Living Up to Your Character by Jen Swann Downey

the ninja librariansI’m old enough to have learned (let’s cough a little, and pretend I’m a quick study) that for something to be worth sharing it either has to be true or funny, or both.

My MG debut THE NINJA LIBRARIANS has a lot of funny in it. (Or so people tell me who don’t appear to have their fingers crossed behind their backs) It also contains my attempt at some “true”  The story revolves around a secret society of lybrarians who take great risks to protect intellectual freedom in times and places where it has not always been safe to do so. People like Ida B. Wells, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Giordano Bruno.


Dorrie, my heroine, has a number of opportunities to take risks and be “true.” Some she walks away from, and some she takes, with an equal mix of fear and courage.


In the book, Dorrie learns that’s it’s important to notice the small and large moments in which we don’t risk bravery, dig for the fears that keep us from leaping, and so develop the power to transcend those fears.


I found myself thinking about Dorrie’s lesson, out in the real world recently.


I’m white,  terrifically aware that race still profoundly affects opportunities for representation in a multitude of arenas, including children’s books. Only about 3% of U.S. –published children’s and YA books currently feature black characters, 2% Asian,, and 1.5% Latino, As I’m sure you already know, these numbers do not match up with the racial make-up of their living, breathing counterparts.

Because of this, as I dreamed up and went about writing THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, I knew:


  • I wanted the cast to be large and diverse. I wanted to create a book in which kids from many racial backgrounds could see themselves reflected. How could it be otherwise when Petrarch’s Library, the physical and thematic heart of the story connects races and cultures from across geography and time?


  • It was important to me that both of Dorrie’s sidekicks, her brother (white), and her friend (black), appear with her on the cover.


  • I didn’t want to describe every person of color in terms of the relative darkness of his or her skin because I sure don’t as a rule dwell on the skin color of every white character.


And maybe some of that is worth something, or maybe it isn’t. Perhaps I succeeded in part, or perhaps I didn’t, but I’ll tell you “true” that despite my efforts in my imaginary world, out in the real world, I recently failed to take an important small risk related to racial underrepresentation, and it took thinking about Dorrie and the Lybrarians to make me stop and reflect on it.


I had an opportunity to speak up about a lack of diversity among the participants in a publishing-related event in which I had agreed to partiipate, and I chose to remain silent.


Hurrying to finish my copy-edits, I remember clicking on the link that led to the newly uploaded pictures of the rest of the participants, and noticing that just about all of us were white. Given the mathematical laws of proportionality, it was clear that some serious, wholly inadvertent, but undeniable underrepresentation was going on.


As I stared at all of our white faces, I thought about writing an e-mail to the very smart, generous, good-hearted event organizer and sharing my observation about the lack of diversity. And then I did nothing.


Looking back at the moment, I have tried to get at what small fears kept me from taking action?  That I’d be seen as difficult, that I’d hurt someone’s feelings, that it was too late to create a more diverse group of participants, that I’d get distracted from my copy-edits?


Compared to the big risks taken my people throughout history, whose stories I tell in THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, this little risk counted for next to nothing in terms of cost, and yet I did nothing.


How staggering to realize how little it took to stop me, even with so much ultimately on the line for African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and other underrepresented groups, in terms of the need to change the publishing so that it’s writers AND characters reflect our diverse culture accurately.


Small acts count, in Petrarch’s Library, and most definitely out in the real world.


Like Dorrie, next time I find myself with a chance to speak up, I’ll try harder.


Jen Swann Downey is the author of The Ninja Librarians which is due to be released April 15, 2014. Her nonfiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publications. She’s never visited a library in which she didn’t want to spend the night. Jen lives in Charlottesville, VA, with her husband and three children and feels very lucky they have yet to fire her. You can find her online at and on Twitter as @jenswanndowney.