You may have read my post three weeks ago on diversity in children’s literature. If you did not, I essentially paid lip service to the cause, then made excuses for why I didn’t think it applied to my daughter’s and my book.
I got a lot of feedback.
I had one conversation with a delightful woman who insisted that I was absolutely correct to refuse to include gay people in my middle grade novel, because they were perverse and no child of any age should be subjected to conversations about sex. Over the course of our cordial debate I completely changed my attitude about diversity in children’s books.
Before, I felt like the movement was perhaps a little over-pressuring. I was offended by the notion that as white writers, if we didn’t include people of color in our book – regardless of the subject matter – that we were part of the problem. Perhaps we are. I won’t argue it; I’ve put down that particular banner, now.
My argument, with regards to our current book, was that the cast is very diverse already, even though almost everyone is white. The characters in this book range from German to French to Cockney to Swiss, and they have the accents to prove it. Isn’t that diversity? Well, yes it is. But if you are the parent of a Middle Eastern child looking for a book to give that child which will make them feel included, whites from Europe are really no different from whites from America. I argued that to simply make some of our characters Hispanic or black or Asian merely to be diverse was as bad as stereotyping; one should only include people of color if their inclusion makes sense, or if their color is integral to the story.
But then I started discussing with my “fan” the merits of creating a picture book with two gay parents. The example was a book about a married lesbian couple taking their child to the zoo to see the various animals. I argued that there was absolutely no reason such a book should not be written, and that the inclusion of a married gay couple was in no way perverse or sexual, and was just as valid for any child to read as one with a traditional couple. I had just seen a very cute commercial about some Star Wars themed soup in which both of the male parents took turns feeding their son soup while impersonating Darth Vader: “I am your father!” It was adorable. And while homosexuality has nothing at all to do with soup or Star Wars, I found the commercial to be an important one. A child of gay parents can see themselves very positively in that commercial. And children of traditional parents see a segment of our culture that is real – and there was no sex or perversion implied (unless the viewer is unreasonably bigoted).
So why not rewrite some of our own characters into people of color? Well, I thought about it. And while the reasons I gave in my earlier post were premature and not well-thought out, I stand by our decision, and for a very good reason. Many – even most – of the characters in this middle grade fantasy are sinister. There is a limo driver who is descended from imps – sort of a poor man’s jinni, characterized by horns and a tail. Like all of these kinds of characters in our book, we made them be from the same culture that created the myth. Imps (and jinn) are Middle Eastern. But we felt uncomfortable giving our slippery and underhanded imp character an Arab accent. We have a ogre, whose people are known for hunting and eating children. Should we have made him black? I almost made our brownie (who is a servant) black, but was cautioned that that particular combination invited offense. We did make our jinn black and gave them a subtle South African accent. We set up the jinn as characters of great power who might choose to join either the good side or the bad side, then had them join the good side. And my main character and her best friend are white. Changing either one of them would require a major rewrite which I am not prepared to do at this point. But almost all of the peripheral characters mentioned in the story are black or Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern.
So, are we part of the problem? I hope we aren’t. But we also aren’t willing to add to the problem on purpose by reinforcing stereotypes. Bottom line: Diversity in kidlit can go too far. But how far is too far? Much farther than I thought before.