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Editorial: We’re Not Rainbow Sprinkles

Last month at the Cambridge Public Library, I moderated a panel of five middle-grade writers brought to town by their publisher, Random House: Jeanne Birdsall, Bruce Coville, Alice Hoffman, R. J. Palacio, and Rebecca Stead. The place was packed and the conversation lively.

With just a few minutes left for questions at the end of the program, I decreed they must come from middle graders, of which there were plenty in the audience. The first question, from a boy who looked to be ten or eleven, was for Palacio: why, he asked, were there no gay characters in Wonder, her mega-bestseller about a boy with a disfigured face? “That’s a great question,” Palacio replied, and she proceeded to explain some of the strictures and conventions of middle-grade fiction before gracefully allowing that in fact it simply hadn’t occurred to her to make one or another of her characters identifiably gay.

There were a couple more questions after that, but I confess I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been, instead wondering why this boy had asked that question and whether or not I agreed it was a “great” one. I mean, yes, kudos for the progressive thinking, of course, but should Wonder or any of the other novels featured that night have gayed things up a bit? Would that have made them better books, either aesthetically or ideologically?

The calls for cultural diversity and the inclusion of marginalized perspectives in books for youth are these days more intense and pervasive than I have ever seen. At last! But I don’t think much will be accomplished by sprinkling diversity into stories as if one were selecting candy bits and toppings at the ice-cream parlor. I’ve written in this space before (see the January/February 2015 Horn Book editorial, “Why #WNDB”) about the problem of including characters who “just happen” to be something-or-other by authors who — generally — “just happen” not to be whatever add-in they’re using to decorate their stories. If you, straight author, feel compelled to add a baby gay into your story because a baby gay fits into the story you’re trying to tell, by all means. But once it’s being done simply to check off a diversity box, things start looking homogenous in a whole different way. Nobody’s identity is that casual, and we are none of us rainbow sprinkles.

As the fierce (and cheekily named) new blog Reading While White (readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com) points out, handwringing about the inclusion of diverse characters is largely limited to white writers. While nonwhite and otherwise Other writers just want a chance to publish their stories — diverse by definition alone — white writers worry about accusations of tokenism, cultural misappropriation, and simple cluelessness when venturing to tell a story not their own. Or, “being a part of the problem” if they stick to what they know.

I don’t think Wonder suffers for its lack of gay characters. It has plenty on its plate already, but, more important, we can’t expect all books to be all things to all people. Honestly: if you’re spending more time worrying about swelling your character count with desirable statistics or getting your “authenticity” verified than you are in simply being true to your story, maybe you’re writing the wrong book. And if authors of all stripes worried less about what they thought the world needed to hear and instead focused on what they had to say, we’d all be better off.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. Brent Hartinger says:

    I’m not sure I agree entirely, Roger. I think “incidentally gay” characters — where a character’s gayness has nothing to do with the story — are incredibly important, subversive, and empowering. And, frankly, they tend to make a story more “trueful”, since it’s hard to spend time around any group of teens these days and NOT have one or more be LGBT.

    But the thing about the question that makes me smile is that for decades I was told: Why ARE you including gay characters? (And it was not posed in a positive way either.) I think it’s okay if, for a few years, authors now have to justify, at least to themselves, why they’re NOT including gay characters. And if an author has NEVER included a gay character in his or her books? That makes me think the author has an agenda, even if he or she isn’t aware of it. (As I said before, it’s not truthful.)

    I think the “rainbow sprinkles” line is unfair. Although obviously you’ve been on the forefront of this issue for decades too, so I’m certainly not calling you a hypocrite!

  2. Excellent intelligent article, Roger. The bullying, fear, single-issue fanatics, attacks on writers for attempting to tackle subjects outside their race/sexuality — or NOT attempting it — are all distractions from the one and only ‘job’ all writers have — which is to express something we care passionately about. Preferably with style and grace and grit and rage and humanity and love and whatever else makes our voice unique. These are the books that speak to readers, that connect, that last. The rainbow sprinkle mentality is doing no one any good at all. Diversity is important, of course it is. So all you people with something powerful and passionate to say, go out and say it. And I agree with you that that little boy’s question was peculiar and misguided — and wonder who or what was behind it.

  3. That incidental nature—as Brent points out—is reality. I love the way Cindy L. Rodriguez included that reality in WHEN REASON BREAKS.

    Your “sprinkles” metaphor is an apt one. I think that’s what is wrong with A FINE DESSERT. The enslaved family is a token. This becomes clearer when you read about the research Blackall did. I love reading about process. She wrote posts about making the whisk, visiting England, finding berries, and so on, but not so much that tells us she thought carefully about depicting enslaved peoples. The notes in the back of the book indicate they knew they were on a slippery slope in their depictions of the enslaved family.

    None of us want to be decoration. None of us want to be reduced to a stereotype, either. Writers and illustrators mean well. That is a given. But they often write from a space that is ignorant–as in not knowing or unaware.

    When people do what Blackall did, or what Meg Rosoff did with her use of “squaw”, their next work will be better if they listen to criticism rather than dismiss it.

  4. “But once it’s being done simply to check off a diversity box, things start looking homogenous in a whole different way. Nobody’s identity is that casual, and we are none of us rainbow sprinkles.”

    OR, perhaps, those checkboxes matter because they DO reflect what reality is like around even the whitest of those of us who are white. If I wrote and entire novel with straight white people, I’d be embarrassed how it doesn’t reflect reality one bit.

    A boy bravely asking about gay characters? He deserves respect for the question as much as he deserves respect for a truthful answer AND to see himself reflected in fiction.

    When Meg Rosoff, who has herself spoken out vehemently against “diversity for diversity’s sake,” is in your comments agreeing with you, perhaps that’s a sign it’s a really outdated, outmoded, poor sighted opinion.

  5. I mean or ……….

    maybe that kid is gay and he was asking why there wasn’t a character like him in a book he loved.

    WILD IDEA! Maybe he wasn’t asking for “rainbow sprinkles” but to see a character like him in a book he loved. WOWOWOWOW WHAT ARE THE ODDS.

  6. What your entire essay so blithely disregards is that it was not “white liberal handwriting guilt” that brought up the question about a gay kid in WONDER. It was *a question from a middle schooler.” In other words, that child–presumably not caught up in the inner turmoil of publishing–genuinely wanted to know. Presumably that child wanted to see a gay character or thought it strange that one wasn’t included. That speaks to a genuine need that apparently isn’t being fulfilled. While no one work of fiction is required to contain anything whatsoever, this kid is looking for something in his or her reading that feels necessary, important, meaningful or–quite possibly–simply a normal part of life for someone who has grown up in a less bigoted generation.

