Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Finding Diversity in My Favorite Books

When I embarked on writing this post, I thought about sharing my favorite childhood books. Looking at the list, I was sad at first not to have a shining example that represented diversity. But when I took a closer look, I noticed that each book on my list does convey diversity, or a theme of feeling marginalized, something I experienced growing up. So I changed my focus from just listing my favorite books to examining why they were so special to me.

Sweet home (Huntsville) Alabama
I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, at the tail end of the Appalachians. On one of the streets near my house, you could count ten churches, most of them Baptist, along a one-mile stretch. The Catholics were considered the liberals, Confederate flags were sold at Wal-Mart, and paddling (yes, hitting kids on their heinies with a paddle) was allowed in my middle school. When people learn where I grew up, they always ask, “There are Asians in Alabama?” To which I reply, “Yes. Four. My family.” I’d jokingly tell them about how the Asians lived in
yellow trailers and how I walked barefoot until I was fourteen. And oddly enough, sometimes people would actually believe me.

Truth be told, Alabama was just home to me, and I didn’t know anything different. It’s also worth noting that Huntsville wasn’t backwoods at all. It was a medium-sized city that was fairly diverse, with a NASA research hub and an Army base that attracted people from all over the world. It had a bustling downtown area with a children’s bookstore, owned by the mother of fellow children’s book editor and Huntsville native Sarah Dotts Barley (HarperCollins). It was definitely not the scary den of racism most people associate with Alabama or the Deep South. In fact, many residents considered themselves downright cosmopolitan. But even in the relatively open community of Huntsville, prejudice often hovered beneath the surface.

While blatant racism did exist, I found that silent judgment, underlying ignorance, and a deep-rooted sense of “White Man’s Burden” were just as difficult to deal with and even tougher to identify. I learned that oppression can come from misguided intentions, from those who want to help but end up hurting instead—just as much as it can come from the more sinister, obvious sources we tend to think of first.

My first memory of this was in first grade, when we began our reading comprehension lessons. I eagerly looked forward to reading out loud. As an avid reader, I was excited to show off my skills, so I was floored when I found out that I was put in the remedial level. I couldn’t understand why. I later realized that the problem was my accent. My family spoke Mandarin at home, and, at my preschool, my teacher had been Indian. While I could understand the words I read, I wasn’t pronouncing them correctly. My teacher couldn’t quite grasp that though, and asked me to stay after class, making me read a paragraph over and over again, each time asking me if I understood what I was reading. I wished I could tell her that I did, but I couldn’t find the right words to say so. I began to hate school, reading, and anything else that made me feel stupid or different. So while my experience of subtle, well-intentioned prejudice was small peanuts compared to what others have faced, it did affect me greatly, which is why many of my favorite books featured diverse characters or characters that were criticized for being different.

Luckily, my parents loved going to the library and often used to children’s section as a babysitter while they wandered off to find the Chinese books. There were miniature dollhouses to stare at and a good collection of MAD magazines, but eventually, I wandered over to the books, where I picked up Sweet Valley Twins, and, as you can see in my previous post, I was hooked. Those books became pivotal in my journey towards book publishing, and I am thankful for them, even if I’ll never have Elizabeth Wakefield’s long blonde hair, blue eyes, and tiny mole on the left shoulder. (Okay, if I was stretching this, I could say that Elizabeth was also marginalized to a certain extent. I mean, Jessica was so popular. She was head of the Unicorns! Meanwhile, Elizabeth struggled under the weight of her intelligence. Right?)

Coming from Alabama became a badge of honor over the years, jokes aside. I had shoes, lived in a nice home, and people overall were pretty kind to me, but I do feel proud of growing up in a place where being different was noticed and pointed out to me. I still sometimes mispronounce words and mix up idioms. It took me forever to understand, “Six eggs or half a dozen.” (Wait, is that even the right saying?) And this is who I am… different, strange, and proud of it!

Without further adieu, here's a list of some favorites, featuring the covers from my youth!

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Yes, this is an innovative, Newbery Award-winning mystery, which already makes this a must-read. However, check out the wonderfully diverse cast of characters, each rendered authentically, realistically, and compellingly. It’s one of the most organic and successful examples of a variety of multicultural characters. One of my favorites is Doug Ho, the first truly Asian American character I read as a child.

Cover observation: I never could figure out whether the chef on the cover was really Asian.

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Who says that a diverse book must have multicultural characters? Diversity can also be about sharing a different perspective of the world. This book introduced me to a completely foreign and exotic locale: an island in the Chesapeake Bay. The main character Louise feels ostracized and hated; deep down she senses she’s different, yet feels trapped within the confines of the only world she knows. Yes, Louise, yes!

Cover observation: I was always mesmerized by Caroline’s legs on this cover.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

As noted in my previous post, this sort of blew my third grade mind. Themes of bullying, abuse, and death were a lot to handle, but it definitely stuck with me through these years. Black Beauty is misunderstood, and he struggles to make himself heard and to survive. Also, he had a luxurious mane of long black hair, which I totally identify with. (ha)

Cover observation: I couldn't find the cover to the edition I read, because it was a library edition, and it didn't have a jacket. So I picked this one, because I love seeing Beauty and Ginger hanging out and happy in the park.

Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade by Barthe DeClements

I almost forgot that I read this book, until Alvina referenced it one day during our editorial meeting and showed me the cover. Then it all came back to me. The awful sleepover. The mean girl mentality. The poor chubby girl who got fat-bashed. Did I mention I was overweight too?

Cover observation: I was obsessed with Elsie... I kept comparing my cheeks to hers!

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

A lone boy who searches for family, be it an old, grumpy man who takes him in or an African American family who treats him like their own. A captivating story of racial divide and the boy who brings two sides together. Of course, these weren’t themes I was actively thinking of when I first read this; I just thought it was a really cool and sweet book about friendship. Oh, and did I mention this was published at Little, Brown? Hooray!

Cover observation: This is essentially the same cover image we’ve had since publication. Now it’s photographic, but it’s the same pose (not including the Scholastic editions). I think the designer nailed it.


  1. Two articles today in significant journals address the content of this blog -
    1. The importance of diversity in YA: The Atlantic http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/04/ongoing-problem-race-y/51574/
    2. The consequences of not introducing white children to accounts of lives different from theirs, which is something literature can do so beautifully: The Nation http://www.thenation.com/blog/167590/race-millennials-and-reverse-discriminatiion

  2. Love all these books, especially Barthe DeClements! Ah, the power of covers. I get nostalgic whenever I see a familiar cover from my childhood here at Random House (like Sweet Valley, of course!).