Diversity in Children’s Books

Those outside the writing and publishing community may not have heard of #ownvoices, but perhaps they have noticed an uptick in books featuring diverse characters. I have an academic (and personal) interest in questions of identity as well as writing, so I’ve been paying a lot of attention to this trend and wanted to hammer out my thoughts by writing about them.

Sarah Park Dahlen and her associates have used data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison to create two infographics showing how the representation of minority characters in books has changed over the last few years.

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I looked at this and saw it as good news. It’s important for young people to see characters who look like them in books and movies. It helps them feel that they have value, that their voices matter, and that they’re part of the big story of our world.

I was surprised by the anger some people expressed over it – not that there are more diverse characters, but that there are not enough. I would agree that there is still more we in the writing community can do to make sure the voices of people of color and other traditionally-minority groups are being heard. For instance, less than half of books with brown or black characters are written by people of color, which means that the voices we hear may not ring true if the white authors haven’t been very, very careful in their research, writing, and use of the advice of cultural insiders and sensitivity readers, and it leaves young people of color with fewer role models to look up to–and maybe with the sense that their voice doesn’t really matter. I think it’s counterproductive to say that white authors should never write characters who are people of color (what kind of weird world would we be writing about if all our characters are white? Even in medieval Europe there was ethnic diversity), but I do think white authors need to think carefully about how and why we’re including diverse characters and make sure we’re not shouting over the voices of people who are struggling to be heard.

But I like Hans Rosling’s assertion that we can maintain a dual mindset that “things are good” and also that “things need to get better.” Out of a desire to keep people engaged with a cause they consider important, people might be tempted to downplay positive outcomes so others don’t turn their attention elsewhere. But if they send a message that the progress so far “doesn’t count,” people may get discouraged and give up anyway.

So, let’s look at these numbers. I was curious and turned to the U.S. Census Bureau for some statistics. Its current 2018 estimate is that about 60% of the US population is white, 18% is Hispanic (I’m choosing the term Hispanic over Latinx because it’s broader, and it’s the one used by the Census Bureau), 13% is black, almost 6% is Asian, just over 1% is Native American, less than 1% is Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and almost 3% is mixed race. BUT, those numbers are for all Americans, and the racial makeup of the US is always changing. For Americans under the age of 18, Kids Count puts the numbers at 51% white, 25% Hispanic, 14% black, 5% Asian, 1% Native American and Alaskan Native, less than 1% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and 4% mixed race.

I don’t think that statistical representation is necessarily the goal. Quality matters as much as quantity, and giving people of color an edge over statistics seems fair in light of their historical underrepresentation–it won’t hurt white kids to see a higher proportion of people of color as main characters, as long as the publishing industry doesn’t go to the other extreme and make all white kids bad guys. But based on the above infographic, the only group that is still severely underrepresented are Hispanic youth. And they are severely underrepresented.

If we take out the animal books, the percentages come out differently: 1.3% of the books feature Native American characters, 6.8% Hispanic, 9.5% Asian, 13.7% black, and 68% white (that’s where the numbers would have to give to allow for more Hispanic characters). What’s the deal with the animal books? Their percentage of the market has actually gone up. I wonder if that’s because animal books can be seen as more universal: many different kids can relate to animals characters regardless of race. There’s a caveat to that, though: characters can be “coded” to be of a certain demographic even if they look “raceless” on the surface. For instance, in the latest iteration of My Little Ponies (which I enjoy along with my kids), I get the sense that all of the ponies are “white.” That could be because I’m white and white is often the “default” race in media, but it’s also the voice actors and the accents and vocal styles they use. So, those animal books? I’m not sure if we can count them as universal or if they would reinforce the feeling for non-white kids that they’re on the outside. The best understanding would come from asking non-white children what they think.

There are a few other aspects of these numbers I find troubling, beyond the fact that the number of Hispanic characters is so far behind actual demographics. One is that Pacific Islanders are lumped in with Asians. This happens a lot, but there’s a pretty wide gap between the history and culture of the Pacific Islands and Asia. I’ve looked for kids’ books specifically about Pacific Islanders, and they’re very hard to find. Also, mixed-race kids don’t seem to be represented at all in the statistics, even though they’re growing as a share of the population (a common shortcoming).

