Growing up, my claim to fame was being the kid who liked books. While others enjoyed the maniacal freedom of recess, I teetered on a swing with a hardback clenched in my pudgy fists and my thick specs smushed into my face. My school librarian could tell you more about me than my parents. More than anything, I loved The Hardy Boys. The adventures of daring Frank and Joe Hardy provided the ultimate escape -- While the Clock Ticked, The Tower Treasure...at one point I could even name every title in that series (and that's a hefty list, mind you).
The good thing about being that young and wonderstruck was that I never really had to think about my race. Of course, at that point being 7 or 8, I knew that being black set me apart from others and meant my experiences were likely different from most. But my escape from that reality was books. That was where a shy kid with glasses larger than his self-confidence could find solace. But when I tried to put myself into Frank or Joe's shoes, I couldn't. I just saw two white kids going on adventures and doing what I always wanted. Sure, there were a few books featuring black kids that I got my hands on, but they were all about being black, which was awesome, but something that I already had experience in. The few that weren't issue novels were barely publicized and never found a place in my library.
Where were my black Frank and Joe?
Where were the black kids going on thrilling adventures, solving crimes and saving the day that I could identify with?
Why couldn't the black kids also just be kids?
So instead of getting an escape -- role models to daydream about -- I got to peek into the lives of people I admire and never get the chance to become one of them.
Fortunately, an enormous push to increase diversity in children's literature has emerged, thanks to campaigns like We Need Diverse Books. However, this push hasn't always been prevalent among writers and readers. Not long ago (2008, to be exact) we saw The Hunger Games rise to fame for specifically featuring a certain badass, stereotype-demolishing Katniss Everdeen. This spawned a flurry of related protagonists flooding the inbox of nearly every literary agent and publisher. While certainly not the first of her kind, Katniss inspired legions of young girls to pick up books and find themselves within this new literary hero.
We have even received powerful books with LGBT+ characters targeted at kids such as And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, which explores the true story of two male penguin parents, and I Am Jazz, the story of Jazz Jennings who is now an outspoken transgender activist. Books that I could never dream of in my childhood are finding their way into hands of children worldwide -- books that provide personal escape, adventure and that beautiful feeling of normalcy.
While scores of diverse books have been published, many seem to focus on the issue itself -- aptly named "issue books." And there is absolutely nothing wrong with these amazing books; we need all the brave coming out stories, novels dealing with racism and books about sexual assault, violence and mental illness that we can get. We need stories that show kids the reality of life while also showing them that it's always possible for everything to turn out okay. However, alongside these stories we need tales of diverse heroes in the plots we know and love. Give us a Native American boy who uses his acute detective skills to solve the mystery of The Basketball Net Bandit. Give us a girl with a speech impediment who was raised by a single dad, struggling against her best friend for the lead role in the school play. Above all, give us reality.
Those kids who are hungry for books aren't always going to be straight, able-bodied, white males. And they want books that reflect that. Just as we need black students graduating top of their class at Harvard and brilliant female astronauts as our role models, so do we need our diverse literary heroes to remind us that the world is a playground for all, no matter who you are. Unfortunately, I never got my black Frank and Joe. But what I did get was a passion for writing these diverse stories and a writing community that strives to make such books a reality for all young readers.
For me, I guess things turned out okay. And for future readers, I know it will be better.
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