Sunday, August 24, 2014

Soap Box: #weneeddiversebooks

Let me soap box for just a second. There is this huge, awesome, trend right now that is a rally cry to writers and publishers - WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS. We want to read about different cultures, ethnicities, and abilities (I'm not talking magic here). The argument is that people want to picture themselves as book characters and should be represented, as main characters, in good books! The only books I've read recently with diverse characters focus on their difference from the "popular" white skin, blonde hair, stereotypical characters we've all grown accustomed to. I've been searching for picture books that feature different types of abilities without being ABOUT how to make friends with someone who is in a wheelchair. Does the chair itself have to become the overriding theme of the story? I'd like to say no.

When I was about 10 years old I remember doing a keyword search of my name at the library. I read every story about an "Elizabeth" there was to read. I found so many awesome books and I enjoyed them so much. It is easy to picture yourself as a character when you share the same name. As I've gotten older I been drawn to the same sorts of characters who are like me: dreamers, wishers, romantics ... why not read a story so much like me?

However, #weneeddiversebooks focuses on what is on the outside of the person.Typically I'd totally disagree that we should be looking at the outside of characters at all as a way to rank them, but in this instance, we do need to focus on the outward appearance. Why? Because not everyone who is reading books is blonde, with translucent skin. Just like not all female characters need to be stick thin ... when they are a little chunky the book focuses on their goal to lose weight. What kind of lesson is this? What are we telling kids if we only publish books with white characters? That is the goal, the ideal? I hope that idea makes you a little queasy.

But maybe it isn't just about the "ideal" - maybe we just need better books overall. Maybe we just need books that represent our entire cultures, maybe publishers need to encourage better books with more varied characters, cultures, and abilities represented. I'll never forget sitting in one of my first creative writing classes a guest speaker told us that her first book was originally set in Ireland and a publisher told her that if she rewrote the whole thing and made it set in Scotland they'd accept it - because Scotland was popular. She said it was one of her biggest regrets having rewritten it instead of finding a publisher who would love it for what it was. Think of how many times Harry Potter was turned down by publishers. Obviously publishers aren't the brilliant creatures they like to think they are. They are trying to turn a profit and don't want to get stuck with a book that doesn't sell, it is business and I understand that. In the end, would it help if we were better customers?

I live in a pretty small town where we don't see many ethnic variations. Books are such a great way to demonstrate how people are different. When I say #weneeddiversebooks, I'm calling for some brilliantly written characters that are strong and interesting, in settings and adventures that are unique and delightful, with a cast of supporting characters who are fun and distinct, but I'm also calling for protagonists that represent a wide array of cultures, ethnicities, and abilities without the stories focusing on those aspects. I'm calling for books that represent characters of all shapes and sizes. I'm calling for more male protagonists in picture books, children's books, and young adult books. I'm calling for a wider array of interests and family types. I'm calling for books to represent the diverse world we live in. I'm calling for art to imitate life in a good way that shows everyone they are important, represented, and should love who they are.

Excuse me, I need to step off the soap box, I'm late! #weneeddiversebooks

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