With a groundswell of readily available resources on diverse books and increasingly wide representation in YA and children’s books, this is a fantastic time to be a school librarian. For some of us, myself included, making the most of these riches may require a shift in mindset.
Question assumptions: What is universal? What is niche?
I remember with embarrassment how, as a sensitive but ultimately clueless young white bookworm, I grew to resent the “diverse books” assigned in my middle-school Language Arts class. To me, they all seemed to have the same story — a child’s home culture conflicted with the white, Americanized culture at school, and the protagonist had to find some way to reconcile the two and figure out who he or she truly was. This is no light, simplistic subject matter, but after three or four books with what struck me as the same narrative arc, I thought, “I get it — can’t we read about something else now?”
There’s a reason I recall this with embarrassment. After all, there’s no shortage of white, American coming-of-age stories, and I don’t remember thinking that A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye were ‘basically the same book.’ I took those books on their merits, looking for their characters’ idiosyncrasies and how the authors varied the familiar growing-up story. I read them as individual works, not as ‘white books.’ It’s clear to me now that my reactions were colored by internalized racism, specifically these two biases:
- that a dominant group’s stories and experiences are universal (Holden Caulfield is “an exquisitely rendered character with whom nearly anyone can identify“), or even ‘normal’ (yikes), but others’ are not, and
- that a protagonist from an overrepresented group can be an individual (‘this book is about Holden Caulfield…’), while a protagonist from an underrepresented group must represent his or her entire group (‘this is an Asian book’).
I’m unlearning these biases, and I don’t want to pass them on to my students. Fortunately, many of them seem less burdened by the assumption that a book with a marginalized protagonist is for a similarly marginalized reader. How can we encourage these broad, inclusive reading interests?
Beyond oppression narratives and issue books
As irresponsible as it would be to pretend that marginalized people don’t face hardship due to their identities, it is also harmful to reduce an entire identity to hardship. The impetus for the roundtable on this topic at last month’s conference in Los Angeles was a Black AISL librarian’s own experience: Her daughter, reading To Kill a Mockingbird for class, asked why the stories she read with Black characters were all about suffering.
Consider also that the first YA novel about lesbian teens that had a happy ending (Annie on My Mind, 1982) is famous for that fact. Previously, stories about gay men and lesbians were dominated by tragedy. (Bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary people rarely appeared at all.) The literature honestly reflected the violent, widespread homophobia of the time, but this had an unintended consequence: The complete lack of happy endings sent a strong message about how much suffering and how little happiness gay and lesbian teens could hope for. In our collections, with access to more diverse books than ever before, we must honor the very real struggles that marginalized people face while also allowing all of our students to imagine happy endings for themselves and others.
At a panel during the first annual YALLWEST festival in 2015, author E. Lockhart mentioned a common progression in representation: First you get issue books, then the issue becomes more and more normalized, and finally the identity is represented in an honest, matter-of-fact way and not as the entire conflict of the story. Personally, I think of this as the “These are the people in your neighborhood” test (with apologies to Sesame Street): Is this character’s identity presented in such a way that a young child would (correctly) assume that such people exist and are normal parts of the world?
Let’s pause to take youth literature’s temperature. I Am Jazz, a picture book co-authored by transgender teen Jazz Jennings, is very much about being transgender. Its aim is in large part to help young children and their caregivers understand trans identities and gender variance more broadly. The conflict is that Jazz is a girl and the people around her expect her to be a boy. This is an issue book, which makes perfect sense given that American society has a long way to go before truly understanding trans experiences and protecting trans rights.
Similarly, None of the Above is about a young woman who finds out that she is intersex. The conflict of the story is rooted in this discovery and in her learning more about and coming to terms with her intersexuality. Tellingly, Amazon reviews call it “educational” and “eye-opening.” Again, this makes sense given how little mainstream awareness there is of intersexuality.
Conversely, The Unstoppable Octobia May by Sharon G. Flake is a middle-grade mystery novel focusing on a young Black girl in 1953. Race influences the characters’ experiences in realistic ways, yet the novel has hooks (mystery, historical fiction, possibly vampires?) beyond being About Race. To my knowledge, there is no similar published novel about a trans child right now — so much of the book might be taken up explaining what it means to be trans that there would be little room for a mystery, a historical setting, and the hint of supernatural intrigue.
In “The Case Against Colorblind Casting,” Angelica Jade Bastién writes, “There needs to be a broader middle ground for actors of color—between the 12 Years a Slave and the Rocky Horror remake, between stories where race is everything and stories where it’s not even an afterthought.” Extending this vision to youth literature and to the representation of many identities (from race to ability to gender identity and beyond), we can consider I Am Jazz and None of the Above as “stories where [gender and sex are] everything,” while The Unstoppable Octobia May exists in the “middle ground” between the issue book and invisibility.
In the future, hopefully sooner rather than later, trans and intersex kids will also be able to see themselves in that middle ground: fighting crime, unraveling mysteries, going on adventures, meeting dragons, and more, with their identities and the prejudices they may still face acknowledged but not all-consuming. When they are allowed into that middle ground, there will be room in their stories for more than just struggle — for adventure, romance, sci-fi and fantasy elements, and a wide range of stories and dynamics.
