Beyond Good Intentions: Diversity in Kid Lit

Ellen WernerBooks, Diversity Initiatives, Inside WITS

The WITS Team recently came together to do a deep dive into diverse kids’ books: learning about recent movements in kid lit, discussing where we missed seeing our own identities in books as young people, and exploring books in small groups to practice spotting stereotypes and quality representation.

#OwnVoices and Culturally Specific Books

Program Manager Daphne Robinson kicked off the workshop with a discussion of #OwnVoices books. Own Voices is a term coined by YA author Corinne Duyvis in 2015 as a shorthand way to indicate a book that is about marginalized characters, written by an author that shares that identity. A book about an autistic character written by an autistic author. A book about a Mexican American character written by a Mexican American author. As I begin to list identities, both the importance of Own Voices books and the limitations of the term may start to become clear right away: fiction cannot be populated entirely by characters who share all their author’s identity markers. How closely must a character resemble their author to be considered Own Voices? Brianna da Silva also passionately argues that authors of color, authors with disabilities, and authors of other marginalized backgrounds don’t owe us stories about their identities. She notes that “#Ownvoices is a category. It isn’t a value statement, a stamp of approval that elevates a book beyond critique, or a mark of authenticity. Its absence doesn’t make a book “lesser than”; it just, potentially, makes a book different.”

Daphne also discussed culturally specific versus culturally neutral books, a term popularized by the researcher Rudine Sims Bishop, who coined the term “window and mirror books.” Culturally specific books are about characters from a particular cultural background. Culturally neutral books are, even if they have diverse characters, not about events or experiences directly tied to a certain culture – regardless of who wrote and illustrated the book. “Ada Twist, Scientist” and “The Word Collector” are two beloved picture books featuring children of color that are culturally neutral. Some favorite picture books that are culturally specific include “The Proudest Blue,” “The Name Jar,” “Along the Tapajos” and “Fry Bread.”

Spotting Stereotypes

Curriculum Manager Laurie Brooks led a discussion and activity about spotting stereotypes. The WITS team shared that some of their experiences were notably absent from books they read as children. We wished for more books showing children living in cities, biracial and multi-racial families, children with divorced parents, and working-class families, and more. Laurie taught our team about avoiding tokenism and danger of a single story, asking: is every story about Black people about oppression? Is every story about queer people a coming out story?  She emphasized the need to think about who is NOT represented in stories, too, and posed the questions, “Who is telling the story? Who has the power?” and explained that “This matters as much as, if not more than, who shows up in the story. Picture books that feature a white main character with BIPOC as secondary or background characters can send the message that BIPOC are only ever incidental to the lives and experiences of white people.” Books like “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” and “Drawn Together” center children of color in culturally specific and positive terms.

Laurie also referenced, including a piece by Louise Derman-Sparks, who writes, “Does the setting reflect current life—or past assumptions about life? Does your book collection depict diversity among people within a specific racial/ethnic group, such as a range of family structures, living environments, socioeconomic conditions and types of work, and male/female roles within the family?” Derman-Sparks’s words about current versus past assumptions about life are especially relevant as we look at folk tales, which can be a valuable addition to collections, but cannot stand in for books depicting people of many backgrounds in the present-day. If the only book about a culture a child reads is a folk tale, children may infer that people of that culture exist only in the past.

Amplifying Diverse Voices with Read-Alikes

The workshop concluded with Program Coordinator Sara Martinez presenting a collection of “read-alikes” that she designed specifically for WITS programs, based on students’ interests. A “read-alike” is simply a book that you may like based on a book you read and enjoyed. Martinez explains that “read alikes are valuable because they help students stay engaged and excited about reading. One of my favorite parts of my job is giving book recommendations during program. It’s important that students and mentors see themselves and other diverse characters in the stories they read together.” Martinez goes on to describe her vision for this resource, which features Own Voices authors and illustrators: “My goal is to provide students and mentors with high-quality diverse book suggestions that accurately reflects the world around us. Hopefully this list helps students continue pursing and enjoying their reading journeys.”