“We need diverse books” has of late been the rallying cry in the children’s and YA lit sphere, with authors, librarians, artists, and others emphasizing that exposing young people to inclusive materials isn’t simply an option—it’s a necessity. This means not only giving kids novels and picture books featuring a varied cast of characters but also ensuring a nuanced, multicultural view of our whole society: in other words, bringing diversity to nonfiction series titles.
Reach further, say reviewers
In this issue, several SMS reviewers highlighted diversity as a criterion, both in terms of the individuals whom publishers choose to spotlight and in terms of providing imagery of a wide variety of children and adults. In a piece on U.S. History, Jennifer Prince, of Buncombe County Public Libraries, NC, called attention to a series that she feels excelled in this arena, Lerner’s “Our American Symbols.” The set presents information on subjects such as the flag and the Liberty Bell through frame stories involving diverse groups of students. “It’s honest in its depiction without being heavy-handed,” says Prince.
Joy Piedmont, High School Technology Integrator at LREI, in New York City, who examined series nonfiction related to careers, emphasizes the importance of depicting a variety of children and adults in photos and accompanying graphics: “It’s not only vital for children of color—who should see themselves in whatever job they’ve chosen to explore; white children also need to see diversity in the professional world, especially if they live in a community where diversity is not the reality.”
When it comes to subject matter, reviewers are equally committed to inclusivity. Jess deCourcy Hinds, librarian at Bard High School Early College in Queens, NY, suggests that a biography series overwhelmingly devoted to white males, with merely a single woman, for instance, isn’t inclusive. She urges authors to be more equitable and “to select people of color within that [series] and a diversity of economic classes and styles or ways of expressing themselves.”
Challenges to face
Nonfiction presents its own set of obstacles. According to Miranda Paul, children’s book author and campaign team member and outreach coordinator for We Need Diverse Books, these titles are held to high standards when it comes to fact-checking and sources, which “[leads] to a practical gravitation toward historical figures with more available documentation,” she says. “Unfortunately, this suggests that more books today will continue to be about those who were literate, relatively wealthy, and well-known in their time.”
Heeding the call
Despite the difficulties, many publishers are taking notice. Ensuring diversity is a deeply rooted part of Rosen’s editorial guidelines, according to Roger Rosen, president of the company. Rosen also emphasized several series that highlight inclusivity, such as “Great Muslim Philosophers and Scientists of the Middle Ages,” released right after the events of September 11, 2001, which celebrated the contributions of Islamic civilization, in an anticipation of potential backlash toward Muslims. The series garnered positive response in the international sphere and was later translated into Arabic and published in Egypt. “Kids can gain a great sense of self-esteem from seeing champions from their own nations of origin, and we make a big point of celebrating that,” said Rosen.
Similarly, Gillia Olson, assistant editorial director of Capstone, described her company’s detailed efforts at ensuring diversity. “I remember planning a how-to book about craft projects and discussing the hands that would be shown in different parts of the book,” she told SLJ. “We want to be sure we are being inclusive.”
Though strides have been made, most agree that there is still room for improvement. Both Hinds and Prince hope for more books that portray people with various physical abilities, while Piedmont also stressed letting underrepresented people tell their own stories: “More than visual representation though, nonfiction also needs to give voice to people of color and their perspectives.”
Paul advises ensuring that librarians champion and bring attention to extant diverse titles: “I know that libraries discard titles that don’t circulate with enough frequency, so…I’d try and make sure that outstanding diverse nonfiction titles get some time face-out or [are] highlighted in a newsletter that goes out to patrons.”
There are daunting tasks ahead, but Hinds says that meeting them is well worth the challenge. “Editors…might have to reach farther out. But in doing so, they will make young people think, ‘I can do it. I can be an artist or scientist or inventor.’”