This interview of Jacqueline Woodson for the September/October 2016 issue of Poets & Writers magazine highlights the deliberate and courageous choices she has made as an artist to tell the “invisible” story.
If the only images of brown people you saw in the books you read as a child were of the Gingerbread Man (a character always on the run and destined to be eaten), how would that affect your self-image, sense of identity, and understanding of the world? Six luminaries in the field of publishing for children reflect on how the availability of diverse books affected them as children and what changes they recommend in the field.
“All hands on deck! Teachers. Parents. Editors, Writers. Reviewers. Distributors. Bookstores. Literacy organizations. Youth organizations. All hands on deck!” – Wade Hudson
We Need Diverse Books NOW!
I’ll be spending the next few weeks reading and rereading this important round table discussion about diversifying children’s literature, hosted by the PEN Equity Project. Here are some thoughts from the participants to get you started. Link to full article here.
“I didn’t need to read a book to understand that I should be worried about my position in America. But I did need books to neutralize the feeling.” –Fatima Shaik
“I acquired what I now think of as the cheerful privilege of the white reader—the belief that all books existed purely for my enjoyment, with the easy pleasure of reading and judging them based on emotional reaction rather than representation.” – Cheryl Klein
“I remember how angry I was…when I was first exposed to Black writers such as Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes. I should have known about these important cultural carriers and witnesses [before college].” – Wade Hudson
“That journey of loss and recovery—a kind of reclamation which was both emotional and political—is something I carry with me every day I sit down to write and as I move through the publishing world. It informs my outspokenness, my determination to bring radical change to an industry that remains entrenched in a very particular white cultural mindset toward the creation of literature.” – Daniel José Older
“As our nation continues to become even more diverse and the world becomes even more interconnected, what we write just might help children embrace this diversity so that as they become older, they can become informed, responsible, and active citizens in our democracy, and participants in the larger world in which we live.” – Robie Harris
“There’s something that’s so magical and important about seeing yourself in a more specific way, whether it be race, or religion, or sexual orientation, or geography, or socioeconomic background, or disability, especially when you don’t often/ever see yourself represented anywhere else.” – Alvina Ling
“My question to you and to all those reading this discussion: What does it mean to be courageous in this time of change?” – Daniel José Older
Every once in a while I stumble on a blog so thought-provoking and essential that it renews my gratitude for the age of information in which we live. This article by Relando Thompkins-Jones from his blog Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian, perfectly continues the dialogue Ellen Oh and Libby Bray began, about how critical it is for each and every one of us to make space to listen to those less privileged than ourselves.
“Denying the power and privilege we hold can be a way of protecting ourselves from internalizing the reality and gravity of our active and passive participation in oppressive systems…”
“Instead of actively focusing on how we participate in oppression, responding defensively can be an attempt at manipulating marginalized people into making us feel better about ourselves and taking care of our feelings first before we’re able to listen; ultimately derailing any critical dialogue that would have taken place.”
“Feeling “attacked” or “hurt” in the moment from our place of privilege, whatever that may be, fails to compare to the everyday lived experiences of the people who are on the receiving end of the oppression we benefit from.”
Read on! Link to the full article here.
“Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.” – Daniel José Older
If you haven’t yet read Daniel José Older’s BuzzFeed article, Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing, here’s the link.
Some provocative thoughts:
“White supremacy in children’s literature,” Larrick writes, “will be abolished when authors, editors, publishers, and booksellers decide that they need not submit to bigots.” -Nancy Larrick
“Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism.” -Daniel José Older
“Maybe the word hasn’t been invented yet – that thing beyond diversity.” Daniel José Older
Privilege cannot be evaluated in terms of black and white. Privilege by nature is comparative and perceptual. It seems to be part of the human experience to struggle, yet there is a quantitative difference between the struggle to put food before our children or overcome a history of sexual abuse or live with the increased likelihood of attack or incarceration because of skin color…and the struggle to find a parking spot in the city, or host the in-laws for dinner, or get our work published. No matter what the struggle, no matter how privileged we are in this way or that, we seem to have the tendency to magnify our own obstacles, and overlook our advantages.
If you haven’t yet read Ellen Oh’s magnificent article Dear White Writers about defending/creating space for people of color to tell their own stories, go read it now. She voices important concerns about the role of writers privileged by their skin color/ethnic background in supporting and participating in the movement for diverse children’s literature.
According to Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, a 2015 statistical analysis of diversity in publishing for children, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks train is still parked at the station. In the past, there wasn’t a train at all, and diverse books just had to walk themselves to the publisher and wait at the back door for a turn to get in. Then maybe there was an occasional train, but no posted schedule and not enough cars. Now we’ve got one line, just one train that leaves once a day, and everyone’s crowding to get on. Who gets a ticket for that train?
What we need to do is take over the train station. When all of us consumed with creating books for children are writing from an expanded perception of the ways our society privileges some over others, and our own roles in that system, we will need more trains. Old lines of thinking and publishing will become obsolete, and those trains will refurbished for a more just and equitable world.
How do we expand our perceptions? It’s not easy and it’s not comfortable. But that’s something we writers already know a lot about. We know how to play with ideas and challenge the absurd. We know how to fill our pens with agony and write toward healing, how to break open the fiction of any -ism to write toward the truth. And we know how to listen.
Time to Listen Tuesday is a new series dedicated to listening to the voices that are speaking out for diverse books for children.
Today’s featured author is Libba Bray, whose post In Support of Ellen Oh challenges us all to confront our own racism, to “do it right…as truth-tellers”, to be “better writers and better humans.” Thank you, Libba Bray, for inviting us to listen.
Image thanks to Steven Shorrock, Creative Commons license