Last month, the mailing list of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted a discussion of multicultural literature for children and young adults. During the course of the discussion, many suggestions and ideas were raised about how to keep spreading the word about diversity and supporting more of it in children’s and YA lit. Some of those ideas are in the link above.
Great discussion points providing actionable items for promoting diversity in children/young adult lit.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
While women probably still write their own parts better, cheers for all who are daring to probe the ever-changing state of the sexes. There is reason for optimism, as gender roles become less distinct, more men get in touch with their at-home sides, and more women become action heroes.
As literary critic Sarah Seltzer says, ‘writing across gender may be harder, require more research and humility. We may fail or get ‘called out’ for letting our biases show, or being ignorant. But the attempt at understanding, empathy, and inhabiting the soul of someone whose life experience is not ours, helps us grow as writers, and people too.’
While the cozy food trucks may not have the storage space of the much-loved bookmobile, the Bibliotrucka project is less about offering access to books—though traditionalists need not worry, as print offerings will remain part of the equation—and more about making sure kids in schools without libraries can still get hands-on time with new technology like e-readers and tablets. “We want to help kids to get a feel for all sorts of resources,” said Miller, something that she deemed especially important as important parts of school curricula, like standardized tests, are moving online.
When I think about diversity in literature, I think about honesty and connection. What is literature for, if not to reflect the truth of our existence and connect us with the rest of humanity? The world is such a diverse, complex place, so pop culture’s homogeneity strikes me as inaccurate at best and dishonest at worst. It’s not reflecting the world we live in. I think of people on the Internet who claim that stories based on European history have to be completely white, because Europe has always been completely white. It’s not true. We only think it’s true because we’ve seen so many movies and read so many books that have skewed our vision of reality. Too often, pop culture is whitewashing the world instead of doing what it should, which is reveal the world to us.
I also read and write in an attempt to find connection with others, but the problem is that we’re currently asked to connect almost exclusively with white men. That’s why we get kids in elementary school who feel they can’t write stories about non-white, non-male heroes. They feel alienated from so many other kinds of people, even people of their own racial or cultural background, because we don’t see them on TV, in the movies, or in books very often. By shunning diversity, we’re cutting ourselves off from billions of people and the wide range of feelings they experience. We’re cutting ourselves off from ourselves. We’re making literature small, when it can be so much larger.
“Why are stories important? Because their narratives reflect fundamental truths about our lives. They entertain us, yes, but at their best they illuminate, teach and redefine us. Stories don’t exist outside of societal concerns, they are entirely a part of them: they are the green shoots off of a sturdy limb. So when the stories we validate with attention and praise all happen to grow off of one relatively small branch of a huge, beautiful tree, we are obscuring the reality of the world we all live in. We’re actively avoiding the things that stories do uniquely well. Even worse, by denying light to the other branches of this tree, we’re making it harder for those stories (the stories of the majority of people in the world!) to survive.”
“Researchers found that children who receive bedtime stories from their parents as infants perform better than those who go without. But reading for pleasure during secondary school had the biggest effect, with books judged to be more important to children’s development at an older age than the influence of their parents. The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.”
My 5-year-old insists that Bilbo Baggins is a girl. The first time she made this claim, I protested. Part of the fun of reading to your kids, after all, is in sharing the stories you loved as a child. And in the story I knew, Bilbo was a boy.
Then I thought: What the hell, it’s just a pronoun. My daughter wants Bilbo to be a girl, so a girl she will be.
And you know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.
"I think children today are told, ‘You can be anything.’ But if they don’t see themselves in the story, I think, as they get older, they’re going to question, ‘Can I really?’ "
The Yoza Project increases access to literature to South African Youth through cellphone stories.
On its pilot project, m4Lit: “In just seven months the two stories were read over 34,000 times on mobile phones. To put this in context, a book is considered a best seller in South Africa if 3,000 copies are sold.”
We talked about the contemporary books written specifically for younger readers. “There seem to be just three kinds of young adult books,” one sighed. “The gossip books, the I’m starving/I hate myself/everything is terrible book, and the dystopian books in which the teens save the world. This is not representative of our reality.”
"YA authors seem to think that teens see themselves as central, as the story’s only important protagonists," another told me. "But we’re not actually the center of the universe. We’re part of something. We want to be part of something. We want to connect to other people, other generations, other eras."
You get the gist, I’m sure, and because my little essay has run long, I will end it here: Give the young readers and writers of now room to speak for themselves. Let their praise and exhortations inspire. In the brightening hollow of a writing dawn, remember: We don’t have to write small, we don’t have to write same, we don’t have to sacrifice the loveliness of language. We can write big; we must. The teens are watching. They wait.
Only three percent of everything published in the U.S. each year is translated from another language, and much of that is non-literary stuff like manuals, help books, and other odds and ends. Due to this, the author writes, “It’s likely that American readers will not discover today’s Borges, Calvino, Neruda, or Kafka until long after they are dead, if they even discover them at all.” Particularly distressing is that of the tiny handful of translated pieces of literature released in this country, only a quarter are by women. Things need to change, but as this article points out, small presses are beginning to make a huge difference.
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”