Transmit Culture Panel, January 2016

diversity in childrens lit

I was pretty much born an angry feminist and have had to reel it back a lot over the years (for the sake of my blood pressure). In second grade the boys wouldn’t let girls play kickball with them, so I lined all the other little girls in my sphere of influence along the kickball court and yelled, “Girls are as good as boys!!!” at them until they let us play (or at least I think that’s what happened…maybe we just broke up the kickball game into a pandemonium of playground-chasing).

I was always disappointed that there were so few girls in books like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. And let’s be real; I was even more disappointed in the fact that the only girls in the Bible who were really important were just important because they gave birth to important babies.

Drove. Me. CRAZY.

So just imagining trying to grow up as a black, hispanic, Chumash, Asian American, or basically any non-white kid with nearly zero representation in my favorite books and movies? Fricking infuriating!

I might even have decided that reading was no fun and given up on it. I don’t know if I would have been as cool as Marley and started a national movement.

At least in California elementary schools like mine the librarians made an effort to find books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Skirt, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry and others that center on non-white, female characters. But what about the kids in less conscientious places? And why just a couple tokens for other ethnicities?

And more importantly: what about the non-literary, fun books and comics that actually make kids want to read in their free time? The ones that, I don’t know, little boys might even read?

Last night Ooligan put on a panel about this very issue featuring literary agent DongWon Song, Multnomah County librarian Alicia Tate, and founder of Portland Youth Poet Laureate Project S. Renee Mitchell. One of our alumni and founder of Believe in Wonder, Brian Parker, moderated. They covered the lack and the need of diverse books both to act as avatars for kids from different cultures, as well as make the mainstream more familiar with and hopefully sympathetic to other cultures.

(Because <ahem> diversity isn’t just assuming everyone should be the same because we’re in a “post-racial society.” I don’t know who decided that was a thing but they could sure benefit from reading a fricking book or two…that isn’t by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly.)

“Diverse” in our conversation meant both books with central characters of color as well as books written by authors of color. Brian brought up a question that I personally would have been too afraid to ask. He said that one of his white friends said they were too scared to write black characters into their work. The friend sitting next to me and I shared a look…it was exactly what we had been thinking.

“Well, I think that’s silly,” Alicia Tate said.

“That’s just lazy,” DongWon said. “Writing is a hard thing to do…You’ve got to do the research to write a good book anyway, you can do your research about this, too.”

(I’ll just interject that DongWon is my editing teacher and I’m sure you can imagine the necessity of stepping up one’s game in that class.)

One of the most important things here is that all young people are able to see themselves as the hero of the story — of many stories in fact. That they have multiple people in literature and film and art to relate to that don’t just play a subordinate, supporting position.

For me, personally, this issue is important for two reasons.

First of all, my aspiring author friends can’t find homes for their stories. One friend in particular told me that she’d been turned down by 70 agents because nobody can “place” her book, a common problem for authors of color. She’s a great writer and one of the most interesting people I know, and writes about issues informed by her travels as a consultant for NGOs in Rwanda, Egypt, Europe, and America. Yet despite her skill and experience, there’s apparently no place for her writing.

The second reason is I’m tired of stories like my friend’s losing priority to tiresome suburban angst. I no longer want to live in a country where Jonathan Franzen is the pinnacle of modern literature. These books are about as enthralling as eavesdropping at brunch in Lake Oswego. Or at Sambo’s in Santa Barbara. You guys, it’s still called Sambo’s.

Currently, about 80-90% of the publishing industry is white and female (the other 10% are dudes in the high-paying executive positions…looool…just wait). So I’m not really breaking any ground in my chosen profession. So when I got called on to ask a question, I asked what I could do as part of that majority hunk to promote inclusion and diversity.

Alicia said, “Say YES!” She also said that once I’ve got more influence I should really promote diverse books to booksellers and libraries.

And DongWon said that I should be prepared and open enough to say yes when stories that aren’t about me and my own experience come across my desk. And in order to do that I should be as widely and deeply read as possible.

“It might not be something that you can relate to,” he said. “But thousands of other people can.”

And that’s something that, even though I’m no big wig, I can start now. For my writer friends, for the kids who need someone to emulate, and for all the readers out there starved for new perspectives.

I hope you’ll join me.

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