my mind since yesterday. I don’t have it in me for a full political rant, but I have to mention it. Because I’m Mrs Fringe, that’s why. There was a “campaign” on Twitter yesterday: #WeNeedDiverseBooksbecause Part of me thought this was cool, and I suspect we’ll keep seeing that hashtag for a long time. More of me thought WTF? How is it that we need such a campaign, over 50 years after the Freedom Riders rode through the country, President Barak Obama on his second term as president of the United States…and yet we still have to tell the publishing industry we need diverse books that reflect the diverse people buying and reading those books.
The thing is, while tweets are catchy, they don’t really tell a whole story. Kind of like the various colored ribbons representing awareness for different diseases–ribbons are cute, no one feels threatened by them, they might even match your t-shirt–but they’re a far cry from the messy, painful, and complex reality they represent.
I saw some clever tweets with that hashtag. Saw some not as clever tweets, but well intentioned, the right idea. Still felt sad that it was necessary. I know it is, though. I live in a diverse building, in a diverse city. We are a diverse family. But a few years ago, when Nerd Child was applying for high schools, I read an online comment from a parent who lived somewhere else, bemoaning the fact that the private boarding schools are committed to having diverse classes, stating that this isn’t representative of the “real world.” Umm, maybe not this parent’s real world, but mine and many, if not most (once you branch beyond US borders) others.
Yes, both my boys went (one is still going) to private boarding schools, schools that put thought into the diversity of each year’s class, in addition to test scores, recommendations, skills/talents and after school activities. Both on scholarship. (And don’t kid yourselves, there many more bright and accomplished disadvantaged kids, of color and not, who are qualified that the admissions committees think they’d like to spend 4 years with, and then have representing their schools as alumni. There’s no golden path) But you know what’s beautiful? When I see my boys’ friends, and see how these things do make a difference and carry through. Both have friends from different cultures, different races, different countries. Not just school friends, but friends kept beyond the boundaries of a school day or year.
Still, this trending twitter campaign feels a bit preaching-to-the-choir, no? I have to think the publishing industry includes some of the most culturally conscious people in our society. I mean, books! Reading! Classics! Freedom of Speech and down with censorship! Maybe the marketing/purchasing end of the publishing industry will pay attention to the twitter feed, maybe not. Maybe they’ll take it to mean they should add a title or two to the “multicultural” lists. You know, that small, separate section of the bookstore, stuffed between romance and erotica.
Years ago, when I was looking at kindergartens for Man Child, I went on a tour with two friends, both looking for spots for their own children. We left the school, and one parent said, “I liked it, very diverse.” The other said, “You thought so? I didn’t think it was diverse at all.” Why the different perception? Because to one parent, diverse = many children of color. To the other, diverse = many white children. My way of illustrating that it’s all perception. So point of view in the books we read should represent these different perceptions, if we are going to do more than pay lip service to diversity.
I saw a tweet from a publishing professional that reminded me why we still need this type of campaign. Nothing terrible, definitely not racist, sexist, or homophobic. But it was the equivalent of #weneeddiversebooksbecause some kids want to wear boots instead of sneakers. Umm, huh? Individuality is absolutely important, I’m a huge supporter who rants often about kids being raised and expected to be sheep instead of critical thinkers. But this particular campaign is about diversity. About having characters that all readers can recognize and identify with, not just a default of middle class white girls battling dragons and making the world safe for democracy in Young Adult books, and the stifled white man in suburbia, or cute and earnest young white women figuring out how to get the guy, get that promotion and a good deal on those pumps they just had to have. Diversity of race, culture, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, politics, and sexuality.
I agree, we do need books that recognize and reflect the diversity of our world, our communities. Real diversity, not just the token black/latino/male/lgbtq and not just “issue” books where that difference is the focus of the book, and not taking books that do reflect diversity and sticking them in the corner, on their own shelf, where only those specifically looking for those books will find them.
Your post echoes the current debate about diversity in literature, especially for children and YA. Books should reflect the vastness of our world but it is a very delicate task to do. The majority of published writers is white and they hesitate to portray children and teens of different ethnicities and cultures, fearing to do it with stereotypes.
Our children, like you write above, are much more open and tolerant than adults and don’t like someone because of her/his color, gender, country of origin, religion and such things, but only because it’s a person who is kind, funny, smart, nice…
Human qualities don’t have colors, genders, ethnic origins or religions.
As a woman who comes from abroad and speaks with an accent, I am sometimes offended when I see fictional foreigners portrayed solely upon their accent. I think I am much more than my accent, although the way I speak here in the US makes me someone different than the woman I am in my native France.
So I am hesitant when I write for kids to choose a character who is from color, a different country, a different socio economic background. Is it a mistake? As writers we should embrace all kinds of characters but we have to write tactefully and authentically about them.