I doubt that any of us would say, “We have Anne of Green Gables and The Hunger Games, so girls are covered.” It’s fairly obvious that women and girls, as roughly half the world’s population, can be the protagonists of as many kinds of stories as there are people.
The importance of moving past tokenism for all identities is the subject of Laurel Snyder’s post “Looking Back: Sometimes the All of a Kind Family Isn’t.” She writes:
no “Jewish” book will ever encapsulate “The Jewish experience.” Any more than a “black” or “Chinese” (much less “Asian”) book will ever define those experiences. When people ask me, “How many Jewish books do we need?” I have to answer, “ALL of them.” However many books we produce to satisfy a quota is too few. Because not every kid came from The All of a Kind Family.
I think it’s important we remain aware of this, as writers. Because there’s an impulse, sometimes, to broaden our stories. We want to be available to the greatest number of readers, so we reach for the lowest common denominator. But this feels wrong to me. Backwards. This is how we lose authenticity, particularity. No book I can write will ever meet the needs of “The Jewish World” or “Girls 8-12.” The best I can do is to write one story, for one reader, in one moment, and hope it feels true, and resonates.
While Snyder devoured all of Chaim Potok’s work — all of which could be referred to as “Jewish books” — only Davita’s Harp reflected her “messy, confused, conflicted, ashamed Jewish self.” As obvious as it sounds, these works are not interchangeable, and we have little way of knowing which book will reach which child. Providing depth and variety of representation, as well as breadth, helps ensure that students find what they need in our collections.
Everyone needs diverse books
We know how important representation is. A wealth of research demonstrates that children from underrepresented and misrepresented groups need to see themselves reflected in media. What is easier to overlook, however, is the importance of diverse media to overrepresented groups.
Alvin Irby writes, in Education Week and at Barbershop Books, about the importance of racially diverse stories and characters for white readers: “Reflecting on the importance of who gets seen, when, where, and doing what in books for children has led me to conclude that children’s literature represents one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the fight against bigotry and racism in American culture.”
Educators play a crucial role in framing children’s experiences with books, Irby points out: “Relegating books with nonwhite main characters to diversity/ethnic book lists or social studies units created for Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, or Native American Heritage Month creates a form of implicit and de facto segregation.”
Likewise, failing to recommend books across identity lines — such as The Unstoppable Octobia May for a non-Black fan of mysteries or Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for a straight or asexual fan of love stories — perpetuates the incorrect idea that these are niche experiences and identities, not everyday ones.
Segregating books by identity is especially harmful for readers steeped in the kinds of homogeneity and privilege that can typify independent schools. When few people of color, disabled people, and otherwise marginalized people are visible in students’ everyday lives, widespread and balanced representation in media becomes even more important in order to expand kids’ circles of concern. In other words, when the people in students’ neighborhoods aren’t actually diverse, their books need to be even more so. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating the racial empathy gap and other incalculably harmful phenomena. Hey, no one said that the stakes were low.
For those of us with the mental habit of segregating books, the Summer Reading Series at We Need Diverse Books models a more holistic way of thinking about titles and their commonalities:
“If you liked John Green’s and David Levithan’s WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, read Eric Gansworth’s IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE because both feature teens whose difficult lives are somehow, somewhat alleviated by the power of good music. Read more about IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE at the Smithsonian BookDragon.”
Conventional thinking, informed by decades of tokenizing marketing, would segregate Will Grayson, Will Grayson with another book featuring LGBT characters and If I Ever Get Out of Here with another book with a Native American protagonist. Instead, Terry Hong of BookDragon has connected titles across identity lines by isolating one of the many other themes present in each book. Instead of reducing these books to “LGBT” or “Native American,” Hong keeps an open mind to subtler commonalities across human experiences, allowing for connections between titles and between human beings alike.
Cultivating this way of thinking about books will allow us to share and recommend titles across identity lines, connecting students to much-needed reflections of their own experiences and the experiences of others.
Our students live in a diverse world, and they need to see a reflection of the reality that people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities and disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, and more are, in fact, the people in their neighborhood, figuratively speaking — especially if not literally.
More resources for finding diverse books and learning how to use them:
- We Need Diverse Books, including the Summer Reading Series (“If you liked…”)
- Awards lists: Coretta Scott King for African American authors and illustrators, Pura Belpré for Latino/Latina writers and illustrators, Stonewall for books on the GLBT experience, Schneider Family for YA or children’s books about the disability experience
- CBC Diversity: Follow them on GoodReads, and when you look up a book, their tags will let you know who’s represented
- Kwerey.com, a crowdsourced database of genre fiction, especially sci-fi and fantasy, by female authors
- “Tips for Choosing Culturally Appropriate Books & Resources About Native Americans” by Dr. Cathy Gutierrez-Gomez, based on the work of Debbie Reese
- Note: These invaluable, specific guidelines for evaluating works on Native Americans can also help in evaluating representations of other marginalized people (authentic vs. inaccurate or misleading information, diverse vs. generic depictions, respectful vs. loaded language, positive vs. negative images, relevant and contextualized vs. isolated activities)