During this past year I have begun to notice a louder conversation about diversity (or lack of) in stories for kids and teens. Born in America and raised by Korean immigrants who encouraged me to read, this was painfully obvious to me growing up because I never found a character who looked like me or had a similar background. In fact, as a Korean kid, I felt like I was snatching up crumbs to find even close approximations of my identity in books and mass media: the Japanese girl that Ralph Macchio fell for in Karate Kid II, the native island girl in Island of the Blue Dolphins. Phoebe Cates (oh my gosh! she’s part Asian!) Seriously, just finding main character protagonists with black hair felt a step closer to seeing myself in a story. (I told myself that Diana Barry in the Anne of Green Gables series might be part Asian since she was a brunette and Anne’s best friend.)
Despite this, I was able to relate emotionally to many characters that I found in books. For that I am grateful because I know that had I not made those emotional connections, I would never have established the love of reading and stories that I have today.
As the debate heats up, there are a lot of conversations about who should or shouldn’t write stories featuring main characters of a marginalized or minority group, who should edit or publish these stories, and theories as to why there aren’t more today.
I’m not one who can articulate an opinion in 140 or fewer characters, and I’m not even sure I could outline all the nuances of my position on this in a entry such as this. What I do know is that I am eternally grateful for the organizations and individuals who have and continue to advocate for more diversity in kids’ literature.
Of them, SCBWI (the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) has been a long-standing supporter of diversity in KidLit. Among the many people who have advocated for this movement, Sue Ganz-Schmitt is an author, philanthropist, SCBWI member, and champion of diversity who has sponsored the SCBWI Emerging Voices Award for a number of years.
This year, my work-in-progress manuscript was selected as a winner, and I was fortunate enough to be a recipient of this award, which allowed me to meet a great community of other authors and illustrators creating diverse stories as well as meet agents and editors who were interested in reading them. Being selected for this honor by an institution as reputable as SCBWI also gave me a little bit of ‘street cred’ so that when I started the querying process, I was able to have some external validation that suggested that my manuscript may be worth picking up out of the slush pile.
Don’t think you can do it? You won’t know until you try. I almost didn’t try, then I decided to work, work, work, to get my manuscript ready for the submission deadline. I literally submitted at midnight of the due date, Pacific Time (the organization is based on the West Coast).
Don’t give up on yourself or tell yourself that no one will want to read your story. Others might, but don’t be the first one to do it. Nor the last one. Believe in yourself and your writing and your story. As the New York Lotto tagline used to say: “Hey, you never know.” Although if you don’t try, you already know that the answer is a ‘no.’
Submissions for this particular award are typically accepted between mid-September and November, so go get started or go finish or go edit that manuscript. And try.
You don’t think anyone will want to read your story about a left-handed, adopted main character of color growing up in a remote location with a mental illness, physical disability, and a social-personality disorder? Guess again. There are people and organizations looking for wonderful, diverse stories and striving to help those who create them so above all else, persevere, persevere!