This Thing Called Diversity

diversityBook Expo America (BEA) is a big event in the publishing world—the biggest, in fact. It’s a hodgepodge of authors, industry professionals, book reviewers, and book bloggers, all chattering about the Latest Big Thing or the Next Big Thing. It’s so popular that last year the BEA coordinators announced an adjunct event to take place before the expo officially opened. Fans thronged to “Bookcon” to hear some of the biggest names in publishing, like James Pattterson, John Green, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snickett), and Rick Riordan. In fact, those four gentlemen comprised a panel discussion about young adult fiction, still the hottest corner in publishing. Their discussion before a packed house was probably scintillating, touching, and hilarious, with countless applause and laugh lines. It was also completely eclipsed by one young YA author in the audience: Ellen Oh. Even before the event began she had a big question: Why are all the speakers white, straight men?

She was bugged. And later, talking it over with other authors and friends, her disgruntlement grew—in fact it became group disgruntlement. A few months before, the late Walter Dean Myers had written an opinion piece for the New York Times book review, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Myers wrote movingly of how his early reading experience—comic books, classic picture books, Bible stories, and novels—though they sparked his imagination, did nothing to affirm him as a person. He gave up reading altogether during a post-adolescent identity crisis, and only returned to it when a story by James Baldwin provided a renaissance: I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me.

Myers was not wrong about the scarcity of children’s books for and about minorities. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin/Madison, an organization with a special interest in diversity, reports that the total number of children’s books written by black authors was only 68 in 2013 (compared to 82 in 1994). And it gets worse: of the 5000 children’s books published in 2013, 90 were by Asians, 48 by Latinos, and 18 by Native Americans. Whites are also overrepresented in the publishing industry as a whole—by over 90%. Meaning that the agents who pitch books to editors, the editors who decide which books to publish, the art directors who design jackets and commission illustrations, are all of a similar culture and background.

Thus was born We Need Diverse Books, a grassroots campaign begun by Ellen Oh and her friends that has taken off internationally in the hashtag world. WNDB describes itself as committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality. Its time has arrived, or so it seems. In a mere 10 months WNDB has established a Diversity Festival, published recommended book lists, produced classroom materials, and recruited countless authors, booksellers, and readers to tweet photos of themselves holding signs that explain why we need diverse books. For example:

  •  because no little kid ever said, “I want a box of 64 white crayons!”
  •  because there are more than 1.2 million teens in America with disabilities. Where are their stories?
  •  to show kids it’s okay to be who they are.
  •  because kids might not judge a book by its cover, but they will judge themselves by a book’s cover.
  •  because LBGT people don’t look good wearing invisibility cloaks!
  •  because I grew up thinking brown men couldn’t be anything more than a sidekick.

WNDB, in its short life, may even have influenced the ALA youth media awards this year. Junco Yokota, chairing the 2015 Caldecott committee, stated that diversity was not a criterion in their selection, but as [library] professionals in the field, we are attuned to issues related to diversity, and our personal commitments to representation are always part of the lens with which we view the world. Observers couldn’t help noticing: of the three Newbery winners, two are verse novels about black characters, and the other is a graphic novel about a hearing-impaired girl.

At Redeemed Reader we favorably reviewed all three books, and diversity was not a criterian. Brown Girl Dreaming is a heartfelt and mind-expanding memoir, The Crossover is about a strong, sports-loving black family, and El Deafo opens a child’s understanding to severe disability in an entertaining and relatable way. We will continue to review good books favorably. We like diversity because God created it, but a good book is a good book no matter what color the main character is.

That said, the experience of Walter Dean Myers and others like him deserves respect. White folks like me don’t appreciate how pervasive our influence over publishing is (like we invented it, or something), and since people naturally tend to fall in with their “own kind,” and writers tend to write what they know, the publishing world is notably pale. One thing readers can do is make an effort to broaden their tastes to include more diverse cultures and peoples. I think Christian readers (of all colors) especially should do this, because we’re commissioned to go into all the world—not to make everybody like white Christians, but to welcome them into our mutual Father’s kingdom.

That said, there are ways the WNDB campaign can go astray:

  • It sounds a little adversarial sometimes. One of those Tweet posters reads because white straight males aren’t the only heroes. Who says they are? The white domination of publishing is not a plot but a combination of many factors economic and social. The selection of John Green, Rick Riordan, et al., for that YA panel was not an act of dominance but a marketing move because those guys are insanely popular. Let’s stop with the accusations and seek out the best way forward. Diversity is good; divisiveness, not so much.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities have some responsibility, too. If Latinos and African Americans want books about themselves, they need to encourage their children to read and write good stories. Which begins with reading and writing, period. Too often gang culture and other negative influences muscle in and present themselves as “authentic” when they are anything but. It takes motivation and discipline even to read a book, much more to write one—a mother and dad (especially dad) modeling good discipline and creativity can accomplish what no campaign could ever come near.
  • Diversity should not be an end in itself, or it becomes self-defeating. The justification most often given for WNDB is two-fold: 1) minority children need to understand they’re not alone, and 2) everyone else needs to respect minorities—their culture, history, or whatever applies. So far, so good; most of us can agree on that. But to what purpose? Certainly, if I learn more about my Somali neighbors’ background I can relate to them better. But even more: I can discover the ways we’re alike as well as the ways we’re different. Much of what flies under the banner of “diversity” these days stresses the latter: difference instead of similarity, and often to the detriment of the majority. Walter Dean Myers deplored the tendency of African American movies and literature to portray blacks as victims: Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder. Diversity that’s little more than grievance-mongering or self-esteem-building steers itself down a dead end.
  • Related to the last point, when does We Need Diverse Books become We Need Books About Every Possible Human Variation, Even Those That Haven’t Been Identified Yet? And might it become necessary—in some minds at least—to establish a National Center for Diversity that keeps tabs on the number of books published for and by each category and sub-category in order to enforce some sort of quota system?
  • “Diversity” can lose its meaning if stretched too far. According to the We Need Diverse Books mission statement, diversity includes LBGTQIA, people of color, nontraditional genders (those not covered by the “T” in LGBTQIA, I presume), ethnic and religious minorities, and people with disabilities (physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, developmental, as well as chronic illness, mental illness, and addictions). This is quite a list, conflating race, nationality, disability, illness, sexual orientation, and sexual practice with subsequent confusion. It makes “questioning” one’s sexuality, for example (that’s the “Q”), a condition instead of a transition, and locks girls and boys who may be wondering if they’re really boys and girls into the “Transgender” box before they’ve even come to a decision. It pushes homosexual practice as acceptable, which Christians can’t believe. And to what end is “addiction” included? To be celebrated as some kind of alternative lifestyle?

“And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-28)

The Lord loves diversity—no question about it. We come in all colors, all body types and facial features, with all sorts of gifts and talents—also all sorts of sins and evil inclinations. Where can we find unity? How can we relate? There’s only one sure way: by looking to him whose image we all bear. The Lord made every man and woman from one man and woman, and he loves us. Promoting diversity is a good thing, but incomplete, like all our better impulses. Only as fellow image-bearers can we truly appreciate each other. The good news is, that time is coming:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in pure robes with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

1 Comment

  1. Megan on March 14, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Very well said, Janie. Thank you for your discerning observations.!

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