How diverse is children’s literature today? Kathleen Horning, director of Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison titles an article on this subject, “I See White People.” The CCBC tracks ethnic diversity in children’s literature. Horning notes that while the number of books written by and about people of diverse ethnicities continues to grow each year, “really dismal numbers come with fiction, both middle grade and young adult.” Theories abound as to why publishers do not release more diverse titles: publishers are nervous about offending people of ethnicity; publishers are all about profit, and books about diverse characters may not appeal to the mass market; authors are nervous about criticism for not getting it right (if they are not of that ethnicity); authors are nervous about criticism for offending their own people (if they are of that ethnicity).
As to the fear of writing about diverse cultures, I speak from experience. Inspired by a meeting with Saudi artist Safeya Binzagr, my first novel follows a fictional Saudi girl whose desire to pursue a life of art puts her in conflict with her family. An agent asked me, “What makes you think you can write about this world?” That nearly stopped me from the attempt, until I remembered the diversity of literature that had nurtured me into adulthood. I grew up devouring books by James Clavell (Shogun), James Michener (Hawaii), Alex Haley (Roots), and other authors who whisked me away to foreign lands or back in time: Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Writing Unveiling required massive research, and I ensured cultural accuracy by having the novel vetted by a woman who taught literature at the University of Riyadh—she thanked me for writing the novel, because few authors dared to write about the desires of a female in Saudi culture.
Diversity of ethnicity and culture in children’s literature is only one aspect of the problem, but this receives the most attention. The topic needs to be broader and more inclusive. Another segment of society is left out of literature in even greater numbers: youth with disabilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 6.5 million (13%) of public school children in America received special education services in 2013-14. Among those, slightly more than one-third had specific learning disabilities. Children with disabilities are bullied five times more often than other children. Yet, the number of novels showcasing characters with disabilities is miniscule. While the CCBC does outstanding work to promote diversity in children’s literature, it does not yet track disability literature, and they are not alone. Despite the odds, when deaf, blind, paraplegic and ethnically diverse characters jumped onto the pages of my latest middle grade novel, Evil Speaks, I didn’t hesitate to include them in this international quest. Authors should not be afraid to write about diverse characters, cultures and abilities—and publishers should not be afraid to print them.
In order to build a socially inclusive society, our children must read stories that include characters with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, processing problems, Asperger’s syndrome, Down Syndrome and physical disabilities. Reading about diverse characters—seeing what they feel, how they live, what they experience, and what they worry about—creates empathy in children. I teach middle school and once had a high-functioning autistic child in my classroom. After I taught the class about Autism and explained how the children could help the boy, the class nurtured him and gave him the first birthday party of his life with friends. Every child benefited by inclusion.
We can’t put an autistic child in every home and classroom—but we can put novels with autistic characters in every home and classroom and library. Literature has always played a key role in teaching children to value and respect others. Despite the scarcity of novels in this area, there are success stories: the characters in The Fault in Our Stars live with cancer (and one is blind). In the classic short story “Flowers for Algernon,” a mentally disadvantaged man undergoes an experiment to become smart—only then does he recognize the cruelty of others. In “Raymond’s Run,” a girl decides to coach her mentally impaired brother. Rules, a Newberry Honor book, deals with autism. Freak the Mighty portrays one teen with a learning disability and another with a physical disability who become friends. In Hurt Go Happy, a teen deaf girl is isolated until she meets a chimpanzee who knows sign language.
In an article for the School Library Journal, Carly Okyle, an author living with cerebral palsy, points out the importance of not shoehorning disabled characters into a story as a “teaching aid.” Authors must show strong disabled characters and present them as “more than their difficulties.” She adds that in the best books, disabled characters will be “fleshed out—they fight with friends, fall in love, have trouble in school, and enjoy a night out.” Progress is being made. The American Library Association offers the Schneider Family Book Award, which recognizes books that artistically relate the disability experience for children and adolescents. Deer Valley Unified School District in Arizona has created a “Disability Awareness Activity Packet” to educate teachers and children. Throughout history, literature has changed the world, but it needs to be representative of our diverse society. It needs to include various ethnicities, cultures and those who live with physical and mental challenges.
Our job as parents, librarians and educators is to introduce diverse characters to our children, so that one day, their empathy will leap beyond the pages of the book and lead to compassion and friendships and social inclusion.
Sandra Woffington is a middle school teacher and the author of Evil Speaks, book #1 in the Warriors and Watchers Saga. For more, please visit WarriorsandWatchersSaga.com
5 Ways Parents and Educators Can Teach Diversity
- Give children/students books with characters of diverse ethnicities and physical or mental challenges. Discuss them.
- Make diverse friends and invite them over. Or invite diverse guest speakers to the classroom. Nothing will better exemplify inclusion. Point out our similarities, not our differences.
- Have your family or class attend a Special Olympics event, a facility for special needs children, or a sports facility that works with physically or mentally impaired youth. Get involved. Volunteer.
- Have your family view or attend the Paralympic games. Teachers can assign school reports about the gold-medal winning Paralympians (my website contains a growing list of Paralympians). These athletes are outstanding role models.
- Have your students/children create stories based on an alternative point-of-view: from another culture, physically or mentally challenged, or given a superpower—anything that allows critical thinking from another perspective. Alternative: I have a pouch of pictures taken from National Geographic magazines, which portray people from all points in history, of all ages and from all parts of the world. I randomly hand students a picture as the prompt for a story. Remind them not to be stereotypical.
S. Woffington is a California native, whose thirst for adventure began when reading 1001 Arabian Nights tales as a child. In her twenties, she lived in Saudi Arabia and England for two years each, spent four months in Italy, and traveled extensively. After completing UC Irvine’s Humanities Honors Program, she earned dual masters degrees in English and Creative Writing from Chapman University. Her stay in Saudi Arabia inspired her debut novel Unveiling, which won Honorable Mention from Writer’s Digest SP e-book awards. Woffington teaches math, English and history to middle grade students at a Montessori school. During summers off, she writes fiction. She also works as a freelance developmental editor. More information: warriorsandwatchers.com