Creative Writing at The New School

Guest post by Alison Doherty and Kristina Forest, both second-year students in The New School’s Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program.


We Need Diverse Books

Daniel José Older, Una LaMarche, and Sona Charaipotra

We need diverse books. But who should write them?

Last week, this question began the Writing for Children discussion with We Need Diverse Books, featuring Una LaMarche and Daniel José Older and moderated by New School alum Sona Charaipotra.

LaMarche admitted that it depends on who you ask and that, “the answers are never clear.” Older echoed her feelings, but added, “You can’t write without writing the other.” He went on to describe how every writer has a file cabinet. The files are experiences, memories, places, books, and people. And these file cabinets, especially in New York City, are rarely monolithic.

So who should write diverse books?

The answer for some authors will be not me or not yet. And that’s okay.  There are other ways to support the diverse books movement besides writing cross-culturally. The job of white writers, for example, might not be to write outside their race. Sometimes it can be more important to step out of the way and raise up the voices of other authors. Always, it is important to listen.

“Listening is one of the lost arts to writing,” said Older. The panel agreed that friendship, conversations, and “soul work” could be more important research than sources easily found in a library or online.

In the children’s writing community, by now many of us know that the statistics on diverse books are grim. Studies show that little more than 10% of children’s books feature characters of color. LGBTQ characters and characters with disabilities are even more rare. And negative tropes or overdone clichés make up many of the representations that do make it onto bookshelves in into children’s hands.

“Damage can be done by art,” Older said. “If the pen is mightier than the sword, it is a double-edged sword. If art can save the world, it can also destroy it.”

The panel shifted into a craft discussion, when Older explained, “Racist clichés are a craft failure. Acts of erasure are a craft failure.” Too often great writers are praised for exactly these kinds of problems. At times, even people writing about their own cultures and communities can get it wrong. As a white author who has written about other races and cultures, LaMarche advised to, “listen when you fail and do better next time.”

The panel also stressed that much of the responsibility for fixing these problems lies with changes needed in the publishing industry and with other gatekeepers. It can be hard to balance the social responsibility of being an artist with the knowledge that problem of diverse book scarcity extends far beyond the mistakes or greatness of any single book or author. But change is rarely easy. And, as we’ve learned through the writing and rewriting and rewriting that go hand in hand with workshop, writing is rarely easy either.

To learn more and stay up to date on these issues follow @diversebooks on twitter and check out the hashtag #ownvoices.

About The Author

Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.