Thank you for sharing your experiences, Evelyn. 🙂 Absolutely, these are issues that need to be approached with thought and sensitivity–but I believe they do need to be approached.
Stereotypes are detrimental, but I believe pretending that differences don’t exist or that our cultural experiences don’t matter are also detrimental. It can’t help to be so fearful of getting something wrong that we avoid the issues all together.
Kids absolutely do notice differences. They’re curious, they ask questions. Let’s work to provide the answers.
I don’t know why there aren’t more American authors who are POC, it isn’t like literature is a uniquely American and European province.
I agree with you that all issues need to be approached and it should be the privilege of a writer to write about whatever topic she or he wants to talk about and to create the characters of her or his choice. There are some outstanding writers who aren’t white and not with European origins in the US. And they write outstanding stories about kids of colors, from diverse family
background (Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, YuYi Morales, Nikki Grimes, just to name a few).
The question remains: is it only ok to create characters of colors or from various ethnic and socioeconomic class if you belong to these groups?
I am currently working on a YA novel and I created people with various origins, inspired by my son’s high school. But I’m neither African American nor Hispanic. Can I do it? I asked the question to a blogger friend of mine who is Asian American and she says it was totally okay as long as nothing was stereotypical. In other words, with enough exposure to diverse groups of people, it is a good idea, but unless we are very familiar, it can be very difficult and in the end be hurtful.
Which left me with my project, wondering if I shouldn’t just have white kids. It is indeed a delicate balance and I wish we could all have a very open discussion about it between people of all colors and origins. Like the one we are having now.
Thank you for opening the door and also thank you to kkellie for a great comment and interesting link as well.
Thank you, Evelyn, for joining in and letting this be an honest discussion.
I agree with your friend, write your novel, the characters you intended to write. If there are aspects you are unsure about, use those beta readers 😉
IMO, the same as I believe it is naive? false? to say someone’s cultural experiences aren’t a factor in their identity, for most, it is one of many factors. While there are commonalities in being a latino man, for example, the experiences someone has will still be unique, based on where that man grew up, family educational/socio economic background, religion, whether he’s black, white, facial features, and on and on. To me, this is what we can and should do as writers, remember any given character is an individual, and write them that way. This is how we can avoid playing into false stereotypes.
Just my .02 😀
Totally agree with you. We are a mix of many, many elements and many experiences that ultimately make us who we are. A unique creature, yet sharing with others the universality of our humanity. Really great post that opens a productive discussion. Thanks again.
Exactly, imo that’s our job when creating characters/writing stories, crafting characters who are unique and multifaceted so they’re interesting, with enough commonality readers find them relatable.
This has been a good discussion, thank you 😀
I agree with you, Mrs Fringe, and Evelyn brings up a good point, too.
Looking at the subject from another angle, whilst researching literary agents today, I slipped over to Sarah LaPolla’s blog http://glasscasesblog.blogspot.com/2014/05/we-need-diverse-books.html . Relative to #WeNeedDiverseBooksbecause , Ms. LaPolla writes, in part:
My “Diversity Wish List” is simply: well-written books in genres I represent. That’s my wish list no matter what. I want my “diverse” characters to just be people in those stories.
At the end of her post, she writes:
I want to bring new stories and new types of heroes into the world, and I want to help writers of all colors and backgrounds get published.
But, my main criteria will always be:
1) Is this well-written?
2) Do I love this story?
Because, yes, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, but people rarely get inspired to change over a mediocre book with a forgettable character. Art influences history. So put your best out there, writers.
We’re trying. Right, Mrs Fringe?
Absolutely, kk. When writing a story or a book, the quality has to be held to the same standard, regardless of sex, orientation, race, religion, etc of the characters and/or the author.
If we don’t address, or make mention, of the different cultural experiences, are we actually writing a complete character? Again, I don’t believe these need to be the plot of the story, but there are bits and details, subtle and often every day experiences that make that Holy Grail of a rich and believable character.
And now I’m going to check out Sarah LaPolla’s blog post–thank you for pointing it out! 🙂
Goodness when I started reading this I thought ‘diverse’ meant interesting/different genres/dates/authors so I’ve learnt something.
Have a look an most inner city UK schools now re diverse. Some teach English as a second language now.
I like your clean fresh MRS FRINGE theme btw.
Hi! That’s exactly what I’m clumsily trying to say. We all bring our experiences to the page, as both writers and readers. In writing, clarity is key–but to pretend everyone’s experiences are the same does a disservice to all.
None of the schools here teach English as a second language, but here in NY, kids and families are still strongly tied to and shaped by their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. To ignore this would be to lose the support of the families, the interest of the kids, and many of the teachers, creating and growing an us vs them environment.
And thank you, I’m glad you like the look!