Diversity in Kidlit

Posted: October 7, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , ,

colorful hands

There is a rising trend in children’s literature — in all fiction, actually.  The inclusion of diverse characters.  Characters of color, LGBT characters, characters with all variety of economic backgrounds.  I think it is not only important, but crucial to expose our children to the notion that people of color, etc. are a normal, equal part of our world.  Because too much of our popular media (movies, TV, books, cartoon, music) either ignores diversity and assumes everyone is white, or puts those people in a bad or stereotypical light.  And I believe much of this comes from the works of non-traditional people themselves, just so you don’t think I’m pointing a finger.

Like it or not, our kids live in a world where gay people and Muslim people and homeless people share their classrooms and playgrounds. And if you’re like me, I don’t want my children to grow up thinking in terms of “us” and “them.”

But…

These are children’s books and movies and so forth, and I also don’t want my children (or anyone’s children) to be force-fed morality stories.  Kids should be allowed to have fantasies and adventures without a token transgender wizard or a random Asian space alien.  My own story, for example (which I am co-authoring with my daughter) is bursting with diversity. Our book features elves and dwarves and pixies and dryads as well as goblins and ogres and gremlins and imps.  And I will be very resistant to anyone who tells me I “must” make one of my elves gay, or one of my ogres Jewish.  You can’t make me.

The thing about every “movement” is that there are gaps and over-reactions.  Most of the people and organizations trumpeting about diversity in books are not militant about it.  But some are.  And some are only interested in certain kinds of diversity.  I read a rant by the founder of one group that tried to tell me I was the problem if I was white and didn’t go out of my way to include non-whites in my story.  But my daughter’s and my book includes people from France, Germany, Ireland, England, and Sweden. So those aren’t diverse enough?

I understand this is a real issue.  And it has been going on in America since before the days of the minstrel shows.  I remember Sambo’s Restaurant when the little boy in all of the murals was black, then suddenly he was East Indian when stereotyping black people went out of fashion (but stereotyping other people of color was still fair game).  But if you’re going to get on a soapbox about treating minorities fairly and appropriately, then you should include all minorities. And you should understand that they are minorities because there are fewer of them as a percentage of the population than your average White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  Every classroom in America is not a miniature United Nations. And it’s not a sin to be white.

Moreover, making a character Hispanic just so you can feel like you’re being inclusive is not helping the issue.  Is there any reason for your character to be Hispanic, in particular? Does that fit with the rest of your story? If your story takes place in Maine and you turn Ed into Edwardo just so you can jump on the Diversity bandwagon, are you not edging into “token” territory?  Oh, and if he does fit, you don’t have to make him love spicy food and telenovelas.  Just saying.

One last radical thought.  Children’s books are for children.  Children are smart.  And they are natural mimics.  My daughter’s and my book is for readers from 8 years old and up.  And I don’t feel like 8-year-olds need to be exposed to anyone’s agenda, political or otherwise.  I think it’s okay if most of the people in our book are white.

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