On Needing Diverse Books

boyRecent weeks have been unsettling ones in the children’s literature community, unsettling and bewildering and discouraging, too. Good people—authors/artists/editors/publishers—have brought books into the world with good intentions. These books, in one way or another, touch upon racial issues. They are received enthusiastically by the professional gatekeepers whose judgment we all rely on, mostly white professional gatekeepers. . .

Until someone, some other good person, notices a flaw touching on the depiction of race. Once the flaw is named, the debate begins. Commendations are withdrawn. The books and those purveying the books are vilified, a reaction that spreads like the ripples in a pond. Everyone has an opinion, and the opinions are fierce. The enemy is racism, that mostly unseen, unacknowledged oppression by systems of power. Or if you are on the other side, the enemy is over-reaction, over-sensitivity, political-correctness, just-plain-stupidity. And the battleground is our children’s books.

One of the books receiving this kind of treatment recently is a picture book called A Fine Dessert. It is the story of a dessert called blackberry fool being made in four different centuries, 1710, 1810, 1910 and 2010. In 1810 the pair making the dessert are black slaves, a mother and daughter.

The challenge to this particular book has been primarily to the fact that, in two different illustrations, either the mother or the daughter, laboring over the dessert for their white masters, smiles. A Fine Dessert has thus come to be depicted as a story of smiling slaves.

The illustrator speaks up first in response to the criticism. She explains her careful thought processes concerning those pictures, especially concerning those smiles. The author follows. She doesn’t explain, offers no justification for her text. Instead she apologizes for her “racial insensitivity.” She announces that she will donate her “fee” to the organization We Need Diverse Books. Not incidentally, both author and illustrator are white.

I’m not here to give my own opinion of the story or the smiles or the responses of critics or of the book’s creators. I do have an opinion, but after all that has been said and will continue to be said, my opinion is very much beside the point. Rather, I’m going to enter the discussion in a slightly different way.

We do need diverse books. There is no question about that. That is a reality I bumped into for the first time in 1970 when I sat with Michelle, my beautiful two-year-old African-American foster child, on my lap, reading her the same picture books I had read a few years earlier to the blonde children who had been born to me. During one of those readings I noticed, belatedly and for the first time, that not a single face on those pages looked like the little girl I held. And that noticing tipped me into a glimmer of understanding of the deprivation into which she had been born. Not just the profound neglect she had suffered before coming into my home, but society’s larger neglect that even the privilege of my white home couldn’t shield her from.

And what did I do with that knowledge? Not much. I didn’t go out to find more inclusive books, because at that time the inclusive books simply didn’t exist. And when I began writing children’s books myself several years later I continued the pattern. That is, I almost never included people of color as characters. To be more accurate, I never named the race of my characters. In a society in which white is “the norm,” my characters were, of course, presumed to be white. And I was presuming the same thing.

I created stories with my presumed-to-be-white characters for many years before others began to notice, to talk about the deprivation I discovered that day with my dark-skinned foster daughter on my lap. But even when the cry rose all around me, “We need diverse books;” even when I heard a librarian from my own St. Paul, Minnesota, system say, “If I flip through a book and see only white faces, I don’t buy it;” even when my own understanding of the limitations of my world view had grown almost to the bursting point, I continued to write mostly presumed-to-be-white characters.

Why? Because white is what I know. Because if I reach beyond my world, I will make mistakes, perhaps egregious ones. Because if I make those mistakes, small or large, I fear my hands will be slapped . . . hard.

And so I, and so many other white writers like me, stay with what I know. And our children go on needing diverse books.

The bottom line is we don’t just need diverse books. We need diverse writers. More of them. Many, many more.

And we need those diverse writers even if their books fill the slots that once waited for mine, even if they garner the awards I once stood in line for. It isn’t just that turnabout is fair play. It’s more than that. Far more.

There is a whole world out there of dark-eyed, dark-skinned children who need to gaze into a book and find a mirror. And the truth is I can’t make that mirror. Is that the only answer? No, but it is the most important answer. We need more writers with a perspective larger than, more varied than ours within the white culture.


19 thoughts on “On Needing Diverse Books

  1. Carleen M. Tjader

    So well thought-out, Marion. I wish we could talk “with” each other, instead of “at” each other. And then, listen. Sharing, rather than winning, seems healthier to me.
    I smiled at your “in-charge-of-everything white world” phrase.

  2. Lois

    As a child my favorite book was Little Black Sambo – a book you can no longer buy except maybe on eBay – but to me as a child the book was a about pancakes, syrup and a boy who live in a magical place and had to be smart enough to out wit tigers. It didn’t matter to me that he was brown or black – not white – I rooted for him anyway. I think kids are oblivious to the things adults see and perceive. In the example you gave adults she a slave smiling as she prepares something for a master – children might have seen a mother and daughter cry owing together and enjoying their time. But what do I know I’m an old white lady.

      1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

        I have come to realize there a many things I don’t know, also being an “old white lady.” Some of what I don’t know is how offensive some images that I have taken for granted can be to the people they depict. I, too, saw little black Sambo as smart and intriguing, but I never saw him through the eyes of the people he was meant to depict.

        1. Uma Krishnaswami

          Well, I’m an old brown lady and I wish we could address the complexities in this matter and not try to reach for easy comfort. I never read Little Black Sambo as a child, and when I came across it as an adult, I was grateful that I hadn’t. But that was my adult self. My child self would probably not have been scarred. She was tough. Kids are tender but they’re also tough.

          It saddens me to see public shaming in place of real discussion. It reduces the issue to “getting it right” or not, and the real truth is, we’re all trying to tell the human story. Why should anyone feel better because a white illustrator apologizes in public? That should leave us all with a queasy feeling. Life in the 21st century can hurt enough without our turning on one another.

          Finally you are exactly right that we need a diversity of writers more than books. Because in the end, the point is not comforting the child reader or meeting some arbitrary standard of “accuracy.” The point is to teach that reader to think, to inquire, to feel compassion, to rage at inequity, to understand the human condition, to energize an often failing world. How do we do that if we don’t tell stories from many, many viewpoints?

          1. Sandra Jenkins

            Thank you for your thoughtful comments. We need diverse writers and real discussion between all of us.

      1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

        For all of us who are white, we need to remember that we didn’t see a cruel reflection of ourselves in the depiction of the boy on those pages. It isn’t for the sake of us old white ladies that book has been withdrawn from the canon. Surely we can extend ourselves enough to imagine those illustrations through other eyes.

        1. Uma Krishnaswami

          Thank you for saying it so clearly, Marion. Nostalgia for the books of our childhood can be a powerful emotional trigger. It can blind us sometimes to the vulnerabilities of other people’s children.


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