    In other words, there aren’t too many “rainbow sprinkles” around there, because young readers are still hungry. And if you get your back up about a kid genuinely asking an author a thoughtful question, well, I think that’s pretty sad. Nobody blamed you; nobody asked you. The author responded to the kid’s question beautifully and non-defensively. It sounds like she didn’t just speak. She also *listened.* You could take some lessons from her.

  7. Isabel Allende's Worst Nightmare says:

    I look forward to the day when every book is vetted through Debbie-Angie-Kelly’s lens of what is acceptable and appropriate. Only then will we have Good Literature.

  8. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’m not putting the kid or his question down. But as far as legitimate criticism goes, it’s not far from the preschooler who thinks I WANT MY HAT BACK needs more dinosaurs. A reader can want whatever he wants, but it’s not each book’s responsibility to give it to him.

  9. I guess we have to ask ourselves how honest we want to be in our representation of Place in storymaking. It would be pretty hard for me to accept that a teenager in a typical urban high school in America didn’t know a single person who was gay. If the story was set in the eighties – maybe. But now? No. I look at my own high school junior, and a good third of her friends identify as Queer. Writing them out of the story would be dishonest. Similarly, a story set in a rural area probably has a higher likelihood of being an all-white cast (depending on the State and county, of course) but an urban high school? Forget it. The school where my daughter attends is only 25% Caucasian. (She has friends whose parents are professors and friends whose parents don’t have documentation and friends who speak six languages – one for each country who hosted their refugee camps – and friends who secretly rock out to heavy metal through earbuds tucked under their hijabs. She once said to me “School is colorful, but books aren’t.” It was a sad observation.) Even the suburban high schools have significant portions of people of color in their populations. As writers, we tell the stories that move us and that pull us to the page – of course we do. And no one is suggesting – not in any seriousness – that there is any kind of diversity checklist. That’s a ludicrous idea, and a strawman argument. But what does need to give us pause is the question of audience. If the population is becoming more brown, more mixed, with more diverse family structures, and if that is being seen first in the populations in school – our readership – then wouldn’t it follow that the books that they’d be interested in would be relevant to their experience? I would argue that any writer setting a story in an American high school or middle school or elementary school and comes up with an all-white or all-straight cast has just not spent a lot of time in schools. And hasn’t spent very much time actually talking to children. And listening. And maybe that should change.

    None of us has written a perfect book. NONE of us have. And sometimes we really blow it. But if we’re not bothering to write stories that are relevant to our readers, then what are we doing, really? And who, in the end, are we writing for?

  10. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Writing queer kids OUT of a story? Horrible. but writing them INTO a story has its own perils. I have often read YA novels with passages like this: “So I’m walking to my locker when I see my friend Jase with his boyfriend. Oh, yeah, Jase is gay, didn’t I tell you? But he’s cool, too.” I don’t feel included by passages like that, I feel used.

  11. Gay kids, believe it or not, are not dinosaurs. They ACTUALLY exist today.

  12. A kid wanting to see gay people in books is not at all the same as a kid who thinks there should be dinosaurs in I WANT MY HAT BACK. I really don’t understand how we’re supposed to see them the same way.

    I think I’ll just cosign Kohlie’s comment, because it’s far more eloquent than I have it in me to be at this moment.

  13. No, Roger, it’s not the same as someone wondering why HAT doesn’t have dinosaurs, because dinosaurs are not an underrepresented or marginalized group. In fact, I’d be really interested in some stats on how many books there are that feature dinosaurs vs. books that feature gay people. I’ll bet there are more than 1000 dinosaur picture books for every 1 picture book with gay characters.

    This kid’s question was a great question. Last year, a 6th grader told me, “I would like to read a book about a transgender kid. Reading books about kids like me all the time is just boring.” When a child says something along those lines–“why doesn’t the world of literature more accurately reflect the real world?”–we’ve gotta listen, even if we don’t have all the answers.

    And Meg, really? This kid was “peculiar and misguided”? Your very language is othering this child. I’m surprised you didn’t include “queer” as a descriptor.

  14. And while we’re doing this, *I* look forward to the day when people are allowed to say “ouch, this hurts” or “I wonder why there aren’t more gay people in mainstream kids’ books” or “I wish more white people would examine their whiteness” without fear of:

    -being called peculiar, misguided, vicious, toxic, fierce, cheeky, fanatic, or fervent;
    -being accused of bullying, attacking, being a “hate group” or hating white people;
    -being accused of advocating for censorship or ethnic cleansing (both of which have happened to me)

  15. Isabel Allende's Worst Nightmare says:

    Actually, AJB, Meg Rosoff said the kid’s *question* was peculiar and misguided, but way to misrepresent. Sounds like you are doing your best at marginalizing.

  16. “Would that have made them better books, either aesthetically or ideologically?”

    Why not ask that question about the inclusion of straight characters as well?

    This entire argument hinges on the assumption that gay people are a deviation from the normal default that require some sort of justification or reason to exist in fiction, whereas straight people need no such consideration. Depending on circumstance the exact same mindset exists around people of colour, or trans people, or women, or what have you.

    I have never met a single person who wanted to be able to read a book with a checklist in hand, ticking off minority representations as they read. But there are a lot of people (including, apparently, this boy) who want an end to the worldview expressed in this post.

  17. Okay, so I say this will all the respect in the world, but I guess I would argue that gay kids and brown kids get written out ALL THE TIME. And it’s the worst kind of writing out, because it was by very nice writers who are incredibly perceptive when it comes to characters who look like them, but who simply have not bothered to see characters who don’t. And that, for a writer, is a terrible thing. Fiction, in the end, is the art of seeing. If we are being honest about the realities for a 10 year old or a 12 year old or a 17 year old, then we have a responsibility to see the world as they see it – and to pin that to the page.

    As to your example – I will trust you that you’ve seen that level of lousy writing, because I know you’ve read like a million more books than I have. I have never seen a anything close to that level of tacked-on-ness. I would agree that it’s bad writing. I would also argue that writing that demonstrate’s the writer’s own inability to see beyond their own experience is similarly bad writing. When we hand a reader a book, we are asking them to engage in an act of radical empathy. How can we ask them to do this if we are unwilling to do so ourselves?

  18. I’ve seen plenty of the “So I’m walking to my locker when I see my friend Jase with his boyfriend. Oh, yeah, Jase is gay, didn’t I tell you? But he’s cool, too.” example that Roger used. But perhaps that’s my perspective as a gay man. That it’s more pointedly obvious to me.

