Thursday, May 1, 2014

We Need Diverse Books!

If you haven't already heard, a new campaign has been launched to increase diversity in children's literature. The hashtag is #weneeddiversebooks and you can follow the tumblr site here. I'm not involved in the organization of the campaign in any way, but do wholeheartedly support it. If you want more of the backstory and what all is entailed, check out this blog post by Ellen Oh.

In some ways, I feel it should be self-evident why we need diversity in literature. That the more stories the better, that disadvantaged minorities can be uplifted by stories featuring people like them, that the more inclusive our society is the more we all have to gain. But there is a counter argument that always comes up, and it actually has some merit. I want to look at the other side and give it due diligence, because you can't win an argument on the internet but you can discuss topics in a civilized manner. Really - it's allowed :)

No one actually says that diversity is a bad thing (if they do, they can be safely ignored). But some people worry that the push for diversity means attacking those who are not diverse. It's a worry that we will over-correct and any story with a white male protagonist will no longer be allowed. The fear is normally voiced by white males and those who have achieved success in the current system. It's perfectly natural and understandable. And it's actually a good point.

The thing is, diversity includes white males. It includes the majority. It has to, otherwise it isn't true diversity. A world where every character is a person of color, genderfluid, or a little green alien would be just as bad as the current situation. The people who are pushing for diversity need to understand and express this clearly - everyone, including the old guard, including white men in power, including those who have succeeded in the current system, is welcome in a diverse world.

The problem with the way things stand is that the playing field wasn't level when it was created. The argument that white male writers have a disproportionate amount of success and recognition because they have achieved (earned) it ignores the fact that they had a leg up to start with. The entire world (in this country at least) is geared for them and if you continue to let the status quo exist it will reinforce itself. There does need to be some tearing down, digging up the earth to flatten the high ground and fill in the holes that exist. Then things can be judged on their merit. Then we can let the better man (or woman or little green alien or whatever) win.

That does mean that diversity will get an extra push. That those without privilege will get more spotlight time and extra opportunities. It's not a head start but a chance to catch up. It's not about weighing down those in front, but distributing the load more fairly. Once we're all even, then the race can start again.

In the mean time, rest assured that people will still buy stories with white male protagonists. Good books will still sell because they're good (and bad books will still sell because many people have bad taste:). The world will not change overnight, but it does need to change. Diversity includes everyone, so everyone should be on board.

There is an undercurrent to the argument against diversity that is a little darker. The whole discussion becomes a proxy for a simpler struggle, those in power want to keep it and those who are disadvantaged by the current system want to change it. I talked at length about it in this post on a similar theme in the science fiction/fantasy world. If the fight is about power, then it's going to get messy. If those who have it won't share, then a revolution is necessary. It's the history of the world repeated over and over, and the world of kidlit is no different.


  1. I agree that diversity is good. At the same time, I do hope it doesn't go too far. I don't want to feel obligated to have non-white protagonists for fear of being rejected for having a white protagonist, for example. But I think the people who feel led to diversify their MCs should do so and the ethnicity of the MC shouldn't have anything to do with how the book is perceived. Like you said, after all, true equality is equal distribution.

    1. Most of what I hear from people calling for diversity is aimed towards the gatekeepers - agents, editors, publishers. It's not about changing what an individual author writes, but about opening up opportunity to all the authors out there that write many different things. So definitely keep writing what you want (and what you know and can write well). But it doesn't hurt to be aware of the issue and think about how your choices can make a difference if you want them to. Thanks :)

  2. The first thing this made me think of were books for young children, including textbooks, with multi-cultural names. I understand that normalizing diversity should start young, but, wow, it does make it harder to teach basic reading when the character names are based on foreign language rules and break all the sound rules the student is trying to learn. I remember the multicultural textbook change happening when I was a child--it was very noticeable. I haven't heard anything recently about a diversity movement in books, though. Well, other than the recent SF/F issues regarding women.

    1. Good point. On a similar but unrelated topic, I would add in the trend of people to come up with new and unique spellings for their kids' names, like Justyn or Kaytlyn. Everyone seems to want to throw a 'y' in there. Sometimes it's OK to simplify things for kids, give them some consistency, and let them figure out life's challenges when they're ready to face them.

    2. Good point. I would add to that the trend to come up with unique spellings to standard names, like Justyn or Kaytlyn. Everyone wants to throw a 'y' in there. Sometimes it's OK to simplify things for children, give them some consistency, and let them face life's challenges when they're old enough to handle them.