Wednesday, April 30, 2014

We Need Diverse Books

There's been a lot of talk for years about lack of diversity in children's and teen publishing. Lately, as mainstream media picks it up, it seems to have reached a critical head. As part of this groundswell, there is the We Need Diverse Books Campaign. It's supposed to start on Thursday, but the hashtag is already all over Twitter.

A lot of people are sharing stories and feelings about not being able to see themselves in the books they read. Or talking about the youth they work with who can't see themselves. I used to work in an area where the vast majority of my users were African or African American. I was always told they wanted a book about kids "like them" (read: black) that "wasn't old, or sad" (read: not historical fiction about slavery or civil rights). And I had books to give them! But not enough to get them through a school year, even if they could/would read every age/reading level. And they need diverse books.

But you know what? White kids do, too. And not just in a feel good "diversity is good for everyone" way (even though I firmly believe that.)

I grew up in NorthEast Wisconsin. When I was growing up, the largest group of non-white people were Hmong immigrants (or, at my age level, children of Hmong immigrants.) Name a book with Hmong people.

There's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, which came out in 1998 (the year I graduated from high school) with is nonfiction and for adults.

There's Pa Lia's First Day: A Jackson Friends Book. There are 4 books in the Jackson Friends series. I read the last one first--Stinky Stern Forever: A Jackson Friends Book, so I didn't know Pa Lia's name from the title, but she appears on the first page.

Pa Lia. I read it and stopped. Really? I read it again. And again. Pa Lia? REALLY?! It couldn't really be... no... PA LIA? And I read on and there were other cultural clues and OMFG YES THERE WAS A HMONG KID IN THIS CLASSROOM.

Finally, there was a book with a classroom that looked like mine looked for 12 years. I didn't realize how much that was lacking, and how much I needed a classroom to look like mine, until I saw that name in that book. I literally cried with relief. I was in my late 20s, crying with relief and joy that an early chapter book had a classroom that looked like my classroom.

If I need a Hmong character in books so badly, because I need my world reflected, even as an adult, how the hell did my Hmong classmates feel, never seeing themselves anywhere? What kind of disservice have we done to children, when the page denies their very existence? The 3 books I mention here, plus the other 2 in the Jackson Friends series are the ONLY books I know of with Hmong characters. So, 1 series. 1 adult nonfiction. That's it.

Seriously. All I want are books that reflect the world I live in. I'm a white girl with a middle class background. The books we have on our shelves are supposed to be reflecting me, but their all-white pages aren't even doing that. My experiences are more than me. They are the people around me. I'm white, but my world isn't. Why are my books?

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1 comment:

Michelle Edwards said...

Thank you. I wrote Pa Lia's First Day when my older daughters were attending Jackson Magnet in St. Paul's Frogtown. My daughters had many Hmong friends. Wonderful friends. I couldn't believe there were no books with Hmong main characters. I wanted to share my daughter's friends with other children. So I wrote the Jackson Friends.