    We can wish there was representation in every book but honestly, sometimes when writers stretch it comes across as pandering, or even worse, inauthentic. If you don’t know how or feel capable to write a gay male character (or Native American, or Latina/o, or Asian-American, or Jewish person, or Mormon, or or or or or), please don’t try. Write what you know. And if that happens to be a largely homogeneous setting, so be it. Those still exist, too.

  19. Mike Jung says:

    I shall heroically (oh come on, recognize the irony here) back up Allie’s comment about the difference between dinosaurs and gay characters in books. Books aren’t challenged because they portray dinosaurs; books DO get challenged because they portray gay characters. Authors who write about dinosaurs aren’t accused of being peddlers of depravity; authors who write about gay characters are. A lot of readers play at being dinosaurs, which doesn’t put them in any jeopardy; a lot of readers ARE gay, and it often puts them in terrible jeopardy.

    To be fair, I think it’s true that not all books have to be all things to all readers. I think it’s even true that not all books have to represent every possible context of reality. The problem, of course, is that when we talk about individual books, we’re not really talking about that individual book in a vacuum. We’re talking about it within the context of our body of literature as a whole, and I honestly can’t see how anyone could justify a society-wide literary canon that isn’t as close to being all things for all of its readers as it can possibly be.

    Our collective works of children’s literature AREN’T all things to all of its readers, of course. They should be, and that’s why we’re having these discussions. That’s why these discussions have become as intense and pervasive as they are, and rightfully so.

  20. Rowland Smith says:

    Mr. Rodger, I am one quick to say. I am an African-American male who loves to read, and would have loved to see me in a book. All white people, making me believe that it’s the world today. And as a person who grew up in the south, among homophobia and racism, I would have loved to see me in a book. I’ve been in a reading slump, trying to focus on reading more diversely. Because the more I see white people writing a book of white people, the more I want to write books telling my stories. Your bigotry is normal I have to say.
    Because good sir. Books saved my laugh. Got me through school. Got me through life really. And it might just do the same for another gay black kid, or biracial kid, or transgender girl. So thank you good sir. You are one of the reasons I write.

  21. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Except this was one kid asking one writer about one book. Should we be interrogating individual books for what they DON’T do? Yes, when a book seems to be conveniently overlooking an aspect of the reality it’s intending to convey, but otherwise? I don’t agree with the criticism of the FINE DESSERT book, for example, but I don’t think it’s out of bounds. But I do query Debbie Reese’s criticism that it did not include an American Indian vignette.

    But I do understand the frustration: while books are authored and published one at a time, and I believe should be so judged, in toto they convey a world that is not nearly as diverse as the one we live in.

  22. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Mr. Smith, when you speak of my “bigotry,” to what do you refer?

  23. Sergio R. says:

    It’s interesting how people focus on the jokey parallel with the dinosaurs, and decide to ignore what came next in Roger’s comment: “A reader can want whatever he wants, but it’s not each book’s responsibility to give it to him,” which is the whole point. What sane person would disagree with this statement?

  24. Brent Hartinger says:

    I confess, I don’t understand the big deal about authors sometimes being asked awkward questions, being put on the spot like this. In a “big picture” sense, all authors should be asking themselves this question: when it comes to LGBT issues, am I reflecting reality? Or do I have a bias? Am I reflecting a 1975 world-view? In a “small picture” sense, it seems clear that we’re going through a period of social transition, from a time of clear and open oppression, to a time of more inclusion. This is an objective good (isn’t it?). And whenever there’s a period of social transition, sometimes emotions and ideas will be expressed awkwardly, maybe even unfairly. This particular question seems like such a small deal to be virtually inconsequential, especially given that it came from a middle school child.

    As for the awkwardness of casual references to secondary characters’ sexuality in books, that doesn’t bother me either. I actually love seeing that. It’s not always done perfectly well, but when it is, it makes smile.

  25. One of my favorite novels in the past few years is Long Division by Kiese Laymon. The book is set in a small town in Mississippi, and the main character is a young black kid named City. He’s the star of his local high school, and he loves to read. One day, he visits the local library and thinks, “I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you can tell that whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler, my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met.”

    I think about this a lot, because here is a fictional character stating something so obvious, and yet we’re unwilling to see it, hear it, or believe it’s meaningful: Too many kids can only read books that aren’t written for or about them.

    If we want kids to think reading is valuable, important and interesting, then the books kids read have to think that THEY are valuable, important, and interesting.

  26. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I don’t think the question was a big deal at all, Brent. It was polite and interested, as was the author’s response. WAY better than the three questions in a row I moderated for Louis Sachar last weekend, each one asking which of his characters was his favorite!

  27. Mike Jung says:

    AHA, and here we see the confusion inherent in my preferred non-nested comment mode. Confused…confused about comment trails…

    Roger, I’m not sure if your “except this was one kid” comment was in my response to my comment, but if so, why shouldn’t we interrogate individual books for what they don’t do? It obviously doesn’t mean the books in question will be gathered up, thrown into the nearest river with cement shoes on, and sent back to press. It also doesn’t mean the authors of those books are guaranteed to do anything differently next time around, because every author will (insert repeat usage of “obviously” here) make that decision for herself on a book-by-book basis. But if we make it verboten to raise questions and provoke discussion of individual books, how else can we do it?

    I know it entails the risk of considerable discomfort; I don’t discount the reality of that. But it seems to me that these discussions are much, much, much easier to dismiss and shout down when they’re stated in vague, overall terms. Things haven’t changed in such a long time, after all. Maybe the increasingly forceful presence of the discussion means our industry as a whole will finally start changing in a real way. Maybe we’re taking the discomfort that’s been so concentrated among the people trying to to effect change and redistributing it among EVERYONE. Maybe that’s what it’s going to take.

    Oh, I’ll stop waffling. I think that IS what it’s going to take.

  28. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    NOOOO Mike I don’t agree at ALL. My point was that not every book has to do every thing. I didn’t finish WONDER and think, “Wait. Where was the gay kid? Shouldn’t there have been a gay kid? There should have, right? Because they deserve to see themselves in books.”

    They–we–do deserve to see themselves–ourselves–in books, but it’s not the responsibility of any one book to make that happen. It IS the responsibility of publishers to make sure that books in toto reflect a much more diverse world than they currently do.

  29. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    (And I’m sure publishers will say, “sure, we’ll publish ’em if you buy ’em” so there’s plenty of responsibility to go around.)

  30. Jamie Watson says:

    In my graduating class many years ago, I had a girl of Filipino descent who had been adopted by a white family. A boy who was raised by grandparents. A teen Mom. Some people who I know now to be gay but did not know at the time, as they weren’t out (although there were openly gay people in other classes.) This was my diversity. But I don’t expect to see any or all of this in the books that I read. I just want it to feel REAL. And POSSIBLE. I am quite concerned with the diversity checklist, and I also think it’s not fooling those who are now “included” either – a point Roger eloquently makes.

