No More Messing Around: Diverse Books Now!
I had an incredibly exciting weekend at Bindercon. For those of you who don't know what this is, it was a two-day "symposium to empower women and gender non-conforming writers with tools, connections, and strategies to advance their careers." In lay[wo]man's terms this meant I spent two days with hundreds of amazing women writers, most of whom I'd never met before, attedding seminars and speeches, including keynote addresses by Leslie Jamison (pitter pat goes my heart) and Jill Abramson.
I also had the great privilege of moderating a panel, Mothers Writing Motherhood, for which I sat on stage in Cooper Union's Great Hall (no pressure, Abraham Lincoln) with the brilliant Elisa Albert, Julia Fierro, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and Brenda Shaughnessy. Each author read excerpts of her often painfully honest work about motherhood, and then we chatted about the practical realities of Writing While Mom: the necessities of carving out time and space, the gifts of limitations, and -- finally -- the importance of saying "fuck it," and throwing (in Elisa and Marie's cases, literally) the middle finger to anyone and anything standing in our writerly way, including ourselves. So that was amazing, even if, after coming home to kid and my exhausted husband and parents, I later rubbed pizza grease on my cool new dress.
The BinderCon event that has kept me thinking for the last few days was one I attended somewhat on a whim. I thought the session, #WeNeedDiverseBooks: The Campaign that Matters for All Readers and Writers, would cover adult books, and was eager to discuss ways to make my own work in progress more inclusive. When I arrived at NYU's Lillian Vernon Writer's House, I discovered the talk focused on children's and young adult literature. Oh well, I figured. I read children's books all day long with my daughter, Clara. Might as well learn a thing or two.
#WeNeedDiverseBooks turned out to be inspiring. Not only within the context of my own work (though I can always use the bump to push myself farther in making my book more accessible to a wider variety of mothers), but in thinking about what kind of books -- and toys, and experiences -- I provide for my own child.
I recently assigned my college freshman Roxane Gay's essay, "I Was Once Miss America" from her bestselling and groundbreaking essay collection Bad Feminist. In it, she explains her childhood obsession with the Sweet Valley High series, and how the series of books about blonde twins helped her as a smart and oddball first generation Haitian American girl coming of age in the Midwest. It's a great essay, with much to unpack about how we all can find succor and identity even within the least "quality" material. But I didn't identify. My experience was quite the opposite of Gay's.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s in inner city Philly. "Diversity" wasn't a watchword back then; it was simply... life. My beloved grandmother Yetta gave me All of a Kind Family and later the Chosen to read, telling me they were "good books about Jewish children." I think she hoped I'd find myself in those stories, and I did.
But I also found myself -- an obsessively imaginative, alienated, too-bookish-for-my-classmates girl -- in the African American girls in Don Freeman's Corduroy, Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the sadly out of print Bright April by Philadelphian Marguerite de Angeli, and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; in Jeanne Houston's memoir of a WWII Japanese internment camp Farewell to Manzanar; in the mordantly hilarious "little people" of M. E. Kerr's (also out of print). I was obsessed with Truman Capote at around age 12, reading Music for Chameleons repeatedly. I knew he was queer (not an unknown quality in my family's world), and I adored Capote's precise language, camp humor, and cutting social observation. Later on, I was devastated by Jasmine, Bharati Mukhergee's feminist tale of an Indian refugee, and by Katherine Dunn's circus "freaks" in Geek Love. I found these books in libraries (both my school and the Free Library of Philadelphia's Children's Room), on my parents' well-stocked bookshelves, and read them in English classes.
Did I think, then, of these books as offering "diversity"? Yes and no. Carrying books that looked both "other" and grownup was the way I framed my own nascent writerly identity. It's not as if I thought I was black, or gay, or Japanese. I was a city kid, which meant that everything and everyone was fair game for identification:listening to the Jungle Brothers and Joni Mitchell, going to see Do the Right Thing and My Own Private Idaho at the Ritz Five movie theater in Center City, and stomping around in purple Doc Martin boots and vintage blue Pumas.
I'm hoping my daughter Clara, growing up in the People's Republic of Brooklyn, will learn to share this same expansive point of view. But what the #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel reminded me was that with the dominant culture being so dominant, especially in terms of marketing, I'm going to have to work. Hard. Clara's still at the age where many of the heroines of her books are hedgehogs and mice, and I do try to limit her exposure to overtly sexist material, banning Disney's Cinderella in favor of Frozen (sisterhood for-evah!). But I'll cop to a sad fact: I haven't consciously searched out books for her featuring characters who look and act differently than she does.
That ends today. I know there are great lists out there as starting points, but I want to hear from you about the lesser known, the out of print titles that I can add to her -- and my -- library. And let's keep the conversation going.