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The Writer’s Page: “Speak with Us, Not for Us”

KidLitWomen* was co-founded by Grace Lin and Karen Blumenthal in March 2017, with the mission of “calling attention to the gender inequities of our industry, uplifting the women who have not received their due, and finding solutions to reach equality.” The following article expands on a KidLitWomen* social media post by Lin.

Many of my writer friends who are white feel anxious when we talk about “diverse books.” If other white writers are anything like my dear, well-intentioned friends, they might be thinking that kids don’t need any more stories about white characters and that no one wants to read or publish them anyway. So even though these writers do want to support this developing diversity, they also worry about their own place as children’s book creators. They fear that they, as White Writers Who Want to Support Diverse Books and Authors, have no stories that the world demands or desires.

Which, of course, is not true. In order to achieve true diversity in children’s literature — a diversity so commonplace that we won’t even need to call it that — we need everyone, and that includes white authors. But we need white authors to speak with us, not for us. At times, this is hard to explain to my white friends, so I usually explain it using a parallel situation — that of a feminist, male author.

The way a lot of male authors jump in to “help” feminism is to write a feisty girl protagonist into their books. While the intentions may be good, this doesn’t necessarily help. I mean, yes, by all means have strong, self-confident girls and women in your books! But women do not need men to tell that story. Women are perfectly capable of writing those characters themselves. Shannon Hale can easily write her kick-butt protagonists as being strong and confident females, because she is already that herself — just follow her Twitter feed and see how she stands up for herself and her beliefs time and time again.

If men are truly looking to write stories to help women, we would all be better served if instead they wrote feminist male characters. We have hundreds, if not thousands, of male-authored books about boys using aggression as a way to connect with one another — from imagining their toys destroying another boy’s to pranking a common foe. They are super entertaining, and I want to make it clear that I am not against those types of books. However, there are a lot of them. And when these books become the definition of “boy books” either by authorship or subject matter, it reinforces the idea of masculinity as forceful and violent; that boys can only bond through some sort of antagonism (either toward each other or against someone else). Books like William’s Doll (Charlotte Zolotow’s 1972 landmark book in which a boy wishes for a doll) or Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes (in which a boy struggles with his father’s “jock” expectations) — books that show gentler, less aggressive portraits of masculinity — are harder to find and are less frequently written by men. Yet that is what all boys need to see in order to be able to envision a more flexible ideal of the masculine identity.

What feminism needs is not for male authors to write female characters that mimic the stereotypical male traits of boldness and physical power, but for them to write male characters that redefine masculinity. Feminism needs male heroes that embrace what has been disdained as “girly”— and for the male authors of those books to proudly share them with their readers.

And it is in that same vein that I call upon white authors. When the demand for diverse books became too loud to ignore, many of you — with the best of intentions — jumped in to “help” by writing books with minority heroes. This doesn’t necessarily improve things. Yes, of course, make sure the characters in your books reflect the diversity of our world. But we don’t need you to tell the story of the triumphant, rising-above-struggles minority protagonist. People of color can write those characters themselves.

No, if white authors truly want to support diversity and equity, we would all be better served if they, instead, wrote white characters who are aware of the racial disparity in our society and grapple with their privilege and all the complexity that entails. Our traditional “all-white world of children’s books” (as was labeled in Nancy Larrick’s groundbreaking 1965 essay) is so well-peopled with characters unaware of how differently that world treats people of other skin tones that most of our real-world white population refuses to see racial injustice when it’s actually in front of them. Books by white authors that show characters realizing the differences — such as Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second or Sharon Creech’s Bloomability — are harder to find. Yet these are the books we need to be commonplace if we are to create a more equal society.

What diversity needs is not white authors to write heroes of a minority race, but rather for them to redefine the white hero. We need authors to create white characters who are (or are learning to become) socially aware and who fight alongside people of color, without being saviors, and we need authors who know how to do the same.

Yes, writing these kinds of heroes in a satisfying story is a challenge, and obviously not every book has to have a message. But for those worried White Writers Who Want to Support Diverse Books and Authors, these are also the stories and characters that you are uniquely qualified to tell.