What about religious diversity? I have seen more kids’ books with Muslim characters lately, and I think reading about people of other faith traditions goes a long way toward reducing fear and antagonism between various groups–atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Methodists, etc.–we all need to understand each other. Showing the complexity of faith and religion is great, but none of these groups should make its main appearance in literature as a “boogieman” (something that often happens to many organized religions, but especially various Christian denominations and Muslims).

And kids with disabilities? They tend to be very underrepresented as well, and apparently, no one is even thinking of tracking their numbers (in the future, they’re going to be tracking LGBT+ representation).

So, there’s room for improvement in creating a selection of diverse children’s books, but I still think we can celebrate the progress we’ve made as a writing community. I’ve enjoyed many of the diverse kids’ books I’ve been reading and sharing with my children. For those of us who aren’t publishing gatekeepers (agents and editors), we can still encourage diverse books by seeking them out and buying the best ones for our children to signal to those gatekeepers that there’s an interest.

Image credits:

Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/.

Released for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0 license). You are free to use this infographic in any of your work, including presentations and published work, so long as you provide the full citation noted above.

 

Christmas Book Flood

Let’s talk about Iceland. It’s one of the safest countries in the world: murder and violent crime are almost non-existent, though gun ownership is common. It’s also one of the most literate, with 99% of its adult population fluent in reading and writing. By comparison, the literacy rate in the United States is 86%. Issues like crime and education are complicated, but I can’t help believing there’s a connection.

I was recently selling books with several other authors at a holiday gift show. I asked a passing woman if she liked to read and she made a dismissive gesture at our display and said, “Oh, I don’t read those kinds of books.”

“Those kinds of books” included mysteries, thrillers, clean romance, historical fiction, and inspirational Christmas stories. I asked her what she did like to read, and she said, “Just my scriptures.”

Okay, that’s fine.  This isn’t the first time I’ve run into anti-fiction snobbery, and when I was in grad school, I didn’t have much time for fiction either. There are millions of books out there, and we’ll only have time to read, what, maybe a couple of thousand in our lifetimes? (Isn’t that a sad thought?)

Yet numerous studies have shown the benefits of reading fiction. It offers us a mental vacation and emotional refreshment. In the case of historical fiction, it teaches us about different times, places, and events in a way we’re more likely to remember because we’ve experienced them vicariously.

Perhaps most importantly, study after study has shown that people who read fiction are more likely to feel empathy – to relate to those who are different from them. It’s the closest we’ll ever come to seeing through the eyes of another. We can learn from their mistakes and triumphs and sample a taste of their perspective. The best fiction is a cure for unawareness and isolation. It combats feelings of being overhwelmed, hopeless, or alone. It connects human beings across time and space. It’s magic.

In lieu of brushing up on my Old Norse and searching for real estate in Iceland, I’m going to participate in their tradition of Jolabokaflod – a Christmas Book Flood. I’m joining with other authors to do a holiday book giveaway (more details coming here and on my Facebook page), and I’ll also be giving away an ebook through my newsletter (sign up at: http://eepurl.com/bqCKTr ).

I hope, whether it’s my book or someone else’s, you have time to curl up with a good novel this December, and do it without feeling guilty, knowing that reading is good for your brain and your heart!

Pitch Wars Pep Talk

We’re in the final days of the Pitch Wars selection period. The mentors are frantically reading through the subs, looking for “the one,” or deciding which of several “ones” they can best help. The hopefuls are handling the waiting in whatever way works best for them. Because tensions, and emotions, run high in Pitch Wars, I wanted to share what things look like on this side of the inbox.

I got a little over 100 subs, and you guys brought your A-game. I’m super impressed with the quality of the writing and the intriguing ideas I’ve been reading. And I have to choose just one manuscript to work with. This is going to be hard. As in, I’m losing sleep over this decision. When concepts and writing are this strong, it’s going to come down to which story clicks with me the most – something that’s completely subjective – and I think the other mentors are in the same situation. Agents are too, all year long, and I have a lot more empathy for them after doing Pitch Wars.