    Also, thanks for making my laugh, Isabel Allende’s worst nightmare!

  31. I swear to all things holy I wasn’t going to comment on this one… There’s no nesting, but Roger this is a response to the comment about the Fine Dessert review. There are aspects of this post overall that I do agree with (like the problem of including “diversity” that is only surface deep.) But, along with issues others have already pointed out, I think this comment gets at a fundamental misunderstanding. In that review, Debbie wasn’t objecting to a lack of Native representation like a checklist with a box left unticked (and in fact she said she was glad there *wasn’t* any Native content, given her view of the treatment of slavery.) The criticism was of a perspective on US history that doesn’t see the way it always already includes Native people, even if this remains unacknowledged. It’s this perspective that’s being analyzed– a take on history that is inherently ideological even though it doesn’t recognize itself as such– not the lack of check marks. And, to my reading, that’s the basis for the profound criticism of the book’s depiction of slavery as well. This is also the larger issue people are talking about in tying individual books to a larger context. There are places where this is maybe more obvious to some– like the way Friends showed a New York City where only white people lived. Saying: “hey, why does your imagining of NYC only include white people? What does that mean and how does it fit with other programs out there, and ultimately with who makes and profits from TV shows?” is different than saying: “here’s the list of quotas for the people you must put in your TV show.” No one’s requiring anyone to do anything, especially if they won’t do it well. But authors can’t expect their readers not to look back at them, with a vision that may make those authors uncomfortable. And, as Mike says, to see how individual books (or shows) both represent and connect to larger issues. Putting one’s work out there means being seen, and being seen and responded to is not an attack. Authors still have the freedom to listen, or ignore, or disagree! (And, those writing from positions of marginalization are constantly dealing with the weight of being seen through the majority’s eyes, and on the majority’s terms, in ways those complaining about criticism as “attacks” and “censorship” seem unwilling, or unable to comprehend.)

    Also, if there is any holiness left in the holy things, can we please not go back to The Market argument.

  32. Mrs. Dawn Davenport says:

    It’s fair and necessary to examine the structures and imbalances of the publishing system and the attendant literary culture in order to figure out why the stories we’re given, along with the characters in those stories, are so overwhelmingly homogenous. This is something that really does need to change, and change fast. Full stop.

    On the level of an individual book, however, it’s not fair or reasonable to ask a why it isn’t what it’s not. Sure, if the lack of representation crosses the line into head-scratching unreality, that’s of course a problem. If every child on the Magic School Bus was white, it would really raise some serious questions about what kind of school this is.

    But the focus of so many other books is very narrow– there are often really only two or three major characters in a novel. It is impossible for a single book to represent everyone. An author needs to be free to tell the story they are telling.

    The problem that needs to be talked about and solved here, is why the overwhelming majority of characters in the majority of books being published are white, straight people. That’s something that everyone who reads or writes books, or writes about books, needs to be examining very seriously, along with their own complicity in the problem.

    The problem is that it’s much easier, and more exciting, to waste time gnashing our teeth over the fact that there are only white, straight people in Charlotte’s Web. This is an unproductive distraction that entirely misses the point. (I’m not gonna kill a fifth grader for it, though.)

  33. Mike Jung says:

    Roger, I actually do agree with you that not every individual book has the responsibility to include every possible thing in the world. That responsibility lies with our books as a collective whole, and we clearly do agree that our books as a collective whole are falling short. I do believe authors have the prerogative to make their (our) own decisions about how to respond to such feedback. But I think the feedback itself matters; the ability to have and share those opinions about meaningful books matters. We can all stand to rattle the cages of our knowledge and assumptions. You didn’t question the lack of gay characters in WONDER, and I don’t have any problem with that. I also don’t have any problem with that kid who did question it – in fact, I applaud the hell out of that kid. He asked a question that might have seemed like a blunt instrument on the surface of things, but my interpretation is that he was really asking a big, meaningful question about humanity. “Why aren’t there any gay characters” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “YOU SHOULD ADD A GAY CHARACTER TO EVERY BOOK FROM NOW ON, YOU INK-STAINED CRETIN” – it could also mean “I noticed this about your book and it made me think about how your book engages with the reality of the world around us. Explain.”

    That would be so great, wouldn’t it? A book provoking a question of such depth. “What does this book say or not say about the world we actually live in?” What if that question means that kid is thinking about being human on a grand scale? What if that question can help us as authors (and editors, agents, reviewers, etc.) question our own unthinking choices and examine our own relationship with humanity on a grand scale? Wouldn’t that be fabulous? ISN’T it fabulous?

    IT’S FABULOUS, HUZZAH, DOUGHNUTS AND HELIUM BALLOONS FOR ALL

  34. Honest, unloaded question: Roger, when you reference Reading While White and the handwringing done by white writers–are you talking about my post titled “Do I Have the Right To Write About ______?” (this one: http://www.readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/2015/09/do-i-have-right-to-write-about.html)? Just seeking clarification.

  35. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sarah, I agree that it’s completely fair game (and necessary) to look at books together and say “wait a minute–why am I not seeing any…?” But my reviewer’s training demands I treat each as its own thing first.

    I mentioned the money angle only because a publisher asked me about it earlier today. My only interest in linking economics to the discussion of diverse books is a larger one we’ve had many times before in the century since children’s books have been percolating in this country: how do we line up what kids want to read with what we want them to read? Over on Facebook today we were talking about mirrors and windows, and I offered that kids (all readers, really) find mirrors in the damnedest places, not necessarily along the kind of gender-sexual orientation-ethnicity lines that are in the forefront of the discussion among professionals today.

  36. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yes, AJB, the comments in that post were what made me think about the kid’s question in a new way. (And I thank you. And I also wonder if you could loosen up the comments mechanism so I don’t have to get another darned password to join in!)

  37. I love that you insisted on allowing the young readers at this event to ask their questions, and given that, I’m a little surprised that you’ve chosen to write about his question in this way, rather than more respectfully considering why he might have asked it.

    I agree with RJ that is IS a great question. I say that because it came from a kid with a genuine interest, a kid who was brave enough to ask a risky question in a room full of grownups. Maybe he asked, as others have suggested, because he’s gay or has gay friends and wonders why the large school community depicted in Wonder doesn’t mention those characters. Maybe he asked because Wonder is a book that deals with the issue of bullying, and middle grade kids who are gay or perceived to be gay face those issues at least as much as Auggie. Maybe he wondered if RJ thought about that.

