This past March, I had the honor of participating in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Writer’s Days Conference in Los Angeles, CA, along with some of the brightest talent in the children’s book industry, including award-winning and bestselling authors Malinda Lo, Nikki Grimes and Eugene Yelchin, as well as Daniel Nayeri, Editorial Director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The theme of this year’s conference was “Diversity” in Children’s Books, and the perspectives on the topic were as diverse as the panelists themselves.
While I won’t go into the particulars of each and every talk, I will share for those not familiar with the authors and speakers, that they crossed nationalities and ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation, and no stone went unturned in this wonderful day-long series of no holds barred talks on the topic of diversity. It was truly inspiring to hear so many different points of view in a single room; the conference certainly lived up to its theme!
While the authors mostly spoke about their work and how their individual backgrounds did (or didn’t) affect their writing, I spoke from the only perspective I know: that of a book reviewer/editor/literary agent who’s been around for a while and has dedicated most of her career to helping authors of color get published. From this perspective, I chose to concentrate on what I called the “Challenges and Opportunities” presented by the market for diverse literature. Mine was a nuts and bolts type of talk, meant mostly to draw attention to the opportunities and support that exist out there for writers, so as to help provide attendees with the tools and confidence they may need to continue to write works that are diverse in every sense of the word.
When put together, what struck me most about the talks of the day was how difficult it was for all of us to truly define what “diverse” means to us as it relates to children’s books. Among attendees, I found white authors asking for permission to write about diverse characters, and diverse authors asking questions about how to remain true to their personal and cultural identities while writing works that have broad appeal (after all, a writer wants to enjoy the broadest readership possible). And so throughout the weekend, we kept coming back to the questions of who should write these “diverse” books, what should they be about, and where should they—or will they—find their readers. These questions tend to complicate the issue (as all good discussions do), and create a back and forth between narrow and broad definitions of what constitutes “diversity” in children’s literature that is just now beginning to be explored by conferences and organizations such as SCBWI and the CBC Diversity Committee, to name just a couple.
This conference in particular was inspiring to me because after many years of tackling these questions myself in boardrooms and podiums, on panels and during private conversations, I was once again reminded of the most important definition of diversity, reflected in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary: VARIETY. When presented this way, diverse means not just “some of us” who are “different,” but “ALL of us,” the entire diverse makeup of this country we call the United States—of the entire world in fact. Thinking of “diversity” this way eliminates some of the mystique that tends to make some literature seem exotic, and to define it as belonging to “the other.” This is not how diverse literature should be viewed; by ourselves, or by others, because we live in one of the most diverse societies in the world, and our children’s literature has to reflect the world they live in.
What I heard from the very successful authors who participated in this conference time and time again during their talks is that their books appeal to all kids, not just Latino, Asian-American, or African-American kids. That it’s the universality of their stories that continues to add to their large pool of readers. This is not a watering down of culture or message as some may lead us to believe; none of these authors deny or in any way attempt to hide who they are from readers; in fact, most of them have made serious attempts to aid readers in having a better understanding of their backgrounds and the impact those backgrounds have had on them, often through the characters they create. But at no point did these authors separate themselves from the rest of the world of children’s literature (as some of their works sometimes are, unnaturally, “separated” from others, after all, this is not to say that challenges don’t exist for “diverse” authors and literature). Quite the opposite in fact, they contend (as do I) that good literature is universal literature, because good stories—including those that celebrate our backgrounds—are about more than just who we appear to be, or how we’ve been categorized. At the heart of it, the best literature reaches readers because it exposes and in some way celebrates the strengths and frailties of what we all have in common: our humanity. This, in my view, is the literature that all “diverse” writers—in the true sense of the word—should aspire to write, and the type that I feel strongest about championing in my own work.
And while on the subject of good diverse, universal literature, I want to congratulate Benjamin Alire Sáenz, whose work continues to inspire and serve as a perfect example of a more inclusive definition of diversity. In March, Sáenz became the first Latino to ever win the coveted PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, published by Cinco Puntos Press. The author’s latest win comes on the heels of his multiple wins for his young adult novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (published by Simon and Schuster ) which won a Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature, the Pura Belpré Medal for best Latino Narrative, and a Stonewall Award for the book that best relates the LGBT experience. Now, that’s universal!
This is my personal response to the question of what is “diversity” in children’s literature, though I do recognize that the concept raises many important questions like some of the ones included above that not only those in the publishing industry, but also we, the mothers of “diverse” children, should continue to ask, and address. I welcome your thoughts on this topic and invite you to share them with others here, and on my Twitter feed. Let’s keep this conversation going!
Happy reading—and writing!