Last night, March 11, I attended an event at the Arlington Public Library. On a regular schedule, the APL features a panel discussion called Shut Up and Write, which addresses issues regarding young adult literature. I had attended the one in January on retellings of classics (panel members were Jon Skovron (see a previous post on one of his novels here), Paige Harbison, and April Lindner). This month, Skovron led a panel on diversity featuring Sherin Nicole, Robin Talley, and We Need Diverse Books President/author, Ellen Oh (who gave out WNDB swag you see in the featured photo). Including questions about a perceived need for permission, dealing with criticism, and what we can do to keep diverse books as a topic of conversation in the coming year, the event had a number of quotable moments. Here are some of my favorite things from the panelists:
“You want to see yourself as a hero.” – Sherin Nicole, talking about the importance of representation in books and other media. She went on to emphasize that it’s important, especially for youth, to see themselves reflected in the stories they read not always as the sidekick or the villain, but as the hero. The point that non-white communities tend to exhibit lower reading levels may be due to the fact that the kids in these communities are disinterested in reading the myriad of stories schools provide (due, in large part, to the lack of diverse titles available) which feature only white protagonists. As a result, many of these kids choose not to read and consequently have lower reading levels.
Nicole also proposed a solution to the fear some writers encounter when taking on characters that are unlike themselves and the overall issue of lack of diversity: “We just need to make it a thing — like [writing about diverse people]’s what one does.”
While I am unable to commit myself politically, emotionally, and so on to every cause I believe in, I admittedly put in more effort when it comes to WNDB. As someone who grew up in New Hampshire where the population is relatively homogeneous, perhaps the cultural shock I experienced when moving to the South would not have been so severe had I read or had the opportunity to read more diverse books (in lieu of being exposed to people who didn’t look, think, act, talk, and so on, very much like myself). Diversity in literature is not only important for the individuals who are underrepresented (another symptom of marginalization and being a minority), but to the people who are ignorant of other groups.
Another important topic the panel discussed was the role of empathy in these situations. Ellen Oh, in particular, emphasized that children who have parents with racist beliefs may be less likely to grow up with those same beliefs if they have the chance to empathize with characters who are different from them in literature.
Most important of all, Oh said, however, was that we try. We being writers. Writers must ignore the fears and doubts they have, accept that they will likely get some things wrong and even anger some people, but put in their best effort anyway. Because if we don’t start somewhere, we don’t start at all.