In this last year especially, there’s been more discussion about the need for multiculturalism and diversity on the kids’ bookshelf than ever before (finally!)
Although a lot of peers echo the sense that the time has come, sometimes I encounter people who ask why such a push is necessary. The kinds of questions I hear are: Isn’t reading at its core about a reader identifying with characters by transcending differences? Do stories need to be mirrors, do readers really need to have themselves reflected in stories? Aren’t we then saying that a reader can’t identify with a character who is not like her in some way?
While it is true that we should trust young readers to be able to connect with characters beyond their own backgrounds, there are specific reasons why it’s so important to incorporate diversity into children’s literature.
Kids form impressions very early, even with passive learning. Children as young as two years old can perceive differences in race (Winkler). That means that at this young, pre-verbal age, they are already primed to distinguish people who are like them and people who are “Other.” Research shows that children as young as 3-5 (i.e., a preschooler) not only recognize racial differences, but they can also develop racial biases and prejudices that do not necessarily reflect the attitudes of the adults in their lives. So even if kids aren’t actively introduced to ideas about culture and diversity, they will still form their own biases and opinions from whatever information they can pick up around them.
Of course many parents and teachers are actively trying to teach kids about culture and diversity, but as writers we are uniquely empowered to bridge the gap from one child to another because our stories breed empathy. We can tell the stories that create bridges between very different kids.
Donna Jo Napoli gave a talk at SCBWI LA many years ago in which she explained that she writes for two audiences: the Unprotected Child and the Protected Child. (Note: these are Napoli’s original ideas, please attribute them to her.)
The Unprotected Child is the one in the shadows who experiences things like poverty, abuse, and other terrible things and has no one to protect her, save her, help her. When Napoli writes stories that include these topics, she hopes to reach the Unprotected Child and let her know that she is not alone.
The other audience is the Protected Child, the child who is growing up in an insulated world of loving parents who take care not to expose their child to terrible things. This child, if too protected, grows up unexposed and therefore unable to understand plights like poverty, abuse, and other terrible things. Not having to face these things directly in life or indirectly through story, the Protected Child is prone to simplifying the Unprotected Child, perhaps looking down on or blaming her for her circumstances. The Protected Child is liable to lack empathy.
As Napoli put it, stories build empathy between children of different circumstances. “Civilization is built on empathy.”
So the kids’ bookshelf needs to have more diverse characters and stories to reflect the experiences of a diverse world.
Among all kids under 18 in the US, the dark green bars show kids of color over a 6-year period. So in 2012, approximately 47% of all kids in the US were kids of color. However, kids of color are disproportionately underrepresented in literature – with only 9% of children’s books featuring characters or stories about kids of other cultures. And many of the books that do exist are focused on kids living in other countries or cultures, not the pluralism that is in the U.S.
How can we breed empathy among such widely different kids without giving them room to tell their stories? We can’t. We don’t.
Junot Díaz once said:
“You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
So what can you do as writer or aspiring writer to support diversity in KidLit?
One thing that comes to mind is to support initiatives that foster diverse voices. One such initiative is the VCFA Young Writers Network.
This program is sponsored by the Vermont College of Fine Arts, the preeminent graduate program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The Young Writers’ Network focuses on partnering with local non-profit organizations to find and encourage young writers of diverse backgrounds to hone their writing skills and perhaps even consider a path to becoming a writer.
The goals of the curriculum are not only to teach these young writers about the craft of writing but also to underline that their unique experiences and stories matter and need to be told, despite or because of how few stories exist today. KidLit writers of all backgrounds get involved with the VCFA Young Writers Network to teach and mentor kids and encourage these young voices to hone their writing.
If you’d like to get involved, please read more about the early initiatives of the VCFA Young Writers Network here and keep an eye out for more initiatives led by Katie Bayerl and the volunteer team at VCFA. (A web site with more details and ways to get involved are coming soon in 2016.)
Winkler, Erin N. “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race.” PACE (Practical Approaches for Continuing Education) 3.3 (2009): 1-8. Web. July 17, 2013.