“Because I have a story too”: Diversity in Biographies

Image submitted by Tye Jiles to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tumblr

“Why are there more biographies about white people?”

I’d been helping a family find children’s biographies to use for a family project on Black History Month, and the 7-year-old girl  asked a great question. I quickly came up with the best answer I could: “Because for a long time people thought white people were more important to write about. We’re just now fixing that.” She nodded, taking it in.  Her father didn’t chime in, and I thought I might have given a satisfactory answer. “Will they write biographies about you?”

She didn’t take a second to think about that. “Yep!”

“What will they say about you?”

“I’ll make speeches! Great speeches!” Though she didn’t know about what. With that, she took her books on Sojourner Truth, Madam CJ Walker, and Lebron James to the checkout desk.

But her question stuck with me: why are there still so many more biographies about white people?

Campaigns like #weneeddiversebooks seek to open people up to the idea that our books should reflect our reality. Far too often, we let our limited book selection influence our reality. If even in our library’s biography section there are only white faces, rich faces, straight faces… what do we tell the kids who ask where the other faces are? That we were too lazy to order them? That there are so many more books written about white people that it’s not worth seeking out the rest of the world’s history?

Someday I hope someone does write about the speeches that girl makes, and I hope they don’t get relegated to the “also ran” section of history. The section where we send those bits of truth that make us uncomfortable, or that interfere with the dominant narrative. I hope that when her biography is written, it sits among the George Washingtons and the Clara Bartons and the Daniel Boones. And I want people to know that her story is every bit as important as theirs – it’s all part of our larger story together.

This came at a great time – after all, Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiography Brown Girl Dreaming just won a Newbery Honor Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Robert F. Silbert Informational Book Award. The other Newbery books this year also represented severely underrepresented groups. So well done, us. But there’s a lot more to do. I have a lot that I need to learn about diversity, and a lot I need to communicate about it to my patrons.

We’ve been writing one version of history, showing off one story, for so long that it seems normal. The status quo has sunk in. I’d like that little girl to come back next time and see faces of every color, creed, and race on our shelves. Biographies, certainly, but picture books, chapter books, videos, and more. We need diverse books. We need diverse minds.

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