I’m middle class.
My outer body matches my inner gender.
I’ve read dozens and dozens of books filled with characters I can relate to: white, middle class females. I’ve also read many novels that have stretched my mind, opened my heart and shown me what it’s like to live in someone else’s world. I dare say that the vast majority of the stories that stick with me are those that exposed me to experiences I haven’t lived, shown me a value structure different from my own and pushed my envelope more than a little bit.
I remember a profound gratitude for having been born female in America (and now, with a better understanding, I’d also add white to that description) after reading “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, which shed light on the place of women in Afghan society. When I jumped into “Piecing Me Together” by Renee Watson last fall, I walked away with a new perspective on the ways students of color may feel when offered opportunities (with the best of intentions) that don’t feel like opportunities to them at all. And I can still conjure inspiration for new beginnings and courageous acts from Jacqueline Woodson’s “The Day You Begin.”
In my role as collection developer for my elementary and preschool libraries, I often find myself wanting to add a rich diversity to the available stories—characters that don’t look like me, think like me or live like me. I am passionate about including stories that reflect the patrons I serve whose identities differ from mine, and books that broaden horizons for those with whom I share much intersectionality.
For years, the options available seemed to be few and far between. Finding characters of color in picture books and middle grade novels was fairly rare, unless the topic was historical fiction, and then, only the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement seemed to be in play.
Fortunately, publishers are (slowly) expanding their offerings to be more inclusive and wide-reaching. I’m super excited for that growth, and think it’s long overdue, but even though I’m enthusiastic about the titles I see, I continue to be careful in selecting books. To me, it’s essential that the stories I offer my students be authentic.
That’s where, for a while, I was stuck in a bit of analysis paralysis. So essential was my desire for rich stories with authentic characters who would reflect the faces and challenges of my marginalized patrons, that I was afraid to choose for fear of making a mistake. I didn’t want to get pulled into including a title that on its surface appeared to be inclusive, but once inside the pages were full of tropes, stereotypes or inauthentic voices.
Having not lived as a transgendered person… how do I know when a story truly reflects that experience? Having not been walked in the shoes of a person of color… how do I know when a story accurately captures that life? Having not been significantly marginalized… how do I select stories that honor those who have?
For me, the answer comes in part from the movement that has become known as OwnVoices: the commitment to choosing works in which the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity. If there’s a story to be told, who better to tell it than someone who has a connection to the character in a very real way? Cece Bell knocks it out of the park when she brings us into the world of deafness in her graphic novel “El Deafo”, Tim Tingle delivers a powerful story of friendship in “Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom” and Lin Miller-Lachman opens up the world of living with Asperger’s in “Rogue.”
To be sure, each and every story is unique, and it’s critical to remember that one member of a community cannot (and should not be asked to) speak for the entire group (i.e. this is true for ordinary everyday life too).
Mirror and Window Books
People whose stories have yet to be heard are not all the same—not every strong black woman is alike, nor have they lived the same lives—thus, not all strong black female characters will be congruous. The same is true for a gay man, transgendered teen or daughter of a lesbian couple. But when a gay man writes a story, it’s a story from the point of view of a gay man. Not a straight man trying to imagine life as a gay man. When a transgender person writes a story that includes a transgender character, there is likely to be an essence there that’s truly authentic. The same is true for the kid with two moms, the autistic artist, or the person who has struggled with mental illness. The authentic voice lies in the experiences of the author and finds its way onto the page.
In life as in story, the variety and richness that stems from the intersectionality of the pieces that make us human are what make a character compelling as well. Reading an author who is writing with their own voice creates a point of common contact for those who share that identity, and it also serves to expand the horizons of those who live differently.
But diverse literature isn’t just about stories that tell the tales of marginalized folks. It’s about offering kids what Rudy Sims Bishop defined as “mirror” and “window” books, which show characters that look and sound like they do, and books that offer a glimpse into a life much different from their own.
While historical fiction delivers powerful stories too, it’s my opinion that librarians and teachers have engaged in an over-reliance on that genre to attempt to make their collections and shared stories more diverse. Historical fiction has its place, to be sure, but there’s a lot more to diverse history than the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Take, for example, “Code Talker: a Novel About the Navajo Marines in World War II” by Joseph Bruchac, “Grandfather’s Journey” by Allen Say, which lyrically conveys the push and pull of gratitude for an immigrant’s new home and his longing for the one he left, or John Steptoe’s “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters,” inspired by an African folktale and a stunning peek into the history and culture of Zimbabwe.
In my experience, what kids (really all kids) want to see is their own face reflected in the characters on the page in front of them.
Finding Diverse Literature
Finding the authors (and illustrators in the case of picture books) who bring their own voice to their work has been a wonderful mind-opening journey.
- I started with websites such as We Need Diverse Books whose creators are doing incredible work in expanding horizons for readers everywhere;
- My booktalks evolved to be more like those suggested by Grace Lin in her Cheat Sheet for Selling Diversity;
- I tapped into Twitter—following authors whose work I know to be authentic and rich, and paying attention to which authors they were reading. For starters Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson and Grace Lin;
- I gobbled up podcasts like The Children’s Book Podcast hosted by Matthew Winner; and
- I engaged in conversations IRL with colleagues whose judgment I trusted.
Bottom line: I took chances, read books I might not have picked up on my own and gained confidence in making book selections that authentically spoke for those whose voices have not always been heard.
My learning isn’t finished yet. As this next school year unfolds, I’m exploring awards for diverse literature, taking time to read many of the titles I’ve ordered for the library, and whenever I head to a conference, I’m hitting up the presentations that focus on diversity in children’s literature and library programming.
Up next on my reading stack:
- “Island Born” by Junot Diaz
- “I Got the Rhythm” by Connie Schofield-Morrison
- “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” by Vashti Harrison
- “Meet Yasmin” by Saadia Faruqi
- “Mommy’s Khimar” by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
- “Amal Unbound” by Aisha Saeed
As librarians and teachers, we must embrace the opportunity to stretch and grow, to open our eyes to the words of authors who can speak their own truth from the margins, to put those stories into the hands of our readers.