First Book Drives More Diversity in Children’s Literature

Stories-for-All-group-photo1For those of you who don’t know what First Book is, it is a nonprofit organization that provides new books to low-income children in the US and Canada. They’ve given over 100 million books to 42,000 schools and programs. One of the things that has shocked me working in different at-risk schools is that children are growing up in homes with literally no books. When I taught middle school in Memphis, we had a rule that children always had to be carrying a book and almost half the kids would bring in Sears catalogues or Wal-Mart coupon packets because that was the closest thing they could find. Comparing this with the fact that this weekend I culled almost five boxes of books to give away, and didn’t really scratch the surface of the reading material in my house it makes sense why children are graduation high school not knowing how to read.

So aside, from being generally awesome, First Book took on an issue that my co-blogger Alison Lee has been educating me about: the need for more diversity in children’s and young adult literature. Just like it has never been hard for me to find a book to read, it has never been hard for me to find a book about someone I identify with (YA books are full of white, awkward girls, in upper middle class families).  While at first I didn’t exactly understand what the problem was – many of my favorite books growing up were about characters from other cultures and wasn’t a main point of reading to be exposed to worlds other than your own.

The problem is that the literal “white-washing” of young people’s literature doesn’t expose children of color to other worlds. For many this prevalence makes young readers feel alienated from the feeling of a dominant culture they don’t feel like they belong in and as a consequence turns them off from reading. While I liked books about far-away places and characters unlike anyone I had ever met, many of my favorite books growing up (and now) were about children with divorced parents, close sister relationships or even something as surface as girls who were bad at gym.

As a white female reader, and writer who doesn’t feel all that comfortable navigating the difficulties of writing characters of a different race yet, I am still grappling with this issue. That is what made me so excited when I read that First Book decided to take things into their own hands, when they found that the vast majority of educators they worked with agreed that the children that benefit from First Book would be more enthusiastic readers if they had access to books with characters, stories, and images that reflected their lives and their neighborhoods.

First Book reached out to the publishing industry and is purchasing $1million worth of books featuring voices that are hard to find in children’s books, including minorities, characters of color, and others who experiences are more likely to resonate with the children they serve. They initially received so many proposals that they had to double their offer from the original $500,000 to $1million. Not only are they raising consciousness around this important issue, they are using the market forces to create social change. Read more about First Books efforts and success here!

Also read the much more coherent and passionate posts from Alison Lee on this issue (I promise she does a better job of explaining this that I do):

2 thoughts on “First Book Drives More Diversity in Children’s Literature

  1. I’m glad to hear that attention is being made to the diversity of characters in YA (and hopefully all) novels and that something is being done about it! It’s a great start. I’d like to suggest Nnedi Okorafor to readers of YA, she has some wonderful YA novels (as well as adult novels for those interested) including “Zaharah the Windseeker”, and “Akata Witch”. She has a beautiful website at nnedi(dot)com where you can read excerpts and find out more.

    Thanks for cross referencing! because I read your post on “Race and YA Fiction” and was glad to see a commenter recommend Octavia E. Butler! She was an amazing, brilliant writer. There’s on-going discussion about how to increase and support a greater diversity of writers and characters in Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF). Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, said that the majority of her characters have brown skin because the majority of people on our planet do.

    As for us writers who want to reflect the diversity and fullness of humanity in our writing, may I suggest Nisi Shawl’s “Writing the Other”, from Aqueduct Press, and an article at SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” – the article is posted at http://www(dot)sfwa(dot)org/2009/12/transracial-writing-for-the-sincere/

    Thanks for this great post, Alison, and for letting me throw a few books and resources out there!

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