So, to everyone who subbed to Pitch Wars, congratulations on finishing a manuscript, on polishing it until it shines, and on being brave enough to put it out there. You are doing amazing things. Pitch Wars is awesome, but it’s not your one and only chance. I was a Pitch Wars alternate (when such a thing existed). I ended up publishing that manuscript with a small press. Then I found my agent in a different pitch contest. And the journey doesn’t end with getting published or getting an agent. There are still revisions and rejections and waiting and waiting and waiting.

The witty and wise Mr. Robison Wells said:

“Everyone’s in a different place, and that’s okay. Getting published doesn’t mean you’ll be published forever. Getting rejected doesn’t mean you’ll always be rejected… The truth is that most authors—even the really good ones with great careers—get depressed. They’re hard on themselves. They worry about the future. They regret decisions in their past… I don’t present this to make you stop chasing your dreams. I say it to make you feel better about this maddening business… You’re good enough. You really are.”

So, take a deep breath, soak in a warm bath, eat some good chocolate. Find something else to work on so the waiting doesn’t kill you. And no matter what happens with Pitch Wars, it’s just one step on your path. Keep going!

Contractions are historical, y’all

One of my pet peeves in historical novels is when authors try to make dialogue sound authentic by removing all the contractions. A natural-sounding phrase like, “I’m sure you’ll do well,” becomes the awkward and kind of comical, “I am sure you will do well.”

Please don’t do this to your readers or your manuscript. Some characters will speak more formally than others, but here’s the thing: English is a lazy language full of contractions and short cuts, and that hasn’t changed over the years. On the other hand, using contractions that are too modern in historical pieces ruins the flavor, like putting mint in your orange juice, so you have to pick the right historical contractions.

The types of contractions people use have evolved, but there are plenty of authentic historical contractions writers can use to make their dialogue sounds more natural and still understandable to the modern reader. Look at Shakespeare. His works mark the beginning of modern English, and he uses tons of contractions – and not just when he’s trying to make words fit the rhythm.

So, here’s a brief look at the history of modern English contractions.

First, the “it” contractions: ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, ‘twould. These are pretty common in Elizabethan (1500s) writings, and don’t sound incomprehensible to modern readers. ‘Tis replaces “it’s,” and ‘twould would replace “it’d” if anyone is inclined to use that modern contraction. Google n-gram viewer, which measures how often words appear in print, shows “’tis” peaking around 1700 then falling off sharply, so that by 1800 it’s not very common, and probably old-fashioned.

Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writings provide ample evidence for contractions with “is” and “will,” like: she’ll, we’ll, there’s, and he’s. Shakespeare also uses “I’m,” so all of those are perfectly historical.

“Have” and “had” are apparently more controversial. The OED says the contractions -‘ve and -‘d are post-Elizabethan, but other scholars, like E.A.J. Honigmann in The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, disagree. They find evidence of contractions like “they’ve” and “she’d” in period texts and suggest these contractions might be just coming into use in writing during this time (they could have been used orally for some time before). So, you’re probably safe with those too in most English historical fiction.

I’ve been reading letters written right around 1650 (and anyone writing in this time period is going to be middle or upper class and well-educated), and they use plenty of contractions: I’m, I’ll, we’ll, you’ll, ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, on’t (of it), t’other (the other), in’t (in it), and with’t (with it). Don’t also makes an appearance.

Most of the “not” contractions come into English a bit late. My old friend the Online Etymology Dictionary gives these dates for when some of them came into use (this would be when they’re found in print – they may have been used verbally for a few years before):

  • don’t – 1630
  • won’t – 1660
  • couldn’t – 1670
  • hadn’t – 1705
  • can’t – 1706
  • ain’t – 1706 (considered correct English until the early Victorian period [1800s] when it came to be seen as lower class – this was when contractions in general got a bad rap in formal writing)
  • aren’t – 1709 (sometimes spelled are’n’t)
  • didn’t – 1775

And then there’s y’all. It’s an early-1800s Americanism from the South and later the West. It was probably adopted into white speech from African-American speech. As a contraction for “you all,” “y’all” is generally meant to be plural. If you’re saying it to one person, it implies they’re part of a group. So, “Y’all stay off our property,” means “you and all your folks.” You-uns or yins was also used in the early 1800s in the American Old Northwest (i.e. Ohio and Pennsylvania).