    Or maybe he’s a writer, too, and wonders how authors make those decisions. I get asked similar questions surprisingly often, when it comes to my debut novel The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., which includes a gay couple among the many neighbors who help Gianna with a school project by offering up leaves from their yard. Why did I include them? Because that neighborhood is modeled loosely after my own, and guess what? Some of my neighbors are gay and lesbian couples. I bet some of your neighbors are, too. It’s not a big deal in the book or a major story element – as one blog review said, “There’s little ink spent on the sexuality of Gianna’s briefly appearing neighbors in The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, but it’s there. Just like it is in the world.”

    And maybe that was the kid’s point. Or maybe not. But he was just asking the question. He certainly didn’t suggest that all books have to have be built on some checklist. And I think his question deserves more respect than it’s getting in some of the comments here.

  38. Ella Barnhill says:

    Sometimes people are casually queer. It’s not always the focus of someone’s story that they’re… gasp… a GAY!!! Same with kids of color, or anything. Kids want to read diverse stories. They don’t want the same plot all the time, they don’t want the same setting all the time, they don’t want the same characters all the time. Allow kids to read about kids who *aren’t* like them.

  39. If there’s a way to make the comments “looser”, it’s above my technical abilities. I really think they’re as loose as blogger allows–we have to manually delete the spam advertisements because we allow comments to be posted without moderation (“flying without a net”, as KT dubbed it). Sorry!

  40. We don’t like to be uncomfortable. We don’t like to be questioned. But that young person has the right to question. He has the right to question the status quo. He has the right to question the status quo, until things change for the better. He has the right to question the status quo until things change for the better, even if it makes others uncomfortable. He has the right to question the status quo, until things change for the better, even if makes others uncomfortable, even if it’s not really about one book at all, but a whole world of books. He has the right to take up space and be heard and shake things up. He has the right to do so, wherever and whenever he can.

    And by he, I mean all of us.

    To anyone who’s uncomfortable with the ‘focus on diversity’: the questions aren’t going to stop, the outcry isn’t going to stop, and the uncomfortable conversations aren’t going to stop until things change for the better. After all, the whole wide world is changing; the small world of publishing would do well to keep up.

  41. I think the boy’s question was an excellent one. It seems to me that her answer could have been, “How do you know there weren’t any gay characters in Wonder?” Children don’t necessarily identify as gay by age 11, so who knows how each of those kids will grow up? And even if they do have themselves all figured out by then, they’re not necessarily going to tell the world and expose themselves to the casual cruelties of their classmates.

  42. Lara Starr says:

    Judy Freeman I came back to this post to make that same point! I was telling my husband about this discussion last night and said, “It’s one of those great responses you only think of hours later, ‘What made you think there weren’t gay characters in Wonder?'”

  43. Many people have said things that I wholeheartedly agree, that I am confused by, or that I need to really digest before posting about what has been going on in the world of Children’s & YA Lit. It weighs on me. It makes me tear up on an hourly basis: seeing people here and elsewhere (Fuse8, Heavy Medal, Facebook — I dare not go to Twitter), in their earnest to “defend their own ways of thinking,” use hurtful words, seething comments, words that simply want to get a reaction but not advance anyone’s causes. It makes me worry about what all these negative energy will translate eventually into the literary works that are meant to reflect and uplift. That are meant to be Free and Beautiful and Cathartic (even and sometimes when they are Painful.)

    It seems queer to me that Roger, a Gay Man (and once a Gay Middle Schooler, I believe) could not be allowed to ponder and express his view on Not wanting to be a Rainbow Sprinkle. I think it’s great if we dialogue about HOW could the sprinkling be enhanced or changed into genuine ingredients so it can strengthen the flavor of the cupcakes (sorry, that’s what comes to mind when I imagined sprinkles… please do not call me out on not also chocolate cake, ice cream sundaes, or any other goodies.) Or we can delve into how in this particular case of Wonder, the sprinkling might not make the whole better. It might feel tacked on if the author did not think of it in the first place. (The truth is, in Auggie’s life, there might not be any apparently gay classmates in his 5th grade and. True — one or two of the kids in the HS Play might be gay. But what would happen to a particular passage if it is casually mentioned by Justin? Would Palacio be called out by SOME people or tokenism? Worse, if the one or two casually existing gay kids happen to be in the Drama Club with Via — I can imagine some people accusing Palacio for stereotyping… So many things can go wrong for an author now — whether to include or whether to not include. And that’s the sense of unsafety that makes me on edge all the time and I’m NOT even an author!

    If working with tweens and teens has taught me anything for the last 20 odd years, it is that they spot fakery from 20 feet away and despise good intentions that are not delivered just the right way. So, yes, I think we need a lot more diverse characters, stories, genres, formats, creators, etc. And yes, I think that each author needs to learn to see the world from a diverse lens and learn HARD and EARNEST and GENUINE (not just to fulfill someone else’s demand.) But, also, yes, I think it is so crucial that all authors/illustrators are given safe spaces to make art that comes from a genuine place inside each of their hearts — only then we will continue having great literary work that stretches, expands, and transcends.

    I want to once again use the phrase “calling in” (thanks, Brendan Kiely) to remind everyone that we’re all IN this together because we all care so much about children’s & YA lit and the young people in our world. So, perhaps when we point something out, perhaps we can also find ways to make it less scary or hurtful?

  44. Roxanne, I hear your call for a community-spirited endeavor as we try to turn this ship around and move it in a direction that actually represents all our children. Kindness and generosity and courtesy matter. And so does an open forum in which all are free to speak their minds.

    But too often I see that the complaints about criticisms, the accusations of witch hunts, bullying and “storm troopers,” are privileging the comfort and good intentions of white authors and illustrators over the potential impact of ongoing misrepresentations or complete lack of representation on our *children.*

    And often what gets called angry or harsh is something that has been being expressed for so long, in so many ways, but has only been met with silence, denial, defensiveness and nothing changing.

    I think we can remember people’s good intentions – calling in – while simultaneous calling out the impact, the ways in which words and images reinforce Othering. And when we find out we’ve made mistakes, it’s on us to recognize that despite our good intentions, the impact was not what we’d hoped, and, painful as it may be, to take responsibility for that – to acknowledge our blindness, our bias, our ignorance.

    Surely we can bear this, in the service of ensuring that all our children get to see themselves reflected in books.

  45. Thank you, Roxanne. I wish the whole conversation would cease with your words, at least for a while.

  46. Mike Jung says:

    The estimable Anne Sibley O’Brien has said what I was going to say better than I could have said it, so, um, yeah. What Anne said.

    Oh, oh, oh, I’ll say some more anyway. It’s staggering how much energy is expended trying to make these discussions cease, and it’s equally staggering how many forms that effort to stop the discussion take. I think it’s encouraging and meaningful that not everyone retreats into a self-protective stance, however. It’s not many people, to be sure, but Maggie Stiefvater’s a fairly recent example, and Emily Jenkins is an even more recent example.

