TACKLING DIVERSITY: ONE WRITER’S STORY by James Preller
Lately we’ve seen an increased call for diversity in children’s literature. And of course, that’s terrific. Who could possibly be against it?
However, saying so — posting a slogan, sharing a meme — is the easy part. But meaningful diversity goes deeper than the books themselves. Diversity in children’s literature applies to teachers, librarians, reviewers, bookstore owners, editors, sales directors, and, of course, readers. What books are we championing? What books are we ignoring? And, of course, who are “we” in the first place. Take a critical look at any large group shot of bloggers and do the math. This isn’t to fault the bloggers, but to point out that diversity is a challenge that takes place on many fronts. Moreover, we can’t forget that publishers are in the business to make money. Economic factors go into every book that’s published. Before a title goes to an editorial board for approval, somebody crunches numbers.
As an author, I’ve grappled with this issue since the 1980’s, back when “multiculturalism” was a trendy issue in publishing. I wrote catalogs during that time when we labeled any book “multicultural” if it included non-white characters. It was a sales strategy, a way of highlighting a certain kind of book for the consumer. You can view that as well-intentioned, or cynical, or an intractable combination of the two.
I’m an author and a white guy in his 50s. How can I meaningfully contribute beyond, you know, chatting it up on Facebook. “More diversity!” In my work, I’ve tried to address it. In the Jigsaw Jones series (40 books), for example, I introduced dozens of characters over the years, always guided by a general notion of cultural inclusiveness as a reflection of the faces I see on school visits around the country. I’ve always strived to do that in my books, while trying to avoid the prescribe, possibly well-meaning, but sometimes phony approach of, say: one African-American, one Hispanic, and, oh yeah, let’s include a kid in a wheelchair! You know exactly what I mean; it can come off as obvious pandering, completely false. It might achieve a superficial diversity, but it falls short of the mark.
Let’s be realistic. In early chapter books, secondary characters are rarely explored in depth. I’ve tried to make them come alive, quickly and vividly, because often they are walking out of the room by the following page. My solution — what has worked for me — has been to largely treat these characters as human beings. When it presents itself organically, I might delve deeper into a character’s background. Geetha Nair talks about how her family celebrates “the festival of lights” in a Jigsaw Jones book. I’ll admit that it’s a limited approach, but I hope that it’s something: the idea that a child can pick up the books and maybe, perchance, see something of herself reflected there. But it could be that a character’s appeal is not at all about his or her cultural background. A reader might admire Mila Yeh’s loyalty, or Ralphie Jordan’s sense of humor, or Jigsaw Jones’s dogged determination. Of course, in a longer book with more words, more time to dig deeper, a writer can and should (when appropriate to the story) go further into any character’s family life, interior thoughts, and experiences. In my YA novel, BEFORE YOU GO, Jude’s best friend, Corey, is black. Not because I felt it was politically correct to add a person of color to the story, but because 1) he was inspired by a friend of mine; and 2) the friendship told us something about the main character. Corey’s race is not a big issue in the story; it’s only addressed quietly, from the side. For instance: we first meet Corey when he visits Jude’s house. Together they climb up on his roof, a favorite vantage point and hanging-out spot.
Corey Masterson was a misfit in town. He was black in an overwhelmingly white community, and though it rarely ever came up in conversation — why talk about it? — Corey’s outsider status was a fact that could not be denied. Jude’s sense of alienation was different, harder for him to pinpoint, some inner feeling that he didn’t belong to this or any other tribe. Maybe that’s what bonded the two boys; they both watched from the fringes with a shared sense of unbelonging.
When it comes to these ever-increasing calls for diversity, I realize I’m limited by my experiences. Yet we all should be responsible, be thoughtful, and attempt to be at least a small part of the solution. I believe the core answer to diversity in children’s books goes back to the publishing industry. They must hire a cross-section of employees, not just in the mailroom, but in every facet of the company. The editors need to be open to new voices from different backgrounds, and that will occur most naturally if those same editors are as diverse as the books we hope to see them publish. And publishers must commit to taking a risk in the marketplace; though, again, it’s easy to sit back and tell businesses that they should lose money for the greater good. A more diverse readership will demand more diverse books.
Ezra Jack Keats did a great thing when he wrote The Snowy Day, and featured a black character in an urban setting. At the time, it was a groundbreaking event — a black kid in a children’s book! — as bizarre as that sounds today. But Keats’ story was not about that boy’s “blackness,” it was about a young soul’s joyful encounter with a snowy day, those cold flakes melting on the tongue. It was about being a kid and romping around, mittens wet, fingers freezing, exploring the frozen world. By highlighting the universality of that experience, Keats did us all a service. He connected us within the same world, regardless of skin color.
For the purpose of this piece, I quickly reviewed the characters in my six-book “Scary Tales” series, which I wrote over the past two years. I include “ethnic” — read: non-white — characters in every title, often as main protagonists. There’s Mitali Dristi, Marco Torres, Rosalee Serena Ruiz, Tiana and Malik Rice, Arnold Chang, Samantha Carver, and more. To date, I haven’t heard a single person comment about it one way or the other. Maybe nobody noticed. And maybe that’s a good thing; maybe it’s the best result possible. I don’t know.
I keep coming back to Martin Luther King’s advice to Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on “Star Trek” in a role that was widely recognized as a television breakthrough. Here was an African American woman in a position of authority. The story goes that Nichols was unhappy with the show, and had contemplated quitting after the first season. Then she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to Nichols, King told her: “Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? This is not a black role or a female role. You have the first non-stereotypical role on television. You have broken ground… Here we are marching, and there you are projecting where we’re going. You cannot leave. Don’t you understand what you mean?”
In “Star Trek,” Lieutenant Uhura’s color wasn’t an issue. And yet it sent a powerful message. She belonged –- and, hey, she could speak Klingon, too.
James Preller published his first book in 1986. He might be best known for the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. The central character in James Preller’s just completed novel, DEAD BUT CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC, is a black male in 7th grade named Adrian. Look for it in Fall, 2016, published by Feiwel & Friends, Macmillan. He has never once in his life been considered a “nerd,” though he remains an avid reader. He blogs at Jamespreller.com and, for kicks, keeps a baseball-centric blog, 2 Guys Talking Mets Baseball.