Am I Too Privileged To Write Diverse Books?

Hi! I’m Joy. I’m a white, cisgender, straight, college-educated, Christian, physiologically and neurologically typical woman of suburban, middle-class background. I write young adult and children’s fiction. And I’m part of a problem.

The young reading audience in the United States is more diverse than ever. As of 2014, almost half of children in the US were not white, but in 2015 only 10 percent of children’s book authors and 14 percent of children’s book characters were non-white.

I write young adult and children’s fiction. And I’m part of a problem.

And it’s not just racial diversity that’s lacking in our books. Diversity can be invisible—like sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic background—or difficult to classify, like physical or intellectual disabilities.

But why do we need diversity in children’s books?

My older son is three years old. He has hazel eyes, a great Cookie Monster impression, a love of picture books, and Down syndrome.

How many children’s books do you think feature a character with Down syndrome?

Scratch that. How many children’s books that aren’t about Down syndrome do you think feature a character with Down syndrome?

(Spoiler alert: not many.)

My older son is three years old. He has hazel eyes, a great Cookie Monster impression, a love of picture books, and Down syndrome.

Education scholar Rudine Sims Bishop coined the metaphor of mirrors and windows to explain the need for diversity in children’s literature: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read… they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

Furthermore, according to Bishop, children from “dominant social groups” need diverse books to serve as “windows” to the varied backgrounds and perspectives of our world.

My younger son, who is four months old, does not have Down syndrome. He’ll have mirrors in every book he reads. But as they grow, both my sons should be able to find mirrors in books.

Books are a central part of our family life. What kind of message am I sending to my children about their equality in society if any “Down syndrome books” on our shelves are few, far between, and only focus on having Down syndrome?

My younger son, who is four months old, does not have Down syndrome. He’ll have mirrors in every book he reads. But as they grow, both my sons should be able to find mirrors in books.

All children deserve relatable, well-written characters that represent mirrors of themselves, as well as windows into perspectives they might not otherwise see. Kids should be able to find books that show them the ways in which they are different as well as the same.

After all, books are supposed to make us smarter, right? Shouldn’t they also make us more empathetic and compassionate? Shouldn’t stories open our eyes to new ways of seeing the world? And if not in childhood, when?

Well, I’m checking “majority” boxes for pretty much the whole diversity column. And following the mantra “write what you know,” the protagonist in my debut novel is a mirror of my fifteen-year-old self.

So how can I write diverse stories for young adults and children, without getting bogged down in cringe-worthy quagmires of political correctness and awkwardly “inclusive” language?

In other words, am I just too privileged to write diverse children’s literature?

No. And here’s why:

Privilege in itself isn’t the problem. Lack of awareness of privilege is. And as a majority-everything writer, I have a responsibility to remain aware of how my background and demographics pervade my writing. I don’t need to scour and scrub my privilege out of everything I write for the sake of being “diverse,” but I do need to remember that I want to write for every kid—and I want every kid to be able to connect positively with my work.

Privilege in itself isn’t the problem. Lack of awareness of privilege is.

To accomplish that, I’m reading more books about and by people who are different from me. And when I write, I’m consciously widening my focus from how my characters look, talk, and behave to richer questions: where they come from, who they love, if and how they pray, how they see the world, and how the world sees them. Here are some other things I’m keeping in mind:

  • Recognizing when I’m writing “mirrors” of myself and considering ways to open new “windows” instead
  • Writing without assuming I understand experiences that I haven’t lived through
  • Approaching unfamiliar ground with humility, knowing that mistakes mean I’m growing as a writer (and as a human)
  • Developing characters that are purposeful and complex
  • Focusing not on checking diversity “boxes,” but on broadening my own perception of who belongs in my stories and how

In short, I’m continually learning to treat characters (and readers) the way I’d want to be treated: like every part of who I am matters.

As a person of privilege, I’m part of an existing problem. But if, as a writer, I keep opening windows, I can also be part of the solution.

Joy GivensJoy Givens is the author of the young adult novel Ugly Stick and its companion collection April’s Roots, and she’s the co-author of The New SAT Handbook. Joy prefers to write middle grade and YA novels, leaning towards the fantastical and fabulous.

Born and raised with four siblings in Columbus, Ohio, Joy now resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her fantastic husband, their two remarkable sons, and an impossibly lovable dog. In addition to her writing, Joy is the owner and lead tutor of Givens Academic and Preparatory Tutoring, a company serving the greater Pittsburgh area. She also enjoys singing and listening to most genres of music, cooking for family and friends, and curling up with a good book and good coffee.

 

 

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2 Comments on “Am I Too Privileged To Write Diverse Books?

  1. Thanks for this honest post, Joy. I would add that in order to write inclusively we also have to live inclusively so along with reading books by and about people that are in some way different from us we need to be having dinner with, going to the movies with, hanging out with and just plain being with people who don’t mirror us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jamie! What you said about living inclusively is so true; when we are in closer proximity to those who are different than us, it becomes much more difficult to maintain that “echo chamber” that keeps us focused on our own worldviews and opinions. And it becomes much EASIER to see (and respect) other points of view. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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