Written by Alison Doherty, a first year student in The New School’s Writing for Children MFA program.
More than half of the students in US schools are people of color, but the latest available study performed by The Cooperative Children’s Book Center states that little more than 10% of children’s books in 2013 featured characters of color. And that’s after you take out books about animals or other anthropomorphic subjects.
This is a fact librarian Allie Jane Bruce told the audience of writing students and community members at The New School’s We Need Diverse Books event in April. It’s a fact that sparked a nation-wide conversation and movement just one year ago, and a fact that attracted so many attendees to the event that people had to stand in the back of the room. A fact that means we in the writing and publishing world need to do a better job creating and promoting work that — as the We Need Diverse Books mission statement asserts — “reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”
At the event, Allie Jane Bruce was joined by a panel of authors, including Tim Federle and New School Writing for Children MFA graduates Dhonielle Clayton, Sona Charaipotra, and Renée Watson, to describe and discuss the varying opinions on how to make this goal a reality.
Over the evening, the panelists didn’t always agree, debating subjects ranging from who should be allowed to write diverse books to how to best create characters when writing cross-culturally. Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra both advocated for writers’ abilities to combine research with empathetic experiences to respectfully create characters different from the author, as they did in their co-written, soon-to-be-released novel Tiny Pretty Things. Still, Clayton admitted a huge fear of getting it wrong, advising writers to, “do what you can so that when you go to sleep at night you feel good about your book.”
Allie Jane Bruce and Renée Watson, expressed more reticent views on the subject. Bruce cited the possibility of harmful stereotypes being perpetuated, but also added, “No representation is the same as misrepresentation.” Watson cautioned against adding diversity into a story just to follow a trend. She suggested that even if a story’s main characters weren’t diverse, an author could still portray a more realistic and diverse reality through world building. As she pointed out, it’s very rare to take a subway and not see a person of a different race in the subway car.
Tim Federle chimed in with the opinion that writers should focus on creating honest stories and write, as he put it, “the book that brings you joy to write.”
As the evening progressed, the conversation shifted from writing to problems in publicity and promotion. Too often diverse books are labeled “issue books” instead of just books. Renée Watson described her own experience with this problem, saying, “As a black female author I get a lot of invitations to visit schools in February (Black History Month) and March (Women’s History Month).” Furthermore, intersectional stories or books featuring a diverse character where focus of the story isn’t the character’s race, gender-identity, sexual orientation, or disability, are often dinged by reviewers for having too much going on.
Of promotion, Tim Federle advised to go where the love is audience-wise, and stay focused on the writing. “The best way to market your book is to write another book.”
All great advice for a room full of writers.