Diversity in Children’s Literature

It’s time to chime in to the Diversity in Children’s Lit discussion.

For a long time, I underestimated the effect the lack of diversity in books and films had on me as a child. Now, it astounds me and makes me sad to know that growing up, I did not feel like part of the world. I felt on the outside, looking in. Some of this had to do with what I looked like. But curiously, the word “race” never entered my head—but words like “brown skin” vs. “blond” certainly did.

For one thing, I grew up in Northern Virginia, and it took trips to D.C. to get a feel for the kind of ethnic diversity you can truly celebrate and be grateful for. My classes in elementary school generally consisted of one African American child, one Hispanic child, one Asian child, me—the brown child that was neither completely one race or the other—and the rest of the class, which was Caucasian.

I never experienced outright racism except for the time the sixth-grade boys on the bus called me “camel jockey” when I was six years old. I didn’t understand what it meant, only that it was supposed to hurt my feelings, which it did. I think now with sadness about the ignorance these twelve-year-olds must have grown up with to call a little girl a camel jockey and think it was funny.

At any rate, other than that, I always assumed that I was pretty “white.” My mother is German and fair-skinned. My father is Indian and dark-skinned. Still, I never thought of ours as an interracial household. It did not occur to me that “race” was a word I ought to be conscious of and concerned about. I identified more with my white friends than with people who carried their cultural stamps with them quite obviously via accents, dressing in unfamiliar ways, eating deeply unfamiliar foods. I was not one of those.

And yet, looking back on it now, I see how very marginalized I actually did feel without knowing it. I remember that underneath, in the places I wasn’t even aware of, I wore my foreign-ness like a coat that damned me. For one thing, I spoke German at home and wasn’t fluent in English till I was six—but even long after that, I carried around a terror that someone would spew some English idiom at me that I didn’t understand. For another, I remember taking it as a matter of fact that boys would always prefer the white (and especially the blond) Jennys and Katies and Heathers, while I was the weird, artsy, dorky brown girl who’d never warrant a second glance. I remember the pain of being a non-entity in this way, an invisible person. I remember resenting the fact that every cartoon heroine was blond, and that nearly every villainess had dark hair. I remember very, very few cartoons deigning to portray a dark-skinned sidekick to the blond main character—in the Rainbow Brite cartoon, Indigo Blue was a revelation to me. But she was still a sidekick, and Rainbow Brite, and Barbie, and the Sweet Valley Twins were still blond, and white, and the ones in charge, and more desirable than the rest of us. The message was crystal clear: blond is good and pretty, brown is forgettable.

I remember almost sobbing grateful tears that Punky Brewster had dark hair. I remember being grateful for LeVar Burton, and that so many people on Sesame Street were African-American. But I still looked around, bewildered, for some example of inclusion and celebration in which someone who actually looked like me was represented.

Far more than movies and TV, books were so my solace, my education and my light. I identified with the worlds in books so much more readily than the real world, and I can’t say what it would have meant to me to see a brown Meg in A Wrinkle in Time. If I had gotten to read about one Indian Ramona, or one mixed-race Harriet in Harriet the Spy, I would have felt more like part of the world. I may even have learned to think that brown was one of many beautiful things a person could be.

I remember competing in my fifth grade spelling bee, and the contest coming down to myself and one sweet, quiet blond girl. During the last back-and-forth round of the bee, I remember the whole school cheering for this blond girl—even people in other grades, other classes, people who knew nothing about either of us. And I remember being confused and heartbroken. I knew it had something to do with what we looked like, but the sad part was my ready acceptance of the situation. I actually thought something like, “Of course. Of course I don’t look as likable as a little blond girl. I’m tall, and brown, and nobody really knows what I am.”

(I won the bee anyway, I would like to add. While having a fever and pneumonia, as we later discovered.)

What would have been the case if those schoolmates of mine had received different messages through books and media? What if they, and myself, hadn’t been brainwashed into believing blond, and especially white, was better than brown? If they’d had the chance to read about a brown-skinned, adventuring group of siblings in Narnia, or if the Monroe family in Bunnicula had been black? If Elliott in E.T. had been Asian, or the characters in The Bridge to Terebithia had been brown? I’m not naming these books or films to condemn them—I love every one of them, and they are a part of me. I’m using popular media of that time to demonstrate what it does to love something, to want to enter its world, but to feel banned somehow from entering. As it was, I always felt a bit like I was reading about adventures my classmates would get to go on. If I’d been reading about me, I would have developed a much stronger sense of belonging.

It’s just not fair that so many children are growing up feeling like this. All kids should be able to recognize themselves in books—not as sidekicks, not as comic reliefs to the brave and steely white main characters, not as token add-ons because some industry professional suggested they be tucked into an ad or a show or a book. Children recognize the token add-on ploy. The only way for racial diversity to read as genuine is for it to simply be a matter of fact—the main character is this-or-that race. Period. The matter of the character’s race can be an issue or a non-issue. We need books in which characters grapple with a central theme of cultural identity just as much as we need books in which characters simply are who they are—Native American or Asian or Latino, going through the same things every kid goes through.

It’s not fair to assume that white children and white parents are only interested in buying books about other white children. Children are inherently curious about each other, and need to be trained, by the media or at home, to turn that curiosity to judgment and exclusion.

I know things are changing, and I’m so grateful and proud of the kidlit community for being such agents of awareness and evolution. If I could teleport all the wonderfully diverse books that my friends are writing back to little brown me, I would. She would be so grateful.

3 Responses to Diversity in Children’s Literature

  1. Salima,
    I want to hug the little you and tell her she is beautiful!
    Varsha

  2. salima says:

    Aw big hugs Varsha!! Thank you!

  3. Pingback: Cynsational Information & Giveaways | TiaMart Blog

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