I have lots more to say about this issue of the need for diversity in children’s literature. But today I want to just address one tiny part of it.
I’m a writer. I’m white. English is my first language. I live in a smallish place. I’m heterosexual. I don’t have a disability. If I recognize that we need more diversity in books for kids and teens, what can I do about it?
I have some choices:
1. I can say, look. It’s not my place to write about a character who is biracial or was adopted or who uses a wheelchair. I don’t know what it’s like to be that character. If I write it, I’m probably going to screw it up and offend people and I don’t want to do that. I’ll just play it safe and stick to writing about people like me. So no one will be mad.
2. I can say, look. If I keep playing it safe and the people next to me keep playing it safe, this problem isn’t going to get solved any time soon. Okay, I’m going to brave this. I’m going to consciously and carefully try to include diversity in my story.
Neither of these issues deals with the fact that we need books published by diverse authors. And we do. But that’s not the focus of this post today, so stick with me. The “how” part of how we write outside our culture is another post entirely and one I want to write. But for now, let’s just talk about making the decision to do it.
Look, it’s hard to do this and it should be. Because we need to do everything we can to get it right. I started wrestling with all of this 5 years ago, before I started writing Caminar. I’m still wrestling with it today. But one thing that finally allowed me to put pen to paper was the idea that I wanted readers to hear about what happened in Guatemala in 1981. I felt responsible for telling people about it ever since I learned the U.S. played a role leading up to that violence that leaves me uncomfortable.
But here’s another thing I realized. I am from Appalachia. There are many books about Appalachia. Some of them are wonderful. Some are not. Some of them make me feel completely validated and comforted because it feels so right—exactly the right tone, values, flavor of the place where I was raised. Others make me cringe, make me roll my eyes, make me angry. These books are written by outsiders and insiders both. And you know what? The book that offends me the most happens to be written by a brilliant author with a large body of work who is from Appalachia. An insider. But an insider who wrote a terribly degrading, negative, infuriating description of the culture of my roots, in my opinion, that does nothing except further the negative stereotypes that already exist.
Which proves something to me.
1. Stories resonate differently with different people. I was talking with a friend once, also from Appalachia, about this book. It didn’t bother her. She liked it. She brought up another somewhat famous book about Appalachia that really bothered her. I happen to love it. So much so that a friend made the cover into a clock and it hangs over my desk.
2. There is no one story. I’m sure the author of the book I hate finds the story speaks to her version of Appalachia, even though it doesn’t speak to mine. Appalachia is a big place and among its people there’s diversity of every kind. And the fact that this book bothers me would be less troublesome if only there were more books beside it on the shelf. I think it’s easier to look over the negative versions when there are plenty of positive ones to read instead.
3. Being an insider doesn’t mean you speak for everyone and it doesn’t mean you can’t offend. But it does give you some grace. Let’s be honest. If this book I’m talking about had been written by on outsider, I’d be a trillion times angrier. I have more than once read a book and felt a little uncomfortable about the way a minority group was portrayed. Only to find out later that the author is a member of that group. And that always makes me feel like, “Well. Who am I to judge?” When you write as an insider and offend, most people will shrug this off to “I guess this author’s experience is very different from mine.”
4. Being an outsider means you’re not entitled, you’re not the authority, and you’re maybe not forgiven. It means you have to work harder, have a heaping dose of humility, and do everything you can to get it right. That means asking people to vet, avoiding stereotypes, making sure you have rich, three-dimensional characters who are more than just diverse labels to populate your book. And all of that sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? So why should we even do it?
Readers turn into writers. Stop for one second and think about how powerful that is. If I told you there was a new book out, set in your hometown, a town that previously has never been the setting of a book, wouldn’t you read it? Regardless of what it was about. Just because you wanted to see your grocery store in a book?
What about your favorite vacation spot? Or the hospital where your kids were born? Or a book that has a character who wears the exact strange and wonderful t-shirt with a now defunct rock band on it that you’ve worn every Saturday night for the past ten years?
We’d read all those books—wouldn’t we?—just because the idea of connecting to some part of a story that personally is so compelling. We want to feel that connection.
Imagine a library where kids of every make and model could find book after book on the shelf to read where they felt this connection. This validation. How many kids out there might keep returning to books to feel it? How many kids might become avid readers? And how many of those readers might become writers?
This is a step towards diversifying the set of authors who are getting published. It’s a step in the right direction.
Stories are tools for empathy. A world that is full of empathy is a world more peaceful and green and kind.
Writing outside our cultures is hard. But I think it’s something we should do–carefully and responsibly. Will we make mistakes? Yes. Yes, we will. Does it matter? YES. Yes, it does.
Let’s not think for a minute we should feel like, “Oh well. Mistakes happen. Who cares.” Mistakes can be painful in this regard. They can further marginalize people and insult them. They can plant seeds for stereotypes and misinformation in the heads of our readers.
But that shouldn’t keep us from trying. I think the important thing is trying hard to get it right and learning from the mistakes we make. Being humble and willing to listen when people talk to us. And doing what we can to make it right and better the next time around. Kristin Cashore, a writer and human I greatly admire did something really humble and bold and brave. Speaking about Po’s blindness in the acknowledgments section of Bitterblue, she said, “…I was not thinking about disability politics back then. It didn’t occur to me, until it was too late, that I had disabled Po, then given him a magical cure for his disability—thus implying that he couldn’t be a whole person and also be disabled. I now understand that the magical cure trope is all too common in F/SF writing and is disrespectful to people with disabilities…”
It’s right there in print forever and ever. Her saying, “I goofed. I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better next time.” I can tell from her comments that someone reached out to her and she listened. She listened.
Listen to what people are saying. Readers are asking for more diversity in the books they’re reading. Are you brave enough to try?