Don’t stab me. I swear, this is a pro-diversity post. Today, my friend Jennifer L. Gadd is making a guest appearance to tell us why diversity in books is so important in her and every classroom. I firmly believe her opinions to be dead on, and can’t wait to hear your responses. Her post begins below.
What’s So Important About Diversity Anyway?
Disclaimer: I am an old white lady. This blog belongs to a white lady. We’re doing our bit to bring this important point home.
Let me start out by making everybody angry. I’m one of those author-by-night, English teacher-by-day people. My classroom library has over 2300 books in it. You know what I did at the beginning of this school year? I culled over 200 books. They’re currently sitting in boxes taking up a lot of space in my very small Toyota Yaris.
Do you want to know what I pitched? The Little House on the Prairie. Caddie Woodlawn. The Cay. The Indian in the Cupboard. Indian Captive. The Secret Garden. Peter Pan. The Slave Dancer. To Kill a Freakin’ Mockingbird. A lot of other classics. Your childhood favorite, no doubt. And mine.
Sorry, not sorry. Here’s the cold, hard truth. Every single one of these classics contains stereotypical portrayals of marginalized people—maybe even slurs. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, racist.
But wait, you say, they are a product of their times! Okay, Karen. Slavery and displacement and criminalization of sexual expression were also products of their times, and we’re trying really hard not to tolerate them anymore. But wait, you say, these are classics! So we do things simply because we’ve always done them that way? Is that a Keurig on your counter or a percolator, Kevin? But wait, you say, they have historical value! No, they don’t really. We have better historical interpretation now. And as Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.”
So let’s just move past all the excuses white folks give to enforce and enshrine their own literary canon. Anybody can read anything they want in the privacy of their own homes, so if you want to read TKAM for the 835th time, I will not try to stop you.
Maybe though, you’d be interested in reading something new. If you follow YA lit on social media, you might have seen the #ownvoices hashtag and wondered what that was about. #ownvoices is a long-overdue movement in literature: books by authors from marginalized people telling their own stories. No longer are people whose voices have not been heard content to allow white writers to interpret their stories for them. Happily, this movement is also proving to be highly profitable, so traditional publishing is ready and willing to make their buck by signing African-American, Latinx, Asian, Muslim, LGBTQA+, disabled, neurodivergent, and other authors they wouldn’t have given a second glance a few years ago.
I think back to my own education in the Sixties and Seventies in southeast Texas. I was privileged to have Beezus Quimby and Meg March to show me ways to be a big sister. I had Kit Tyler and Nancy Drew as models for how to be the plucky and intrepid heroine of my own life. And I imagine my Latinx and African-American classmates checking out books in that very same library at Brookside Elementary, almost all of them about white children, written by white authors. Or perhaps worse, books about Latinx and African-American children, written by white authors. Never seeing themselves or their actual lives reflected back to them in the stories that were available for them to read. Never seeing people like themselves showing what they could become. I think about the queer and neurodivergent kids who had zero representation in stories to show them they were not alone or weird, forced to keep themselves hidden and unknown to others to escape ridicule or even danger. How did they survive without books that were for them?
#Ownvoices books also benefit white kids. We live in a diverse world that gets smaller every passing day. The interpersonal skills needed to be successful now include an ability to dialog, work with, and–to a degree–understand people from diverse backgrounds. Any child reading an engaging and engrossing story develops empathy and deepens their understanding of those who are different. I fail to see a downside to that. There is absolutely no reason a white kid cannot relate to an African-American or LGBTQA+ protagonist. Girls have been reading books with male protagonists since, oh, Beowulf and before, and never mind children of color. Not only is it okay to read books about people who aren’t exactly like you, but it’s also good for you!
Many of the recently published #ownvoices stories have an added benefit. When people tell their own stories, the stories are not simply about their marginalization or their trauma. #Ownvoices books get to be about authentic lives. This allows readers to see deeper than and beyond the escape from slavery or persecution or the rescue from the “thug” life or the coming out or the “inspiration porn” as a character adjusts to disability. Readers see people who aren’t like themselves as people just living their real lives, not serving as plot points.
The book I’m currently reading in my classroom is Dread Nation: Rise Up by Justina Ireland. In this post-apocalyptic story set in postbellum Baltimore, the Civil War has ended, not because of any decisive military victory, but because of the rising of the dead. In these post-Civil War times, it is the former slaves who are trained and given employment as attendants who protect rich white folks from the shamblers. The protagonist, a black girl named Jane, is the daughter of the white woman who owns the plantation on which she was born. In Ireland’s story, steeped in a rich background of authentic American racial history and the fantastical overtones of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, we are given a black female protagonist facing a zombie apocalypse. How often do you see that?
These are the kinds of stories my students want to read—and believe me when I tell you that they do want to read. They want to read engaging, well told stories in which they can see themselves represented in history, adventure, world affairs, and EVERYWHERE. Authors such as Ireland, Jason Reynolds, Marie Lu, Christine Day, Tom Ryan, Meg Medina, Joseph Bruchac, Kwame Alexander, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, S.K. Ali, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Sandhya Menon, Meredith Russo, Tomi Adeyemi, Alex Gino, Taherah Mafi, Ibi Zoboi, Samira Ahmed, and so many others offer fresh new stories that haven’t been told before. I’ve cleared some space on my classroom library shelves for them because kids these days are ready to devour them.
And so can we. We just have to stop clutching our pearls, put down our beloved, but problematic, childhood classics for just a little while, and read them.
Jennifer L. Gadd is the author of Cat Moon, the first in The Were-Children paranormal series, The Second Battle, and other books for young adults and children. In her day job, she is the reading interventionist at an urban middle school in Kansas City, Kansas.