From the January/February 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Grace Lin About Grace Lin

Grace Lin is the co-founder of KitLitWomen* and the host of the KidLitWomen* podcast. Her most recent picture book is A Big Mooncake for Little Star. Her novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was a Newbery honoree and her early reader Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! won a Geisel Honor (all Little, Brown).

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Comments

  1. Thank you, Grace! This is perfect, just what I have been looking for. Your examples also help to make what you’re saying very clear. I struggled with this, but now you have shown me a better way to support diversity in my own writing. Colleen

  2. Rebecca Smiles says:

    A few questions for this author: 1) Does she think that her “dear friends” who are white have nothing to offer and/or nothing that “one wants to read or publish”? If find this article to be insulting in its approach and self serving, though not surprising in the midst of this divisive political climate. This kind of piece will not foster anything harmonious but rather will force authors to comply out of fear.

  3. Thanks for this article Grace! I think you have made very clear that you believe everyone has something to contribute. Working together we can create the world we’ve been dreaming of!

  4. Hi Rebecca,

    I’m sorry you found my article insulting and self-serving. I think my friends have quite a lot to offer that people do want to read and publish, it’s unfortunate that my meaning was not clear to you. The “nothing to offer…that no one wants to read or publish” are sentiments that my friends have expressed to me when we talk about the need for diversity in the publishing word today. These are sentiments that I am grateful they share as it shows there is a trust between us, so much so that they are willing to be vulnerable. This article was meant to show anyone who might be feeling the same way that those sentiments are not true and that there is room for everyone without taking away space from marginalized voices. If you have not felt similarly, then, obviously, the article is not for you and feel free to disregard.

    Best,
    Grace Lin

  5. Andrea Oshima says:

    Dear Ms. Lin,
    Thank you for this article. As a cisgender white female Library Media Technician I applaud your efforts. For over ten years now, I have been providing diverse multiracial children’s literature to my community. Our school has the largest biracical population for our district. Trying to locate authentic narrative, own voice, stories has been challenging. After taking an Equity in Action online course from Library Journal; it renewed my desire to continue to find quality books that present marginalized POC’S in affirming roles.

  6. A teacher says:

    Grace Lin’s analysis founders on the shoals of reality. It might have been true in 1965 that white YA male writers were writing stereotypical male characters, but they sure aren’t doing it now. Look at the protagonists of such acclaimed and top white male writers as David Lubar, Jordan Sonnenblick, Chris Crutcher, John Green, Michael Grant, Neal Shusterman, and so many others. These male characters are multifaceted, deep, self-doubting, learning, growing, and all around complex. In short, redefining masculinity. They are the opposite of one-dimensional. So I’m not exactly sure she’s advocating except that it is more important for non-white writers to be published than for white writers to write the stories they want to write. That’s kind of a shame. Better to concentrate on getting NAEP reading scores up from their stagnant and pathetic levels so that there are more young readers for everyone’s books.

  7. This is really thought provoking and important. I’m participating in Multicultural Children’s Book Day as a reviewer this year, and I received a book written by two white women. It felt troubling to me and I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I believe your article hits the issue on the nose. Naturally it’s far more challenging to write stories about white characters who are aware of their privilege and to weave that into a story naturally, but it’s a challenge we must take on. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Hello Teacher!
    You are correct that there are many fine works by white male authors who are redefining masculinity, however, I do feel there is room for more. It’s true that I do want authors who identify as allies of diversity to consider what they do as important as what they write; so I suppose that could be interpreted as, “it is more important for non-white writers to be published than for white writers to write the stories they want to write,” (though I do think that is an odd way of putting it, it can interpreted that non-white writers are somehow creating works of lesser value and are not deserving of being published, while a white writer’s desired story is?). However, the point of this article was, as I said earlier, was simply to show writers-who-want-to-be-allies that we all have a place in this new vision of children’s literature. I leave the reading scores to the much-more capable and expert hands of educators.
    Best,
    Grace Lin

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