It’s interesting how things can come together.

You can be mulling something over, and then you get an email from some random reader talking about the issues of voice appropriation and then a day later you read an excellent column on the New York Times by Christopher Myers, the son of the impeccable Walter Dean Myers, who is an accomplished author and artist in his own right.

His article was called The Apartheid of Children’s Literature. Read it earlier and I’ve been mulling it over all day.

I agree with him completely.

There is a real disconnect between the demographics of modern society and the diversity to be found in children’s literature and I think I know why it exists.

It’s because of the ‘white doll’ phenomenon.

When the civil rights movement began in the ’60’s and people started getting all righteous about providing role models for little black girls and they actually made little black dolls, astonishingly enough many of the black children, when given a choice, still chose the white doll.

White being the dominant race in the world, is the powerful race, and thus the default setting when it comes to literature and any other art.

On a tangential note, I went to a Native school a while back to do a free program and to help revamp their library collection. I thought the librarian would choose some really good titles including native ones.

Nope. She chose whitey white white titles like ‘Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” by Judy Blume and Percy whats his face, the Lightning Thief.

Oh yeah, Jackson.

I was really surprised, and kind of disappointed that the librarian wouldn’t take this opportunity to purchase titles that would more reflect the diversity of the kids, but then I remembered what I felt like when I was a kid.

I would never have chosen a book that was too pointedly aimed at my demographic. It would have felt like I was *expected* to and that would have turned me off.

And I recalled another school I went to where the grade five kids had all made posters of their favourite authors and their favourite books. A white girl had chosen me and Wanting Mor and the one Muslim girl in the class, who even wore hijab, chose some Judy Blume title.

Yup. I would never have chosen a “Muslim” book. Not unless the other kids had approved it, loved it, and recommended it first. I just wouldn’t have had the confidence maybe. Although, I do know I would have LOVED Wanting Mor!

And at the end of his article, when Christopher Myers moans about the “Market” it’s actually counter productive.

There is a reason why ‘white’ is the default setting in society. Every other color, every other culture, comes with baggage.

And most of the time you simply can’t ignore the ethnic background of the character.

And then another serendipitous coincidence occurred, I read another article, I think it was in the New York Times as well, that talked about the nice things white people do for each other. How the lack of diversity in upper management is often because those jobs get filled by people who know each other, a friend of a friend, that kind of thing.

It’s not necessarily that they’re trying to deliberately exclude minorities from those higher positions. It’s not an active omission, but rather a slipping sort of omission. ie. they’re not out to EXCLUDE minorities, they’re just out to INCLUDE their friends.

I think the problem with the idea of diversity in children’s literature really does come down to market, but not in the way Christopher Myers says.

And you can’t ‘blame’ white people for not buying a book with a black character on it. He makes the point that people buy music with black people on it.

It’s a matter of socialization.

We accept that many black artists have shown their exceptional talent in the field of music. We get that they’re some of the best, so of course we wouldn’t be put off by seeing black people on the cover of an album.

But that just hasn’t occurred to the same degree in terms of children’s literature.

And it’s the same for Muslim literature and the same for native American literature.

In these fields we don’t see the breakout superstars.

So how can it change???

It all does come down to Market.

The diverse books will sell…to schools. But not so much to the general public.

And that’s because unlike individual parents, especially white parents, who have the money to purchase books and understand the importance of encouraging their kids to have a library in their rooms, most ethnic minorities don’t purchase books.

At the most they’ll borrow them from the library.

That does not give the publishers the incentive required to bank on diverse authors.

Basically they WANT to publish diverse stories.

But first and foremost they have to publish something that will sell!

And so you have the whitey white white series that make money because they appeal to the lowest common denominator in kids: gossip, popularity, sports and sex (or pseudo sex).

Some publishers use those types of popular fiction, that doesn’t even try to make a kid think, to almost subsidize their more literary ventures.

The native American person who emailed me liked my article on voice appropriation.

I remember when I started writing. I was in such a huff over how Muslims were being portrayed in fiction. In particular I had a real hate on for Suzanne Fisher Staples. (I still do)

But over the years those views have really changed and matured. And I’ve come to realize that Suzanne Fisher Staples wrote the book she could write, in her limited view of the situation. You can’t fault her for that.

And I hate to admit it but she probably had good intentions.

What I told the Native reader is that honestly if we ethnically diverse people don’t write about our cultures, then white people will, and they’ll get it all wrong.

So it behooves us to stop kvetching about the way things are, and just keep going.

And it behooves us to encourage our various demographics to BUY MORE BOOKS!

Invest in their young people. I tell parents during literacy workshops, “There are parents who will plunk down $50 on the newest video game but won’t spend $10 for a new book their kid wants.” (And I’m often talking about the parents in the session.)

And I wish parents would realize that while toys and video games might break or go out of style and then be chucked in the trash, a good book does not!

I am still reading books that are practically falling apart, to myself and to my grandkids!

Once we start putting our money where our mouth is, and it’s NOT just the schools and libraries buying the diverse titles, then things will change.


Just write a book that appeals to ALL demographics, where even though the main character is from an ethnic minority, the story is SO UNIVERSAL that nobody cares!

Kinda like The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, or Mama Do You Love Me? or ahem, please pardon my boldness, Big Red Lollipop.

It can be done.

It just means that we ethnic people have to write by mainstream rules and sensibilities. While still being true to our cultural vision.

Not easy, but definitely doable.