Contributed to CBC Diversity by Beth Cox
The 34th International IBBY Congress last month in Mexico was dedicated to the subject of reading as an inclusive experience, and thanks to a very generous bursary from IBBY UK (part of the legacy from hosting the congress in London in 2012) I was very lucky to be able to attend.
As someone who has been passionate about inclusion and diversity for many years, a three day congress on this very subject was a dream come true, and the conference motto ‘may everyone really mean everyone’ perfectly aligned with the ethos of Inclusive Minds, a collective founded in the UK by myself and Alexandra Strick to bring together all those passionate about the creation and availability of inclusive, diverse and accessible children’s books.
There’s no space to fit three days worth of inspirational talks into a short blog post, but I’d like to focus on the parts that really meant something to me. Either because they reinforced and expanded my way of thinking, or because they challenged me.
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Brian Pinkney
When I was ten years old, my mom and dad made me my very own art studio. Actually, the “studio” was a walk-in closet that my parents converted so that I could have a place to call my own. It was the perfect spot for expressing my creativity without interruptions. (As one of four children, finding time to myself wasn’t always easy.)
As a budding artist, I wanted to grow up to become a children’s book creator, just like my father, illustrator Jerry Pinkney. Watching Dad, I was very fortunate to see books in which black children were front-and-center. Seeing Dad’s characters showed me, me. And it established a simple truth ― black kids in books were beautiful and could be rendered abundantly.
Following in Dad’s footsteps, I spent hours in my little workspace drawing all kinds of pictures. I also read lots of books, and dreamed big. Looking back, I realize now that my junior studio was a kind of retreat where I could pore over the pages of picture books. These books and their illustrations had an impact on how I perceived myself as an African American kid.
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Janet Wong
When we look at the spectrum of racial stereotypes, Asians seem to have it good: We’re supposedly smart, hard-working, and obedient. We never complain. Families stick together. We don’t rock the boat (especially the fresher off the boat that we are).
What’s the Problem?
As far as stereotypes go, we’re pretty lucky. Some would say blessed. Who wouldn’t want to be prejudged as all those positive things?
- the amazing Japanese child who is dismissed as “just the typical Asian whiz kid”;
- the B student who is considered an “embarrassment” to his Chinese parents;
- the Korean teen who “brings shame” by getting a tattoo;
- the Asian family of divorce.
The problem with all stereotypes—racial, cultural, gender, whatever—is that they interfere with your ability to be seen as you. You want to play football, but the Model Minority Stereotype (MMS) says: “Try the marching band.” You want to be a hip-hop star, but the MMS says: “Math and science.” Or maybe you need help, but are unable to reach out. The MMS says: “Asians are quiet. She’s perfectly fine.”
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Sam Kane
I just took over a school library after a previous librarian’s tenure of sixteen years. I immediately hung up my “windows and mirrors” sign and set up my window-shuttered mirror beneath it. Why?
Because back in 1997 Emily Style’s concept of “windows and mirrors” shocked me out of my comfortable, unaware world. It transformed both my vision of and mission for bookshelves. Today, my windows and mirrors display both acts as a tangible reminder of my charge and also lets others know I value an inclusive library.
Before participating in a Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity (S.E.E.D) workshop, and learning about “windows and mirrors”, I took for granted that books and curriculum reflected an experience similar to my own. As a white middle-to-upper-class, heterosexual female of European descent, I saw myself mirrored everywhere. Books validated my existence.
It had never occurred to me that my Native American Hispanic colleague could have reached the same age without that bond of connection with a book. I had never thought about how books and curriculum didn’t mirror her. I had never realized that she read books that only offered her windows with unfamiliar views. Books had made her feel invisible.
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Adam Silvera
When writing diverse books, we’re writing about choices—and the things we can’t choose. Harry Potter could have chosen not to go to Hogwarts, but spending the rest of his youth with the incorrigible Dursleys would’ve sucked for all involved—Harry, the Dursleys, and the readers who became readers because of the boy wizard. Katniss Everdeen didn’t have to volunteer as tribute in The Hunger Games in place of Prim, but life in District 12 was bleak enough without watching someone act like her younger sister’s name wasn’t announced for a battle to the death. There are choices characters—and people—make because the alternative is simply unspeakable. But then there are the ones who don’t have a choice at all. They don’t choose to be Latino, they don’t choose mental illness, they don’t choose their sexual orientation. Who gives them a voice? I, along with many others, volunteer as tribute.
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Sara Farizan
When I write a story, I often don’t think about diversity. I don’t think about how many characters I should have of a certain ethnic or cultural background, or about whether I meet a quota on how many different types of people I have on the page. I don’t think about if what I am doing is unique or perhaps not as mainstream. If I thought about all of those things, I probably wouldn’t have written the books that I have, or will hopefully, continue to write.
When I do write a story, I think about people I know in real life. I think about issues I would like to explore or think need more attention. I think about books that I wish I had as a teenager and think about the books I appreciated from that period of my life. I think about how I still have so much to learn, not just about writing, but about the world, and people that make the world complex, interesting and beautiful.
