I’m thrilled to be back blogging after a stellar three-month summer hiatus. I completed the first draft to my contemporary YA, which is my MFA thesis. I attended a superb writer’s craft conference for the benefit of the non-profit Sierra Nevada organization set up by author Ellen Hopkins. I played tennis, hiked and kayaked and finally, I took a two-week vacation visiting friends in New Brunswick (Canada) and Maine.
A young adult and children’s author celebrating the natural and cultural diversity in our world
I grew up in a classic middle class WASP environment and I am so glad my adult life has blown apart that narrow perspective. Since graduating college I have worked in tens of nations and lived on three continents. This nomadic lifestyle and belonging to a minority group (gays) have contributed to my passion for diversity in its widest sense. When I began writing and set up this blog 3.5 years ago, I created the tag line above to reflect what I knew would be the heart of my writing, both on the blog and in my picture book, middle grade and young adult stories. Too often in the recent discussions in the kid lit blogosphere, however, I feel that the term diversity has been limited to meaning multi-cultural, whereas it goes so much deeper than skin pigment, religious affiliation and food.
There are two sides to diversity to which I wish to contribute and about which I want to see more of in children’s literature. Firstly, I would like to see the richness and variety of our local societal makeup reflected. I want: epileptic kids, Vietnamese kids, paraplegic kids, queer kids, biracial kids, bipolar kids, homeless kids, HIV+ kids, Sikh kids etc. to be able to find themselves in stories. I want them to discover themselves as the protagonists, antagonists and/or in supporting roles, as part and parcel of the fabric of their/our worlds. I want them to know they aren’t weird or alone. Secondly, as someone who spent a dozen years working in developing nations and amongst people with different priorities and worldviews to mine, and from whom I learnt so much, I want children to be exposed to these stories (just as we want great historical fiction to bring alive distant times). Books such as SOLD (YA) by Patricia McCormick, A LONG WAY TO WATER (MG) by Linda Sue Park and MARKET BOWL (PB) by Jim Averbeck allow western children and youth to explore issues like child sex slavery, children in warfare, the preciousness of clean water and modernized African folktales.
All children should be able to see themselves in books, but equally as important is the power of books to create empathy in children. Judgment and intolerance so often walk alongside fear of the unknown/fear of difference. Exposing our preschoolers through teens via great stories to characters who may be, or be experiencing what their siblings, friends, classmates are experiencing, can help break down fear barriers. Children’s books should not only provide a mirror for their experiences, but also a window into others’ diverse lives. For kids growing up in mono-cultural neighborhoods or communities with very little diversity, it sets them on the journey toward increased cultural/social competence (the ability to understand diverse perspectives and appropriately interact with members of other cultures etc. in a variety of situations). Sometimes I fear that empathy is as endangered as the black rhino. I am grateful that we the tribe of children’s authors and illustrators can contribute to helping children explore their sense of empathy.
“The notion that people should write what they know is very limiting. Imagination is one of the most powerful tools we have. I use research to guide my imagination, and then I try to find people who can tell me where I’ve imagined wrong. This applies to all of writing, and it’s really no different for writing a diverse character. People fail at this when they abandon research, imagination, and expert assistance for tropes, stereotypes, and ‘what everybody knows’ …”
Diversity proponents Lee n Low tweeted this quote from author Merrie Haskell (Handbook for Dragon Slayers) last week and it embodies so much of my beliefs about writers and diversity. Write from the emotions you know, write characters your target age group will relate to but don’t be scared to write outside your comfort zone if that’s the story of your heart. But when you do, have the humility to do your research in: libraries, museums, archives, interviews, online, in person etc. Then call upon experts to check the details. Remember you are creating fully-rounded characters not trying to represent an entire group. We also need more intersectionality. I’d love to see more characters who check more than one box e.g a Hasidic, bisexual, epileptic teen artist. We humans are complex creatures. No one exists with only one characteristic, and many of us intersect many different communities. My present YA protagonist is a biracial male teen and right on the outer edge of the autism spectrum. The story spans several southern states but focuses especially on New Orleans. I am planning a research trip to NOLA soon and am gathering beta readers with the expertise I lack! I believe with humility, handwork and integrity we can write outside our personal cultural, sexual, gender etc experiences!! Do not let fear of error or backlash prevent this.
YA author I.G. Gregorio, whom I met at the SCBWI NY conference this year, noted these stats. on her blog a few months ago:
“Though 37% of children in America are people of color, only 10% of children’s books contain multicultural content. Of 123 bestselling titles noted by PW, seven titles had gay or bisexual main characters, but there were no lesbian or transgender main characters in the bestseller list.” The characters you create should not be limited by your color, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability etc.! Write stories seeped in diversity, read them, buy them and give them away, this is how we will see more diversity in children’s literature.
Also, a quick shout out for a great blog about disability in kid lit: http://disabilityinkidlit.wordpress.com