We’ve Always Needed Diverse Books: Analysis of Scholarly Works on Diversity in Children’s Literature

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(Since my typewriter post was rather chaotic and I couldn’t edit it, I’ve decided to provide a very-slightly-revised typed edition of it below.)

In early 2014, months before his death, renowned and award-winning author Walter Dean Myers wrote an article for the New York Times, entitled “Where are all the People of Color in Children’s Books?” in the article, Myers states that in 2013, only 93 books for children were about black children. Myers went on to say that, while he identified with white characters in popular children’s books, he wanted to see more characters that were more like him. Even after spending his life writing many books for children and teenagers, he was still disheartened to see so few others.

It is interesting to speculate about how Myers would have reacted to the popularity of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, and how it has changed the landscape of children’s literature so much and in such short time. This year’s Newbery Medal book was The Crossover, a shining example of the sort of book Myers wanted to see; it would be hard to argue that all of the discussion about diversity in children’s literature didn’t have some sort of influence on its win.

Unfortunately, scholarly articles and significant studies on We Need Diverse Books are hard to find. However, there has been much discussion of diversity in children’s literature, and it has been going on for quite some time.

Since my focus is on young adult literature, I tried to find articles on diversity in YA. However, it was incredibly difficult to locate any, and the ones I could find were under a paywall. But discussions on diversity in children’s literature are surprisingly common, some dating back to the late 1990s.

I found an exhaustive article from 2011 entitled “Radical Children’s Literature Now!” It was published in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and written by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel. The article discusses the way that children’s books are handling “radical” subject matter, such as disability, mental illness, racial issues, and other subjects that would go on to be the core of the We Need Diverse Books movement. Seeing this article made me choose to focus my attention on finding articles discussion disability in children’s literature, which is how I chose the two after this.

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A portion of the article’s discussion of disability.

Though this article’s section on disability is brief, the books mentioned in its discussion were all acclaimed titles that did not fall victim to many harmful tropes about disability and depression, which I found to be surprising. After all, so much of what I have read about portrayals of disability in children’s literature is negative and focuses on bad depictions in better-known works. (In addition to adding to discussion, this article gave me some new books for my reading list!)

Another excellent article I found pertaining to the experience of disability in children’s literature caused me to start thinking about accessibility. When books are written about characters with disabilities, are they really for the sort of child depicted in them? This is something that came to mind after reading “Exploring Issues of Disability in Children’s Literature Discussions.” The article was published in Disability Studies Quarterly, and was written by Donna Sayers-Adomat. In the article, Adomat describes a discussion that a teacher, Mrs. Stone, had with her students on disabled characters in children’s books that she read in class. These books allowed her students, both disabled and not, to better empathize with one another, and some discussion for advocacy came up.

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A screencap of the article’s portion on advocacy. Smart kids!

In the part of the article I liked best, a child wrote a poem about the book Rules, describing the autistic character featured in the book. The poem both described the character’s symptoms of autism, and his other characteristics, painting a remarkably insightful and empathetic portrait.

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The poem in question.

However, not much was said in the article about how children with disabilities reacted to the actual character in the novel, which I thought was interesting. Were there perhaps no autistic students in the classroom? (Unlikely, given diagnosis rates. But I digress.) Regardless, I thought that the article still showed that a child doesn’t have to be disabled to get something out of a book, and that a book like Rules can definitely teach children empathy for those around them.

Still, coming across my third and final article was even more illuminating. “Diversity in Children’s Literature: Not Just a Black and White Issue,” Written by Wendy M. Smith-D’Arezzo, discusses issues of how children approach books about others with disabilities. Though the article was published back in 2003 (in Children’s Literature in Education), it is still relevant today as we focus on the way we reach our audience as authors of diverse content. Smith-D’Arezzo chose two books about children who struggled with reading, and shared them with students who had no reading difficulties. Though I found this frustrating on its own (why aren’t we talking about how children with reading troubles can access books, again?), something toward the end of the article stood out to me even more: “What remains to be seen is if these books could be part of a program with an elementary school classroom that would both introduce children to their peers with disabilities and develop compassion and understanding for those children who are different from them.” (Smith-D’Arezzo, p. 92)

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The full text of the conclusion. Not once is actually discussing these books with disabled children mentioned.

Reading this directly after the previous article made me realize something that always irritated me as a youth: For so long, children’s literature and the discussions around it have been so focused on fostering empathy in “normal” (their words, not mine) children that it often alienates the “other” children, the ones who these stories are indirectly about. A great majority of books about autistic characters have been written in my lifetime, but most of the ones that got acclaim were told from the point of view of “neurotypical” children, or had characters with autism who were no more than stereotypes composed of every autistic trait in the book. This is an incredibly stifling thing for a young person with a disability to grow up surrounded by, a subliminal message that our existence is a burden upon those around us. And this is exactly the kind of thing that We Need Diverse Books is trying to combat.

The articles in Disability Studies Quarterly and Children’s Literature in Education reaffirmed my belief that the way diversity in children’s literature is discussed in regards to disability has changed entirely. Instead of wanting to see just more stories about characters with disability in order to make others “develop compassion and understanding,” what we want now is more realistic, non-stereotyped depictions of disabled characters who are the protagonists of their own stories and whose disabilities do not define them or the extent of their characterization. And as a person with Asperger Syndrome who cringed her way through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, all I can say is that it’s about time. I love how the discussion has changed about all aspects of diversity in children’s literature, and I love seeing it change even further right before my eyes.

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We’ve Always Needed Diverse Books: Analysis of Scholarly Works on Diversity in Children’s Literature

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