Jane Austen gives us an idea of which contractions are in use in England in the early 1800s. She’s much more sparing with them than my earlier samples, but in Pride and Prejudice, we find: I’m, don’t, can’t, shan’t, won’t, you’ll, and ’tis. Lydia and Mrs Bennet use the most contractions, but the less silly characters use them occasionally too.

In 1837, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist gives us: don’t, you’ll, he’s, who’s, I’ll, warn’t (were not), can’t, hasn’t, it’s, wouldn’t, mustn’t, haven’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, mightn’t, needn’t, ain’t, mayn’t, it’ll, there’s, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, that’s, where’s, there’ll, you’d, he’d, shan’t, daren’t (dare not), and a variety of other slang-y historical contractions, used liberally throughout the dialogue.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, published in 1855 and incorporating a wider variety of social classes, uses: don’t, shan’t, can’t, won’t, an’t (and it), mayn’t, didn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, doesn’t, it’s, I’ll, that’s, we’ve, they’d, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve, they’re, you’re, they’ll, she’d, she’s, aren’t, I’d, and some others – a pretty full complement. The laborers use many more contractions than the upper class characters, but even well-bred Margaret uses don’t, you’ll, I’ll, you’ve, I’m, and others fairly often. At this point, as in Dickens, “’tis” is gone, even from old fashioned or upper class language.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, uses most of the contractions that Gaskell used (though not “shan’t” or “an’t”), plus ain’t.

So, it from the Victorian period onward, in England and America, writers have a pretty complete palette of contractions to choose from, and in any historical time period, people of all social classes used contractions.

And there it is: a quick look at historical contractions for fun and profit (but mostly for fun 😉 ).

My favorite historical resources

I recently gave a couple of classes on researching historical fiction, and even though I’ve posted about (read: “totally geeked out about”) some of these resources before, I wanted to put them all in one place (especially if I missed emailing them to anyone who wanted them!). So, here are some of the sources I use when researching historical fiction:

Secondary sources (written after the fact, by someone who was not there, often a historian): “Daily Life in…” type books for an overview of the time period, to get a big picture understanding to help put primary sources in context, and to mine the bibliography for other books with more specific details, like ghosts stories from rural Pennsylvania, food in Edo Japan, or early French heraldry. Interlibrary loan is your friend when looking for obscure secondary sources–for the cost of shipping the books via library mail (about $3.50 last time I used it), most public libraries in the U.S. will help you check out books from other libraries all over the country.

Primary sources (written by someone who was there–an eyewitness): Old diaries and letters, legal documents, newspapers, etc. Some of them are available for free through Kindle, Project Gutenberg, Google Books, etc., but there are also databases that will point you to primary sources online, such as:

Other cool, random history-related sites:

  • Google n-grams, where you can find out if an English word was used (in print) and how common it was in a given historical time period: https://books.google.com/ngrams
  • Online Etymology Dictionary, where you can find out what a word actually meant historically (it can change a lot!), and well as when it was in use: http://www.etymonline.com/
  • Historical maps: http://www.oldmapsonline.org
  • The Met museum’s searchable database of their amazing collection of historical objects, including weapons, jewelry, musical instruments, and clothing (The dresses! The beautiful, beautiful dresses!): http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection

That’s really just a start, but these are good places to begin. There are lots of web sites run by local history societies, re-enactors, and other authors/history buffs that are full of good information too, as long as you remember to read everything online with a skeptical eye. Happy researching!

Better off dead? This is why we need diverse books

As a non-contributing member of society, apparently I would be better off dead. At least according to a friend’s co-worker, who holds this opinion of all paralyzed people. It’s a prejudice often reinforced by the media, including a certain recent book-turned-to-movie. I’ve even heard it suggested that giving a villain a disability is a great way to make them more “villainous.” Because, you know, disability=reduced humanity.

