Our diversity panel consisted of two parts: we began with reviews of books for ages Pre-K through teen that were presented by Hannah Peacock and Kelsey Psaute, both librarians at Burnham Memorial Library in Colchester. Hannah introduced the picture book Red, by Michael Hall, noting that there are 1.4 million transgender people in the U.S. and the suicide attempts for them are at 41%. Alas, the call to make all kids feel comfortable in their own skin is tantamount. Hannah finished up her reviews with the YA memoir Being Jazz, by Jazz Jennings. Hannah says Jazz knew she was transgender at age 2, and that Jazz is one of the lucky ones, with a strong family support system that enables her to be a positive spokesperson and ally for other transgender kids.
Kelsey mostly reviewed young adult fiction, including Shadowshaper, by Daniel Jose Older, in which the ethnically diverse character doesn't have to be "strong all the time" and The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle, a book about "not coping" in which the narrator happens to be gay. Kelsey discussed the value of having both "issues books" and books that "happen to have diverse characters" in them. See the complete list of the books Hannah and Kelsey reviewed here.
Will Alexander, whose most recent book is Nomad, and is currently serving on the National Book Award Committee for Children’s Literature and Kekla Magoon, author of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher nominee Shadows of Sherwood and its just published sequel Rebellion of Thieves joined the conversation for the second hour to discuss their viewpoints on diversity in children’s literature.
They began by discussing their own approaches to writing, with Will leaning more toward non-realist storytelling. “Kids are all perched on the verge of transformation. Some things we can’t fully express unless we come at it sideways. That’s what non-realist modes of story-telling – magic, fantasy and metaphor - allows. Plus, aliens! Fun! And, hey, let’s talk about immigration!”
Kekla opts for more realistic storytelling saying many writers have a tendency to write about what is needed by readers (such as the LGBTQ trend) but also what the writer needs to think about herself. She posed this writer’s dilemma: “Do I become a writer who can fill that need or do I just do what I do and hope people come along?” Will countered that a writer shouldn’t write something because he feels a need that a subject be covered. A writer can also be part of the conversation by reading diverse books and being an ally by championing others' work rather than being a megaphone for a cause.
The conversation quickly turned to the publishing industry after it was pointed out that diverse books are being written, they just aren’t necessarily being published. Will said that we need filters when editing books, but we also need to look at the filters we've been traditionally using. Kekla finds that even if people are well-intentioned they aren’t drawn to what they aren’t connected to: “Publishers say they want diverse content but they don’t connect with diverse stories”. Will agreed, but spoke to the industry’s efforts to bring in more young and diverse people, cautioning “this is a very long game", and that it will take decades for today’s interns to be in powerful positions in publishing. An audience member wondered, almost jokingly, if it would take someone like James Patterson using racially diverse characters to convince publishing that diverse characters sell.
Days after our diversity panel I was scrolling through Facebook and found this interesting blog post on Literary Hub by Marlon James titled "Why I'm Done Talking About Diversity". Some not so radical food for thought, because sometimes even the most well-intentioned white book people have a hard time getting things right.
Next Up in the Children's Room:
Friday, November 4, 9:30 - 11:30 am
Words Come Alive!
Dive into Red Clover books with activities from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts' signature Words Come Alive! program. Jump into the shoes of characters, travel to exciting settings and connect literacy learning to kinesthetic creativity. Led by Flynn Center artist teacher Karen Sharpwolf. This is a special opportunity to learn more about the multi-disciplinary program that the Flynn Center offers to Vermont students and educators.