Is It Time for a New Incarnation of the Diversity Database?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 16th, 2016

In 2009, I began maintaining a list of children’s books featuring main characters of color with stories that were not primarily about racial issues. I was looking for books where fully realized individual characters led the action in stories that ranged from mysteries, fantasies, and adventures to friendship and family stories. I wanted to find a broader range of books in which contemporary young readers might see themselves and their friends’ lives reflected, accepted, celebrated as mainstage actors. These stories certainly might include thoughts or questions about identity and culture, but were not driven by them. To date, this World Full of Color database has 1,275 titles.

But because of my criteria, my diversity database necessarily excludes hundreds of fantastic books where the plots are driven by issues of race. I grieve these omissions and wonder what to do about them. They are often some of the best written, most powerful and important books to arise from our literature, and I find myself unhappy about their exclusion from the database.

I feel good about the database. It came about as a result of some discussions with various friends, authors, and artists. During one of these conversations, my friend and colleague, Christine Taylor-Butler, heaved a huge sigh. “If I have to give my girls one. more. story about civil rights or slavery, I will scream.” Christine and her daughters are African-American, and while she would be the first person to say how vital it is to know your history and honor your peoples’ past and ongoing struggles, she is also tired of her daughters being overwhelmed with stories of adversity, pain, cruelty, and struggle. Where are the books featuring kids who look like her girls, that are lighthearted or funny or romantic of full of mystery and adventure and fantasy? They have a right to escape reading, too, to be heroines of stories where they can just BE. Sometimes readers want a vacation from their own experience of otherness.

Because of our field’s sorry history of prioritizing stories featuring white characters, we created a world where books with brown faces on the covers signaled heavy topics and serious issues. Those serious books themselves are not the problem, of course; many of them were the most formative, powerful books of my own childhood, helping to develop my social consciousness and spark empathy, understanding, curiosity, compassion, kinship. We still need those books. Our divided country NEEDS those books. And it is ignorant to think that the experience of being a child of color in this country is ever divorced from issues of race or ethnicity or culture. That is an inevitable part of growing up brown in America.

So it feels … incomplete, wrong, a disservice … to maintain a diversity database where a book like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry can’t be included, where many books by luminaries in our field like Julius Lester and Jacqueline Woodson are excluded. What kind of diversity database is that?! And yet, the database is used by hundreds of parents and teachers in search of books that meet the criteria I originally set. Diversity in publishing hasn’t yet caught up to the culture, and so there is still a great need to find and feature picture books, early readers, chapter books, middle grade, and teen/YA titles where brown kids are the stars of the show in mainstream stories.

So what to do?

LibraryThing.com, the host of the database, allows people to create “collections” within their libraries. I’ve thought of creating a collection titled something like, “Diverse books in which race IS the driving force of the story” — pithier suggestions welcome — or creating an entirely new database combining all of the titles to create a fabulous collection of books featuring main characters of color. Period.

What do you think? I would love your thoughts and suggestions.

4 thoughts on “Is It Time for a New Incarnation of the Diversity Database?

  1. ChristineTB

    Absolutely. I think we need both. But honestly – the publishing trends still show the lion share of attention goes to book that are issue oriented. Which is why so many black children are tiring of reading or read “white” to escape the ubiquitous material that is curated for them. That’s why Elizabeth’s list is so important. White children have a wide range of books with which to see themselves. And can use non-issue oriented books to decompress or just escape.

    But we do need both. I do understand the importance. I visit schools and read from books that are funny and light (many written by colleagues) and you can just see their whole world view come alive.

    They want to read about becoming Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Or imagine themselves in fantasies. Or imagine a world where their race isn’t the first thing people see. They need those MORE than they need the issue books because the latter comprises a large part of their reading already. I know, because I get the end product and so does my husband when it’s college interview season and when asked what books they read, the titles are almost always those of white protagonists. They don’t even know they have options for other titles that tread the same paths.

    We need both – but good grief the industry pays more attention to race-based angst than they do to the books that will allow the children to pull out of that funk when they’re done reading about things that may mirror their daily lives.

  2. Shari Randall

    Elizabeth, I kept a similar list when I was a children’s librarian. Years ago, when I was book talking at a school, two African American boys told me they were tired of “those sad books,” so your list was and is a gold mine! I think publishers are doing a better job with diverse picture books, but still have a way to go, especially in middle grade and young adult books.

  3. Suzanne M.

    Have you considered adding the books and at the same time adding new tags to identify them? It could be as simple as ‘race driven plot’ for the new additions and ‘non-race driven plot’ for the books currently in the database. The database allows you to filter based on the tags so it’s easy to pull out just the type you need.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Hi, Suzanne. That was essentially what I meant by setting up a collection within the database. The only problem is that a lot of people don’t even know they can sort/filter by tags or collections, and since the whole purpose of the database was to provide a quick and easy resource for teachers and parents specifically looking for those non-race-driven titles, these books would be outnumbered 10:1 by race-driven titles…. If you know how to filter, that wouldn’t be an issue, but if you aren’t familiar with how to use LibraryThing and tags, it would be a big one.

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