You Never Know How Your Story Will Bring About Change

Oct 6, 2015

Looking at comics, representation, and impact in the United States and France

By Laura Nsafou


When books get press in articles and magazines, this is when the general public gets a view of what “society” feels about certain topics. These outlets represent a certain readerships’ views and expectations. What is fresh? What has become cliché? In the comments, we oftentimes see the even more interesting responses, allowing for more unearthing of society’s thoughts via a dialogue between readers, including editors and librarians.


As an author, being aware of and using the environment where you live is a great way to evaluate where your manuscript may fall in the global discussion. Depending on the country, this global conversation about diversity in literature will be different.


For example, Persepolis, a successful autobiographical graphic novel written by a French-Iranian author, Marjan Satrapi, won an Alph-Art Prize for Scenario at Festival of Angoulême, Newsweek put it on its list of ten best fiction books of the decade, and after adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Animated Featured in 2008. And yet, this book appears among the 10 most banned books in the United States and has been censored in Iran and Tunisia. Does it mean that Persepolis wasn’t good enough to please everyone? No. These disparities only mean that some countries were open to the topics Marjan Satrapi broached – sex, violence, historical events – while others were not. But why should those countries’ different viewpoints concern us? Recently, a comic book illustrated exactly why.


Raising Dion, a comic book by Dennis Liu, drew attention by using a single Afro-American mother, Nicole, as the main character who raises her superhero son. Compared to a superhero story with a main character that is wealthy, Caucasian, and a man – like Batman – Nicole’s story underlines not only race and gender, but also class and parenting. As an agency that values stories that showcase the fact that people from any culture could be in any situation, this project fascinated us and we wanted to delve deeper into the reactions it stirred not only in the United States, but also in France.

The United States’ Take

In the U.S., almost all of the articles that covered the creation of this cool comic clearly acknowledged the need for more diversity in literature and how Dennis Liu’s work is one more step in the right direction.


In The Root, Yesha Callahan focuses on the intentions of Dennis Liu to break stereotypes and announces which themes would be broached in the coming issues. Charles Pulliam-Moore questioned, in his article in Fusion, how the life of Nicole can speak to parents through fiction. As a single black mother herself, Stacia L. Brown gave her opinion in the Washington Post and compared this comic’s representation to how single women are usually depicted in children’s literature.


Each of the above articles point out that race and parenting are underrepresented issues in comic books, which fits in nicely to the current conversation in children’s books focused on the dearth of main characters of color and of diverse stories in general. They also criticize the current widely-used stereotypes as outdated and misrepresentative, such as a single mother who got pregnant by accident. It truly is thrilling to see such open dialogue around Raising Dion that is fed by so many different points of view that continue to acknowledge the lack of diversity in children’s literature while showcasing a story that fills the need.


As an author, your readers can live anywhere, not only in the U.S. It’s important to know that the representative state of children’s literature (and the conversation around diversity in children’s books) is at different stages around the world and what that means for you.

France’s Coverage

Taking France as an example, we see a scattered acknowledgment of the lack of diversity in literature in the French press. First, the websites that were interested in Raising Dion mainly specialize in culture or publishing. No mainstream websites talked about Dennis Liu’s work, like the Washington Post, except Biba, which is a feminine magazine, where the author of the article simplifies the focus of Raising Dion to parenting, and concludes that it would speak “to any parents, single or not.”


In Actualitté, a website dedicated to publishing and books, Julie Torterolo does vaguely mention how Raising Dion’s characters bring diversity to literature, but the title, again, focuses only on parenthood. Mélanie Rosen goes further in L’ADN. Beyond the content of this comic, she analyzes the promotion of Raising Dion through its high production quality trailer; a curiosity which questions how diverse books can have a visibility on book market thanks to original supports.


While Biba, Actualitte, and L’ADN trumpet this comic for its originality, none of them point out the lack of diversity in French literature and the French book market. When looking at all of the themes broached in Dennis Liu’s work, parenting is an easy topic to raise for discussion in France compared to race, which is taboo. Indeed, the situation of single mothers are the subject of strong political and economic-focused conversations. Raising children alone inspires sympathy, whereas race issues inspire embarrassment, and are barely evoked in common conversations because pointing them out is seen as disturbing the unity of French community.


Even though it’s hard to find, a dialogue around diversity in children’s literature does exist in France and it usually forms around gender. There are many in France concerned with sexism in French children’s literature, but their concern remains absent on other topics like race, sexual orientation, and ableism.

Why Anyone Should Care

We’ve seen from the illustration above that the conversation around diversity in children’s literature has several speeds and entry points. A huge factor affecting the discussion is the country where the conversation takes place. Quill Shift Literary Agency encourages everyone to be a part of the discussion, no matter where it happens to be. It is important to remember that even though it may seem obvious to some, the lack of equitable representation in children’s literature is not obvious to all.


Raising Dion provides the opportunity to discuss what is erased and what can be improved in the comics (and overall publishing) industry. It offers a way to go forward by adding a more representative reality to the genre and therefore making the work more accessible for all the readers. That being said, we need more books like Raising Dion – books that breakdown the single story/stereotype by showing, for example, a young black boy can be a super hero, and a single black mother can be smart, resourceful, and full of dignity.


We should be asking for those varied experiences and supporting their arrival to pave a way for more to come.


We’d love to hear your thoughts about how you feel diversity in children’s literature is being discussed around the world, and how you are part of this discussion. Let us know in the comments!

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