The Other Side of Children's Literature
By Brittany J. Thurman @janeebrittany | Photo by Gordon Parks
Being black is exhausting. Being a woman is exhausting. Being black and a woman is exhausting. But what I’ve realized, is that if this experience of blackness is exhausting for myself, a twenty-nine-year-old black woman, how much more exhausting is it for those kids with brown skin and kinky hair, those kids who also get stares and side-eyes for just being born themselves?
As a children’s librarian, I am aware of the lack of diverse books on bookshelves. I lead story time for toddler’s, preschoolers and school-age children. I try to pick out books that reflect the diversity of our population and the unique attributes that come with each individual child. Often, I find myself reading the same stories, repeatedly. Stories such as I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont,The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler. For older children, I love the works of Jacqueline Woodson, and anything with a musical connection, such as When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat by Muriel Harris Weinstein. Nothing beats seeing a child excited about reading. When I see children tuned into the stories that I read, I know that I am helping to contribute to a life-long love for literature. I don’t just read stories that feature people. One of my favorites happens to be Bark, George by Jules Feiffer.
I am also a writer, particularly for children, with a goal to increase representation on library shelves. While the aforementioned books are great go-to’s, the limited selection of books that reflect diversity, in particular, African-American characters in children’s literature, is pitiful. On my quest to achieve publication, I recently attended a children’s writers conference. At this particular conference, held in Western Pennsylvania, I was one of two people of color, out of one-hundred and fifty writers. One-hundred and fifty writers. Two writers of color. I, being the only African-American, the other writer of color being a woman from India.
Sitting at the Hyatt Regency, I may have looked content and not bothered. I have to admit, I held it together pretty well, but I was not only bothered, I was disturbed. The other writers at the conference were also people writing for children. Often times, attending a writers conference means meeting agents and editors in person, which gives you an extra advantage when it comes to submitting your work for publication. These are the people who are getting agents and editors to look at their work, who are getting an extra foot in the door and at the end of the day, the story that is being published will probably once again be about talking animals, or princesses. These are the stories that are constantly being displayed as ‘new’ on library shelves when what we need are more stories that reflect our society.
A discussion that popped up during the conference stemmed around appropriation and children’s literature. Should people who aren’t of a particular background write about that subject, whether it deal with race, religion or disability? There are plenty of authors that aren’t black, who have written stories featuring black children. For the aspiring writers at the conference, I was content with how agents and editors answered this question. They made sure to note that while you can and should write a story featuring a character of a particular background, it should be done from authenticity, with a well-tuned knowledge of the subject at hand. My own addition to this is that agents and editors have a duty to scope out writing by authors of diverse backgrounds. These agents and editors already know how marginalized the publishing industry is, and there are plenty of diverse writers, writers of color, writers with disabilities, writers from an array of religious backgrounds, who are trying to get published.
The road to publication is rough, regardless of your background. First, you have to write an exceptional story. This alone could take time. Months if it’s a picture book, years for a longer work. Next, if you would rather not self-publish, like myself, then you need an agent or editor. The one method to getting an agent is to send a query letter, which often times ends up in what is called the ‘slush’ pile. This is why writers conferences are important, you get to meet with a particular agent in person, which builds rapport. Then, you can submit your work to this person and hopefully, but not always, they will want to represent you as their client. With initiatives, such as We Need Diverse Books more writers of color are getting a foot in the door.
Not everyone can afford a writer’s conference. Not everyone has the tools or resources to attend critique groups, go to graduate school for creative writing or have the luck of meeting already published authors. There are initiatives in place to help diverse authors reach their goal of publication. We Need Diverse Books is dedicated to producing and promoting ‘literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.’ Their programs include grants, such as the Walter Dean Myers Grant, which is given to a writer of a diverse background to assist with getting published.
In June of 2016, I was invited to attend The Masterclass in Children’s Literature, hosted by author Kwame Alexander and We Need Diverse Books. This class gave writers an inside look at the publishing industry, a chance to meet with authors, such as Jacqueline Woodson and Jason Reynolds, and a real view on why the publishing industry is one-sided. With this being the first class of its kind, I am certain there will be more to follow.
In the meantime, what can be done while we wait for more diverse books to be published? We can discuss. We can discuss with children their thoughts and feelings. Their worries, fears and specifically ask them what we can do to help. I can guarantee you that it does bother children to not have books that feature characters that not only look like them but are going through the same issues they face in the twenty-first century. With the current climate in the United States, and I’m not talking about the weather, I can also guarantee that they have concerns about their future as well. The things that we not only write today but say, will most definitely have an impact on their tomorrow. We can also discuss among ourselves; open up a dialogue among communities and cultures to gain a grasp on how we feel. Whether that’s anxious, scared, forgotten, frustrated, ignored, fed-up, inspired and ready for what’s to come next, here is what we all can do…
Read books that do not feature characters who look like you. Read books that do not feature an experience you are used to. Read to experience empathy. Read to understand the other side. Read to gain a better grasp on the world and all of its commotion. Read to understand why I don’t want our children to grow up feeling the exhaustion I feel today.
Brittany J. Thurman is a graduate of Kingston University (London, England) and Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied Dramatic Writing. She is also a graduate of Public Allies, an Americorps professional development program. She currently conducts early literacy programming at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and writes for children of all ages.