‘Diversity’ seems to be the new buzz word in literary circles with people in both the U.S. and U.K. navel-gazing about whether our “diverse, equal, multi-cultural and accepting world” is adequately represented in children’s and YA fiction. Some authors have gone a step further and initiated #WeNeedDiverseBooks to actively address what they see as an imbalance, and according to their social media campaign, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest there is one.
But what makes a diverse book? And how can we define it when it means so many things to so many different people? The answer is really in the question. Diverse books acknowledge that the world is made up of different genders, sexualities, ethnicities, religions, classes, colours, shapes, sizes and abilities. Yet according to The Guardian, of the 3,200 children’s books published in the U.S. in 2013, only 93 were about African American people, despite the fact they make up 37% of the population, 34 were about Native Americans, 57 about Latin Americans, and 69 about Asians.
As writers we have a responsibility to create stories that entertain, excite and enamour the reader, but equally important is that readers can access children’s and YA books which reflect the everyday diversity that strut our streets. This does not mean books espousing “We are the world”-like sentiments, but the kind of celebration of difference that is almost incidental because of its authenticity.
Books like Rainbow Rowell’s, Eleanor and Park, are powerful and raw and heart-wrenching in their own right, yet the story is lifted to another level by delivering an insight into what it means for Park to be half-Korean, and for Eleanor to be “big and awkward... with crazy hair.” Even within the fantasy realm of Percy Jackson, Rick Riordan includes Native American, Asian, Latino, dyslexic and homosexual demi-gods. By ignoring the diversity that surrounds us, writers could well miss an opportunity to intensify the reader’s experience; to add another delicious, intriguing layer; or to add depth to a story that perhaps transforms it from ‘good’ to ‘great’.
This is not to say that writers should incorporate diverse characters for diversity’s sake. As Beth Cox of Inclusive Minds reminds us, it’s so important that diversity goes “beyond box-ticking in children’s fiction, leaving behind tokenism, stereotypes and skimped research.” Ann-Janine Murtagh, executive publisher at HarperCollins Children’s, addressing The Bookseller Children’s Conference last September, said that children’s publishers were “custodians of the best children’s content,” with a unique responsibility to “create the readers of the future.”
Other media notwithstanding, children’s books can and do, play a huge role in shaping the way many children view the world. As Katherine Woodfine, author of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow says, children’s books are “the first literature we engage with, and what’s more, they’re often the first art works we ever encounter.”
This insight only serves to underline the urgency for diverse books and the critical role publishers play. Books about diversity mirror the life experiences, cultural traditions, language and faces of all children. Children are validated by seeing themselves in the books they read. By identifying with fictional characters their self-esteem grows. Likewise these stories provide a much-needed window into others’ lives. In essence it’s a richer experience for all. Without these mirrors, children can get a distorted view of the world and their place (or displacement) within society.
But the economic reality is that books have to sell. If, as some claim, there is a dearth of diverse books, is it because they are not popular enough to be financially viable? Are they too great a risk? Do they not make the grade? Or are they simply not being written?
Publishers have to make money, readers have to be satisfied and writers have to be true to themselves. It’s a delicate balance but an important one to strike. First and foremost, all children deserve to be visible in stories, but they also need to see themselves represented equally, not just as the means to communicate serious cultural, religious or political issues. We need books about diversity, as well as books that represent diversity, which makes me think that on both counts, we have some way to go.
Poppy Inkwell is an Australian writer originally from the Philippines. She is the author of the Alana Oakley junior fiction series, published by Big Sky Publishing. The first book in the series, Mystery & Mayhem, is currently available with the second book, Torment & Trickery, to be published in July 2015. Visit Poppy's website and Facebook page for the latest updates on her books and other creative projects.