Creating a New World: A Defense of Children's Literature and Diverse Books
I'd like to talk about something that is near and dear to my heart: Children's Literature.
This genre (or, as SCBWI conference speakers called it, "category") is vast and expansive. It covers books written for all ages of children, from 1 to 100! Haha, actually it's usually considered to be books aimed at readers age 3-12. After 12, we get into the realm of Young Adult--though this is sometimes also included in Children's Lit--(13-17), New Adult (18-25), and finally regular Adult books for everybody else. Why does this matter? Why is the Children's Lit category SO important? And why should you care?
Because this is the future, ya'll!
Authors who write in the Children's Lit category are literally creating the future of our society. Their words are being downloaded straight into the mind of a child with learning capabilities superior to any human adult on Earth. These kids are being encouraged to read at school and at home, for fun and for education, or just to keep them quiet for a few minutes. Have you ever tried to keep the attention of a two-year-old? Yeah, Child Lit authors are superheroes. But I digress.
So, why does this all matter? Because these super-learning machines are building up ideas about the world around them not only through what they see, hear, and touch, but also what they read, learn, and are told about. I distinctly remember a moment in kindergarten when I had to wrap my mind around the concept of an ENTIRE other world outside of the one I could physically experience. I was told, and believed, that my school was in a city, that city was surrounded by other cities, which was within a state, which was within a nation, which was within an entire world. I had never been to these other nations and had no way of knowing what they were like from firsthand experience, but I understood that they did exist. I could put my finger on them on a globe. I could read about them in a book. They were real and I would have had no idea if not for secondhand information.
This is what books do for young children. They open up an entirely new world, with new people, places, and adventures that the child has literally never heard of before. Talk about creating an original story! Child Lit authors have the opportunity to create a new world for each reader! This is an incredible gift, but also an incredible responsibility. Because, what kind of world are you going to show these young readers?
In 2016, the USA was 61% white, 18% Hispanic, 12% black, 6% Asian, 2% mixed races, and 1% American Indian/Alaska Native. This is all pretty arbitrary, considering that a majority of Americans are probably a mix of two or more races, but this indicates at least how we see ourselves. "White" is a majority, but honestly not that much of one. In our current political climate, a lot of white people are freaking out basically because they are seeing a lot of other people around them now that don't look exactly like them. If we break this up into just "White" and "Non-White," the real USA looks like this: 61% white, 39% non-white. Do you know how many American children's books featured non-white characters in 2016? ............. 22%.
"Woah!" you might say. "That is a BIG percentage disparity!"
Yes, yes it is. This disparity is why organizations like We Need Diverse Books exist--to get more books out there about kids who look like their readers, with similar backgrounds, experiences, and outlooks on the world. Publishers are also taking a closer look at this issue by selecting racially and culturally diverse books, hiring "sensitivity" readers (or, as Zareen Jaffery prefers to call them, "accuracy readers"), and opening new imprints based on evening out the disparity. The goal is to get more books with cover characters who are not white, who have diverse and real experiences of the world as people of color, minorities, or oppressed religious affiliations. Examples include the fantastically popular The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, or Muslim-centered books published by Simon & Schuster's new imprint Salaam Reads.
So, why does this matter? There are a lot of different minorities in the world and just because a book about the Muslim experience in America exists, that doesn't mean a Japanese-American kid is going to feel more included, right? Maybe, but that's not the entire point of the movement. The other great thing about creating more books for kids with diverse characters goes back to what I said earlier in this post:
Children's books are creating the future.
Showing children of any race, background, or culture these diverse experiences and characters is teaching them that these other experiences exist. It is teaching them to accept that and believe that, just like when I had to accept the concept of cities, states, nations, etc. No matter what their ethnicity, children can learn about a real world full of diverse life experiences through diverse representation in the media they are constantly being told to ingest: books.
Our country right now is suffering from a fever of misconceptions. About the world, about ourselves, about what it means to be American. But what if we could go back in time and put these books in the hands of a white child growing up in white suburbia or the middle of nowhere:
How would their world outlook change? How would their understanding of the world, race, and people different from themselves change? When they met someone who looked like the people in these books, or heard something about them on TV, how would they react? Since I learned about other countries at a young age, the first time I traveled abroad (much later), I did not put my feet on new soil and say "Oh my gosh! This is the weirdest thing ever! Where are the casseroles? How could there not be snow here?? THIS IS SO WRONG!" Logically, there is absolutely no reason I should not have reacted that way, if I based all of my knowledge on things I could see, touch, and hear around me. But I didn't because I had learned secondhand. People had told me what to expect, I had read stories set in the country, I had been informed of this different world at a young age.
Children's literature can do this with diversity. Authors of children's literature can teach and show kids all about other worlds outside of their experience through their books. This is magic. This is responsibility.
So the next time you think, "Oh, children's literature isn't real literature" or that it generally doesn't matter, reconsider how much you can teach the world by writing to this young age group. Adults can reason, take in more complex stories, and understand more difficult words, but children can understand, empathize, and see. They learn from the world around them, but also from what they are told through education, parents, and books. As the wonderfully popular quote by Nelson Mandela goes:
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love
comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
Children's literature can teach people to love at an age when they are most susceptible to cultural understanding, as they are literally building their knowledge of the world from scratch. What kind of future do you want to see? How about a world of inclusiveness, diversity, and understanding? Tell kids this is how the world is, and that is how it will be. If you wait until someone is an adult to teach them cultural understanding, you're already behind. Now you have to fight against years of insular thinking, prejudice, and misunderstandings. Why not reach people when they are young? When they are still fully inclined to listen, learn, and love?
Children may be small, but they are powerful. They are literally aging into a new world. Everything they say, think, and believe is part of the future. Why not help them create a future world better than the one we created? Teach them first, and they'll teach the world.
Children learn fast, and they learn well. If you are writing a book in the children's literature category, what are you teaching them? If you have never considered writing for children, what could you teach them, if you did?