Diversity was a minor theme for the various professional development opportunities I had during the month or so before Winter Break. I’m always mindful of the fact that “diversity” doesn’t only mean “skin tone”; when I was co-chair of my school’s accreditation self-study, we tried to think about all of NYSAIS’ definition of diversity when discussing the school’s culture:
How does the school officially communicate its policies and practices with respect to differences in ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic level, physical ability, and learning styles?
Sometimes we do better at one, sometimes better at another. When I hear #weneeddiversebooks I think about the diverse diversities and what books are doing to address them. How does this relate to ALAN?
Last year there was a lot of discussion about “boy books” vs “girl books” and that carried over to this year. One panelist asked why no one asks where are the strong boy characters, simply because strong boy characters are the norm. Why can’t we have a world where that’s assumed equally for boys and girls? When one voice (male, or white, or Christian, or whatever) is always the authority/norm in books, it starts to carry over into real life because that’s what readers internalize. Protagonists are protagonists, period. Why don’t we say, “the protagonist” rather than “the girl protagonist”? Because if it’s a girl (or not white or poor or some other diverse subset) that’s what we notice. And isn’t that a shame?
The myth of diverse (by ethnicity or race) books not selling was also addressed. They do sell, but part of the problem is that the publishers are small presses without the big ARC/promotion budgets of the big houses. Why are so many English books translated into other languages, and not vice versa? What about diverse authors, and getting their story out? We were reminded that diversity is not all conflict, it can just “be” and still make for an amazing book. Just look at science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction: they write around diversity and outside themselves all the time and no one questions those authors about using an authentic voice (and it was repeated: did not being a wizard make JK Rowling’s world less authentic?). The big takeaway was that maybe we should promote diverse books by not framing them as diverse, but as being about the story, as in “this a coming-of-age story” or “this is about first love”.
We were reminded that there were other diversities (see, it did all tie in!) that aren’t being as discussed, and where are the authors who are writing about these issues? Poverty, the not-college-bound, the disabilities (cancer, something other than OCD/ASD, a physical limitation), teens in prison, etc. are also missing from our shelves. The reality of these lives is that they’re not easy, not everyone accepts them and sometimes, life hurts. We need books that also say that while we may have depression, asthma, grief, etc, we aren’t depression, asthma, grief, etc., we’re human. Let’s remember that, as Laurie Halse Anderson said, adults know how to handle “dark” while teens are turning to fiction to learn how to cope. And Margi Preus eloquently said that every student reading is doing research into their future lives, books are a door to that life. So let’s open up the canon, add some new books that maybe weren’t taught (or published) back when we were in high school!