For those of you who read The Active Voice regularly, you may have noticed that I’ve been discussing children’s books quite frequently lately. And you may be wondering why. Well, here’s why.
I WROTE A CHILDREN’S BOOK! And it’s going to be released in early May! (picture me clapping and jumping up and down)
OK, now let me connect the dots. Writing children’s stories has become a side hobby, and I’ve written probably a dozen or so. But this one is different. And a few weeks ago, I read two articles that crystallized for me why these “different” kinds of children’s books are so important. Read on.
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In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.
The person who asks “if anyone really cares” is Walter Dean Myers, author of several children’s and young adult books, including the widely acclaimed novel Monster. This past March, he and his son Christopher Myers (a children’s book writer and illustrator) wrote a pair of articles for the New York Times Book Review about the lack of diversity in children’s books: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” (which is where the above quote came from) and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” respectively. Both articles were shared widely on the Internet (they showed up on my Facebook news feed several times that week), always generating a wide variety of comments and discussion. One comment I read made a point that’s stuck with me: “Publishers often say that they’re committed to diversity. If that’s true, then where is it?”
This is what Christopher Myers says on that issue:
The mission statements of major publishers are littered with intentions, with their commitments to diversity, to imagination, to multiculturalism, ostensibly to create opportunities for children to learn about and understand their importance in their respective worlds. During my years of making children’s books, I’ve heard editors and publishers bemoan the dismal statistics, and promote this or that program that demonstrates their company’s “commitment to diversity.” With so much reassurance, it is hard to point fingers, but there are numbers and truths that stand in stark contrast to the reassurances. The business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find.
For the past three years, I’ve attended a Northern California regional conference sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). At each of these conferences, diversity and multiculturalism have been major topics of conversation. And every single year, I hear editors talk about their publishing house’s “commitment to diversity” (broadly defined). They want people to submit manuscripts that feature people of color, or LGBTQ people, or people with disabilities. One editor I met at last year’s conference lit up when I told her I’d written a couple of stories about LGBTQ issues. “Send them to me!” she said. An agent I met at that same conference had a similar reaction – she was ready to take me on almost immediately. I left that conference feeling like there wasn’t just a “commitment to diversity,” but that editors would jump at any chance to diversify their offerings.
So here we are, a year later. And the diversity, well, just isn’t there. In fact, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in children’s books, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has gotten worse in recent years. The number of LGBTQ-themed children’s books is harder to pin down, since no one seems to be tracking these numbers. From my vantage point, a lot of LGBTQ-themed books seem to be about two-mommy/two-daddy families or gender nonconformity, and a good number of them are self-published. The big publishing houses (including the one represented by the editor I met at the conference) just aren’t putting children’s picture books out there that reflect the identities of their readers.
Why is that? My guess is that publishers fear two things: avoidance and aversion.
First, the avoidance. With respect to race and ethnicity, publishers may fear that White people won’t read books about people of color, and that diversifying their booklist will come at a significant economic cost. (Interestingly, Nikki Grimes, who was a keynote speaker at this year’s regional SCBWI conference, shared many letters from White middle-class kids who read her books and loved them). If people don’t buy books, then publishers don’t make money – and a lot of books need to be sold in order to post a profit. Moreover, there may be an implicitly racist assumption that people of color are less likely than their White counterparts to read – and if that’s the case, then profits will take a significant hit. (Walter Dean Myers writes quite candidly about why he gave up reading for a period of time.)
It’s bad enough if people avoid something; it’s even worse if there’s an aversive reaction. Quite possibly a fear of aversion may be behind the lack of LGBTQ-themed children’s books – particularly because they’re aimed at children. Anti-gay organizations often make inflammatory, inaccurate claims, many of which revolve around perceived effects of homosexuality on children:
Homosexuality threatens the institution of marriage in America, which will have devastating effects on children.
If children are raised by gay parents, they will become gay themselves.
Children are subjected to harmful pro-homosexual propaganda in schools, which increases the likelihood that they will choose this lifestyle.
By logical extension, the fear is children who read pro-LGBTQ children’s books will be harmed by them. Which is a Big Lie. The reality is that children and adults benefit tremendously from LGBTQ visibility in children’s books – and, consequently, are negatively impacted by the absence of these stories.
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So. Guess what? I have a children’s book coming out in a couple of weeks. (YAY!!!! Picture me clapping and jumping up and down.)
It’s called This Day in June, and it is, according to the book description, “an uplifting and upbeat book that shares the experience of attending an LGBT Pride festival and a day when everyone is united.” It includes a section at the end with information about LGBTQ history and culture, and it also has a guide for parents and caregivers about how to talk to children about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Why did I write it? If Walter Dean Myers were to look me in the eye and ask me if anyone really cares, I would want to have integrity in my response. A change in the course of children’s literature is way overdue. It’s time to dramatically diversify the representations in children’s books. It’s time to challenge and demolish the myths that anti-LGBT organizations have perpetuated – and that many of us have internalized on some level. It’s time for publishers to walk their talk, and demonstrate a commitment to diversity. And I want to be a part of that.