The many discussions face to face and online about We Need Diverse Books in children’s and YA literature have informed me that there simply isn’t a cure-all solution when it comes to creating and promoting diverse books for young readers.
So, I plan to share some thoughts on this Diversity Thing from my vantage point, which is many folds and diverse and also in flux as I learn more from others. Before putting up these blog entries, I’d like to first describe who I am in relation to children’s literature and where that background fits into the Diversity conversation, so readers may have a firm grip on where I come from when expressing my ideas, which, I guess, is something we all need to start doing — sharing of where we come from and why we feel certain ways and understanding where others have come from and why they feel certain ways.
I am a Taiwanese/Chinese American. I was born in the 60s, attended a public elementary school, then went on to attend the Catholic Sacred Heart Girls’ middle and high school (boarding), and finally National Taiwan Normal University (teacher’s college.) My double degrees were BAs in Education and English Lit. After graduating, I taught English (as required foreign language) in a public middle school from 1987 to 1989.
My parents were from Mainland China, part of Chiang Kai Shek’s (Jiang Zhong Zheng) army retreat to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s that resulted in the divide between the Communist China and the (more) Democratic Taiwan (Republic of China) regimes. We still have a whole clan of the Xu family in Yunnan Province in China that I am attempting to re-establish relationship with.
- Growing up in a largely homogeneous environment, being a member of the dominant class (my father was a member of the inner circle of both Chiang Kai Shek and his son, President Jiang Jing Guo,) and doing well in school in a climate that revered the intellect made it impossible for me to truly understand the feelings of being an underdog. (Fortunately my near-sightedness, my short stature, and the fact I was not considered a beauty and was reminded of such fact by family and friends alike all through my youth balanced out that cockiness and allowed for some humility.) I also never had an ethnic identity crisis as many Asian Americans might have to struggle through since I was never a Minority!
As a young person, I was addicted to books and reading: my favorite stories came from Taiwan, China, Germany, France, Japan, Sweden, India, Italy, the US, Colombia, Russia, Greece, and many other countries. Most were classics but also plenty of contemporary (60s to 80s) writings. All of my closest friends loved books. However, reading novels was not considered the best way to spend one’s time. Philosophical and personal essays were all the rage when I was growing up — all about how to better oneself, morally and worldly.
I came to the United States to study children’s literature in 1989 and received my MA from Simmons College in 1991. In 1996, I received an MLS degree with a concentration on services to children.
- One of my youthful aspirations was to win a Nobel Prize in literature. I was a good writer, in those popular short essay forms. I couldn’t and still can’t create fiction. I revere the art form that is literature and since I’m so invested in literature for children, it is almost a sacred form to me. This is why I am a very critical reader and get easily frustrated when I see something not done right that can be easily fixed.
I have been working since 1991 in New York City alone and have not lived elsewhere but NYC since 1991. My string of jobs were all related to children’s book:
sales clerk for Eeyore’s bookstore for children (1991-1992)
subsidiary rights assistant to the department head at Macmillan Children’s Publishing (1992-1994)
children’s librarian at the New York Public Library (1994-1997)
middle school librarian at The Dalton School (1997-)
- There are, in my head, inherent biases about racial compositions of peer groups by living only in New York City for 20+ years and working in a school where at least 40% of the students are not white. Immersed in such a diverse environment, it is hard for me to visualize, although I am cognizant to the fact, that in many States/Cities/Towns, young people do not meet “others” on a regular basis.
- My continuous interaction with high achieving students who read regularly, have a passion for books, and can dissect literature aptly for the past 18 years greatly colors my view of what books are best for which age range and the kinds of books I promote at my workplace and on my blog.
I have been a member of the Association of Library Services to Children (ALSC) at ALA for almost 20 years and have served on two Newbery Committees, Notable Children’s Books Committee, and also recently Best Fiction for Young Adults for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) — among other non-book related committees. I have also been involved in co-planning and co-maintaining SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books site for the past 7 years.
- This resulted in reading, thinking, and writing about children’s and YA literature on a regular basis and discussing books with thoughtful and experienced colleagues and practitioners such as Nina Lindsay, Monica Edinger, Vicky Smith, Kathy Odean, Phoebe Yeh, Junko Yokota, Jonathan Hunt, Adam Gidwitz, and many others.
- Fairrosa Cyber Library (since 1994) is my site/blog devoted to children’s books that was one of the oldest online resources for children’s literature (and needs to be re-vamped, I know!)
A note on my reading habit: I still read English painfully slowly — having to sound out pretty much every word. This is both a curse (I cannot read as many books as I’d like to) and a blessing (I am told often that I am a “careful” reader and that my slow-reading habit allows me to cite specific examples about style, tone, authenticity, etc.)
A note on my reading preferences: I like unconventional and challenging literary forms and gravitate to fantasy and science fiction readily but can easily enjoy any genre, as long as I deem it “well written.” Now, that’s another can of worms that I won’t open here.
A note on my attitude about this whole Diversity thing: The cliche is true: It is a long, hard, and never ending journey, and one cannot get anywhere without throwing something out there that might upset some folks, stir up the pot, generate passionate dissents, etc. I am always willing to be made to see a different side of each matter and understand where others have come from, even if I might still disagree with them. It is also of utter importance to me that during the discourse, others understand my efforts in upholding a professional mindset and stance, even when I appear to be extremely passionate and emotional (which I can be, often) about the matters at hand.
5 responses to “Doing the Diversity Thing Diversely, Part 1”
Thanks for posting so clearly where you are coming from.
I had a fascinating exchange at a 4th grade book club last week. I showed them a draft of the cover of my upcoming MG novel which has a biracial boy & his white cousin prominently featured. They were all very eager to tell me about their multi-racial & multi-ethnic families. None of these kids looked bi-racial to me & it would be easy, as an outsider to this classroom to assume I was addressing an all white audience. I’m learning to make no assumptions on appearance.
As a part-time bookseller I’ve also learned than many of the white (or white-looking) adults are buying books for kids, grandkids, step kids, foster kids and extended family who are not white and they are very passionate about finding lit that is both high quality and about not white characters. So that’s interesting and worth keeping in mind.
And yet, we also cannot forget the fact that there ARE millions of white kids who also deserve stories about them and their families. Perhaps I should not worry about them because their stories will always be told? I don’t want white authors (or even non-white authors) to feel that they cannot tell stories of white families/kids/communities any more. We need ALL the voices — that’s the true spirit of diversity.
In looking for diverse books, which I do and I think everyone dedicated to social justice does, I want books that tell the stories of interactions between many diverse youth. Not just LGBTQ or race or social class– but the mixture. In order to write effectively of those interactions you have have have to get inside the heads of folks of your own culture race gender preference and class and those who do not share those characteristics. I want more of those books, and I think– but I could be wrong– that members of one minority or less dominant culture ( I’m sure my terminology is going to get me in trouble here) are better at understanding the others. I do think women write better books about men than men write about women. This is a just a generality and a stereotype I know, but I then appreciate even more when a man gets woman right. Having said all that, I think we have to keep looking at what works and what doesn’t. I love that you are passionate about it and brave enough to post.
I am learning a lot about identity intersectionality — since no one is ever one-dimensional. I personally do not believe that literature should (for children or adults) exist as a mere vehicle in promoting social justices. As I said, literature is sacred and I think it transcends, when its at its best form. That said, I also believe that no book (especially those we hand to children) should be so carelessly constructed as to perpetuate negative or obsolete social norms.
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