diverse kids lit

We Are Still Not Doing Enough for Diversity in Kid lit

I’ve written about Why Being a POC Author Sucks Sometimes. I’ve written about the importance of Diversity and Diverse Reading Lists. And I’ve even written about Diversity in Writing. The discussion about why diversity in children’s literature is continuing because POC are still greatly underrepresented at less than 10%. (see this fantastic post by Malinda Lo at Diversity in YA.) There’s even an article in CNN about “Where’s the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?” There’s a lot of good talk but there’s still no action. And furthermore, there’s a lot of lashing out that somehow when we ask for diversity, we are somehow anti-white. If we talk about our need for representation, our articles are just “race-baiting” and discriminatory toward whites. How can asking for more authors of color and characters of color in children’s literature mean we are anti-white? I will never understand this thinking and I have no use for it. Kelly Jensen, a librarian and true supporter of diversity, said in her excellent post “When you support one group of people, it is in not denigrating another group of people. Instead, it’s doing your part to raise everyone up.” And this is what we are fighting for. Raising us all up because diversity is good for everyone.

How bad is the problem?

Of the 3,600 books the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed in 2012:

  • 3% were about Africans/African Americans; 1.8% were written by Africans/African Americans

  • 1.5% were about Latinos; 1.6% were written by Latinos

  • Less than 1% were about American Indians; less than 1% were written by American Indians

  • 2% were about Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans; 2.3% were written by Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans

Click here for a fantastic illustration by Tina Kugler that really highlights the problem based on statistics released by the CCBC.

There are a lot of good people out there fighting for more diversity in publishing. But it’s not enough. There’s even more people who nod their head and agree whole-heartedly that we need more representation. But it’s definitely not enough. 

Today I’m pointing fingers. At publishers, librarians, teachers, booksellers, publicists, conference and festival organizers, reviewers, journalists, in fact our entire media. You are all not doing enough. There are some wonderful children’s books authors of colors out there publishing amazing books that are just not getting the attention they deserve. They are ignored. Where is their media coverage? Where are their book tours? Why isn’t their more diversity at book festivals and conferences? Why is it that any promotional materials talking about ALA award winning books don’t also highlight the Coretta Scott King or the Pura Belpré, etc? (See Meg Medina’s post on this.)

Publishing and promoting books that include diversity by white authors is a good start for diversity. But that is not enough. Publishing and promoting authors of color so that we break the arbitrary 10% cap is what is really needed. We need more published authors of color. But if current authors of color are not promoted, then it hurts the chances for all other potential POC writers. It becomes a vicious circle. A self-fulfilling prophecy that continues the belief that books by and about POC don’t sell. We are not doing enough to break this prophecy.

Recently there was a big controversy over the fact that BookCon was featuring an all white male power panel at BEA. Lerner Publishing Group editorial director Andrew Karre said in the PW article, “If they really want to put their money where their mouth is, they should have a panel on this topic, the issue of diversity in children’s books.“ I want to put a rallying call out for this to happen. Meg Medina, the fabulous author of the award winning Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, and I were recently talking about how we wanted every conference and every festival in the country to have a diversity panel until the day comes when we don’t need to do it anymore. So yes, ReedPOP, please include a diversity panel to make up for your world class blunder. And please don’t fill it up with white people. We authors of color are here yelling into the crowd. We are writing our books and fighting to promote them in an ocean filled with white capped waves that wash over us. But we are here because there is a need for us. And we won’t stop fighting or raising our voices.

Several months ago, I was at a school event where a very young black girl was standing shyly off to the side as I was chatting with some 6th grade students after my presentation. She gave me her notebook and asked me to sign it, which I was glad to do. It was a book of her own poetry and short stories. I smiled and said "I’m so glad to meet a young writer!” She beamed at me and said “I love writing and I want to be a writer but I didn’t think I could because I’m not white.” I was surprised and asked her if she’d read any books by Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, or Linda Sue Park. She nodded and shrugged her shoulder and said, “But I’ve never seen them in person.” To this young teen, an author of color was a mythical creature, not to be believed, until she’d seen one in person. She couldn’t believe in her dream to become a writer until she saw for herself that a real life POC had done it. This is why we must continue to fight for diversity in children’s literature. For all of our children, so that they can see that we exist and that they can believe that their dreams of becoming whatever they want, can come true.

Check out more beautiful artwork from The Arrival by Shaun Tan at his website

I want to get my hands on this book soon. 

