If you are kicking yourself for missing Wednesday night’s panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in children’s books, kick a little harder.*
With Allyson Schrier moderating, panelists Philip Lee (Publisher, Readers to Eaters), Kelly Jones (Author, “Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer”), Liz Wong (Author/Illustrator, “Quackers”) and Ann Crewdson (KCLS Children’s Librarian) discussed what children’s authors and illustrators need to do to reach more of our readers.
There was a great turnout. Here’s a sampling of what you missed:
· Didn’t read a middle grade or young adult book with a protagonist who looked like her until she was an adult.
(When asked about self-editing)
· There is a tendency to self-edit because you feel like there are obstacles. In a story about Chinese New Year, publishers didn’t get it. They wanted more explanation in the story, not trusting the readers to intuit or accept another culture’s practices.
(When asked about avoiding stereotypes in illustration)
· First, know what the stereotypes are.
· Be aware of tropes – common cultural clichés in literature.
· Make your characters as real as possible.
(When asked about casual diversity in children’s books)
· A lot of diverse books end up being “niche” books. What about a YA romance between diverse characters?
· She’s on this panel because a character showed up in her book who wasn’t like her. She was nervous, but thought, “I can fail at a first draft.”
(When asked about writing characters from a culture different from her own)
· Question your normal. If you are writing through the eyes of someone who isn’t like you, their normal will not be your normal. Getting it right is good writing.
· Look for beta readers who are more like your character. In writing Unusual Chickens, she included beta readers who are half-Latina and beta readers who live on farms.
· Writing realistically is your responsibility. This is your book; it’s your job to get it right. A lot of publishing is white and may share your normal.
· You want to look at primary sources. Get out of your box. Otherwise you end up playing a game of telephone.
· Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward's “Writing the Other: A Practical Approach” is the best tool in her toolbox.
(When asked about circulation of and demand for diverse books at the library)
· The library needs more story-time level books. Parents are sometimes reluctant to pick up a book that looks different because of culture shock.
· A book made up with animal characters is not that same as a book with diverse characters. “I didn’t see myself as a panda as a kid.”
· Circulation of children’s books with African American characters has been increasing. We need to “change the bottleneck into a highway.”
(When asked about how you write an authentic voice)
· “Don’t be afraid of all of the criticism out there.”
· Allow diversity within diversity. Avoid two-dimensional characters.
· Pass your drafts through as many readers as possible.
(When asked about pulling offensive, inauthentic, books from the library.)
· “Our job is to offend everyone.” The antidote isn’t to ban or pull books. The antidote is to write more books, better books.
(When asked about obstacles to making children’s literature more diverse)
· The number of books with diverse characters has remained the same, 10 – 13%, for the past 10 years.
· Industry is 85% white.
· Reviewers are 90% white.
· “We’ve been stuck in the same bubble for a very long time.”
(When asked about writing diverse books)
· “Be specific, not generic.” Specific cultural traits make a book real.
· Watch out for “lazy publishing.” Everyone has to do their homework.
· Just because you are from a culture, doesn’t make you an expert.
· “Most mistakes come from not asking questions.”
· “Take some chances and be wrong.”
And finally, stretching ourselves further, an audience member gave a heartfelt plea to include children with disabilities in our writing. Her own children, avid readers, have never seen themselves in a book.
CLICK HERE for a comprehensive resource list from our panelists. Take this as a starting point for discussions with your critique group or writing buddies. As several panelists mentioned on Wednesday, diverse writing isn’t a trend. It’s just good writing.
I’ll end with a quote Philip Lee read to us from graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang:
“We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the internet might say.
This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.
After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.”
*I might be slightly biased here, since I set up the panel with Allyson Schrier.