At the ALA Conference in Orlando I attended a session called “Finding Yourself in the Shelves: Diversity in Ethnicity and Language For Your Teens.” This was a compelling discussion that emphasized the importance of diverse books for kids and young adults. The board was composed of a group of young adult writers from diverse backgrounds. Each writer started by providing some information about their background and acknowledged their positions as role models for teens from marginalized communities.
Lamar Giles (author of Fake ID) explained the necessity of showing young black males that there are career options out there beyond what is presented in the same old tired narratives. Too often society tells the story of the “successful basketball star!” “the street kid who rose out of poverty!” These authors urge readers, writers, and publishers to acknowledge that there is no one representative story. Some children love art, poetry, and theater, and some like sports. These stories should be told. When people see themselves and their interests reflected in a story it legitimizes the experience. (It is possible to _____!)
Diverse authors often act as mentors for marginalized youth and it’s vital that libraries share their work. Meg Medina (a prolific Cuban-American YA author) addressed “Multicultural” stickers on library books. She described the stickers as creating a separatist atmosphere when these stories should be celebrated as universal stories not “multicultural stories”. She urged libraries to appeal to patrons thematically rather than with multicultural labels. For example, here’s a display of really great fantasy books! – include diverse authors within the displays you’re already using. We need to normalize diverse books, rather than siloing them off as “other”.
The authors also urged writers to craft more nuanced and developed books; do your research, vet the books with other people, and hold yourself accountable. Describe everyone the protagonist encounters so the default assumption isn’t that they’re a white able-bodied individual. Again, there isn’t just one universal experience!! These communities are already marginalized, don’t pile on the pain with ridiculous stereotypes. Most of what we read is problematic. Publishers are the gatekeepers so it’s important to speak out and let them know we want TRULY diverse books; not whitewashed problem stories, not multicultural stories that fit into a neat little box. We want stories that smash the stereotypes and reflect stories beyond the canon we’re typically presented. The board noted the importance of reaching out to publications that praise problematic books while helping kids develop the skills to be discerning readers. The authors noted that nearly everything we love is problematic, the important thing is recognizing that and having conversations about these problems through the discomfort.