Here’s how Tan describes his thinking behind The Arrival, taken from Tan’s website, originally written for Viewpoint Magazine:

Being a half-Chinese at a time a place when this was fairly unusual… I was constantly being asked ‘where are you from?’ to which my response of ‘here’ only prompted a deeper inquiry, ‘where do your parents come from?’  At least this was far more positive attention than the occasional low-level racism I experienced as a child, and which I also noticed directed either overtly or surreptitiously at my Chinese father from time to time. Growing up I did have a vague sense of separateness, an unclear notion of identity or detachment from roots, on top of that traditionally contested concept of what it is to be ‘Australian’, or worse, ‘un-Australian’ (whatever that might mean).

Beyond any personal issues, though, I think that the ‘problem’ of belonging is perhaps more of a basic existential question that everybody deals with from time to time, if not on a regular basis. It especially rises to the surface when things ‘go wrong’ with our usual lives, when something challenges our comfortable reality or defies our expectations – which is typically the moment when a good story begins, so good fuel for fiction. We often find ourselves in new realities – a new school, job, relationship or country, any of which demand some reinvention of ‘belonging’.

This was uppermost in my mind during the long period of work onThe Arrival, a book which deals with the theme of migrant experience. Given my preoccupation with ‘strangers in strange lands’, this was an obvious subject to tackle, a story about somebody leaving their home to find a new life in an unseen country, where even the most basic details of ordinary life are strange, confronting or confusing – not to mention beyond the grasp of language. It’s a scenario I had been thinking about for a number of years before it crystallised into some kind of narrative form.

And one last gorgeous drawing… 

When BookCon announced the “superstar panel” of the “world’s biggest children’s authors” set to appear at its 2014 conference, it had no idea it was lighting a fuse that would set off an explosion in the book world. BookCon’s “unprecedented lineup of authors” were all-male andall-white, a lack of diversity that was stunning but not-at-all unprecedented. One of the first to express dismay was author Ellen Oh, who had been advocating for more diversity in children’s literature for years. Change had been tough to come by in previous years, but in 2014, Ellen had a new tool available in the fight for diverse kid lit: social media. She had a secret weapon to reach the collective voice and energy of thousands who were more than ready for change.
So when Ellen tweeted on April 17th, “to be honest, I’m tired of small. I want BIG!” she had the means to start a wildfire. Like-minded authors, editors, librarians, and bloggers jumped on board, tweeting in response that they wanted to be part of the “BIG” that Ellen had alluded to.

Really great article by WNDB team member Karen Sandler on the history of We Need Diverse Books.

Hello! :)

Hi there!  I felt that the start of this blog needed a bit of explanation.  You might come across it and wonder, “Why kids books? What’s the deal with that?”

Well, I’m pretty sure that if I asked you about a book you read as a child, you’d immediately develop some strong feelings regarding that book.  The connection we build with books as kids lasts with us our entire lives.  Children’s books can have a profound impact on us, whether it be positive or negative.  Reading helps kids develop perspective and empathy, but they (too often) also engrain stereotypes and false beliefs.  And if children grow up under the influence of these books… well you can see how kids literature has a pretty significant influence on our future.

So, what’s my deal?  I’m an undergraduate student developing a course of study in Children’s Literacy with a particular focus on Diversity in Children’s Literature.  Ultimately, I want to be an elementary school teacher and a children’s book writer.  I come from a mixed non-white-latina/white background, which plays a part in how I see children’s literature.  Growing up, and still today, people say that I “look white” or “don’t look Mexican,” even though that is the side of my family I really connect with.  I’ve been asked “which side I feel more,” which is a weird question in itself, but I do always answer “Mexican.”  But, when I was younger, I rarely read books with Latinx characters in them.  The smart, fun, female protagonists were always white.  And this wasn’t because my family thought, “Oh, let’s buy her books with only white people in them!” It’s because, if you went to a bookstore in the 90s, it would be (and still is today) incredibly difficult to find children’s books with people of color as the protagonist.  As a kid, I wanted to be the hero in the book, and the hero was a white girl.  I could easily pass as being completely white and not at all chicana.  So, for a while, that’s what I chose.  It didn’t help that the kids at my elementary school said my family was a bunch of “aliens.”  I didn’t want to be an alien, I wanted to be a human being.

Now, I want to address that because I was able to choose to be “completely white,” I had a privilege that not many kids have.  I could choose to reject my non-white heritage and form myself into those characters I saw in my books.  Not many people have that option.  When white culture dominates the Children’s Literature industry, subtle messages are constantly sent to young people.  And those kids cannot and should not change who they are.  I wish I had been exposed books with strong latina characters.  But instead, most covers were of pinkish-pale girls with green eyes and long blonde hair.  Or a white boy with brown messy hair and hazel eyes.  For just a sample of what the children’s literature market looks like today, check out the current lineup of American Girl BeForever line.  They’re supposed to be an accurate representation of an “American girl.”  Out of the 8 dolls, 5 are white.  1 is Latina.  1 is Native American.  1 is African-American.  Ugh. Far too often in children’s literature (and in most media, actually) the black, asian, or latinx characters are often just “on the side,” as comic relief or the convenient helper of the white protagonist.  That’s not okay.