If my friend’s co-worker had been talking to me directly, she might have been surprised to know that I’m partially paralyzed–the effects of my incomplete spinal cord injury are only apparent in my slight limp and frequent clumsiness (and my chicken-peck typing)–but it’s still a disability I live with every day and, like many people with disabilities, it leads me to struggle with a lower self image and bouts of depression.

Maybe I would make the “contributing member of society” cutoff to this person, but why should she–or anyone else–get to make that call? Who’s to say who contributes–who has value–and who doesn’t? According to the CDC, 1 in 1o Americans is living with a disability (more if you include the crippling effects of mental illness), and nearly everyone will suffer some form of disability in his or her lifetime. Certainly we all still have value–we all still contribute in different ways, whether on a large scale or a small one.

It amazes me that anyone would actually have such a negative view of those with disabilities, and I can only attribute it to ignorance. The best cure for that kind of ignorance is understanding and empathy–seeing the value in a life different from one’s own. We can’t ever know exactly what it’s like to be someone else, but books can get us pretty close. The best stories feel so real that we are lost in another person’s world for a while–we become them for a few hundred pages. And once we’ve been in someone’s head, we’re never going to look at them the same way again. We may not completely agree with them, but we’re going to understand their point of view. We’ll see past the stereotype to find that their life has value too, regardless of ability or disability, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. And for those who are disabled, seeing someone who “looks like them” overcoming challenges and playing an important role in books and movies can be encouraging and empowering.

Of course, if the media continues to perpetuate stereotypes, we don’t fix anything. So, not only do we need diverse books and movies, but we need thoughtful ones with realistic, well-crafted characters to give voice to people whose words are often drowned out by the roars of a media industry more than happy to sell stereotypes if they think it will make money.

This isn’t to say disabled characters always have to be good guys, and they definitely shouldn’t be perfect angels. Protagonist, antagonist, or secondary character, make them well-rounded human beings, affected by their disability but not defined it, and it will start to broaden society’s understanding of what “differently-abled” means.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, I saw a chart from the FBI describing the incidents of hate crimes in 2014. Among those numbers, 2,568 were motivated by race, 1,017 by sexual orientation, 1,104 by religion, and 84 by disability. Thousands of instances of violence that could be eliminated if we could help people see past their fears and stereotypes. Understanding, empathy, and love are the only cures for the violence, hatred, and obsessive divisiveness rife in our society, and it can all start with a good book.

Confessions of a book snob

I’ve loved to read and write for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I read some of everything: classics, poetry, fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, romance, historical fiction, etc. That lasted until I went to grad school.

Then I turned into a book snob.

I was studying history and landscape architecture, and, honestly, I didn’t have time to read anything but nonfiction. It was all history, biography, and psychology. I loved it, and I didn’t really miss fiction at that point. I also got my first writing job creating scripts for educational software programs, and that meant spending even more time in the nonfiction world. I thought, “This stuff is real–it’s what matters the most.”

Then I was pregnant with my first daughter, and I was sick on bed rest most of the time. My husband started bringing me stacks of books from the library–whatever he thought looked interesting–and I read about a book a day. Some of it was nonfiction, but it was all across the board again, and I rediscovered the joys of fiction.

Now I’ve repented of my nonfiction snobbery. With two little kids, teaching a class at the university, and my own writing, I don’t have a lot of time for extra reading, but Sunday afternoons are dedicated quiet time, and I spend them reading–always fiction. It leaves me refreshed and ready to jump back into life. I also volunteer at my daughter’s school library, so I get to relive the thrill of discovering great books through the kids there.

I understand better now why fiction matters. Nonfiction is still great. It teaches us facts as we currently understand them. But good fiction teaches us truth. It takes the vastness of the human experience and encapsulates a portion of it into something we can digest. It offers a temporary escape from our own problems and teaches us things about ourselves and other people that can help us face things better when we shut the book and wander back into our own life.

That is the beauty of fiction.