I was in my senior year of high school when I read something written by an author of color—Fences by August Wilson. From there, I then went on to read A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and Dutchman by Amiri Baraka and was blown away by the incredible use of culture references, language, and triumph demonstrated throughout each play.
This past semester at FAU, I took a class called American Writers of the Twentieth Century. Going into class I was thinking excitedly to myself, “Awesome! Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, and Faulkner—this will be great!” To my complete surprise—and subsequent delight—the majority of the semester was spent pouring over Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, among others. I was completely, beautifully, surprised.
It was remarkable to see the new perspectives and experiences so present and alive within the pages of the books—connecting the words to their stories, marking and highlighting very specific times in history.
To showcase talents like these, English departments at most universities have specific courses for studying “Black Literatures” and “African-American Literature”—integral parts of diverse literary history. And yet, even though authors of color show just as much brilliance as others, there is a clear disconnect between the number of racially diverse pieces of literature being published and that of the total children’s books published. Multicultural publisher Lee & Low Books put together a graphic illustrating that 37% of the U.S. population are people of color, and only 10% of children’s books published contained multicultural content. This gap has remained steady for 18 years. This is where the We Need More Diverse Books (WNMDB) campaign comes in.
“Diversity in the Classroom will bring the opportunity to explore a diverse author’s book to a different classroom every month of the school year,” said WNMDB founder and the nonprofit’s president, Ellen Oh. On Publisher Weekly’s website, WNMDB is also curating the first Children’s Literature Diversity Festival, which will arrive in the summer of 2016 in Washington, D.C. Also launching is a grant program which supports diverse authors and a “diversity toolkit” is being established for librarians and booksellers as well.
As a pioneer author of color, The Culture Trip website states of Toni Morrison, “Her awareness of culture outside of the American white patriarchal norm greatly informed her inspired fiction.” This is what the young adult(YA) readers should be introduced to through a more diverse book collection that is available at their school and local libraries. There has been a cultural identity crisis for a very long time in the United States, and the YAs of today should be inspired and introduced to different ethnicities, backgrounds, and sexual orientations, knowing that they are indeed accepted and valued as a part of American society. On the official site for the WNMDB Campaign, it is listed that the benefits to reading diverse books are:
-They reflect the world and people of the world
-They teach respect for all cultural groups
-They serve as a window and a mirror and as an example of how to interact in the world
-They show that despite differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations
-They can create a wider curiosity for the world
-They prepare children for the real world
-They enrich educational experiences
I cannot stress how valid each one of those points are. The diverse books I have read throughout my college career have portrayed deep, dark parts of American history, becoming revolutionary during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. If we are working past this point of inequality, why aren’t there more YA books depicting the vast diversity in American culture? Also featured on the WNMDB Tumblr page is a carefully curated comparison of “If you liked this book, read this one next!” section where YA readers can easily find a book that will interest them based on past reads, making it enjoyable and easily accessible.
The Culture Trip also stated that Toni Morrison’s, “stories are excavations of human identity uncovering and exposing the essential components of the human soul in its darkest moments of pain and rejection.” #WeNeedDiverseBooks is letting individuals (of all ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations) tell us how not having diversity in literature has affected their lives just like Morrison did. We don’t need to have our youngest generation of readers rewriting that kind of pain. #weneedmorediversebooks
Get more from T.W. Abel here.