A few years ago, I was at the bookstore, and I saw a young girl perusing the pages of The Mighty Miss Malone (Random, 2012) by Christopher Paul Curtis. I was just about to tell her what a good book it was when her mother snatched the book out of her hands saying, “Oh honey, you don’t want that book!” I stood there shocked, willing myself to say something—but the moment was gone, just like so many others I’d witnessed before: a mother taking a “boy” book out of her daughter’s hand and handing her a “girl” book instead; a librarian who only displayed black books during Black History Month; a father refusing to buy a princess book for his son; a woman who steered her kids away from the Newbery Honor book When the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown, 2009) by Grace Lin, exclaiming, “We’re not Chinese!”; and the woman who told me she wouldn’t read my book Prophecy (HarperCollins, 2013), because Asian names were too confusing. There have been many such moments, and I have never called anyone out on it before. Until now.
When the issue of diverse books comes up, people love to point fingers at publishers as if it’s all their fault that we don’t have enough diversity. But here’s the thing: publishers are producing fantastic books by talented and diverse authors such as The Living (Random, 2013) by Matt de la Peña, Boxers and Saints (First Second, 2013) by Gene Leun Yang, and Better Nate then Never (S. & S., 2013) by Tim Federle, to toss off a few. True, there’s not enough diverse books, but they are out there. However, if readers don’t buy them, then we continue the same old song and dance about how minority books don’t sell, and there lies the heart of this problem.
Diverse books shouldn’t be considered “special interest” and shelved in a separate area. If books containing minority characters are special interest, then any book with a talking animal should be separated into a “non-human category.” (There’s a problem when a book about a gorilla is considered more relatable to kids than a book about a minority child.) We need to educate parents, teachers, librarians—the gatekeepers—that reading diversely is good, and not just for their kids, but for all kids! Not just social issue books or nonfiction books, but books with black superheroes and gay parents. Books where the issue of race, religion, and sexual orientation are not the focus, but are parts of the character’s makeup. These books show our kids that we’re all the same, despite our differences.
I challenge all parents, caretakers, and educators to take a hard look at themselves for internalized biases that may affect the way they look at children’s books. And once they find them, I ask them to stop! Stop intentionally closing the minds of children by ignoring the rest of the world. Stop using “relatability” as a yardstick for book selection and a reason to not push diversity. By failing to recognize the importance of underrepresented people and neglecting to share their stories, biases are born.
I can’t help but think about that little girl who wanted to read The Mighty Miss Malone. What was the message about race that she internalized when her mother took the book away from her? It troubles me because of what that moment shows us—that this rigid belief system in which children have a limited reading scope that should reflect his or her gender/race/sexual orientation—is deeply ingrained in how people think. I wish I could go back in time and tell that mom why she should buy her daughter that book. I wish I could tell her that empathy starts with exposure to all types of people.
One of the most liked and reblogged submission on the Tumblr blog of #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) campaign is this one featuring a young man of color as Spiderman with the caption:
“Sure, #weneeddiversebooks so that my future kids know they can be heroes…
…but we also need diverse books so that white readers know my kids can be heroes, too.”
It isn’t only the underrepresented who need to see themselves in books. Diversity is for everyone. That is why the WNDB team will continue to work hard to bring notice to diverse books and authors to everyone. And we will fight for all of our rights to have our stories told and heard not just for Black History Month or displayed on a special interest shelf, but integrated into normal, everyday life.
Originally from NYC, Ellen Oh is an adjunct college instructor and former-entertainment lawyer with an insatiable curiosity for ancient Asian history. She also loves martial arts films, K-pop, cooking shows, and is a rabid fan of “The Last Airbender” and the “Legend of Korra” series. She is the author of the YA fantasy trilogy “The Prophecy” series.