I knew this much when I was raising my sons in the USA: there were not enough books in Spanish in the bookstores. It was also hard to find books about children whose parents came from Mexico, or even from another country. If I wanted my sons to read about the richness of my Mexican heritage, or about the values that are embraced in my culture, I had to take an extra suitcase to Mexico when I visited my family. Years went by, my sons grew up, got married and soon they gifted me my grandchildren. Very little changed. Today there are still few titles available in Spanish. For the most part, the stores sell books about learning Spanish or spanish translations of books written in english.
I got tired of carrying extra suitcases to Mexico, so I began writing and publishing my own bilingual children’s stories. It has been such a joy to be able to embrace my grandchildren with my imagination. The hug has stretched far, like gum, and has now touched other little readers. The modest success of my endeavor confirms what I always suspected: parents and grandparents are eager to share their language and culture with their descendants. Literature provides a beautiful conduit to honor legacy and identity.
Earlier this year, a University of Wisconsin study revealed that less than eight percent of children's books published in 2013 were written by or about people of color. This is at a time when almost half of American children come from a minority background. The statistics confirmed what I already knew: publishing is an old-school industry that has existed with these numbers for more than 30 years.
In response to the study, advocates for diversity in literature began a movement to change the disconnect between the publishing industry and the children who read books. They organized on social media using the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks. The hashtag went viral. The advocates’ shared sentiment is that when children read, they should feel a validation of their existence by reading about characters who are like themselves in books that are written by authors who understand who they are.
Last month I attended the Society of Children and Illustrators conference in Seattle. One of the presenters, Justin Chada (Simon and Schuster), talked about the issue and agreed that writers and editors have a responsibility to produce more literature that reflect the diversity of our communities. He said that there is a critical need to write and publish literary sustenance for all our youth of color.
As I heard him talk I became hopeful that maybe this time around the industry is ready to “walk the talk” and publish more inclusive literature. And yet, as I evaluate whether or not I should heed the editor’s call and submit my own stories, all these questions come to mind:
1. What is “diverse literature” anyway? Is it enough to write about a universal theme with characters that are not white? Is it enough to choose a setting that is foreign? Are we talking about the experience of children of color in America or are we talking about the experience of children from other countries? Would the editors publish, for example, the experience of an undocumented family? How relevant is the skin color, setting and socioeconomic reality of the characters of the so-called “diverse literature?”
2. And who is going to write the books? Can “white authors” accurately write about the experience of children who are black or Latino, for example? And if so, who is going to judge whether they have truly captured the essence of that experience and are not just writing the stereotype (once again)? If editors want the work of “authors of color,” then who decides who is an author of color? Is it enough for an author to self identify (like I do) as other than white or will the color of his/her skin matter?
3. And how are we going to catalogue “diverse literature”? Will those algorithms help or hurt the sales of the books? Are we also going to label the authors? What words will the books and libraries use? “Diverse”? “Authors of color?” I can just see my books listed as:
Diverse / Multicultural
Please don't get me wrong; I am delighted the movement #WeNeedDiverseBooks is happening. It is wonderful that we are having the conversation. Still, before I embark on the long, torturous path of submissions, rejections, and submissions all over again, I would like more clarity. Which brings me to my plea: If you are an editor, or a more enlightened author, I would greatly appreciate your input. In the meantime, I will just continue carrying on, for I don’t have the time to wait another thirty years to be able to tuck my grandchildren in bed with a book that is all about them.