Getting to Diverse: Pitfalls and Potholes Along the Way

Elizabeth Bluemle - May 16, 2017

Sarah Park Dahlen and Molly Beth Griffin’s brilliant graphic, illustrated by artist David Huyck, showing the dismal percentages of children’s books in 2015 reflecting kids from various diverse backgrounds. Even cartoon animals get more representation. If you subtract them from the mix, the white representation skyrockets even higher. (Thanks to Sarah, Molly, and David for making this image available via a Creative Commons license.)

While progress has been slow, the conversation about diversity in publishing has grown and changed and strengthened in the past several years. Thanks to social media movements like We Need Diverse Books, as well as longstanding efforts by trailblazers like Cheryl and Wade Hudson, and vocal social critics and activists like Zetta Elliott, Edi Campbell, K.T. Horning, Daniel Older, Debbie Reese, Christopher Myers, and many, many others, the discussions and definitions of diversity have become increasingly nuanced as more and more people join the conversation and begin to raise the thorniest issues underlying the lack of diversity in the book world.

Those of us on the dominant-culture side of the coin have (I hope) discovered that the more we try to know, the more there is to learn about what it means to create a truly inclusive, reflective, authentic literary culture in our country. At first, the conversation simply revolved around the immediate need for more diversity in children’s books and the desperately unfair hand we were dealing to all children, and especially children of color, by not representing their worlds more widely. Then, as halting strides were made to increase mainstream diversity in books for some of our nation’s cultural groups, the conversation expanded to expose the tremendous gaps in representation for other groups, who are still left out of even the most basic representation in mainstream publishing. That conversation is still young.
Even newer is the #OwnVoices discussion, about who is telling the ‘diverse’ stories that do get published, and who is editing them. This seems to be the thorniest discussion of all, across the board, and I hope we can get to the place where white defensiveness and dismissiveness turn quiet enough to listen and understand. I’ve encountered some white colleagues along the way who intellectually strongly support diversity and #ownvoices — but, perhaps, only as long as it doesn’t step on their own creative toes. And while I understand that it’s hard to hear that one’s voice may not be welcome in a certain context, especially when one’s intentions are good, I can only hope that the realization of the irony of that stance begins to knock on the brain in a way that leads toward recognition and change.
I do think that each step of this conversation, however painful, represents progress toward better understanding and more equitable treatment. It’s not a pendulum swing, exactly, but a stretched-out Slinky, where the immediate spirals lead both forward and backward, but the ultimate progression is a move forward. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted in an article. I have to believe that’s true, and when I travel visiting schools for author visits, I am made hopeful by the hundreds of kids, thousands of kids I’ve met, who are beautifully socially integrated with one another, not in a pretend color-blind world, but on a playground that encompasses and takes as a matter of fact the whole wide range of who we are as a nation. And we STILL, as a field, haven’t caught up to them.
I look back at my own travels on this path — my earliest ShelfTalker blog posts on the lack of diversity in children’s books and publishing were written starting back in 2009 — and I see, over the years, some truly excruciating stumbles along the way toward a deeper and more fruitful understanding. I still have miles to go, of course, and know that the rest of my life will be spent learning and working toward being the kind of ally who helps more than she hinders. The only thing that’s saved me from crumbling into horrified ash during those terrible moments of discovering some new blind spot is a concerted effort (better achieved at some times than others) to try to stumble bravely and awkwardly into the learning moment, rather than contracting and hiding and defending, and to open myself up to conversations where I listen better. This is easier to do when the infractions are small; it’s the big things that take the most courage to own up to. And of course those are the most important.
I’m struggling with something now that isn’t exactly a gaffe, but reflects early thinking that likely needs updating. Back in 2009, I started a diversity database some of you may know of and use: I named it The World Full of Color database, and it began in an effort to find books for young readers that starred main characters of color in books where issues of race and racism were not the driving force of the narrative. Back then, it was even harder than it is now to find such books, and kids, parents, and teachers were really happy to have a resource for mainstream stories about friendship, magic, adventure, mystery, etcetera, that happened to feature main characters of color. I’ve been really happy to maintain and expand that database, often adding new and upcoming titles excitedly in the middle of meetings with sales reps, who patiently wait for me to enter those ISBNs into the database.
Over the past few years, I’ve started to become increasingly uncomfortable with my own strictures. Since identity is such a fundamental piece of a child’s and teen’s life, how do I decide when books that include identity issues and experiences centered around identity, as in a book like Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah have crossed the invisible line of the narrative being driven by issues of race or ethnicity? And when my own definition of the database excludes books as fine as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming or Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, because they are fundamentally about their author’s or character’s experience of being black in this country, that database feels stupid, irrelevant, and reductive.
I still have so many teachers and parents (both white and brown) who appreciate the central premise of the diversity database. One of my friends, who is African-American, said to me, “If my daughters have to read one more book about civil rights or slavery, I’ll scream. We’ll all scream.” She was exaggerating a little, but sincere in her frustration that her kids rarely got to see themselves as heroes in fantasy novels, lead detectives in mysteries, and more.
I have hesitated to expand the definition of the database, which might make it harder to locate those titles she and other readers were so eager to find. So I thought about creating a second database that would be all-inclusive, and not leave out any book about a main character of color. Maintaining two databases is a bridge too far — too time-consuming — so I think I may have found a compromise: expanding my database and using tags. I’ve just recently begun adding an #ownvoices tag to new books I’m entering in the database, and hope to be able to update the 1,430+ that are already there to include that tag where appropriate. (NOTE: if someone wanted to create an entirely #ownvoices database, that would be so dreamy!)
I wanted to ask those of you who have used the World Full of Color database over the years: how would you feel about changing it to be fully inclusive in the way I describe? Would it be more or less useful to you? Would you be willing to search the database by tags? Would it dilute the original purpose or enrich and progress the purpose? I know where I’m leaning, but I am really interested to hear from you.

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