1995: As a journalist at the Austin American Statesman, I am assigned to cover the Texas Representative Gonzalo Barrientos’ annual family reunion at Lake Bastrop State Park. My editor says, “Make it a fun summer piece.”
Reunions were not a tradition in my family. People sort of piled up in the same house over the holidays but we didn’t convene in state parks in the heat of the summer. The only time we did, it had a rather explosive effect with two divorces and one intervention occurring shortly thereafter. (Think: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with an expanded cast.)
Still, I head to Bastrop State Park one Saturday morning in June, uncertain about what a Barrientos family reunion will portend but pretty sure I will stick out like an awkward guerita in a sea of brown faces. Except I am not the only white person there. Not by a long shot. Every race and ethnicity seems to be there and, though I don’t ask, probably the LGBT communities are represented as well. Everyone looks like they are having a good time. No one is glaring or sullen or arguing. They’re swimming and eating and playing games and talking and, well, being family. I wend my way in and amongst the labyrinth of family members trying to find the oldest member. I ask her questions about this seventeen-year tradition and then I wonder what she thinks of this multi-racial clan. She looks around at all of them and says, “We look like the United Nations, don’t we?”
2003: I write a picture book called SNUGGLE MOUNTAIN. It is the story of little Emma who climbs Snuggle Mountain to wake the two-headed giant who is caught in a sleeping spell, which causes all living creatures to forget about making pancakes for breakfast. It is a simple story using Snuggle Mountain as a metaphor for a bed and the two-headed giant as Mom and Dad. Even though I am a single mom, I choose to make the two-headed giant a mom and dad. When I go out in the world and read the book to children, I wonder how many children have one headed giants or giants that are grandma and grandpa or giants that are two papas or two mamas in their particular homes. Do I worry that I haven’t represented those alternative homes? Sometimes. So far, no child has raised their hand and said in that inimitable four-year-old fashion, “I have a one headed giant at my house.” If they ever do, I hope I could lead a chaotic conversation about how everyone’s family looks different.
2014: I am at a writers’ retreat and some of us are gathered to talk about the issue of diverse books. All of us are white. We are trying to understand what it means to write diverse characters if we are white. How do we do it? Can we do it? Are we allowed? How can we contribute to the We Need Diverse Books campaign? Then, one writer said, “When the illustrator started working on my alphabet book, I pushed to have kids of color in it. I had to bring it up a couple of times but it worked.”
The We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) campaign is about promoting diversity in books. It is about bringing awareness to the pages of children’s literature and including everyone’s stories because right now the representation is pretty off kilter. In 2013, fifty percent of school kids are people of color while in children’s books, only ten percent of the characters in children’s books were people of color, a percentage which has stayed the same for eighteen years. (For more in depth number crunching, visit the Cooperative Children’s Book Center blog by Kathleen T. Horning.)
If you are white and you’re having that squinchy feeling that this push in diversity means your story is not important any more, I get it. I really do, but you have to think beyond yourself. WNDB doesn’t mean your story is any less valid or less important. It is as important as everyone’s story but the point is: EVERYONE’S STORY IS IMPORTANT. As Jacqueline Woodson says, “Books should provide windows and mirrors for the whole population of readers.” Everyone should be able to pick up a book and find herself in it. Everyone should be excited to read books because they are his stories. If more people are excited about reading books, then guess what? They’re will be more readers who love books. And if more readers love books, then guess what? Books won’t stagnate.
The We Need Diverse Books Campaign’s mission is to promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process. The legacy of literature is to chronicle our culture. Our entire culture. If we leave anyone out, we have done a disservice to our culture, to our future and, most of all, to our readers.
WNDB has met its goal of $100,000 but you can still contribute here until December 10, 2014. Already the campaign has plans to fund: Grants for Writers of Diverse books; Grants to bring diverse books and authors to readers; A special Walter Dean Myers award for the best diverse book and many other efforts to promote diversity. Consider giving to this important effort.