Dana Sullivan, Author of the Month: The Diversity Hot Button

Last week I was in St. Louis for the annual International Literary Association conference to give a presentation on diversity in children’s literature. I assume I was invited because of my book, Kay Kay’s Alphabet Safari, which is based on a real school and orphanage in rural Kenya (and, ahem, made the ILA Children’s Choice list). This book is very personal and dear to me because of my involvement with this school, the Star of Hope Centre for Children. My family has visited and have hugged these kids, so they are more than a story to us.
I was pretty nervous about my talk (Vicki tells me my stress was permeating the house and part of the yard as well) because I’m not what you would call the poster boy for diversity. I am a white, upper-middle class, middle aged male from the U.S. I was brought up in the 60s by progressive college professor parents who taught me respect for other colors and religions at a very early age. Stereotypes and cultural insensitivity were not to be tolerated in our house.
I found this out at the age of four when a local Black Panther leader was at our house for dinner. He had been at a sit-in of a local real estate agency who were not allowing people of color to buy homes in a new development. He needed a shower, dinner and respite from the front lines. I introduced him to my coal-black cat, saying, “My kitty is the same color as you.” My parents were apoplectic, but our guest simply asked me my kitty’s name. My parents lectured me about cultural sensitivity very shortly thereafter.
As a teenager, my illustration heroes were the Mad Magazine guys and Robert Crumb. The Mad men were amazing artists who pushed the boundaries of good taste, stereotypes, culture, you name it. I copied their art over and over. R.Crumb broke completely through the boundaries of good taste and offended just about everyone. I wanted to copy his work, but didn’t want to risk being labeled sexist or racist or just plain filthy. Of course I loved his stuff, but it made me uncomfortable. Now I realize that was the whole point.
Diversity is a hot button topic. What do we white males know about diversity? I learned early that I couldn’t be accused of stereotyping if I drew myself and people like me. So I drew a lot of white males. I could make them look stupid or funny and no one had a problem.
But there is a problem: we have plenty of books about white males and there are a lot more colors and cultures in this world whose stories need telling. The kids of Star of Hope, for instance.
I knew, as a picture book author and illustrator, I had to make a book about these kids. And to do that I had to get over my discomfort of drawing the “other” and risk being called out for drawing what I was not. The story was more important than my comfort level.
Drawing diversity without venturing into stereotype can be hard. And uncomfortable. But nobody said this job was going to be easy. I got into this gig to help kids with growing up, and it’s not easy for them either. So I owe them more that just checking off diversity boxes.
I realized that the secret to avoiding stereotyping is the same as writing a good story: you have to get the details right. In Kay Kay, the mud brick classrooms must look like the photos we took; in Digger and Daisy, the folds on a little girl’s hijab must look natural and the Spanish translation for “Wash your paws” must be correct.
I’m living my dream of being a children’s book author. Paying more attention to my audiences at schools lately, I have vowed to be better about getting them ALL into my future books. If I can draw blue dogs, I sure as hell can draw kids of color.
Ozzie from Ozzie and the Art Contest
The kids of Star of Hope Centre, Bungoma, Kenya
I want my books to tell EVERY kid’s story so they can dream THEIR dreams. And maybe live happily ever after, in living color.

Author: Laurie Ann Thompson

I write books for curious young minds and open hearts, no matter what their age. BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS, a teen guide to saving the world, will be published by Beyond Words/Simon Pulse in September of 2014. EMMANUEL'S DREAM: THE TRUE STORY OF EMMANUEL OFOSU YEBOAH, a picture-book biography, will be published by Schwartz & Wade/Penguin Random House in January of 2015. And MY DOG IS THE BEST, a heartwarming fictional picture book, will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers/Macmillan in May of 2015.

7 thoughts on “Dana Sullivan, Author of the Month: The Diversity Hot Button”

  1. Bravo for this insightful post, Dana. Being willing to step out of our comfort zones and then “getting the details” right is so important. I am always awed and amazed by your work!


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