HORSE Cover January 28


H.O.R.S.E. and Diversity by Mike Hays

“You write in order to change the world … if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” ― James Baldwin

This past October, I attended a lecture on diversity by Christopher Myers at the university where I work. It was enlightening. He triggered an examination of how I research and represent my own culture and other cultures in my work. The signature, take-home point of his wonderful talk was simple, yet profound.

Diversity = difference.

He spoke about the need for an awareness and understanding of our differences.  He talked about accepting the differences without demeaning the differences and how one of the fundamental building blocks of learning is this understanding of radical difference.

Books are tools through which children and adults see the framework of difference and learn to deal with it. Understanding difference is a role of children’s literature and through diverse kid lit, we readers can develop empathy for things different than our own. Simply put, kid lit preps us for difference. As a Nerdy Book Club tribe interested in the creation and consumption of books, we are given powerful opportunities to promote a diverse cultural landscape.

One of the things Mr. Myers said that hit me like a 16-lb. hammer was the myth we are experts on ourselves and only on ourselves. Whether writing from our own POV or from a diverse POV, we need to do the research necessary to go beyond the stereotypes we carry in our baggage and do the work necessary to create authentic material. If there is a story we want to tell, then we need to tell it the right way. When creating from a different/diverse viewpoint, we must do the work and create through respect and truth—not through a stereotype.

Stereotypes. They can be helpful or hurtful. They can be helpful because they give us an oversimplified image or idea of something. Take a door as a simple example. We don’t have to relearn what a door does and how to operate it each time we see a different door because we mentally stereotype what a door is and how it operates. Stereotypes become negative when this oversimplification ends up marginalizing an entire group.

How can we fight the negative stereotypes? Yale psychologist Paul Bloom gives three methods to combat common stereotypes. The first is through story. Stories cultivate empathy through their consumption. The second is exposure to real-world incidences. Get out there and interact with the “different”.  The third method is to interact through an initial “blind” screening. Eliminating the visual often eliminates the initial trigger of the wrong stereotype stored inside our heads.


After his talk, Chris Myers did a book signing. By the time this old man got to the front of the line, staring back at me was the single copy left of his awesome picture book, H.O.R.S.E. A Game of Basketball and Imagination (Egmont USA, 2012).  I dove through the crowd to grab this last copy and he gave me the “seriously, dude” look as I handed it to him to sign. As he signed the book, he asked if my family likes to play H.O.R.S.E.  I told him we loved the game at my house and played it in many forms for many hours when my kids were young.

As soon as I left the building, I reread the book in the parking lot. On my drive home, I thought about Mr. Myers’s talk on diversity and difference and books and children’s literature. I looked at the cover of  H.O.R.S.E.  sitting in the passenger seat. I thought about how the picture book, with its inner-city, smack-talking, imaginative-shot-design game of basketball H.O.R.S.E., is a perfect vehicle for diversity.

The book gave me an entertaining insight into the world of a familiar game played in a different cultural setting. Through the power of kid lit, I understood a little more about the urban culture and friendship displayed in the book. I was also able to relate the simple game to other familiar and unfamiliar cultural scenarios.

I can easily extrapolate the H.O.R.S.E. game of the book to the same game and basic rules I played on my backyard, dirt court as a lower, middle-class kid from the wrong side of the tracks. I can relate the basics of the trash-talking and imagination to the Nerf field goal kicking contests we played kicking the foam football around, over, and under various obstacles toward the goal post-shaped branches of our oak tree.

Through the framework of a game, the reader can catch a glimpse of the represented culture. The young readers of the represented culture are able to see themselves portrayed in a true and positive light. I would bet the basic H.O.R.S.E. story framework also works well for games from other cultures. How about a Choctaw stickball version? Or a cricket version from India? A Chinese version told around a soccer game? How about a Latino baseball story of H.O.R.S.E.? Count me in as a reader for any of these.

Christopher Myers was 100% correct. Diversity does mean difference. We need to understand difference with an empathetic eye. We need to let differences shine in their true form and not filter them through our own stereotypes and bias. As creators, consumers, and teachers, we can clear a path by consuming, promoting, and accurately representing diversity/difference in our work.

Keep talking. Keep writing. Keep reading.

Give different and diverse books a chance. Remember, stories fight stereotypes.

That’s why we need diverse books and need them to be visible, plentiful, and accessible.

Demand better. There’s hope. Always.

Reading is a superpower.

Now, it’s time to kick my feet up for some Choctaw Trail of Tears research with Tim Tingle’s HOW I BECAME A GHOST.

Man, I love this job!

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Mike Hays is from Kansas, a true flatlander by birth. He feels blessed to have grown up in the culturally diverse community of Kansas City, Kansas and work at a state university where he experiences different cultures/ideas on a daily basis. He is a molecular microbiologist, sports coach, father, husband and author who struggles to be a more empathetic and inclusive human being. His middle-grade historical fiction, THE YOUNGER DAYS, is about a family’s survival in the fallout from the violent Border War over “Bloody” Kansas. Find him lamenting sports and celebrating middle-grade literature on Twitter @coachhays64..