This diversity in kid lit is a tough subject and definitely requires walking a tightrope between stereotype and inclusion. I’ve written before about doing a few speaking gigs on diversity even though I’m a white, middle age male.
My book Kay Kay’s Alphabet Safari “drew” me in to the subject because there was no way I could tell a story based on a real school and orphanage in Kenya without using the brown paints in my watercolor set. In the Digger and Daisy early reader series, our heroes are dogs, but I have worked in some Spanish, a wheelchair and a girl wearing a hijab. Man, this sounds like I’ve got a diversity list I’m checking off, but We Need Diverse Books, right? I’m not sure of the perfect way to go about making that happen, but I would like to do my part.
I wrote a short post last June about my illustration process for a boy, a dragon and a red velvet cape. That illustration led me to a story about a boy named Mateo, his abuela Consuela, dog Alonzo, big sister Luciana and his mama´ and papa´. Mateo’s heroes include luchadores, the masked (and sometimes caped!) Mexican luche libre wrestlers. It’s a darned cute story about all the ways his red velvet cape will help him be powerful, popular and, most important, grown up. Pretty universal theme, right?
My agent, Anna Olswanger, is a smart cookie and told me she loved the story but that it was going to be a hard sell, being that I’m not of the culture I was portraying. I have to admit I was pretty pissed off and gathered a list of books written or illustrated by people not of the culture portrayed in the book. My Exhibit A was the Caldecott and Newbery award-winning book Last Stop On Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Our hero CJ and his nana are black. “Matt de la Peña isn’t black!” I huffed to Anna O. “No, but Christian Robinson is,” she replied and then went down the rest of the list I sent her, pointing out that at least one of the team was of the culture being portrayed.
So I wrote to my friend and brilliant author Samantha Vamos, asking her to read my story and to give me her honest take on the subject.
After softening me up by referring to my “adorable book,” she asked, “Do you think it really adds to the story by adding the Latino names and words? I think an editor might find the Latino names to be a distraction.” Okay, I guess I didn’t REALLY want her honest response. But then she wrote, “I find that if I am away from the manuscript long enough, I can let go – and often because getting it published is just far more important to me.” That struck a chord. I really want my story to be published and if naming my hero Mateo will prevent that, then I’ll change his name to Milo and he’ll have a plain old grandma, just like I did.
I revised and re-submitted my story about Milo, grandma, Buster the dog, big sister Maddie and Mom and Dad. But I kept the Spanish in the classroom posters and made the school bathroom gender-neutral. My agent and editor thanked me for the revision.
THEN I had the good fortune to be shuttling both Christian Robinson and Catia Chien to a hotel after an illustrator retreat where they totally rocked. How often would I have two luminaries of the kid lit world trapped in a car so I could interrogate them on white people telling stories of diversity? Their answers, as you can imagine, weren’t simple. Yes, they were tired of white people appropriating other cultures, but they also love good stories and illustrations, no matter who tells them, so long as they are told with authenticity and respect. And they admitted to having to walk the same tightrope I do; being respectful and doing the homework to make sure they are getting it right. And being disappointed when their attempts at inclusion meet resistance. They both spoke about avoiding being pigeon-holed as “diversity illustrators,” and drawing outside their own culture when they can.
They also stressed that what is really needed are diverse writers, illustrators and editors to make books in which kids of all cultures can see themselves. I’m totally on board with that, but I’m also into eating and making the mortgage enough to want to make those books myself! Sue me for being selfish.
Here’s the funny thing: just days after the election (you know, THAT election), I received an email from my editor saying that she was delighted to be recommending My Red Velvet Cape to her acquisition group and that she will be presenting BOTH versions. (I’m crossing my fingers and will let you know the outcome of that meeting.) I think the ugly campaign rhetoric about immigrants and minorities has put a renewed resolve into publishers to promote inclusion in their books.
Believe me, getting published is my main goal. That’s my dream and my career. But if I can help kids see themselves in all their colors and cultures, I will do it. And I’ll work to be as sensitive as I can, but I can’t promise I won’t overstep or offend somebody. Diversity is (and should be) a tough subject. I love both Mateo and Milo, but I really wanna draw Alonzo wearing a luchador mask.