Tuesday, August 24, 2010

8 Conference Round-Up: Diversity in Children's Books

The Austin, Texas chapter of SCBWI held a panel discussion on Representing Diversity in Children's Books. Influencial figures in children's publishing, such as authors Lila Guzm├ín and Varian Johnson and illustrator Don Tate, were on hand to open up about this important topic. Regional Advisor Deborah Gonzales kindly pointed us in an all-too-convenient direction to find out more about the discussion.

Awesome YA author, poet, and SCBWI member E. Kristin Anderson blogs at The Hate Mongering Tart. She not only attended the event in Austin, she put together such an amazing blog post that we are simply stealing linking to it this week. So what are you waiting for? Go check it out here. And for the record, Emily willingly shared her fantastic post.

Sneak preview of some of the highlights:

"Jeanette Larson put it so eloquently when she said, 'When we think about people, we think about people who look like us.' Don followed up with 'The one thing we all have in common is emotions…we love and we hate.'"

"And on gender? I’ve heard things buzzing around about women not being able to write male protags? Here’s what Varian had to say about that: 'There’s no way I could have written [TYRELL by Coe Booth], which is about an African-American male…but Coe did it justice.' Me? I think it’s all about knowing your character, and trying to understand where that character comes from. If you can get to the heart of what that character wants, and needs, you can tell his or her story."

Regional Adviser Deborah Gonzales shared a quote from Austin author Jo Whittemore, who was visibly moved during and after the event:

"Being of bi-racial descent (Caucasian father, Korean mother), I've always ALWAYS struggled with issues of identity and finding where I belong. Diversity and how limited it is in children's literature has been the elephant in the room for years. We're assured that there are PLENTY of ethnic titles, but how many of them or their authors get recognized? I can count on my hands the number of popular books I know featuring Asian American main characters, even less so the number of titles with Native American main characters. And usually it's put upon the people of those ethnicities to write books for "their people". THANK YOU, Austin SCBWI for bringing this subject to the table and thank you panelists for pointing out that where you're from shouldn't dictate what you write."

In closing, author Chris Barton's statement was fitting: "Let the conversation continue." Here's hoping the writing community continues to talk.

Happy writing!


  1. Marissa,
    Great post. I can't tell you how strongly I believe in adolescents being able to find themselves in books (at least a representation of themselves). I think it's important to have racially diverse characters. Characters with disabilities, and varying sexual orientations. It's all important for young adults who represent those portions of humankind. :)
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  2. Great post. My daughter is adopted from China. My husband is Hispanic. I agree with Jo. There aren't enough Asian characters. Or Hispanic. As I strive to help my daughter feel comfortable with her racial identities, it would so help if there were more books with characters like her. I am glad this discussion is becoming more prevalent on blogs. It's so important.

  3. I'm glad to hear there is a conversation about this. I'm bi-racial, so is my writing partner in Brazil. We both also struggled with learning disabilities as children.

    We made a conscious decision to break conventional rules in fantasy and use our already diverse world to create an ancient society of sorcerers who evolved from various cultures and religions on earth and other-earthly realms.

    We really wanted to represent characters of different races (even bi-species), abilities (physically and mentally), and sexual orientations.

    But... our goal wasn't to cram diversity into a book. We really saw it as an opportunity to move away from the typical "white magic" to "colorful magic".

    I mean, why are wizards, witches and sorcerers white, blue, and iridescent, but not Black, Latino, or Middle Eastern, Hopi, or Korean?

    From an anthropological perspective, magic and religious rites have been practiced across the world. Homosexuals have found respect as shamans. People with disabilities have found remarkable resources within themselves to adapt.

    As we become a more global society, I feel this next generation is going in the right direction in their tolerance and desire to learn about others. As writers, why not pique their interest with something new and unusual.

    I can't say it's an easy task to avoid making up creatures, places and gods. It took a lot of research to find the right matches, but if just one kid decides to look up a vetala or the fortress Alamut, I'd say cool!

    Anyway, three cheers for bringing diversity into print.

  4. Thanks for linking, Marissa! Hope you can make it out to Austin soon and join us for a meeting and/or lunch! ATX is a kidlit mecca and I am so blessed to be a part of it!

  5. It means so much to us that everyone is weighing in openly and with such authentic feelings.

    Lisa and Natalie, you both raise good points. Children and teens need a sense of belonging. Seeing themselves reflected in a book is so important for not only their identity, but to foster their love of reading.

    Sangay, it's admirable that you're striving to incorporate diversity into your writing. At a conference I attended a month ago, several agents and editors kept saying they wanted characters representing diversity in one way or another. But they didn't want this aspect (race, sexual orientation, disability, etc.) to be THE focus. They wanted it an incidental aspect of the text. Best of luck in your writing!

    Emily, you rock! This was a wonderful opportunity to piggyback on the fantastic post you created. It's our pleasure to link it :) Thanks again!


  6. Marissa, what a great post! I'm embarrassed to say, I've never thought about this before. I suppose that's part of the problem! Thanks for brining it to light.

  7. Julie, don't be embarrassed. I think we tend to sometimes write and think within our own experiences. Out of nowhere, I had an idea for a picture book that naturally led to wanting to include a diverse family. Up until then, I hadn't experienced an organic flow of an idea that followed these lines. I think it's wonderful when you find yourself pondering, plotting, and hopefully writing about ANY characters that come out of nowhere. It was an even better surprise for myself when it led me to research and learn about a whole new culture. Just keep writing and who knows where it can lead? :)

  8. I agree. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. We all write what we know.

    Still, it is fun to explore if that's your thing. Otherwise, it can be awkward, but any opportunity to grow is worth a little risk, even if we're only comfortable enough to observe.

    Worried that my daughters would grow up in a suburban bubble, we started taking road trips. It's a great experience for them to see that while all human individuals are different, we're also pretty much the same on a primal level (emotions, needs, desires).

    I think the hardest part is just letting go, giving into being a tourist and asking questions. I found people are more than happy to answer "dumb" questions, unless your french sucks and you're in the Quebec countryside:)

    Cultural tourism also starts in your neighbors' backyards. There is a wealth of information everywhere once you lose the fear and just ask what's on your mind.

    Learning something new is like giving a gift to your soul.

    Even if I never write about my daughter's wonderful conversation with an old man in New Orleans, the story touched us all spiritually and that alone was worth this year's trip.

    Here's couple of interesting racy stories that make open up some dialog:

    My father told me a story about how back in the thirties he drove across country with his sister, her husband and baby. When they stopped for gas in North Dakota, they were surrounded by ladies who were fascinated by their "little negro baby ".

    Not in a bad way...they just never saw one before, and they all wanted to hold it and cuddle it cause they thought it was just the "cutest little brown thing". Now some would find this offensive, but I think of the baby as an ambassador, and it was lovely.

    People do see color and while I don't see a reason to mention it all the time in life and books, like someone's sexual orientation, I don't see anything wrong in coming right out to say someone is what they are.

    My dad annoyed me one day. He was trying to describe an American Idol contestant that we'd met. I didn't recognize the name, but he said we knew her from Shriner's hospital. He's was trying to avoid the "word" and kept saying,

    "The girl with dark hair who has a daughter with cerebral palsy"

    "Yeah dad, that describes me."

    "No, her daughter is in a wheelchair"

    "Okay, that's half the people we see at Shriners"

    "No damn it, the black girl!"

    "Oh...now I know who you're talking about."

    It's really ridiculous not to mention color in some cases. imho:)


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