    “This is Emily Jenkins again. I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books.”
    http://www.hbook.com/2015/09/blogs/calling-caldecott/a-fine-dessert/

    So much of what we say in these discussions amounts to “let’s stop talking about this.” We might phrase it as “we need to be more kind when we talk about this,” or “we’re not talking about this in the right way,” but it sure feels like we’re saying “let’s stop talking about this, stop, stop, STOP.” Emily Jenkins didn’t do that, however. In fact, she said “I’m going to talk about this right now,” and she did, in a way that validates the concerns being voiced by so many. I’m glad she did.

  47. What Anne Sibley O’Brien said.

  48. Like Anne said.

    And from way up the thread, the point that all sorts of kids “just happen” to be who they are 24/7. You’d expect to see them in realistic fiction. If you don’t, then there is a systemic problem.

    And this from me: when you find yourself wishing people would “stop talking,” try asking yourself a few questions: Is this thing you are defending under immediate threat by powerful forces? Can those with an opposing view impose that view? Can they make you listen to them? If you did listen, would that undermine your position?

  49. I am unsure whether my comment is the one being discussed here… Have I asked anyone to stop talking? Just confused.

    I agree with Anne and Mike that we cannot just turn off the conversation and pretend that there are no issues. Nor can we ignore emotions when discussing books. I said my piece here about my hope for less hurtful discourses and I guess it is now open to free interpretation and had become “Roxanne does not wish for discourses at all.” (Such seems to be the norm these days.)

    Will continue to think and talk over on my own blog.

  50. Roxanne, I think Mike and Fern were responding to Sergio Ruzzier, who did specifically ask for the conversation to “cease, at least for a while”. I don’t think either of them implied “Roxanne does not wish for discourses at all.”

    In reading and listening to you, I can hear that you are hurting, and if I’m interpreting correctly, I’m one of the people who has made you hurt. I’m sorry for that. I don’t think it’s productive to try to work this out via the comments section of the Horn Book Editorial, but I believe we’re on a panel together at NYPL this upcoming Saturday–I’d be happy to get a cup of coffee before or after, if you’d like.

  51. Allie, Thanks for the clarification. 🙂 I am definitely hurting — but it’s not quite a personal, being attacked, kind of hurt. I’m hurting for the whole field of children’s/YA lit and I want to see the wounds healed — but healthily so. Not covering up ugly wounds and letting fester. So, yup, continue to talk and think is my MO now — even if it feels really really burdensome and in the back of my mind, I do have the, “Let’s drop this and can’t we simply make nice?” voice which I know will not be truly helpful/useful in the long run.

  52. Yes, indeed, let’s not cover wounds, let’s air them. And let’s continue to talk and think and remember that things that are painful in the short term can actually be productive and therapeutic in the long term. Looking forward to seeing you Saturday!

  53. Allie Jane Bruce, you wrote: “I don’t think it’s productive to try to work this out via the comments section of the Horn Book Editorial.” That’s what I meant. We agree on this.

    I used the word “cease” instead of “end,” or “terminate,” or “be silenced” on purpose, to implicate that there is a conflict going on and I wish there were a truce. I’m sorry if that didn’t go through. Maybe it’s because English is not my first language.
    It’s painful to see other people’s words being misused and distorted; personal attacks; public shaming. (I’m talking about the whole “conversation,” not this thread only.)

    I hope this made more sense than my previous comment.

  54. Mike Jung says:

    Hi Roxanne, hi Sergio, I wouldn’t say that I was responding directly to either of your individual comments, although if I’m going to be honest I should say that I did perceive them as connected to a pattern that many people see in the larger, industry-wide, society-wide discourse about inclusive representation. My intent was not to counter your individual comments, but to remark on a much larger dynamic that’s been brought to my attention. We sometimes create and sometimes unintentionally fall into patterns of discourse, don’t we? Not because of our intentions (which I feel confident saying are good for everyone on this thread, and in fact for most people engaged in these conversations), but because we live in a society which has been moving along those patterns for so long.

    Sergio, thank you for the clarification. The idea of a truce has appeal, certainly. Roxanne, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on how painful these discussions are, have been, and will probably continue to be. I should say that I really do understand both of you when you say you wish we could find a way to move forward in these ways without conflict, hurt feelings, etc. I entertain thoughts in the spirit of “I wish we could stop doing this and all treat each other with kindness and civility all the time” as often as anyone else.

    What pulls me up short when I have those thoughts is the increasing awareness that the “isms” of society (so many of which I’ve been wretchedly oblivious to for my whole life) will prevent us from reaching that place of collective kindness and civility as long as they exist. I cannot find it in my heart to describe a racially insensitive passage in a book as something which is kind, and not because the creators of said book lack kindness – I’m told Emily Jenkins is as thoughtful and humanistic as a person can be, for example.

    We can be kind as individuals and embed civility and grace in our intentions at the very same moment that we unintentionally, unconsciously create work that taps into age-old arteries of pain. And I’m nobody’s expert historian about this stuff, so I’ll happily accept any corrections to this thought, but it seems to me that we’re seeing these intense flares of pain in a way we never have before. Roger says the call for inclusive representation in children’s books is bigger and more pervasive than he’s EVER seen, and Roger’s no wide-eyed newcomer. I imagine he’s as close to having seen it all as anyone in our industry is. But I wonder. Is is that the discourse is more intense and more pervasive? I’m guessing it IS more pervasive, or maybe just more visible, but I suspect the intensity has always been there.

    I’m new to this conversation, but the conversation precedes me. In many ways I’m seeing people’s anger and pain for the first time, but the sources of that anger and pain didn’t start operating when I become aware of them. I still don’t fully understand the mechanisms of exclusion that have brought us a body of literature that’s so at odds with our collective span of identities, but I now understand those mechanisms enough to know they don’t include kindness in any real way.

    I’m dismayed by the amount of conflict we’re experiencing as we work for inclusive representation in children’s books, but I don’t think pro-diversity work is creating the conflict. The conflict is a product of the exclusion and erasure that have been happening for years and years and years. I think the conflict has been there all along.

  55. Yes. What Anne Sibley O’Brien said. And what Mike Jung, if you read all his comments consecutively, is saying, repeatedly. It is important to have this discussion without getting defensive and derailing the point of this discussion. No one seems to be saying that it is ONE BOOK’s responsibility to be all things to all colors of the rainbow. What most are trying to say is THIS DISCUSSION IS IMPORTANT. ASKING QUESTIONS, WITHOUT ATTACKING AND INSULTING AND BEING DEFENSIVE, IS IMPORTANT.

