#WeNeedDiverseBooks Because We Are Not Alone
From May 1 to 3, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media platforms lit up with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, in response to BookCon’s choice of four white males for the “Luminaries of Children’s Literature” panel later this month. The organizers of BookCon have so far ignored pleas to make the panel more representative of authors, books, and especially young readers, so the many participants in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign have posted pictures of themselves and their favorite books along with reasons why these books are important.
Although I was in Portugal or en route back to New York during the campaign, I managed to post three titles on Twitter with three reasons why we need diverse books. On the first day, I chose Marjorie Agosín’s I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Simon & Schuster, 2014) along with the reason “…so we’re part of the world and not isolated from it.” On the second day, I chose Maria E. Andreu’s The Secret Side of Empty (Running Press Kids, 2014) “because our political choices affect people’s lives.” On the third and final day, Terry Farish’s The Good Braider (Marshall Cavendish, 2012) got tweeted along with the reason “…so our kids grow up with open minds and open hearts.”
Maybe I’m a bit of a pessimist, but I think we’re going to need stronger action to get ReedPop, the organizers of BookCon, to change their approach. Because of my interest in LEGO and X-Men, I’ve attended ComicCon, which also organized by the same company. As its name suggests, the company is very pop-culture oriented, and designed to appeal more to male than to female audiences. While I didn’t feel uncomfortable at ComicCon (and definitely appreciated the shorter lines for the women’s restroom), I noticed the lack of diversity. I get the impression that ReedPop considers BookCon in the same category as ComicCon — a convention oriented toward popular culture and mass media. As a result, the same kinds of problems that we see in other mass media regarding diversity — stereotyping, sensationalism, exploitation, and the invisibility of anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant images — appears in the featured books as well.
Our solution thus requires making common cause with those who are seeking to challenge other media stereotypes as well as those who confront other manifestations of racism in our society, such as mass incarceration, Stand Your Ground laws, restrictions on voting rights, health care disparities, and unequal education. Book people need to join with other civil rights activists and at the same time make clear that diversity in children’s books is a civil rights issue as much as diversity in film, television — and political participation. The various struggles to establish and defend Mexican-American Studies programs in Arizona and Texas can serve as models of a successful alliance between the book world and the civil rights world. When the State of Arizona banned the program, the resistance demonstrated that books matter, that stories, language, and the written word are important aspects of one’s culture and identity.
In this way, we are not alone, and as people who care about books, we cannot afford to work in isolation from activists working in other areas. But there is another way that we are not alone, one that reaffirms the importance of diverse books for everyone.
Yesterday, I returned to Schenectady County Community College, where Gringolandia has for several years been a part of the course in writing for children and teens. The students were well prepared and asked great questions, but one question from a white male student in his late 20s stood out. He wanted to know how I came up with the idea of my protagonist’s father, Marcelo, wanting to return to Chile to continue the struggle despite being brutally tortured there. He said it didn’t seem logical.
I answered that I knew pro-democracy activists who had gone into exile — one sent out of the country by more conservative parents concerned about his safety and the family’s reputation, and the other accepting asylum in Germany (where he had roots) following death threats to himself and his wife. The couple who ended up in Germany could not bear the idea of receiving generous social benefits and living in comfort while their compañeros continued to suffer; they also had trouble learning the language and adapting to the culture. They returned to Chile a year and a half later and continued to be active participants in the struggle for democracy and human rights, even when, three years after that, he was diagnosed with and underwent treatment for lymphoma. The one whose parents sent him abroad returned secretly after a close friend was tortured to death, an event that in my novel inspired Marcelo’s decision to sneak back in after his former cellmate Jaime died in prison of pneumonia.
After the class ended, the student told me that he asked the question because he had served in the military in Iraq, and when his tour of duty ended, all he wanted to do was return to the war zone. He said it didn’t seem logical, but when he read about Marcelo’s decision to do the same, this young white man connected with a character with a disability (and probably very different political views) living in a Latin American country thousands of miles away and before this student was born. The student said he had more in common with Marcelo than with his classmates at the college despite their cultural differences, and it made him feel less strange or, in his words, “illogical” to know that someone else in a different time and place experienced the same things he did.
One of the things books do is show young readers that they are not alone. And readers can know that they are truly not alone when their thoughts and feelings are shared across time and place, race and culture, because in the end, we are all part of the human race.
Update: On Thursday, May 8, ReedPop announced the addition of a BookCon panel on Saturday, May 31 at 10am, focused on #WeNeedDiverseBooks. The panel features five principal organizers of the campaign and acclaimed children’s/YA authors Matt de la Peña, Grace Lin, and Jacqueline Woodson. More information here. And feel free to comment below if you still think I’m too much of a pessimist, or if this means we need to continue the fight.