The CBC Diversity initiative was founded in 2012, as part of the Children’s Book Council’s commitment to promoting diverse voices in literature for young people. We believe that all children deserve to see their world reflected in the books they read. We recognize that diversity takes on many forms, including differences in race, religion, gender, geography, sexual orientation, class, and ability.
In addition to championing diverse authors and illustrators, CBC Diversity strives to open up the publishing industry to a wider range of employees. We’ve taken an active role in recruiting diverse candidates, participating in school career fairs and partnering with We Need Diverse Books on its summer internship program.
Last summer, I traveled to Tanzania to take
photographs. In February, I followed my
camera to Toronto. This was my first visit to Canada. It was a wonderful
experience dotted with several visits to Tim Hortons.
When I traveled to Tanzania, I took photographs for stories
that had not been written. There was no way the authors I work with could know
what stories I would find. This time, I had stories that were already written,
so I had specific photos that I needed to take. One of the authors I work with
had spent two weeks last July at the Toronto Summer Institute. This international annual event focuses on
the inclusion of individuals with disabilities. While she was at the institute
she discovered two wonderful stories.
Last month I wrote an article for this site, discussing my
experience photographing children with special needs and my upcoming trip to
photograph children in Tanzania. International
travel, two words that appear exciting, exotic, and luxurious, are in
reality about spending hours wedged between strangers. It is neither exciting,
exotic, nor even the slightest bit luxurious. After landing in a different
hemisphere, the excitement starts to build again. I’m not sure what I expected
to see in Tanzania, but I was surprised to see fields of corn. As a
Midwesterner, I’m well versed in fields of corn and found it very welcoming.
What made it exotic was seeing palm trees growing next to the corn. Fields, mountains,
plains, rainforests, and beaches met to make picture perfect views.
Cameras are magic. By capturing a moment in time, cameras
give us the ability to explore actions and emotions in a way that we cannot in
another medium. Each time I look through a lens, my perception of the world is
altered. I can see and photograph something large, magnificent, like a sunset
or something smaller, poignant, like a smile. Perception is a funny thing, it
can change big things to become more accessible and alter smaller things to
become more meaningful. In the instant a photograph is taken, a person is at
their most vulnerable because a camera will show only the truth. Every emotion,
from frustration to triumph, sadness to joy, is seen through the lenses of my
Children in particular express each emotion clearly. I’ve
photographed everything from weddings to landscapes, but working with children
and their families has been the most rewarding. Through previous work, I was
asked to photograph children that have special needs for a Finding My Way Books
series, true stories that highlight inclusion and self-determination. I am
fortunate to use my art to support diversity and literacy.
It’s difficult to find any representations of disabled characters in any form of media. In GLAAD’s annual look at minority representation on scripted network shows, there were only eight characters with disabilities in the 2013-2014 season. That means of all the characters on network shows in primetime, a whopping 1% had a disability.
That figure measures only a very small segment of the media, but it is indicative of a larger problem: the woeful lack of representation of people with disabilities across the board. I would argue that this dearth of disabled characters makes it even more important that the ones we do get are respectful and thoughtful portrayals.
I would also argue that those characters that aren’t—those that perpetuate harmful stereotypes, clichés, and tropes—are even more dangerous than they otherwise would be given that lack.
I was born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease, and have used a power wheelchair since I was two. I can distinctly remember the first time I saw a character that used a wheelchair. I was ten. I just want to emphasize that I didn’t see a single character like me for the first decade of my life. It didn’t even occur to me to ask for a wheelchair-using character.
But then there one was. Here was a movie where someone like me would not only be a character, but the main character. I was ecstatic. Until I actually watched it, and then I couldn’t figure out why I felt so utterly disappointed, almost betrayed. I didn’t understand that feeling then, but I understand it now.
When the manuscript for Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John came across my desk, I was immediately pulled in by the story of a deaf girl managing a high school rock band. It was full of characters I wanted to know more about, from Piper whose parents have just blown her college fund on a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, to Ed who has a secret crush on Piper, to Kallie who is the gorgeous girl with secrets of her own, to Tash, the angry punk-rock chick, to Josh and Will - twin brothers who couldn’t be more different.
It didn’t occur to me that this was a book about diversity when I first read it - to me it was about a group of teens going through the things that teens do, told in an authentic way. It’s about self-expression and self-confidence, creating your own identity, standing up for yourself, falling in love for the first time, breaking out of your shell, being brave. Yet Piper is deaf, Ed is Asian, Kallie is biracial, and Tash, Josh, and Will are white. It is clear in the story that they are, but to me the story was never about them being only those things so I hardly even noticed that first read through.
Writing About Emotional and Developmental Disabilities
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
My Personal Connection I am honored and grateful to be invited to contribute to the Diversity 101 blog, but as a person with Asperger’s syndrome (a mild form of autism) who can discuss at great length a topic of special interest, I find the blog’s word limit especially challenging. Hence, I will focus on what is one of my biggest issues among those who write about emotional and developmental disabilities such as Asperger’s—the exaggeration of difference at the expense of the feelings and desires we all have in common.
In classic literature for young readers, physical and emotional disabilities often occurred side-by-side and were used to teach lessons on proper attitudes and behavior. For instance, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox’s self-centeredness is made visible through her sickly appearance, and the angry, depressed Colin Craven cannot rise from his wheelchair until he develops a positive attitude. Persons with disabilities appear in classic stories as fundamentally different, less capable of living a full life and contributing to society. It is no wonder that Colin is hidden away in a back bedroom of the hundred-room house; in those days, persons with disabilities were isolated and marginalized, hidden in the back rooms of their own houses or locked away in institutions.
Featuring an excerpt from Kristin Cashore’s blog about her newest novel Bitterblue
Ever since I read this post on The Rejectionist a few years ago, I’ve tried to be more aware of how people with disabilities are portrayed in the books I edit and the media I consume. I mused a while back on my own blog about Toph from the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV series, wondering if she fit the stereotype described by Rachel in that post, the “supercrip” stereotype. As Rachel, who is deaf, put it,
The most crucial error the Able-bodied Narrative makes is the proposition that the disability is the most important and most interesting thing in that person’s life… . Thinking of disabled people as being their disability ignores all the other things that make us fully realized and active human beings; our loves, desires, hobbies, thoughts, fears, hatreds, ambitions, and failures. It ignores the conflicts that have actual meaning to our lives and relationships—conflicts that contain within them the seeds of stories so much richer and deeper than the Able-bodied Narrative could ever allow for.
Instead, The Able-bodied Narrative defines people by their disabilities and results in stereotyped characters in predictable plots: the struggle to overcome our obvious suffering, the search for a cure or at least normalcy, and the inspiring greatness of the “Supercrip.”
How do we approach the portrayal of people with disabilities in children’s and young adult literature? Do we treat them as whole people, whose disability is just one part of who they are?*
This can be especially tough in fantasy literature, because magic can so often solve problems in ways that can’t be solved in the real world. Author Kristin Cashore faced this situation in her first book, Graceling. (Warning, spoilers ahead; the book has been out for several years at this point, though.) A character is injured in a way that we learn in this world is irreversible. It’s devastating. It changes his life forever. Yet somehow, magically, a solution is found for this injury.
Kristin wrote a note in the third book in the series, Bitterblue, that discusses how readers reacted to this, and how she handled it. Her process in acknowledging her mistake and in trying to right it is an example for all of us.