  56. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I may regret this, but it is a sincere and unloaded query. The discussion here is rich and useful. People are making great points in respectful ways. I’m finding myself rethinking the boy’s question that kicked off my argument. But why, when I look on Twitter, do I not recognize what I wrote? Several people said I was trying to keep minority writers down. Somebody else said I thought only straight white men should write books. (One person linked to a long angry blog response that, to my mind, was in complete agreement with what I wrote.) Nobody likes being attacked, but i can take it when someone has a disagreement with what I wrote. But I can’t find what I wrote in so many of the responses.

    It reminds me of the time a few months ago when I said that most traditionally published YA novels were written by women, and Twitter accused me not only of being wrong (I wasn’t) but of misogyny. Should I just not look?

  57. Roger–

    I can only speak for myself (as someone who hasn’t talked about you on twitter, that I know of) but my response to that question is: as with many of these discussions, I think it has to do with context. With that post on gender and YA (not to re-open that can of worms), there was a whole conversation that had happened before that post, and which the post was part of– and in the post itself you also made a derisive comment regarding a woman at Book Riot, I believe. If people are seemingly overlooking or mischaracterizing points, it may be that there’s a relationship to context, or to personal provocations like that– which change how the main points are communicated. I feel like this happens a lot in general, not just here. Casual observers may ask: what’s the big deal with saying you have to finish a book to critique it? But this misses how and when that question was raised, and in response to whom. Here, the framing within the context of that child’s question, and the implication that his question was an example of asking for “diversity for diversity’s sake” (something that’s been coming up a lot in other places, too) influences the meaning of the rest? And, too, sometimes the effect of being provocative, especially regarding subjects where there is ongoing hurt, is that people get provoked.

    I’d also say that I’m sure there *are* ways your words get mischaracterized. And to that I’d respond (gently): welcome to the club. Mike has spoken about this better than I ever could, but the number of ways that people have falsely characterized and twisted the words and motivations of those advocating for change, or those simply speaking up about problems they see with books and with the industry more generally (especially related to race), is staggering. I have seen the words “hate” and “destructive” thrown around a lot lately, in reference to people criticizing books on the basis of representation. I can’t remember the last time those words were used publicly by people with power in the industry to describe a negative review in The Horn Book Guide. Or to describe the use of strong or profane language in other places and contexts. Not to mention labels like “stormtroopers” and “Diversity Police”. Or “virtue signalers.” Or, people responding to critics with advanced degrees in literature and education by saying, “You don’t know anything about literary merit, only outrage.” Or, no matter how many times I say I’m only sharing my own reading, for example, others describing it as trying to speak for all Jewish people. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas has talked about the imbalance in the assumption of good intentions in these conversations (the demand that some people’s good intentions always be recognized and prioritized, while others are never given any such benefit of the doubt), and I’d just echo her. And echo Mike’s words above, which hit home so much. It isn’t fun for anyone to see their words and intentions framed in ways that feel ungenerous or inaccurate– but maybe part of the problem is that that discomfort has always been disproportionately felt by those with the least power within the world of children’s books.

  58. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yeah, I called her a zealot, which she took as an anti-Semitic slur. So she said i was a racist.

    And it’s true that far worse goes on with gamergate et al so I guess i will count my blessings.

  59. I agree wholeheartedly with Sarah’s thoughtful and articulate comment and Mike Jung’s comment that this conflict is not new, and what is interesting is that the “blame” is being placed on those speaking up and questioning the status quo, thereby deflecting the real issues here, which everyone claims to agree on. I keep reading people make leaps and assumptions that when someone either promotes a book with an underrepresented character, or questions the lack of representation in a book (or tv show, movie, etc, etc, as this discussion applies to all forms of media and aspects of society), that person is therefore proclaiming that authors must keep in mind a diversity checklist when writing, or have a “diversity agenda.” To me, that is a huge leap and false presumption. Sadly, it reminds me of Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing when Senator Cornyn questioned Sotomayor’s ability to think objectively, without emotion or biases, as if white men of privilege did not make choices in this way, but only women or people of color.

  60. I was kind of sidetracked by all the conversation here in the comments and forgot that I first visited this page wanting to voice a different feeling from Roger’s — but it’s NOT about gay characters. It’s about Asian/Chinese characters in books and all sorts of media. I am getting a lot happier to see/read any Asian character, major, minor, fleeting, etc. in/on ANYTHING — AS LONG as the creators did not make some drastic errors in representing the cultures/histories, etc. (Don’t get me wrong, I am still quite critical and will call attention to missteps.) At this point, I don’t mind being the almond cookie in a full plate of characters in most books. If we can be the braised beef noodle soup (a main dish that is a comfort food for me) that will be even better!

  61. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    “I’m a bagel on a plateful of onion rolls!”–Funny Girl

  62. Maia Cheli-Colando says:

    I started to respond to Roger’s question about how we in children’s lit are talking to & about each other on the internet… and then realized it was rather too long for this forum! So, I put my thoughts on Facebook, and opened the post to public.

    I do want to say here that I am one of those who has been reeling over how badly our community is doing at listening to one other and treating everyone with care and respect. If we would be the gatekeepers of literature for children — and that means all of us writers, librarians, critics, editors, publishers, illustrators, parents — then their future ought to inform how we act toward one another. Let’s do better?

    https://www.facebook.com/maiachelicolando/posts/10206943248971666

  63. Nina Lindsay says:

    Anne, Mike, Sarah, thank you for continuing to articulate what my brain keeps puttering on (but! but! but! it goes.)

    To the boy in Roger’s post… isn’t it also possible that a child, presented with a real live writer, asks what he wishes he could ask of all writers…as in the collective/conglomerate? I’ve heard vastly stupider questions voiced by full grown adults at author events, basically expecting the person on the stage to account for the universe.

  64. Well, while we’re clarifying things, Roger, I will say that I agree with you (and Debbie) about the whole concept of rainbow sprinkles. Debbie says, “None of us want to be decoration. None of us want to be reduced to a stereotype, either.” Roger says, “I don’t think much will be accomplished by sprinkling diversity into stories as if one were selecting candy bits and toppings at the ice-cream parlor.” I agree with you both. You have both named problematic things.

    The thing I reacted to, Roger, was the fact that you led with the story of a child asking this question in the first place. I think it was inappropriate of you to use a question that could have come from anywhere — including a child questioning his own sexuality, or, as Nina says, a child asking a more general question about children’s literature and hoping this author on the stage could give him some insight–to make your point. It came across as if you were saying, via this editorial, to a middle schooler: “hey, kid, why do you want to “gay things up” in Wonder? Why do you want to turn me into a Rainbow Sprinkle?”