But what can we do to change it?  The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement did a lot to bring awareness to this issue.  And it’s important to continue that momentum.  When that hashtag was super popular, bookstores seemed more adamant about showcasing their diverse books.  Those books were given the spotlight.  But now, that’s unfortunately disappeared.  I walked into a children’s bookstore the other day and glanced at the large display of picture books.  Every single one whose cover was featured, the protagonist was either white or an animal.  So, how do we fix this?  Awareness is huge.  Spreading information about diverse books.  Do it.  All the time.  But also, we need to support diverse authors writing about diverse characters.  Buy their books for yourself, your nieces and nephews, cousins, your friends, your friends’ kids, the kids you babysit for, or anyone really!  If you can’t buy them (I know picture books are ridiculously expensive) take them out from the library!  If diverse books are circulating in the library, their popularity increases, and voila!–authors and their books are being supported.

So, on this blog I’ll be reblogging a lot of things regarding diversity in children’s literature and how important children’s literature is.  I’ll also be putting together lists of diverse books and authors, reviews, etc.  I’ll also accept submissions and questions!  This blog is basically a space for Children’s Literature, discussion, information, and fun.  And if you’re thinking “But I don’t read kids books, I’m an adult.  I don’t even have kids or interact with them or like them or whatever.”  I will leave you with this:

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s book in the slightest”-CS Lewis

A Path of Stars by Anne Sibley O'Brien (Charlesbridge, 2012).

Real Kids/ Good Books has been up and running for a year and a half-ish now and this is the first book I’ve found that features a Cambodian protagonist and her family.

A Path of Stars is about the power of storytelling. Daya’s grandma, Lok Yeay, loves to tell stories about growing up in Cambodia, playing with her brother among coconut and mango trees, going to the temple for New Year, looking at the stars with her own grandparents.

She also has darker stories, stories about “a day the soldiers came.”

“…we ran from the war. By then I had only two people left– my brother, who is your Lok Ta, and my little daughter, who is your mother. We took turns carrying her on our back, just the way you are carrying your brother.”

“Lok Ta and I held on to the only treasures we had been able to save: your mother, and pictures of those who had died. So many people– our parents, our brothers and sisters, my husband, Lok Ta’s wife.

"We hid in the jungle by day and walked at night by the light of the stars. Lok Ta read the stars like a map, finding our way west.”

I have talked about the responsibility of children’s book authors in sharing historical moments that are heavy from war, racism or other violence when reviewing other books. It takes both a delicate touch and an unflinching commitment to the truth to pull it off well. And O'Brien has achieved that balance here.

(Cover image: Coloring Between the Lines) (Interior image: Charlesbridge)

Because of Winn Dixie (2000) by Kate DiCamillo. 

This book makes it onto my list of all time favorite reads, standing up to the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, Octavia Butler and Haruki Murakami. 

Opal lives with her father, the preacher, and has recently moved to a new town. She finds a great friend in a stray dog who she names Winn Dixie. But really it’s all better standing on its own. Read a bit for yourself. 

“See,” I said, “you don’t have any family and neither do I. I’ve got the preacher, of course. But I dont’ have a mama. I mean I have one, but I don’t know where she is. She left when I was three years old. I can’t hardly remember her. And I bet you don’t remember your mama much either. So we’re almost like orphans.”

…“You know what?” I said. “Ever since we moved here, I’ve been thinking about my mama extra-extra hard, more than I ever did when I was in Watley.”

Winn-Dixie twitched his ears and raised his eyebrows.

“I think the preacher thinks about my mama all the time, too. He’s still in love with her; I know that because I heard the ladies at the church in Watley talking about him. They said he’s still hoping she’ll come back. But he doesn’t tell me that. He won’t talk to me about her at all. I want to know more about her. But I’m afraid to ask the preacher; I’m afraid he’ll get mad at me.”

Riding Freedom (1999) by Pam Munoz Ryan, drawings by Brian Selznik.

Another book about Charley Parkhurst for older kids. Review from Our Families Coalition.

