Erika Wassall, the Jersey Farm Scriber here with my personal thoughts on
Writing for a Diverse World: Diversity in Children’s Books
Big topic folks. Very trending in the writing world. (look at me, using words like “trending”. Um, did I use it right? I’m getting less social-media-incapable every day! Shameless plug here: I’m not the best at that sort of thing. But please come follow me on Twitter @NJFarmScribe. I’m trying to get better! And hearing from you guys always helps!)
So anyway… the big D-word.
We’ve all heard the term thrown around. Agents are looking for it. Writers and parents are lobbying for its importance. But what does it mean to us as writers? In my opinion, that’s a very personal question. And I certainly don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.
I would like to start this post by highlighting that these are nothing more than the thoughts of this single individual. By no means do I think that my opinion is any more “right” than yours. In fact, I’d really love to hear your own thoughts in the comments!
I have talked to various agents and seen panels where they discuss what this concept means to them. And in my experience, everyone’s answer is different.
Great! That’s real helpful. So what the heck does that mean?
It means I have to find my OWN answer.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s temping to be caught up in the world of… well, agents are LOOKING for diverse books. So if I can figure out what it means to THEM, I can get published!
But in reality, I don’t think that works very well. First of all agents are smart. They don’t want you using their MSWL notes to design your next project. They want you to use them to see where you’re already created masterpiece will best fit.
Now, do I mold certain aspects of my writing around the industry standards and what may “sell” better? You bet I do! Knowledge is power, and knowing what works and what fits is important for any professional.
But (and remember, this is my personal opinion) there really is no actual standard of what diverse books are. And I think this goes double in the world of a child.
Every kid craves to feel a part of something. They want to be acknowledged for being special and unique, while at the same time, feel the comfort and acceptance of being a part of a blended whole.
In my experience, EVERY kid feels like a minority in one way or another. The last kid picked for kickball, the one made fun of for the poofy hair, and the one with the unusual allergy, they all feel left out and “different”. Even the popular girls with the longest hair and all the coolest pencil toppers, when no one is looking, they feel left out too.
And at the same time, NOTHING is more diverse than a child’s life. Often, an adult’s definition of “different” doesn’t line up with what is seen through kid-vision.
My friend’s son’s birthday was a few weeks ago and we were getting ready for the party. One of the boys coming over has autism. Steve, a very sweet boy, conscious of other’s feelings, was obviously concerned about how others would react that this particular friend was going to be at his party.
His mother and I, assuming he meant because of his developmental differences, tried to comfort him, saying everyone would be fine and that his mother would be there too.
Steve looked at us like we were from another planet. “How is she gonna help?”
It was obvious we had mis-read the situation. Not wanting to dig ourselves any deeper into what we were pretty certain was going to be an embarrassing hole, I asked him, “Well, what is it you’re worried about?”
“He’s SO much faster than everyone, whatever team he’s on is going to win for SURE.”
Sigh. If only we all accepted diversity as well as the children we are writing for.
Diversity in books IS important. Everyone likes to relate to a main character. They long to feel that they see the world through their eyes, like the author was speaking just to them. And in order to do that, we need diverse books.
Portraying a realistic world, one where everyone doesn’t look, talk, think or live in the same manner is part of what makes ANY book special.
Books with families of all different shapes, sizes and backgrounds, books with people who come from all over the world, believe, look and eat different things, go to different events and think different ways are unbelievably important.
But it’s not because we need to teach children about diversity. Children could certainly teach a thing or two to the majority of us about diversity and acceptance.
Keeping diversity in our children’s literature is important because it’s an accurate depiction of our children’s lives.
For this reason, when it comes to diversity, I try to learn from the experts. Children don’t pick a diverse set of friends because they think they’re supposed to. They just let nature take its course. And it turns out, kids are ALL so different that it becomes something they all have in common!
So when I’m writing, instead of PUTTING diversity into my manuscripts, I simply make it a part of my reality check. When I’m going through a WIP, one of the key things I’m always focusing on is how to develop the characters further, make them more real.
And REAL people, are simply diverse.
The best writing comes from a personal place, and the topic of diversity is no different. I try to focus on my own experiences, what I’ve seen, felt, or even longed to feel. I love the push toward diversity in our literature for children. But I try not to worry about what diversity means to agents, publishers or really anyone in the literary world.
I try to focus on what it means to me. Diversity might be a different way of thinking, a different type of family or culture. It might be something obvious you can see from the outside.
Or it might be something that only comes out when they put the sparkly pencil toppers away and sit quietly.
To me, that’s real. And kids are so darn smart, they see right through you when you’re not real. The same goes for the voice behind the books they read. And agents, they’re pretty smart like that too!
So be diverse! Write diverse! And support diversity! But let’s do it because it’s who we are and it’s an accurate portrayal of the world that kids are growing up in. Not because it was on an agent’s wish list.
What kids want is the truth. And while it’s not always easy to do…
… our manuscripts are worth it.
Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!
Thank you Erika for another great post!