This is not a how-to.
It is a thought in progress.
This longer-than-usual post is not intended to persuade you to think a certain way. I’m simply sharing my struggle. In full transparency, I do hope it will encourage you to wrestle too.
I am puzzling over the question – how can I, a middle-aged white lady, promote greater diversity in children’s literature? Further, can I personally contribute my own work?
And now my noodle is steaming. Just call me Ms. Ramen Head.
Let me get specific now.
See, five years ago a character came to me while I was at an SCBWI-Michigan spring conference. I was in a breakout session with Donna Gephart. And, this kid, he never moved out of my head.
I LOVE this guy. But as a character, he is a challenge combo (without a side of fries. Darn.)
First, he is a him, but I can handle that. I like writing boy characters best.
He chose a hobby I have no idea how to do, but I can try to learn.
And, finally, he is African American. Yep. That’s where things get complicated. I didn’t decide that about him. It’s simply part of who he is–a significant part.
Now I am capturing his story in a middle grade novel, but I’m facing a few teensy questions. Oh, you know, like:
- If it’s okay to me to write outside my gender, why not my race?
- Is it really necessary for this character to be African American for his story to be told?
- Am I betraying my character if I change his race?
- If I do write outside my race, what is the potential for causing more harm than good (even with the benefit of sensitivity readers)?
- If my book is published, what happens when I show up at a school with primarily African American students?
- As an un-established author, am I prepared to face the elevated scrutiny my story will receive?
To go even deeper . . .
Executive Editor at Dutton Books for Young Readers Andrew Karre posed these questions at a recent SCBWI conference:
- How diverse is the well of literature I draw from?
- Why do I want to write a diverse character? In other words, where are the roots of my desire to write this character?
- Is my only point of engagement with diversity limited to my manuscript?
In the end, all I want to create is a story that’s authentic and engaging. Most of all, I want this kid I love to be proud of the way I told his story. I think I can best do that without pushing myself to do things that will quite potentially hurt my readers and distract them from the story I want to tell. And so, since I have decided not to write outside my race, I think. Probably. I am asking:
- How can I offer a diverse perspective in a way that’s true to myself?
- How can I support diverse authors and diverse books?
- How can I expand my understanding of all that diversity means?
Here’s the part I do know:
- There’s clueless. That’s sad.
- There’s clueless about being clueless. That’s dangerous.
I’m “pleased” to say I know that I’m clueless about a lot of things related to diversity, and really, that’s not the worst place to start. It means I need to be humble, and willing to learn, listen and ask questions. That I can do without question.
Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Won’t you join me, my little Caramel Apples?
If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained. ~ Neil Gaiman