Charlotte Parkhurst was raised in an orphanage for boys, which suited her just fine. She didn’t like playing with dolls, she could hold her own in a fight, and she loved to work in the stable. Charlotte has a special way with horses and wanted to spend her life training and riding them on a ranch of her own. The problem was, as a girl in the mid-1800s, Charlotte was expected to live a much different life– one without the freedoms she dreamed of. But Charlotte was smart and determined, as she figured out a way to live life the way she wanted. Charlotte became an expert horse rider, a legendary stagecoach driver, and the first woman ever to vote in the U.S. And she did these things at a time when they were outlawed for women. How? With a plan so clever and so secret– almost no one figured it out. 

“Part of writing realistic fiction, for me, is giving my characters hope. Even if the ending isn’t always the happiest ending, there has to be hope and happiness somewhere in the book for me as a writer to really feel good in writing it. I want to enjoy the process of writing it, and I want my characters to be okay. I’ve created them; they’ve lived in my head; I’ve rewritten them and rewritten them. At some point, I come to love them, so I want them to have some sense that the world is okay out there.

The things that are happening to my characters are at once larger than life and are everyday minutiae — those small moments in people’s lives that can make readers feel like they have their ears pressed against the door or are spying wwith binoculars. Some parts of the characters are familiar, and it makes readers’ own lives feel more real. That’s what I think I bring to it when I’m sitting down to write. When I read books that are realistic fiction, I find myself in them.

I think as readers, once we see ourselves in the pages of the book, we are allowed a certain amount of legitimacy, and that legitimacy empowers us.”

     -Jacqueline Woodson, from teachingbooks.net

My Abuelita (2009) by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Yuyi Morales.

It’s no secret that I love Yuyi Morales. And this book, written by Tony Johnston is the perfect match, bringing just the right mix of magic and love for Yuyi Morales’ work to soar.

A young boy lives with his Abuelita and their cat, Frida Kahlo. 

My abuelita is round. Robust, she says, like a calabaza. A pumpkin. She doesn’t mind. She likes pumpkins.

“Being round gives me a good round voice,” she tells me. “Just the voice for my work. 

Abuelita goes through her daily routine to get ready for work: stretching, singing in the shower with "deep, boggy, froggy notes,” eating huevos estrellados, starry eggs for breakfast and packing up her “carcacha, her jalopy, with all the things she needs.” Luckily, the boy and Frida Kahlo both help out when she forgets little things here and there. 

Finding this book is like falling in love. Exuberant, warm, with so much personality gushing right off the pages. An instant favorite. 

Crow Boy (1955) by Taro Yashima.

1955 takes us way back. Crow Boy is a classic in children’s lit that has stayed relevant as a story of not fitting in, of being an outsider. Yashima’s delicate, soft-focused illustration is unique, definitely not something that you will find in books these days. 

On the first day of our village school in Japan, there was a boy missing. He was found hidden away in the dark space underneath the schoolhouse floor. None of us knew him. He was nicknamed Chibi because he was very small. Chibi means ‘tiny boy.’ This strange boy was afraid of our teacher and could not learn a thing.He was afraid of the children and could not make friends with them at all. He was left alone in the study time. He was left alone in the play time. He was always at the end of the line, always at the foot of the class, a forlorn little tag-along.

Ceci Ann’s Day of Why (2006) by Christopher Phillips, illustrated by Shino Arihara. 

Christopher Phillips wrote the bestseller, Socrates Cafe. This is his philosophy book for kids. And like the title says, it’s filled with whys.

Why weak?

Why strong? 

Why right?

Why wrong?

Yes, it rhymes and unfortunately that take away a little from letting all the whys resonate as deep questions to ponder. 

Christopher Phillips also has a great resource for educators who want to introduce the Socratic method to their students. 

Grandma’s Records by Eric Velasquez (Walker and Company, 2001).

Eric’s grandmother loves music and has her record player spinning all summer long with the sounds of salsa and merengue. She has lots of stories about growing up in Puerto Rico, too. But when her special record is on, Eric’s grandma puts her hand over her heart and remembers Eric’s grandpa and the time they spent together in Santurce, her hometown. Before the story is over Eric and his grandma have left the record player back at the apartment and headed out to a live show. And Eric grows up to share all kinds of music and memories with his grandmother. 

This is an exceptional inter-generational story that weaves together culture and memory so naturally. Check out his website for more illustrations from the book and a very cute picture of the real Eric dancing with his grandma. 

(Cover image source: Goodreads)

Ship Breaker (2010) by Paolo Bacigalupi. 

Dystopian future. Determined protagonist. Sociopath father of said determined protagonist. Swank love interest. Loyalty. Betrayal. Survival.The haves get everything. The have nots get a stick of pigeon to eat on the very best days. 