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Tracey Baptiste
I have an eight year old son. He is funny, and charming, and clever. He likes giraffes. And robots. A lot. I think if there were a giraffe robot somewhere his heart would explode from joy. Based on the debris in his room, he may be building one. He likes to build things. We made a lab in his closet so our parental need for a clean room wouldn’t impinge on his creativity. (I’m sorry to say it still does sometimes, but I’m happy to say his lab is seriously awesome.)
There’s one other thing I’d like to tell you about my son. I fear for his life.
Young black men are a target in this country. Make no mistake about it. No matter what their personality traits, or their achievements, or their virtues, for some people they represent only one thing: a threat.
These are only the most recognizable recent deaths. There are many others. It has been going on since before Emmett Till.
The publishing industry seems very far away from the incidents in Ferguson and other places where young unarmed black men were killed for no reason. But there is something that we as book creators can do about it. We can make more books by black writers that feature black protagonists. I don’t have to tell anyone reading this blog that reading builds empathy, that books can bind us together. But I do want to say that books can stop bullets. Systemic racism can be subverted by systemic acceptance. And it’s up to all of us.
Tell us about your debut and how you came to write it.
Bird is a story about a 12-year-old girl named Jewel who was born on the day her brother John died. Jewel’s grandfather had nicknamed John “Bird”, and Bird thought he really could fly – at five years old, he jumped off a cliff. Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since. Jewel is mixed race – Jamaican/Mexican/White – living in rural Iowa, and on the night of her 12th birthday, the anniversary of her brother’s death, she finds a boy in the tree she climbs. And his name is John. There are a lot of different beliefs in the Jamaican and Mexican cultures about what happens when you die, and this mysterious friend certainly upsets the silence in her house.
As for how the story started: I had just finished reading Keeper by Kathi Appelt, and was sick at home from work. I had also finished my first manuscript and was fretting that I might not have another idea for another novel. Ever. I was thinking about this for hours, and finally I got so sick of myself that I said, Crystal, either you get up out of bed and write your next book, or you go to sleep because you’re sick. But you’re not going to lie in bed thinking about not writing your next book.
And then I started thinking more about Keeper, and how I loved that story; it’s about a girl who thought her mother turned into a mermaid and goes out to sea in search of her. And I thought, A girl who thinks her mother was a mermaid - that’s such a great idea – but what if… there were a boy who thought he was a bird? What would he do? And immediately I saw this little kid, arms outstretched, jumping off a cliff because he thought he could fly. I remember gasping as I saw it play out in my mind. Then the voice of the protagonist, Jewel’s voice, started speaking – like started narrating to me – and I got out of bed and wrote down what she said. That’s how I wrote the first chapter of Bird.
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Monica Brown
In the 2013 Census, nine million people selected more than one race. In states like California, where I grew up, as well as Texas, and New York, half a million or more people, in each of these states, marked multiple-races. Yet when I became a mother of two beautiful daughters, Isabella and Juliana, I looked around and couldn’t find books that represented the multiplicity of our experiences as a family of two continents, many races, and diverse cultural traditions. We are a nation of boxes, and until the 2000 census, we could mark only one. It is unfortunate that many of our children’s books mirror only part of our culture and that many voices still go unheard.
My Personal Connection
My daughter, Isabella (named in honor of my mother Isabel Maria) was born in 1997 in Tennessee. We were living in a region of Tennessee where there were very few Latinos and race was defined in terms of black and white. In the hospital, the nurses informed me that they adored my daughter, with her shock of black spiky hair, and that they called her “our little Eskimo.” My own family said, “She sure looks like a Valdivieso!” and yes, with in her dark eyes, light olive skin and beautiful black hair, I saw the face of my mestiza Peruvian Grandmother. But she also shared roots in Jewish Romania and Hungary, Scotland, and Italy. From my husband Jeff, came Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Germany. Surely a citizen of the world was born on that day in 1997.
“The little Eskimo” was the first box my Isabella was put in. Because if you look “ambiguously ethnic”(and here I borrow Sherman Alexie’s phrase), people want to place you.
Recently, my daughter’s teacher used her as an example during a class discussion of Nazi Germany, stating “Because of her global ethnic origins, Isabella is an example of what the Nazis would have classified as Negroid.” He then pointed out blond students as examples of what the Nazis would have called “Aryan superiority.” I am sure the teacher intended the exercise to illustrate the absurdity of white supremacy, but I am still struck by the ways my multiracial teen, and other ethnically diverse students, are still put in boxes and on display.
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Aaron Hartzler
Every six months or so, I see an essay devoted to the absence of religion and characters of faith in young adult literature. Google “religion in YA” and you’ll see plenty of posts which rightly address the fact that only a small percentage of the books marketed to teenagers by major publishers include any reference to religion. Most of these are consistently found in historical fiction.
Studies show that a lack of religious content in YA books is not due to a lack of adolescent interest in matters of faith. According to Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005, Oxford University Press), 60% of teens say that religious faith is an important part of their lives, and 40% pray every day. Thirty-five percent attend weekly services of some kind, while another 15% go to church at least once a month. One in four report that they are “born again.”
I know these facts to be true—not only from survey data, but from personal experience.