Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Diversity 101: An Introduction

I grew up reading books by diverse authors and thinking about the characters who lived in them and the questions they raised. I went to a “good” college where we often discussed issues of race, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality. Yet here are a few of the things I wasn’t aware of when I started working as an editorial assistant in 2000:

  • The Clark Doll Experiment
  • The Indian burial ground trope
  • The term “white privilege”
  • That skin tone is a major source of sensitivity in many non-white communities
  • The strong dislike or discomfort many cultures feel toward anthropologists
  • The white savior cliche, in which a white person discovers the wonders of a native group, eventually becomes part of the group, is acclaimed as the best of them all, then leads them into battle against the white culture, which is trying to dominate the natives (see especially Dances with Wolves and Avatar)
  • That for all its charms, The Story of Babar ultimately reproduces a colonialist narrative about the superiority of European life to African life

Over the course of the past twelve years, I’ve learned about these ideas and discussions (and many more like them) through a variety of sources:  my editorial apprenticeship under my boss, Arthur A. Levine, who has long sought to publish more diverse books and authors; posts by participants on the child_lit mailing list, especially Debbie Reese, the proprietor of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, and Monica Edinger, who often writes about books set in Africa; other blogs, magazines like The Horn Book and School Library Journal, and books like Should We Burn Babar?; and reviews where thoughtful critics engaged with issues of diversity probed them through the lens of recently published books. I also learned that in these matters, it was extremely wise to listen first, ask questions carefully next, and not opine till later, if at all—a good rule for life as well as publishing.  

So why are items like those in the list above important to those of us involved in making books for children and young adults? The cliches point out places where our art might be lazy, or even offensive, and therefore less effective than it could be. Matters like skin tone or anthropology or colonialism remind us that no matter how well-meaning an outsider’s interest in a culture is, it can have negative effects and isn’t always welcome—especially given its long history of busting the door down anyway—and that outsiders should remember that in writing (and consider not writing at all), while those insider voices deserve to be more widely heard and promoted. And the Doll Experiment and white privilege indicate the reason all of our talk about diversity is necessary:  We live in a society that doesn’t fully empower all of its children to lead their fullest lives, and if the books we produce can empower some of those kids, that might make a difference in changing that fact long-term. 

Thus the Diversity Committee is proud to be launching a “Diversity 101” series, where we’ve asked a variety of thinkers to write blog posts here regarding some of these common shibboleths, questions, and issues. These posts will absolutely not be “Do Not Write This” lists, as a talented, smart, and sensitive writer can make almost any character or cliché feel complicated and human, fresh and true. (Not every black person who helps a white person is a Magical Negro, as Stacey Barney argued earlier this year, and not every white person who discovers a different culture has to be a white savior.) Rather, we hope to introduce people who are just starting to think about questions of diversity to some of the more common concepts and discussions, and to raise awareness of all of these matters, to pass on the kind of education I received via Arthur, child_lit, Debbie, Monica, and many other sources.

The series will launch in January. In the meantime, I encourage you to consider the questions raised by the Council on Interracial Books’ classic Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism—a Diversity 101 course in itself. (And of course it applies to adult books as well.) None of us will ever have all the answers here. We all always need to remember that each character, author, and book is individual, and that each deserves our careful reading and consideration. But we hope this “Diversity 101” series will further the conversation with a little more information, and help all of us to write and publish the truest and best books. Thank you for your interest and participation. 


  1. YAY. I appreciate stuff like this, because it's easy for EVERYONE - including people of color - to become "lazy, or even offensive, and therefore less effective" than we ought to be in both our writing and speaking, and in our thoughts. This is one of those "ever before me" topics must be keep fresh and on a front burner. Looking forward to it.

  2. Thanks, Cheryl. I am glad that my writing has been helpful to you, and I hope that it is for others, too. Sometimes I draw very hard lines and I know that I seem rigid to people about ideas I write about. A lot of people express sympathy for authors when I critique their books, but we all have to remember that these books are not about the author or any of us, whether we're critics, editors, or publishers.

    We are all doing this work because we believe in the power of literature, of story, to inspire readers, and to create lifelong readers, too. But when the images Native children see are ones that are inaccurate, biased, and stereotypical (whether that is negative OR positive), they're turned off to books. They're not inspired by the content, and their chance of becoming lifelong readers is diminished. And---let us also remember that non-Native readers are also adversely impacted by these images. They feed misconceptions, and that's not good either.

    I was talking with the editor of a major journal earlier today, and brought up the shift from "multicultural" to "diversity" as in "diversity books" and she said "anything to avoid talking about race." So, I'm glad, Cheryl, that you're ending with TEN QUICK WAYS. I remember first reading it decades ago. Decades ago. It was decades ago. Let's not avoid talking about race, and power, and privilege.

    1. Debbie, your point about the choice of words is an important one. Todd Honma does a good job of talking about how LIS refuses to talk about "race" and instead uses celebratory "multiculturalism" and "diversity" - to the detriment of the real topic, of course. This is a really good article for people who are concerned with the way race is discussed - or not - in LIS.

      Honma, Todd. (2005). Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 1(2), Article 2. Retrieved from:

  3. Thanks for this blog and for the comments of others. My own family is racially mixed -- has been ever since we brought home our first child. We now have grandchildren, and I'm happy to say that I just ordered three books on the Goodreads Diversity list for our third grade granddaughter.

    I'm a children's author/illustrator myself and see the importance of this issue from several sides. Today, I saw it as a grandmother who wanted to find some books with girls on the cover who look like my granddaughter, and I did. Thank you!

  4. After all these years, I'm still unable to read about the Clark Doll Experiment without heartbreak. Things are changing, but slowly.

  5. Very excited to see where this goes, and maybe to contribute some of my own thoughts. In the meantime, I've been collecting essays, blogs, etc on this topic and keep them all in a folder where people can freely access them and suggest their own links. Perhaps you'd be interested in taking a look or sharing?