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We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kid Lit

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Last week, BookCon announced their event’s lineup of blockbuster kid lit panelists. Jeff Kinney, James Patterson, Rick Riordan, and Lemony Snicket, four white men, will be starring as luminaries in the field for this event.

The announcement drew criticism from within the kid lit world immediately. Publishers Weekly covered that pretty well, tackling why it is problematic that for an event geared toward the general public, the faces that will be seen on the big stage all look the same.

Even the invited panelists have begun raising important questions, as Rick Riordan tweeted the following:

Now that the lack of diversity has been pointed out, it’s going to be hard for an invited author to be the woman or person of color on the panel and not feel like they’re the token representation.

Although the conversation about representation and diversity within the publishing world and the kid lit world specifically is far from new, it’s begun hitting critical mass over the last year. More members of underrepresented groups have come forward and added their voices to the dialog, and they have been heard and acknowledged at varying levels within the community and by the industry more broadly. A handful of excellent pieces in the last week include:

  • Nita Tyndall’s “I Am Not My Coming Out Story

  • Justina Ireland’s “Diversity, The Zero Sum Argument, and Chicken Wings

  • Liz Burns’s reaction and response to Entertainment Weekly’s April 11 article on how white the kid lit world is

  • Maya Prasad’s interview with Sherri L. Smith, “Diversity Solutions

  • Brandy Colbert’s “5 Things I Learned While Writing Pointe,” especially #3

  • Joseph Bruchac’s “You Don’t Look Indian

  • Beth Revis’s “I’m Not A Feminist, But

  • Lamar Giles’s “Don’t BS the Change

  • Simon and Schuster executive editor Zareen Jaffery did a four part interview about diversity and publishing

  • Brace Yourselves, It’s A Long Post” from someone who works in YA publishing in Brazil

  • Sarah McCarry’s series of tweets about how publishing diverse voices isn’t that hard

  • Mike Jung’s series of tweets about representation in the kid lit world

  • Kate Messner on owning our words

  • Megan Frazer’s “Speaking Up, Finding Fish

    In the midst of the BookCon panel announcement and this collection of thought-provoking pieces lighting up the kid lit community, a series of anonymous tumblr asks also popped up suggesting that contributions by women in YA didn’t matter as much as those by well-known white men and more, because girl stories aren’t real stories. Those anonymous asks were directed at females. “Are you really that stupid?” one inquires. No, in fact, none of us are “that stupid.” I think a perusal of the comments on the CNN interview with Laurie Halse Anderson on the anniversary of Speak does a great job of showing just how not stupid we are. These comments, accusations, and attacks are par for the course when you do so much as speak up about any group that doesn’t fall into the white, straight, cisgender male category.

    The recent announcement of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park being optioned for the big screen led to some great conversations this month as well. Kit talked last week about why the film was so important here, and while I agree that the story about a half-Asian boy and an overweight girl hitting the big screen is hugely important, something I hope that this brings up is a closer examination of race within the story.

    Some of Rowell’s critics assert that Park is a poor representation of the Korean-American experience. At this point in the book’s life, anyone who reads and wants to discuss the book on a large level can’t overlook these concerns. Here’s a short sample of necessary reading:

    It’s fine to like problematic work. Rowell has addressed why Park is Korean, and it’s within her right to choose not to read or discuss the criticisms these readers — as well as many others — have expressed about the book.

    But readers and those who consider themselves part of the kid lit community can’t ignore or disregard the voices of people who are begging for more examination of what we’re holding up as an outstanding example of diverse representation. These are solid criticisms worthy of not just consideration; they’re worthy of amplification and discussion on a much larger level among readers and critics. You don’t have to agree or change your opinion about Eleanor & Park. You just have to listen and be educated by those who are offering important insight.

    These people are putting themselves out there, offering you ways to be a better reader and a better global citizen.

    Which brings me to a question I have been thinking about for a while: what do people with large social networks, followings, and devoted fan bases have to lose if they take the time to address mega-issues such as diversity and/or give some space in their day to talk about or share the messages those within their community are sharing? This isn’t a matter of time. It’s a matter of commitment to doing and acting. It’s a commitment to listening and considering and, most important, spreading the message.

    In a world where John Green takes up nearly half of the New York Times YA Bestsellers list and can tweet something as innocuous as “The next couple of months are going to be a little nuts around here” to the tune of almost 700 retweets, why aren’t more people like him, with enormous social platforms, giving a little time to these conversations? What does he — or any other of a number of well-positioned, socially-connected YA authors (white men and some white women) — stand to lose from addressing these concerns? Would a reblog or a retweet of one of the first of a series of stories kill their career? Or would it help the voices of those who deserve to be heard get that attention? Would they reach members of their fan bases eager to discover more stories that they have been craving?

    This is especially interesting to think about when it comes to the role Green arguably played in pushing Rowell’s Eleanor & Park into the spotlight, helping it achieve bestsellerdom. If he’s willing to give the book a boost — and it is a book that tackles tough issues head on — why hasn’t he participated in a dialog ABOUT these issues at that level within the kid lit community?

    It’s hard not to wonder why some of the largest voices in the YA world and kid lit world more broadly aren’t speaking up and out in visible ways. They have far less at stake than any author of color (and most women, white or not) would have doing the same thing, in part because their privileged position affords them them their platform. They do not succeed simply because they work harder; they have more advantages. This isn’t just pointed at authors with power. It’s pointed equally toward librarians, toward booksellers, toward major media outlets, and to anyone with a position to say something.

    There’s no expectation for anyone to talk about everything. That would be impossible. But in a week where an announcement of an all-male, all-white panel coincides with a wealth of well-written, thought-provoking, and important conversations about diversity and there’s nothing but silence?

    That silence is startlingly obvious.

    It’s popular to criticize and have larger conversations about books like Twilight. It’s a safe discussion. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is eager to share it. But why is talking about meatier issues, especially when they’re reaching levels of national attention, tougher? Because I’d much rather see luminaries in the field sharing their thoughts — and bringing attention to the thoughts of other members of the kid lit world — about race and our terrible job of portraying and amplifying these stories than I would like to hear another comment about how Twilight is the worst thing to happen to YA lit.

    It’s not. Let’s have a little perspective here.

    If you’re a member of a community and have the community’s needs and interests at heart, it’s not asking a lot to shine your spotlight on these issues. You lose nothing, and you have everything in the world to gain — both for yourself and for your community — when you use your voice to call for art that reflects a society in which diversity is simply reality. That is how you become an asset.