You may not think you need this. You may think, “I write what I know and the people that I know aren’t ‘diverse’ so I don’t need to write that into my experiences.” The thing is, we’re all diverse and the diversity conversation in literature, especially children’s literature, has been going on for decades. What seems to get lost in the oftentimes heated conversation is that diverse means differing from one another. Diversity, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.
Many times the diversity conversation is reduced to just more books by and about this race or culture so that, just like books with only Caucasian characters, we get books with only African American characters or only Muslim characters. In the grand scheme of publishing, books like this do add to the diversity of publishing. But now, instead of books with diverse casts that can appeal to wide audiences, we have a proliferation of niche books.
What our society is hopefully moving towards is true diversity – diversity within their stories. All authors, no matter what background, can create characters from different cultures (and we’re not just talking about race here—ability, sexual identity, gender identity, religion, geographic location, etc.) that interact with one another. That’s what being an author is all about—creating art…and art imitates life. Our lives are diverse and therefore our stories should be, too.
But how, you might ask? How can you be “authentic” in your writing? Everywhere you turn you’ll hear the word research recited over and over again. You’re going to read it here, again. Do your research.
- Read books and articles written by people from the culture you’re trying to represent
- Read things about the culture you’re trying to represent (to see how people outside the culture perceive your prospective character)
- Engage in the community your character belongs to—talk to people that belong to the culture and ask respectful questions
- Forge earnest relationships with people within the culture. You learn the most from people you consider friends, and you’ll do more to portray your character like a person, instead of succumbing to stereotypes, if you have someone that you like and respect who is a multidimensional in their own right on the other side of that portrayal.
There are SO MANY articles out there that touch upon writing respectfully and empathetically when writing outside your culture. A group of articles that we’d like to bring to light is the CBC Diversity Initiative’s Diversity 101 series. Started in 2013, the blog series was introduced by Arthur A. Levine imprint editor Cheryl Klein in the post Diversity 101: An Introduction. Her post explained that the series was created “to introduce people who are just starting to think about questions of diversity to some of the more common concepts and discussions, and to raise awareness of all of these matters.”
To date, there are 13 posts in this series where each individual asked to guest post provides a personal connection to the subject at hand, describes errors or stereotypes commonly seen when depicting the characters that the post is describing, highlights where authors can do better and, oftentimes, provides resources for further exploration. You can find links to all 13 posts here.
Always remember that, especially when writing for children, people deserve to see themselves represented in literature. It shows that they exist, they are worthy of art, which means that their experiences matter. At Quill Shift Literary Agency, we believe that writers should be encouraged to write about whoever and whatever they feel necessary, even if it leads them outside of their limited experiences. We advocate this because literature’s role is to expand minds and take people beyond what they know firsthand. That being said, we also want writers to understand that it’s a privilege to depict others and so if you’re going to do it, do it with care and respect.