The Diversity of Imagination

Many topics are being explored around diversity in children's books, which I think is critical to our world. Publisher's Weekly reported that the Association of Writers and Writing Program's annual conference had "more panels than ever addressing issues of diversity in both adult books and children's books and inclusivity in terms of whose work is being published and promoted." As an author and a publisher--and a very white one--I wonder if we don't need a new framework to understand the importance of this topic for our culture as a whole. Maybe we should view the lack of diverse voices as a cultural problem that extends beyond the color of our skin; one that may form our views of the world as literally more black and white than they are.

Books, like no other craft, give us windows into the imagination and world of the creators. Children's books help children make sense of the world around them and aid the development of language and thinking. Books help children with social cognition, providing them with a deeper understanding of how the social world works.
What happens to a culture where only the imaginations and inner worlds of one race or one gender or one way of living our lives is laid out for us to examine? It inherently creates a sense of separateness for those both outside and inside of the dominant culture being represented. I believe that pushing for diversity in children's books may be one very important key to opening the minds and hearts of our culture as a whole.
I asked Maria Martin, long time Kindergarten teacher--and author of our upcoming children's book, which aims to help children communicate inclusively about race and heritage--how the lack of diversity in children's books affects children. She told me:

"Children need to see themselves in books in order to connect to the world of books. When students of diverse backgrounds only see books by and about the majority culture, they get the message that books are not for them. We also give students the message that their life experiences are not important. The message for white students is that cultural diversity is not something to embrace and value. Books are such a critical component to education that when students feel excluded from that component, it reverberates through their entire educational experience in a negative way. As an educator of young children, my biggest goal is to instill a lifelong love of learning. Because books are a crucial tool for learning, students have to learn to love books. Students learn about the world through books, so we have a responsibility to make sure that the world we represent through books is accurate.
"Recently, I read the book A Letter to Amy, by Ezra Jack Keats, to my daughter. She continued to ask me to read the book for several nights in a row. When I commented that she really must like this book, she said 'I like this book because Amy looks like me.' As a brown-skinned child with long, thick braids, she doesn't always get to see herself in books. The benefits of diverse books for children of all cultures and backgrounds are endless.

So, when the few books by and about people of color are relegated to a niche shelf on the far side of a bookstore, or worse, not published, we further ingrain this idea of separateness into young minds. By doing this we are saying that someone's world and imagination aren't as interesting or universal because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. What if we had all grown up with equal representation of races in children's books, allowing us to choose characters we admire and connect with based on attributes other than race?

If the goal is actually inclusion--as many in the publishing world are claiming--the path should not only be to publish, review and promote diverse voices, but also to open our minds to our sameness, our oneness, and ingrain in ourselves and our children that no person can be neatly slotted into one section or another. Make sure the children around you are exposed to as many diverse books as possible so they have a full understanding of what it means to live in our world.

Here are some of Maria Martin's favorite inclusive books for kids:
Shortcut, Donald Crews
Come on Rain Karen Hesse
Last Stop on Market Street, Matt de la Peña
Grandfather's Journey, Allen Say
I Have a Dream, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Whistle for Willie, Ezra Jack Keats
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, John Steptoe