Thursday, May 1, 2014

Everyday Diversity

Twitter lit up yesterday with some hashtag called #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  Or maybe I simply noticed it yesterday … I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, and lately I’ve been immersed in putting together a workshop for writers interested in adding cultural diversity to their children’s books.  Which might explain why this caught my attention.

The half of me which could pass as “diverse” felt her skin crawl as I scrolled through all the posts. 

I applaud the intention, really I do, of those who want to raise awareness about the appalling lack of “characters of color” in mainstream publishing today.  Let’s just put it out there:  of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people.  The numbers get worse when you look at Latinos, Asians, Native Americans … and when those sorts of characters do appear, they are often as representative figures from historical legacies about the civil rights movement or slavery or the Trail of Tears.  Or kids books about Cinco de Mayo.  Or World War II Japanese relocation sagas.

The only thing possibly worse than the numbers are the cardboard-cut-out depictions of non-white characters as downtrodden victims, as “other,” as “different-but-still-cool.” 

In our admirable quest to write “diverse” books, we need to be wary of creating the Separate But Equal Minority Genre.  We need to be careful that we don’t inadvertently intensify notions of “otherness.”  That we don’t create black/Hispanic/Asian/Arab characters who are "shining examples" of diversity.  That we do, as Walter Dean Myer’s urges us to do, in his essay published in the New York Times this past March, depict characters who are “an integral and valued part of the mosaic” of our shared American culture.

I recently stumbled upon the phrase, “everyday diversity.”  It was used by a children’s librarian in Hennepin County, Minnesota, who has put together lists of children’s books which she believes are diverse as a matter-of-course.  Books in which the protagonists might be non-white … but their non-whiteness is not the subject of the book.  The books are about making friends, getting into college, losing a tooth, visiting Grandma … and the characters doing all these things just happen to be named Abdullah or Jose.

Everyday diversity doesn’t ignore culture and race.  It relegates culture and race to adjectives, to parts of the complex background which define and enrich character, which adds depth to our characters without siloing them as “the black” or “the Native American” or “the Muslim.”

One of my favorite authors, the young adult novelist, Francisco Stork, does this brilliantly.  Stork’s characters are of Mexican descent, but that cultural detail is imbedded in his stories.  It’s one of many moving parts in complex depictions of well-wrought characters who defy stereotypes.  Read Marcelo in the Real World to see what I mean.

The writer Julia Alvarez puts it this way: “Stories are about the big circle, the gathering of the different tribes of the human family. Getting down into ethnic/racial bunkers of literature totally negates what stories are about.” 

In those two sentences, Alvarez embodies the goal … and the challenge … of writing any fiction, but especially for writing for young people today. 

Here's the hashtag I prefer:  #EverydayDiversity

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