This summer, my family and I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore to visit my parents. For those of you who have never been in that part of the world, it's an absolute sensory delight. Wherever we went, the aromatic intermingling of ethnic foods permeated the air and tantalized our tastebuds — mouthwatering curries, chicken and beef satays (meat grilled on a stick), sweet and sour crab, Roti Canai (pronounced Cha-nai, an Indian fried pancake). A multitude of languages — Hindi, Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Tagalog — intertwined their different melodies like an orchestra warming up before a performance— scratchy and disorganized, each instrument in different keys, but enticing our ears to the beautiful harmony to come. Our eyes feasted on the reds, oranges and greens of festive saris, the browns and blacks of shapely batik sarongs, the strangely foreign sights and smells of local fruits like the pungent durian, prickly rambutans, and succulent lai-chees. This was diversity in its truest form—raw and fascinating, a small window to a larger world.
Diversity (or the lack thereof) has been a big topic in children's literature of late. Just about every writing conference features a panel on diversity or at least, a discussion lamenting its under-representation in publishing. So, what is diversity and why is it important? Diversity is defined in the Webster online dictionary as "the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization."
The world is made up of different people with different lifestyles, different cultures, traditions. When you can weave them all into one seamless, harmonious society, it's like creating a beautiful quilt — every panel depicting a different scene, or even a different part of the same scene — but pieced together, they make a fascinating, eye-catching whole. And it's crucial that children see themselves as part of that fabric.
At Back to School night at my daughter's high school last week, the principal announced that for the first time ever, the high school population has reached 50% people of color (mostly Latinos in our community) and 50% white. So, why is it, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center's (CCBC) statistics, out of approximately 3,500 books received by the CCBC in 2014 (out of approx. 5,000 children's books published in that year), only 66 books were about Latinos and only 59 books were written by a Latino author; 112 books were about Asians or Asian Americans and only 48 books were written by Asian American authors; 179 books were about African Americans with 69 books written by an African American author? The stats are even lower for Native Americans — 15 Native American authors and 36 books about American Indians. For more on the CCBC's findings on diversity in children's literature and how they collect their statistics, click here. Here are a few more interesting articles on the topic:
Why Diversity in Children's Literature Matters by Jacob Hood.
The World of Children's Books is Still Very White by amy Rothschild.
Online movements such as WeNeedDiverseBooks and Multicultural Children's Book Day have increased the focus on the need for diversity in children's literature. The Society of Children's Book Writers and illustrators (SCBWI) of which I've been a member since 2000, has now taken up this cry. Executive Director Lin Oliver says, "That we have recognized the need for more diversity is a crucial first step. But it's just a first step. We can't sit back and congratulate ourselves when there is so much to be done to implement our goal." Here are some tips Lin offers to support diverse authors and literature, Diversity: What We Can Do About It. The SCBWI also offers a Multicultural Work-In-Progress grant to support multicultural stories and writers.
There seems to be an encouraging upward trend for more diverse children's literature as well as for authors of color. However, there is still a lot of ground to be made. Recently, a major publisher rejected my multicultural picture book with the comment that it was "too niche." Okay, so there could be other reasons the book wasn't acquired (didn't meet the publisher's editorial needs, wasn't the editor's cup of tea etc.), but until books about people from different races and cultures aren't classified in separate categories: African-American books, multicultural books, or even — God-forbid — niche books, the diversity disparity will never be overcome. As parents, authors, teachers, librarians, booksellers – and yes, publishers — it's our collective responsibility to ensure that diverse stories are not lost in an archaic cataloging system.
Children everywhere deserve to recognize themselves in the books they read—and find themselves in the fabric of a beautiful quilt.