Diversity – What does it mean for writers and young readers?

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@VS Conference with writing buddies Cheri Williams and Nathalie MVondo

@Ventana Sierra conference in Carson City, NV with writing buddies Cheri Williams and Nathalie MVondo

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, Maine

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, Maine

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

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27 Responses to Diversity – What does it mean for writers and young readers?

  1. Joanna says:

    Posting for Beth Stilborn, as I have had some comment problems, which I am trying to resolve!!

    Welcome back for another season of blogging, Joanna! My first comment was lost in the ether somewhere, as all my comments on blogs seem to be these days. I’ve created a new comments-only email address, and we’ll see if that works…

    Thank you for this excellent, thoughtful, heartfelt post. There are so many good points that I cannot possibly list all the things that resonated with me. I must highlight this one, however: “We humans are complex creatures. We do not exist with only one characteristic, and many of us intersect many different communities.” This is so important in creating realistic, fully-formed diverse characters. We need to be on our guard that in trying to “be diverse” we don’t just add token characters to our books. You have given us a good foundation on which to build characters that go far beyond tokens.

    I could go on and on, but I promise I won’t! I do want to say that I’m glad you had a successful hiatus, and wish you well for the coming year. Cheers, friend!


    p.s. I want to add that I’m grateful that you addressed the barrier that “write what you know” puts up. If we all just wrote what we know, the world of literature would be greatly impoverished. Thank you!

  2. Nathalie says:

    Thank you for another insightful post, Joanna. I hope that many people hear your call to writing outside of their comfort zones. If we, writers, don’t take chances and give our ery best to our readers through thorough research and fiery passion, why should we expect them to take a chance on diverse books too?

  3. Here, here. Joanna! A great post, mentioning much that is very close to my heart. Diverse means many things, indeed! So glad to see you back, thriving and inspired! Go you!

  4. Welcome back form your summer hiatus. You sound eager and inspired to begin your second year in the program. I enjoyed your comments about the many types of diversiy. I agree that so much of the time we think about multicultural books, when indeed it means so much more. With the demand for diversity in books increasing, I hope to see you among the contributors. Congraulations on finishing your first draft of your YA novel!

  5. Joanna says:

    Thank you, Pat. I know that your blog, Children’s Books Heal reviews a very diverse array of books, contributing to this dialogue.

  6. Welcome back and congrats on finishing your first YA draft! Nice blog post—empathy is definitely something we hope to instill in children (and many adults!), and books go a long way toward that end. When I taught kindergarten, I recall telling one mom what a marvelous sense of empathy her son had. I ran into her years and years later and she said she never forgot that and considered it one of the highest praises her son received as a child.

  7. So good to have you back in Blog-land, Joanna! I have missed your always insightful and informative posts. 🙂

    As a minority, albeit a majority-minority (but still a visible one), I could not agree with you more on your assessment that we need more diverse characters in books, ones that check off more than one box. I hope to one day come up with a storyline that will do this justice (but one can’t force this; it has to grow organically from the heart). In the meantime, I look forward to reading your YA novel…I hope we can soon!

  8. Joanna says:

    Thanks for your supportive words, Teresa. I am thrilled that this diversity dialogue is gaining momentum and look forward to some of the books that develop from this!

  9. Catherine says:

    Great post, Joanna! As newbies it will be fun to tackle these subjects ourselves.

  10. Clarbojahn says:

    What a great post you have written! It is inspirational and heartfelt. Exactly as Beth Stillborn says above. There is much going on around the internet about diversity in children’s books and this post says it all. And it comes from a place of passion.

    I Love everything you wrote. Not the least of which coming out of the closet must have been hard to do online for all your readers to see. I admire your courage and hope it will rub off as I begin my own season of blogging next week.

  11. WOW – you sure did a lot while you were gone! 🙂 I am glad you are back! You make a lot of great points about diversity and trying not to force characters into a story. As a kid, I like books that has stuff in it like I see in the real world but that also doesn’t make a big deal out of it. I reviewed a great book called The Cupcake Cousins by Kate Hannigan. One of the main characters in the book is biracial, but the book doesn’t make a big deal about it – it just seems natural. Another good example is Rick Riordan’s character in his Percy Jackson series, Nick di Angelo. Nick is gay, but it totally flows with the story and it seems natural -like he’s not put there just because of him being gay. I like stories that have characters like that. It is what real life is like.

    • Joanna says:

      Erik, I so appreciate the examples you give here, and heartily agree I love it when these differences aren’t the focus, just a small part of the character portrayed!

  12. Welcome back. 🙂
    I can remember how important it was for me–especially in my middle school years–to find books that made me feel like I belonged.
    And as a writer, I’m feel like I’m constantly thinking about my courage, vulnerability, and not letting fear get in the way.
    Great post, Joanna.

    • Joanna says:

      Thanks, Colleen. I truly did not find those books in middle school that I needed because the edgier topics and YA weren’t around. i am so glad things are changing.

  13. Heather says:

    Welcome back, Joanna! This is one of the best pieces I have read about the need for diversity in kid lit. Thank you.

  14. A very important subject, Joanna. Thanks so much for sharing! (And welcome back)!

  15. Joanna says:

    Thanks, Elaine!

  16. Bev Baird says:

    What a thought provoking post. Writing from our hearts will always be our best guide. Growing up in a WASP community it wasn’t til I high school and then university that I met and made friends with so many people from diverse backgrounds. Teaching in the NWT for 3 years really opened my eyes to life for FNs and has lead to a passion for FN rights. Great post!

  17. Teresa MI Schaefer says:

    Wonderful post. Would love to talk to you about a chapter book I have written — I have wanted since it’s inception for the MC to be a spirited nine year old child of biracial military parents. But, have hesitated.

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