This is the final post in my 52 Books project, and it covers an enormous topic: diversity in youth literature.
This is a hugely important topic to me. I didn’t grow up in an area with a lot of diversity of race, religion, or otherwise. Like many small town kids, my window to the wider world came from media: books, TV, and movies. Growing up, my impressions of people who were different from me came from what I saw and read.
But good representation is even more important if you’re part of a group that isn’t depicted frequently in media, or depicted stereotypically. This is especially true for children and teens. Think back to your childhood heroes for a minute. Who did you admire, and why? As I’ve mentioned before, one of my heroes was astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to command the Space Shuttle. I followed her career with great interest, dreaming of the day I would be the first person on Mars. While I’m not an astronaut, she inspired a lifelong interest in space, aviation, and most importantly to my current career, STEAM education.
All people, but kids especially, need to see themselves in the books they read or shows they watch. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
Things are changing in the publishing industry. Since 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has kept track of youth literature by and about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. While we certainly have more BIPOC voices than before, publishing remains White and male dominated. It’s also important to see how many debut writers of color are published each year. Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds may top the charts (and with good reason), but one or two voices can’t speak for an entire
Another reason this is so important for me is because I’m a public librarian in Florida. Florida is one of the most diverse states in the U.S.A., and I live in one of the most diverse counties within that state. Florida is also banning books and removing them from schools left, right, and center. Legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” law, bans on teaching critical race theory, and even blocking AP African American Studies in schools have forced teachers and school media specialists to go through their libraries and remove books, or risk losing their jobs. I won’t get into all of this right now – that’s another post entirely. But I will say that anti-LGBTQAI+ and removing discussions of race in the classroom is both infuriating, and a disservice to our kids. Kids have the right to information and books, and to learn about the wider world, and politicians are robbing them of that freedom in a reactionary attempt to appeal to their base.
None of these laws target public libraries yet. I feel that I have a responsibility to the kids and families that I work with to keep our collections diverse and inclusive, so every kid can see themselves as heroes and leaders.
While reading my 52 books, I took note of what racial diversity was present. There are a few ways that I could do this, but I decided to keep track of the main character(s) in each book. They’re who the reader will be spending the most time with, after all. It’s not perfect data, either, but I love a good pie chart. My stats also don’t go into how these characters are depicted. Some books are represented more than once, in the case of multiple lead characters. For example, Ground Zero stars Brandon, who is cued as Latinx, and Reshmina, who is Afghani. For that book, I marked it as both Latinx and Middle-Eastern. Other books that have ensemble casts are marked as “multiracial.” To clarify: I use the term “multiracial” as it refers to race, while “multiethnic” refers to cultural identity. I’ve also included the categories of “animal” and “objects,” since a few books star critters or machines (Dog Man is categorized as “Animal,” btw). Finally, when characters’ races aren’t mentioned, White is the assumed default. Wait, don’t click away! Let me explain:
This is an issue when it comes to reading and writing fiction: if a character’s skin color is not described, most readers picture that character as White. Cover art may support this as well. It’s also really unfair, so for you novelists out there: please describe ALL your characters’ skin tones, not just some of them! The Tumblr Blog Writing With Color is an awesome resource for writing all kinds of skin tones.
Now, let’s get to the data! And if you’re uncomfortable, good. I am too.
I am far from an expert on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I also need to acknowledge that being White, cishet, and middle class, I’m speaking from a point of privilege.
To that end, I’ve started talking to people who aren’t me and have different identities and experiences one simple and important question: “Why does representation in literature matter?” I have already received some very well-thought out and in-depth answers, and I’m looking forward to reading more and sharing responses in a later post.
Until then, there are a plethora of resources online that can help you find multicultural literature, and why #WeNeedDiverseBooks.