    Now, I honestly don’t think that’s what you did. I think you heard this student and it launched you onto a thought process that was pretty much unrelated to the kid and his question, but rather, was about “rainbow sprinkle” instances you’ve seen in books and how you’ve felt “used” by them (and justly so). I think you continued on with that thought process in the rest of the editorial, and were surprised at how people reacted so strongly to the way you led into it, with the kid. (Truthfully, when I was talking about the kid and his question, I wasn’t even reacting to you, I was reacting to Rosoff’s comment).

    I am no mind reader and may be completely wrong. Let me know. But maybe something I’ve said above might help explain some of twitter/FB things you see? Maybe people there were actually reacting to Rosoff too??

  65. Roger you say here and elsewhere “it’s not the responsibility of any one book to make that happen”. But as a practical matter how do you expect books as a whole to represent society in all its richness if no individual book and no individual author ever has to address these questions? At some point individuals need to take responsibility for their actions and for the effects their actions have collectively. Do you feel that questioning individual authors and individual books hurts diversity? Or damages something else? These are not rhetorical questions, so I hope you get a chance to think about them.

  66. I finally wrote up a post on my blog that offers my thoughts on perhaps some solutions for the industry, since in order to change the systematic problem, we must address the system mechanism and not just small parts …
    .
    http://fairrosa.com/2015/11/03/can-we-talk-of-solutions-regarding-diversifying-childrens-literature/

  67. Mike Jung says:

    Roxane, that is a terrific, substantial post.

  68. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Allie (Allie Jane?), you have it exactly right. Years ago I asked former SLJ editor in chief Lillian Gerhardt how she came up with her editorials (powerful and famously combative) and she said “Oh, I read the newspaper every day and get cranky about things.” I heard that boy’s question (and I don’t agree with Meg’s implication that he was coached) and it set my little brain turning. When I read your post on RWW, it turned some more. To those who think I demonstrate a lack of respect for that boy and/or his question, I say that the best way to respect a child (and a child’s question) is to treat him or her as an equal, and I feel like I did that.

    Dave, I think the way diverse viewpoints in books increase is by people reading books and/or following discussions like these (but mostly by reading books!) and saying “wait a minute. Where am *I*? and, hopefully, following through to tell their stories. What we–that is, we non-writers–can do is make sure there is room for those stories to be heard and a support structure to allow them to be told.

  69. Well said, Roxanne. Thank you for your blog post.

  70. Elizabeth says:

    As a white woman who identifies as asexual/ambisexual and has a best friend who identifies as a gay male, and as a published writer and YA librarian, I have so, so many feelings about this.

    As a librarian: Should every person be able to find their mirror in my collection? If I had infinite space and money, I would buy every book that ever got a good review, or even every book ever. But here in this world where the roof leaks and books need to be replaced and the public is divided over whether we need more space than we have or need this space at all–my first duty is to serve MY patrons, where they are, here, always. That means I buy white and Christian and Jewish and Muslim and LGBT and Asian, but stay away from the gritty street lit because it just doesn’t go anywhere and we don’t have the space for books that don’t circ. And then I watch the holds and what the teens are saying and cater to that. Case in point, I just bought a book that I read and thought was terrible, which got less-than-stellar reviews, because it had a long list. It’s what the patrons want and my first duty is to serve them, regardless of my opinion.

    I have a very firm belief that librarians are the curators of information–we may not have it or know where it is exactly, but we know where to find it and how to get access. If a person comes in and wants that gritty street book that I didn’t buy, I can and will find it for them. And I think it’s really important that we let our patrons know that the library is a safe space where all opinions are welcome and any questions will be answered with care and attention and dignity. I like to think that my teens know that they can ask me any question or for any book without being judged and that I will bend over backwards to find them what they need. I sneak as many diverse books as I can into all of my bibs and displays, but I don’t trumpet the fact–the patrons will find them without me saying so.

    As a reader: I love reading books that teach me things, whether it’s the hidden history of a piece of music or how to make a spectacular chocolate cake or about how they celebrate holidays in other cultures. But above all, I love good stories with well-developed characters and nothing infuriates me more than token characters who are obviously only there as a trope or a plot device. I think R.J. Palacio is completely right–how do we KNOW that one of the characters in Wonder is not gay? I’ve read study after study after study that says kids are identifying LGBT earlier and earlier, sometimes even by age ten, but there’s nothing to stop a reader, any reader, from having any headcanon they want about a story. So if you want, Auggie could grow up to be gay and get together with Julian, or whatever–in your head–even if the author didn’t write it that way.

    And I can’t say enough about how much I hate characters who aren’t fleshed out, who exist solely as tropes or plot devices. I read a book not long ago where the token gay kid had no other storyline than that he was gay and also the captain of the rugby team–it felt like he was just there to prove that stereotypes can be broken. And then, as if the author knew he needed to wrap things up for his token gay kid but had no idea how to do so, the gay kid suddenly died in a vicious hate crime ten pages from the end of an otherwise hilarious and heartwarming book. It felt awkward and tacked on, and made me so angry. That author is my least-favorite ever, just because of that.

    As a writer: There’s only so much characterization that can fit in a story before it becomes a case of telling and not showing and thus becomes painful to write and even more painful to read. You have to decide when you’re writing how much you’re going to show/tell the reader and what’s going to be left for the reader to decide. When I was writing a short story that was later published, I filled my head with research on pre-Revolutionary Russia, on WWII and concentration camps and resistance movements and ballet. I did my very best to be as close to real as I could, but when you’re writing, there’s a balance between just enough and too much and that’s a really fine line to walk. There happens to be a gay character in my story, but the fact that he is/was gay didn’t fit into the storyline itself. It may, in the prequel or the sequel, become more important and thus be written in. It wasn’t important enough to the first story, so I left it out, just like I left out the fact that his shoes (size nine and a half, brown and scuffed) are perpetually untied. I know that about the character, but the reader doesn’t need to know. It’s not important to the story at that point in that character’s life.

    Also, as a writer (or maybe just too nice of a person in general): I don’t think any self-respecting author actually sets out to be insensitive or convey wrong information. Even the people who write propaganda are sure they’re getting the facts right, or they’re conveying the facts as they see them. And how dare ANYONE tell me what story I can or cannot write based on my skin color, religion, or orientation? Isn’t that, in and of itself, a form of discrimination? E. Lockhart/Emily Jenkins is a class act for donating her fees, though.

  71. Thanks Roxanne for sharing your post, http://fairrosa.com/2015/11/03/can-we-talk-of-solutions-regarding-diversifying-childrens-literature/ a great read, adding to the discussion, not detracting from the issues. Thank You

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