Recent 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 Commendations are withdrawn.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.