We’ve become a lot more diverse as a population in one generation in most parts of North America, and far more so in two generations. Speaking as a representative of the grandparent generation, when I was young, outside of big cities diversity was mostly restricted to the difference in people’s last names. That was pretty well the sum total of noted diversity; maybe your name sounded Polish or Greek or Italian instead of English or French… and maybe your parents even altered their names to make things “easier”. Everything else was out of sight, out of mind. No longer. We are a rainbow world; we come together from everywhere. We recognize that people with disabilities should be able to lead full lives, just like everyone else. We have families where kids may be raised by a mother and father, just a mother, just a father, by two fathers, two mothers, or by a grandparent or a foster parent. The happy news is that none of this is behind closed doors. And, although everything is not perfect, for sure, by and large this is the world that people expect. Except, that is not what kids find in most books they read. It is not what a parent usually finds when he or she reads to their young child. Too many children do not see themselves represented in stories written for them, and too many of us, including me, have been blind to that reality. There are more signs of change, but it is slow …. and it is complicated.
Reading to a child from an early age has been identified as perhaps the single most important thing you can do to ensure your child is as ready as possible to succeed in school. (It’s also a lovely bonding activity.) Stories provide all kinds of value: a story can fire children’s imaginations, make them laugh, surprise them, scare them, teach them new things, and increase their vocabulary. But it can also reinforce the unintended and potentially damaging message that the young reader is different from everyone else. I have been brought up short by this realization a few times in the past year or so.
Some readers will know that I started this blog several years ago when I was starting to write stories for my small grandchildren, hence the blog’s name – Robby Robin’s Journey – because my first stories were about a young bird named Robby Robin. More recently, I had written a story for a new grandchild and thought I’d send a copy of the story to a young friend of mine who had a new child of about the same age. Just one thing, in my story there was a Mommy and a Daddy, with my grandchild’s family in mind, but in my friend’s family there are two Daddies. (And may I say that no kid could have two better parents; he’s one lucky kid!) I had never, ever stopped to think about that blind spot in my story-writing until then; for example, all of my Robby Robin stories have a Mama Robin and a Papa Robin, but maybe they didn’t really need to. It was easy to make a customized change for one friend with a few word changes and some revised illustrations. But if I had intended the story for a bigger audience, what about all the other “non-traditional” families? Do parents reading to their kids in these families have to explain every single time they read a book out loud that there are all different kinds of families, it’s just that they’re never shown in books?! As I say, I had never stopped to think about this issue until this particular time.
More recently, I have been writing short stories for the young children in the lovely Syrian family I visit (and read to) every week. This has been an eye-opener in several ways. For one thing, while looking online for illustrations to help dress up my stories for them, I was taken aback to find that the majority of cartoon images showing kids’ activities have blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids. By far and away the majority. I ended up Photoshopping most of the cartoons I chose, changing the eyes and hair to dark brown. This is something else that I admit I have never paid attention to until recently, but too many of the beloved old children’s books have illustrations showing only kids with blonde hair and blue eyes.
I had another surprise recently while reading popular children’s books that I had heard of, but had not read previously myself. As I mentioned, I am reading these to a Syrian refugee family in our town, who love it here and are embracing learning all about Canadian culture and traditions. So when I read stories to their kids where somewhat to my chagrin the kids in the stories are yelling at their teachers and yelling at their mothers, I feel that I need to say, “This may sound funny, but it is not the way we speak to teachers or parents in real life in Canada.” Oh, my. Life is complicated sometimes! 🙂
I have no brilliant suggestions for how we become more mindful of the composition of the families we create for the stories we write and illustrate. Nor have I any brilliant suggestions for how we work harder to make sure that we aren’t unintentionally excluding kids from the very stories we hope they will love, or perhaps giving them the wrong ideas about how to behave. Maybe simple awareness is what it takes. These thoughts simply had not crossed my mind before. Now they will. And we need to be mindful when we choose books for our kids as well. Letting it be known why we are choosing some books and not others might help.
Two bloggers who I have been following enthusiastically ever since I joined this magical world of the blogosphere have addressed this topic of diversity in children’s lit in different ways very recently. Jo Robinson, a blogger who lives in South Africa and has published books more in the science fiction genre, is the illustrator of a new children’s book called Myrtle the Purple Turtle, which is about a young turtle who is taunted about her “turtle-ness” because she’s purple. I was delighted to discover this book through Jo’s blog, and also pleased to subsequently find that the author, Cynthia Reyes, is Canadian. I am now the proud owner of a copy of this charming book (along with an excellent “grown-up” book by Cynthia Reyes called A Good Home), and I’m looking forward to reading Myrtle to my young Syrian friends tomorrow afternoon. I highly recommend you taking a look at Jo’s blog introducing Myrtle the Purple Turtle.
The other blogger whose posts have motivated my thinking on this topic is A.M.B., who writes the blog The Misfortune of Knowing, posting about books, writing, and the law. She and her 8-year old red-headed twins have published a more diverse version of Anne of Green Gables called Anusha of Prospect Corner. Her blog includes some engaging posts describing the process of writing with her girls as they created a book that is inspired by Anne but reflective of their lives. If you have girls who liked Anne of Green Gables, you will undoubtedly be interested in following this link to A.M.B.’s post about Anusha, where you will also find a link to a preview of the book itself.
The world of reading is so important to all of us, of all ages. Reading influences how we think about ourselves and how we think about others. I, for one, am going to try to make a more conscious effort to think about who may or may not feel excluded when I think of story lines and characters in the future. And that, I hope, will at least be a small step forward.