It’s always fun to sink my teeth into a good YA novel. I love kids books of all kinds, but sometimes a lady just needs some action. And dystopian fantasy is right up my pessimistic-for-the-future alley right now. Ship Breaker is a quest book that begins in the bowels of old carbon aged tankers where we meet Nailer and his crew working scavenge, trying to salvage as much raw scrap as they can from the dead ships. 

It’s hard to find a good spot that’s not a spoiler, so here’s the opening bit to give you a taste of this world. 

Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose. He scrambled deeper into the duct, jerking more wire from its aluminum staples. The staples pinged about the cramped metal passage like coins offered to the Scavenge God, and Nailer felt after them eagerly, hunting for their dull gleam and collecting them in a leather bag he kept at his waist. He yanked again at the wiring. A meter’s worth of precious copper tore loose in his hands and dust clouds enveloped him. 

The LED glowpaint smeared on Nailer’s forehead gave a dim green phosphorescent view of the service ducts that made up his world. Grime and salt sweat stung his eyes and trickled around the edges of his filter mask. With one scarred hand, he swiped at the salty rivulets, careful to avoid rubbing off the LED paint. The paint itched and drove him crazy, but he didn’t relish finding his way back out of the mazelike ducts in blind blackness, so he let his forehead itech and again surveyed his position. 

Rusty pipes ran ahead of him, disappearing into darkness. Some iron, some steel – heavy crew would be the ones to deal with that. Nailer only cared about the light stuff – the copper wiring, the aluminum, the nickel, the steel clips that could be sacked and dragged out through the ducts to his light crew waiting outside. 

Ship Breaker is worth a read. I munched it down in three days (pretty good for a mom with three kids). Check it out for the fast paced story telling and imaginative world building, but equally for all the people of color who populate this dystopian future – a basic fact and not a belabored point. Aren’t those the best kinds of fantasy novels? Oh wait, there usually aren’t (m)any people of color in the future worlds of fantasy novels. All they more reason to snap Ship Breaker right up.

The Great Big Book of Families (2011) by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ros Asquith. 

Are you tired of the same old families being featured in kids book after kids book? One mom, one dad, an older brother, a younger sister, all blond? It’s actually not that extreme these days in kids books, but still many kids get it in their heads that “normal” families have this stereotypical make-up. Kids growing up in families that don’t look like this are somehow thought of as “different.”

The Great Big Book of Families has the explicit mission of shaking up these old ideas about family with many, many more possibilities. Ros Asquith’s illustrations of a much wider spectrum of diverse families are key to this mind shift. 

Alvin Ho Allergic to Camping, Hiking and Other Natural Disasters (2009) by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham.

There is something so irresistible about Alvin Ho and Lenore Look’s snappy descriptions of Asian American family life. I’m so happy that there’s basically an Alvin Ho book for every season. What’s even better? All the Alvin Ho books are easy readers. 

Here’s some of her sparkling prose. It’s the morning of Alvin and his dad’s camping trip:

My dad is a great packer-upper. He packed Louise, his wasabi-green car, in no time. It is one of his talents.

But it is not one of mine. I wasn’t packed at all.

“Son,” said my dad. Usually, I like it when he calls me that. But this was not usual. It was the scariest morning of my life!

“It’s time to go,” said my dad.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I was a wonton in a wrapper.

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji (2011) by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min.

Aneel’s Dada-ji (grandpa) loves telling stories about his childhood being the strongest boy in his village thanks to his mom’s amazing roti. Aneel decides to make some roti for his Dada-ji to bring back his boyhood tiger-strength. 

In a village far, far away where the warm breeze made the green wheat fields dance and the brown coconuts rustle lived a lad who astonished the villagers morning, noon, and night. 

Aneel winked at Dada-ji. After all, the lad in the story was none other than his very own Dada-ji long, long ago. Dada-ji went on…

In the morning the lad wrestled a snorting water buffalo, and the villagers cried, “Arre Wah! Oh Wow!”

At noon he tied two hissing cobras in a knot. “Wha!” cheered the villagers.

…What made the lad so strong? It was the hot, hot roti that sizzled and wizzled on Badi-ma’s wood hearth. 

…Each day the lucky lad smacked his lips and rubbed his belly and ate a stack so high with a bit of tongue-burning mango pickle. He wanted the power of the tiger, baba!

And what little boy doesn’t want the power of the tiger after all? 

I especially appreciate Ken Min’s drawings that burst off the page. You gotta love a book where some home cooked roti can bring on magic tiger strength, giving grandpas and grandsons all the power they need for a whole day of adventure together.