I grew up reading books by diverse authors and thinking about the characters who lived in them and the questions they raised. I went to a “good” college where we often discussed issues of race, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality. Yet here are a few of the things I wasn’t aware of when I started working as an editorial assistant in 2000:
- The Clark Doll Experiment
- The Indian burial ground trope
- The term “white privilege”
- That skin tone is a major source of sensitivity in many non-white communities
- The strong dislike or discomfort many cultures feel toward anthropologists
- The white savior cliche, in which a white person discovers the wonders of a native group, eventually becomes part of the group, is acclaimed as the best of them all, then leads them into battle against the white culture, which is trying to dominate the natives (see especially Dances with Wolves and Avatar)
- That for all its charms, The Story of Babar ultimately reproduces a colonialist narrative about the superiority of European life to African life
Over the course of the past twelve years, I’ve learned about these ideas and discussions (and many more like them) through a variety of sources: my editorial apprenticeship under my boss, Arthur A. Levine, who has long sought to publish more diverse books and authors; posts by participants on the child_lit mailing list, especially Debbie Reese, the proprietor of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, and Monica Edinger, who often writes about books set in Africa; other blogs, magazines like The Horn Book and School Library Journal, and books like Should We Burn Babar?; and reviews where thoughtful critics engaged with issues of diversity probed them through the lens of recently published books. I also learned that in these matters, it was extremely wise to listen first, ask questions carefully next, and not opine till later, if at all—a good rule for life as well as publishing.
So why are items like those in the list above important to those of us involved in making books for children and young adults? The cliches point out places where our art might be lazy, or even offensive, and therefore less effective than it could be. Matters like skin tone or anthropology or colonialism remind us that no matter how well-meaning an outsider’s interest in a culture is, it can have negative effects and isn’t always welcome—especially given its long history of busting the door down anyway—and that outsiders should remember that in writing (and consider not writing at all), while those insider voices deserve to be more widely heard and promoted. And the Doll Experiment and white privilege indicate the reason all of our talk about diversity is necessary: We live in a society that doesn’t fully empower all of its children to lead their fullest lives, and if the books we produce can empower some of those kids, that might make a difference in changing that fact long-term.
Thus the Diversity Committee is proud to be launching a “Diversity 101” series, where we’ve asked a variety of thinkers to write blog posts here regarding some of these common shibboleths, questions, and issues. These posts will absolutely not be “Do Not Write This” lists, as a talented, smart, and sensitive writer can make almost any character or cliché feel complicated and human, fresh and true. (Not every black person who helps a white person is a Magical Negro, as Stacey Barney argued earlier this year, and not every white person who discovers a different culture has to be a white savior.) Rather, we hope to introduce people who are just starting to think about questions of diversity to some of the more common concepts and discussions, and to raise awareness of all of these matters, to pass on the kind of education I received via Arthur, child_lit, Debbie, Monica, and many other sources.
The series will launch in January. In the meantime, I encourage you to consider the questions raised by the Council on Interracial Books’ classic Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism—a Diversity 101 course in itself. (And of course it applies to adult books as well.) None of us will ever have all the answers here. We all always need to remember that each character, author, and book is individual, and that each deserves our careful reading and consideration. But we hope this “Diversity 101” series will further the conversation with a little more information, and help all of us to write and publish the truest and best books. Thank you for your interest and participation.