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

We Need Diverse Books because I have a story too.

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.

Book Review: The Red Pencil

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

I had a resolution to read more diversely this year, and I’m really pleased I started out with The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. It surprised me on a number of levels, but really hit home.

The book is told in poems, written in the voice of Amira, a 12-year-old girl who lives in Darfur with her parents. She explores growing up in a conservative village, the confusion of understanding war as a child, and the harsh realities of the genocide in Darfur. Together, these themes could make the book too heavy for its intended audience of children, but the first-person perspective of a child, along with the poetic form, help to distance the trauma just enough that I don’t feel uncomfortable recommending this to the right middle grader.

I’ll admit that I cried several times throughout the book. There is real trauma in Amira’s life – trauma that is both inflicted and dealt with in the plot of this short book. Characters are fleshed out in small aside poems, along with Amira’s own thoughts on the people in her life.

What I liked most about this book was that it didn’t expect readers to understand the situation before beginning – a short glossary of terms in the back includes some of the cultural terms Amira uses, but also words like “Janjaweed,” a concept that any adult might have trouble explaining. Readers walk with Amira through her dawning understanding of the change in her world, and so we are allowed to join her at the end of the book, as she takes the first steps toward something new.

The author, Andrewa Davis Pinkney, will be visiting Pittsburgh next month as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids Series. Follow the link for more information.

Reading Resolutions

So I’m a little early on this post, but there’s Christmas music blaring over the intercom and it puts me in the year-end mindset. There’s been a lot happening in the world, and in my life, this year. I’ve made some big changes (graduating, moving, starting a new job), but I’m trying to think about the ways I can make next year even bigger, even better.

So, I’ll be blunt: I’m going to shamelessly steal from all of you. Library folk internet-wide have been posting AMAZING programming ideas, library philosophy, and book suggestions. And I feel like a David that’s forgotten his slingshot in a matchup with Goliath. WHERE DO YOU ALL GET THESE AMAZING IDEAS?

For instance, I read about a really amazing Etsy workshop for teens today. That’s baller. Or how about this crazy cool library blog that should make all public library blogs jealous from my home state? Or the people who accomplished reading lists that make me think.

50 books by POC. 50 books about LGBTQ characters. 50 books in translation. Books with non-Western style illustrations. Books with narrators with less privilege than me. With different viewpoints than me. With different ideas than I could ever think of. That’s what you’re all reading, and it blows my mind.

I read an old Slate article (which is the owner of the beautiful header image) about reading a book a day all year. I’ve decided to layout some more modest goals for myself, since I know I have trouble getting outside of my reading bubble, which is a problem. So let’s mix it up. In 2015 I will:

– Read 25 teen/middle grade books by POC.

– Read 50 picture books written/illustrated by POC

– Read 25 books with LGBTQ protagonists

– Read 25 books in translation.

In complete honesty, this is more than I’ve read for pleasure since before I started grad school (gasp!). But I’m not stopping there.

– Listen to 25 books on CD (any length)

– Design an app (which means learning how to build an app)

– Update my blog more often (this probably means I’ll be linking it up to tumblr, because I love some tumblr and I’ve gotten away from it)

What do you think? Worthy aspirations? Suggestions or tweaks? What are your reading resolutions, if you’ve gotten that far?


Mixing It Up: Diversity in YA Collections

As a kid, I read voraciously. I read everything I could get my hands on. In fact, I read through the entire children’s and teen collection in my small-town public library. Twice.

But when I moved to another (all white, middle class, farm) community, I enrolled in a teen lit class. We can get into how lucky I was to have such an offering in high school, but I really wanted to focus on one thing: Walter Dean Myers.

Myers has been recognized for his novels about African American youth and their experiences, particularly in urban settings. If you haven’t read something by him, you should. My class read Slam!, amidst fantasy novels and novels about drugs and abuse and all sorts of other extremes that shocked my world. But even now, Slam! is what I remember. Slam (the main character) existed in a world full of experiences and struggles that had never even occurred to me.

Fast forward a few years, and I was working at a public library in that same (all white, middle class) small town, feeling rather proud of myself as I helped curate the teen collection in my branch to cover more racial bases. Of course, the same problem arose then as now – the dearth of minority teen literature. We were making lists and sticking “African American” interest on those titles. And they never went out.

Why not? I became convinced that it was precisely because of those stickers. Because my peers had been taught very well that they were not African American, that they would not experience life that way, and wasn’t life confusing enough without trying to understand everyone else too? I began to *sneakily* remove some of the stickers, focusing on making sure some of those titles showed up in every display, and miracle of miracles, they started to go out.

This all came back up because I recently came across a post on tumblr about LGBTQ literature in YA collections. From tumblr user MoreRobots:

So my question is, would people rather have LGBTQ books be tagged? Or in their own section? I know this would create a problem too as some patrons may not want to be seen browsing the LGBTQ shelf or reading a book that’s specifically tagged. Also, what if people pass these books up? Is there a better solution? I just feel that these books (and other diverse books) should be made more accessible /visible to patrons but what is the best way to go about it?

It’s a valid question, and a few plausible responses have been made, but they seem to focus on how to visibly mark or separate them. Check out the thread for specifics.

I’m wondering about the choice to separate them. Personally, I think that will prevent them from entering “normal” circulation, continuing the perception that LGBTQ stories are for a specialized segment of the population, and continuing to normalize straight experiences. For those who want quick access to books like these, I think the pamphlet or master list should be available for ease of access.

The same can be said for any literature that falls outside the norm. While there’s nothing wrong with books about straight white kids, there is something wrong if that is all that is available, or all that teens are encouraged to read. Part of reading, especially as a teen, is to make sure that we aren’t just reifying the normalcy of our own lives. Life is diverse, and diversity is valid, and essential.

From Sarah Ockler’s blog post “Race in YA Lit: Wake up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.

When we erase the experiences of race, class, sexuality, and other self-identifiers from our YA collections, we tell our teens that those things don’t matter. By separating their literature, we relegate those experiences to those who are already living them.

Once more from Ockler:

I adore teenagers. That’s why I write for them. They’re special and magical and full of life; they’re truly the best of us. As young adult authors, our words have power. The power to entertain. The power to inform. The power to inspire. And most importantly, the power to change the lives of teen readers—to really make a difference. If, as Truby believes, stories express the idea that human beings can become better versions of ourselves, then I want to show YA readers that those better versions look like them, too.