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Everyone Included: Talking About Diversity in Books for Children & Teens

Melissa-Sue John

Wallingford Public Library event hosted on March 14, 2018 hosted Anne Sibley O'Brien as the keynote speaker. Anne discussed her research with Krista Aronson and the website: https://diversebookfinder.org/ 

Melissa-Sue John, mother, psychology professor, diversity expert, researcher, children’s book author, and a publisher at Lauren Simone Publishing House (www.laurensimonepubs.com), had the privilege of meeting like minded authors, illustrators, publishers, editors and librarians who are invested in increasing and promoting diverse children’s and young adult literature.

On the panel, experts were asked to share about diversity in children's literature...
 
Diversity Defined
Diversity refers to an inclusion of age, gender, race, color, culture, language, weight, socioeconomic status, religion, sexuality, intellect/education, weight, and ability/skills. Diversity in children’s books is important because it

  • Promotes understanding and appreciation for alternate customs, traditions, and experiences (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012)
  • Provides representation and legitimizes one’s identity and experience
  • Gives an opportunity to compare/contrast and cultures
  • Introduces intersectionalism (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012)
  • Develops positive view of self and each other
  • Teaches how to live together respectfully and stand up to prejudice
  • Increases academic performance (Steele & Cohn-Vargas)
  • Engages students in reading (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012)
  • Increases Prosocial development (Vezalli et al., 2012)
  • Increases College and career readiness (Herlich, 2012)

 
Reaction to Diverse literature
Some agents, publishers, distributers, librarians, and book buyers discriminate against diverse authors because  

  • "diverse books are not appealing to all demographics" (Slater, 2016)
    • “highlighting the race of a nonwhite protagonist will lead many buyers to conclude that the book isn’t for them—or the children they cater to.” author, Christine Taylor-Butler
  • "diverse books are not marketable" (Slater, 2016)
    • “I’ve heard many times from publishers that the “buyers at B&N” believe multicultural books don’t sell. When they are not stocked in these bookstores, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy” Kathleen T. Horning, Director of Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
  • May have implicit bias (unconscious bias they are unaware of)
  • "diverse books are not relatable" (Slater, 2016)
    • Ellen Oh points out that librarians don’t fret over whether kids will relate to a title like The One and Only Ivan, told from a gorilla’s perspective, yet faced with a book about a Chinese kid, the literary gatekeepers—from agents all the way down to parents­—may hesitate. “Some of our most popular books deal with worlds that aren’t Earth and people who aren’t human,” Oh says. “But the people you walk beside on this Earth have stories too.”

 
Purchasing Diverse books
What can be done to make them easier for purchase?

  • Reduce the monopoly by inviting independent or multicultural bookstores to be vendors for schools, libraries, and boards of education, not just Scholastics, Barnes and Nobles, and Borders.
  • Write letters to Baker and Taylor demanding an easier process to be in library catalogs
  • Make information more accessible to self-published authors.
  • Impress upon book critics and book reviewers to review self-published books.
  • Connect with nonprofit organizations such as Libraries without Borders (DC), Equal Reads, and International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) 
  • Connect with social media and Literary Campaigns such as

#ownvoices initiated by author Corinne Duyvis highlights books that feature marginalized characters written by authors from the same group.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign initiated in 2014, founded by Ellen Oh (Korean American) and Lamar Giles (African American) has brought about a significant shift in publishing trends.

#EqualRead, founded by Taun Wright, builds broadly diverse book collections and provides teacher professional development, parent education, and author events for more identity-safe classrooms in schools. Berkeley Public Library is growing its Equal Read collection!  

#1000BlackGirlBooks. Eleven-year-old Marley Dias went on a quest to collect and donate 1,000 books with a black girl as the main character. Create categories in library searches for #kidlit
 
Authentic Representation
Should authors not write characters that aren't their experience?
Authors desire to tell their stories and share their own experiences.

  • 79% of the children’s book world—authors and illustrators, editors, execs, marketers, and reviewers are White; 78% are women; 92% are nondisabled; and 88% are heterosexual (Lee & Low, 2017)

 

 

  • All authors and illustrators are able to share in creating diverse characters. However, often when authors write out of their own experiences, they reduce centuries of culture, struggles, and tradition to harmful stereotypes, whitewashing, outright erasure, dehumanization, tokenism, and reinforcement of already present harmful character tropes and ridiculous caricatures.

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