I came away from yet another SCBWI conference with inspiration, helpful information, new writer friends and idols, and writing momentum, but without much time to process it or actually write. But even though I’m late, I especially wanted to share what I learned this year since the conference’s “Your Story, Your World” theme is one that I feel a special passion for but don’t always know what I can do about: diversity in children’s books.
An incredible faculty of Pat Cummings, Lamar Giles, Minju Chang, Daniel Nayeri, Kelly Starling Lyons, Monika Schroeder, Alan Gratz, and many others shared how important it is for all children to be able to see themselves in the heroes of children’s books. Not only that, but books should show children that are already well represented the diverse world they live in. As this article in The Guardian explains, reading helps people to develop empathy, and so diverse books can also help children empathize with those who are different than themselves.
So, as a white, middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual writer that believes children should have access to books with diverse characters, what can I do?
This is the insight I gained from this year’s conference:
- Keep a broad definition of “diversity.” Think in terms of race, religion, gender, geography, sexuality, class, physical and mental abilities, and age.
- Write stories with diverse characters. While this seems like the simplest solution, it is actually the most difficult and comes with a lot of disclaimers. If you write about a culture (use a broad definition when considering culture, too!) other than your own, write from the heart and not because it is a market trend. Make sure to empower children through your characters rather than victimize them, and be cautious of stereotypes.
Be aware that it may be uncomfortable and you may be accused of “voice appropriation.” Monika Schroeder’s response to this is that no one owns a culture, but that if you are going to write about a culture other than your own, get it right. Do your research, including making authentic connections with people from that culture. Immerse yourself in it if you can!
Also be aware that some publishers have limited spots for these diverse books and that your story about another culture could crowd out someone from that culture’s stories.
- Biographies are a great way to depict diverse heroes. Because they fit in with the common core curriculum, this is also a great way to get diverse books into classrooms. But, as mentioned above, write them from the heart about people whose stories you connect with, research to portray the culture and perspective authentically, and don’t write them just because they are trendy.
- Bring existing stories from other cultures to your own. Research international stories and folklore. Explore diverse storytelling and illustrating styles. If you have translation skills, use them to bring in international perspectives. Very few children’s books are translated into English from other languages.
- Explore your own diversity. What part of your own story is under represented? Although my own race, class, and geography may be well represented, I come from a family of Italian immigrants and we carry on their traditions. My own family is non-standard, with half-siblings on both sides who are much older than me. I have a Brazilian exchange student “sister.” What part of you is not often reflected in children’s books?
- Illustrate or make illustration notes for pictures with diverse characters.
- Buy, read, and tell booksellers about books by and about people from other cultures. There is not only a need for more diverse children’s book characters, but also for people from diverse cultures to be creating these books. So what can you do if you are from an over represented culture like me?
As Kelly Starling Lyons eloquently put it, “Lift people up as you climb.”