Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Thoughts from a scared, white author on diversity in Kid Lit

There have been many discussions on social media lately around diversity.

I think THIS POST by Kelly Jensen is a great one to read if you want to get caught up in what's been happening. And it's this post that caused me to open up my blog and write something about the topic, because I've been thinking about it a lot lately, but have said very little.

I will start with an admission: as a white female, I feel most comfortable writing about white females. Early in my career, this was not an area I wanted to "stretch myself" as I set off trying to make a career for myself writing books for kids and teens. Mostly because writing a good, publishable novel is hard, and I didn't feel like I was ready to risk one more thing I might get wrong. I was still worrying about whether I knew how to get the plot right, the pacing right, the setting right, etc. etc.

There are a lot of things to get right, you know? I'm not saying this made my decisions good ones or "right" - I'm just telling you how I came to the decisions I did about the kinds of characters I wrote. I mean, if I'm honest, even writing white males scares me, and most of my books have at least one of those in there as well. I constantly question myself - is this how boys talk? Think? Act? I live with three of them, and still, they often feel like aliens to me (no offense, male humans).

However, once I had a half a dozen novels under my belt, I knew it was time to get really uncomfortable.

When I agreed to write a series for Scholastic about four girls who meet at summer camp, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to go where I had never gone before.

And so, I did. The CHARMED LIFE series features four girls - Caitlin, Mia, Libby and Hannah. In the first two chapters of the first book, the four girls meet and find the charm bracelet that they believe to be lucky. But then, from there, we follow Caitlin and her family home to Connecticut. The second book features Mia in southern California, the third book, Libby, who is from England, and the fourth book, Hannah from Tennessee.

Four girls. Here was my opportunity to let non-white kids find themselves within the pages of a book.

So Caitlin in book #1 is African American and Mia in book #2 is Latina.

I'm not gonna lie, I was scared I'd get something wrong. Actually, I'm still scared, since the books aren't out yet. With Mia, especially, I had to do some extra work to make sure I got the short Spanish phrases correct that her mother uses at home. I had to think long and hard about her heritage, where did her mom come from, where did her dad come from, etc. etc. Before I sent the draft off to my editor, a very kind Spanish teacher at a local private school helped me, and I'm extremely grateful for that assistance. That's the thing though - there is lots of help out there, we just have to seek it out. Yes, it's work, but in the end, worth it, I think.

But even more than any of that, I was afraid of being stereotypical without realizing it. Afraid someone would take issue with something I wrote and call me racist. Still, I didn't back down, and did the best I could, because ultimately, I believe diversity in fiction is something we all need to work on. And I truly believe trying is better than not trying. If I got something wrong, and I most likely did, I will learn from my mistakes and work hard to do better in the future.

I love THIS POST that Sarah Ockler wrote about white authors writing diverse characters a couple of years ago. In it she writes, "Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories." 

The last thing I want to do is send the message to some of my readers that they aren't important. I mean, come on - just the thought breaks my heart. Want a picture of what our readers look like? Here's one a Missouri teacher tweeted to me back in January.

Spend a moment, and take this in. You know I have, again and again.

Recently, I participated in a PJ reading night at a local elementary school. I took along IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES and the first CHARMED LIFE book. This school has a very diverse population. And let me tell you something - I will never forget how many of the kid's eyes lit up when I showed them the cover of CAITLIN'S LUCKY CHARM before I read a couple of pages. After I finished reading, some of them even came over to look at the cover close up. To touch it. It was almost like they couldn't believe what they were seeing. (Mad props, by the way, to Scholastic for doing a photo shoot for these books and doing their best to find models that fit the characters I created).

I wanted to write this post because I know there are lots of white authors out there like me who are afraid. As Sarah Ockler said in her post - "Race is a sticky thing." But I love what she said following a short discussion about that. "We all need to take a collective drink of Let’s Get The Hell Over Ourselves (and chase it down with a swig of We’re All Human, Remember?).

Yes, yes, yes. *empties my glass*

Change happens when we each do what we can. Authors, agents, editors, cover designers, sales reps, festival organizers, etc. It's not up to authors alone. Still, a big part of it is what we choose to do with the stories we write.

I think the most important thing to remember is: it's okay to be afraid. Do it anyway.

“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear; The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.” ~ Meg Cabot, The Princess Diaries


  1. As someone in the middle of writing an adult romance with an African-American lead character, this post really resonates with me. Thank you for writing it. I can't wait to buy your books for my voracious 9-year-old daughter/reader!

  2. I've worked in the field of diversity for over 15 years training front line professionals how to increase their awareness. The most important element is to continue to raise your own self-awareness - your explicit and implicit biases. Then be courageous enough to talk about it, and in your case, write about it. Care enough to confront issues. Develop your recovery skills because you will make mistakes. Be mindful of defensiveness. Continue to be an ally and educator. Enjoy the fruits of your labor.

  3. Thanks for sharing this article. As a person of extreme diversity this story resonates with me. I started reading Romance and there were NO persons of color who were main characters or even supporting characters. I started my HEA in the Brooklyn Public Library with Barbara Cortland and ended up with Harlequin/Silhoutte until very recently when I actually found authors who were willing to step outside of their comfort zone and write persons of color in all roles, not just supporting characters in HEA's. And very recently I have found many authors of color thanks to Facebook and Twitter and authors that I follow who have street teams and very generously shout out their peers and new projects

  4. In my opinion, it's so sad that race matters so much! I'm half white and half Belizean and get teased. That's why in a story about a character based off of myself, I made her mixed, too! I just don't get it.

  5. My students today don't see race the way we did growing up. It is almost absent from discussion except when there is a cultural or religious difference. This is hopeful. I wrote a book about a biracial girl and got little (but some) criticism. I understand your fear. I didn't ever think it was not my story to tell. Mostly, people are people. We certainly need more diversity in literature. Thanks for having the courage.

  6. Raising my glass of "We're All Human" and toasting you.
    I'm sure this is going to be awesome. MORE STORIES and more representation is what's needed; thank you for not being too afraid to try.

  7. It's hard to not make any missteps (and different people will think different things are missteps), so your fear is understandable. Wishing you all the best in your writing journey!