Diversity: Is Research Enough?

What can we do as children’s writers to include every child? At a recent NM-SCBWI ShopTalk meeting, a panel came together to discuss this question and to share their personal stories. First, the panel displayed the graphic “Equality/Equity,” from the Interaction Institute for Social Change, by the artist Angus Maguire, then participants broke up into small groups to discuss the graphic and what privilege means to them.

Some of the findings:
  • Fear can keep us from including everyone, regardless of our circumstances. Fear that we might lose our place, our social standing, our opportunity to get ahead.
  • But what happens if we give up our box? Does that mean that we give up something? Or do we gain in the knowledge that giving up our box means everyone can see over the fence and now everyone is happy?
Panelists Weigh In
  • Giving up our box helps us become better creators. Her first pass while writing her books is to check and correct for “white as default,” which is “when whiteness is the litmus test for what is considered normal behavior, culture, and appearance. Through media, books, visual media, politics...etc. we are socialized to think it's normal to be white and everyone else is defined by their proximity to whiteness.”
  • Having an ally is important for those who need help. As an example, this panelist observed an Asian family at the airport who didn’t speak English were pushed to the back of the line because others used their privilege to get in front of them. She saw this, stepped up and spoke up for the family, saying that they have the right to go on ahead.
  • One panelist brought up the question: Is research enough when writing in diverse characters? She says of course research is vital, but that is only the bare minimum. She urges writers and illustrators to put themselves out there—get involved with the community you want to write about. This panelist has been a Muslim for thirty years. To learn more about her community, she says interviewing is fine. But to truly immerse yourself in it, fast at Ramadan, learn what it is to be a Muslim. But she cautions that even for her it is difficult to break through the gatekeepers—agents, editors—who decide whether to take you on the way to publication. A book that her eight-year-old son loves and feels empowered by is Young Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes From Past and Present, by Jamia Wilson, and Dream March: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Sally Wern Comport.
Participants’ Turn
  • One author said her books go by the saying: DO NO HARM TO NO CHILD. She believes, we as children’s writers need to give a lot of thought to who we want to feel included in our narratives.
  • Another author volunteered as a mentor for the first SCBWI Emerging Voices Award. She mentored Mary Louise Sanchez, whose middle grade novel featured a family during the Depression. They move from New Mexico to Wyoming, where they face racism against their Hispanic culture. Mentor and mentee went through two rounds of critiques and revision together. Lee & Low Books published The Wind Called My Name in 2018. Mary Louise will have a picture book highlighting santeros out soon. Her mentor says we can all be mentors and we can let people know we’re here for them.
  • Another author pointed out that not all agents and editors have a shared experience, so they don’t understand what it is to be a diverse person. Diverse books have trouble getting through the gatekeepers; they don’t want to take the risk of spending time on diverse books so they avoid them. Another author agreed and said that in picture books, many editors feel safer publishing diverse material with animals as protagonists.
What Can We Do?
There isn’t one answer. But we’ve decided our SCBWI-NM chapter can make a start, and are currently seeking interest among our members. Here’s how we're doing it:
  • Asking our members for interest in mentoring a diverse author.
  • Asking for volunteers to go into the schools to read books by and about diverse authors and illustrators to students.
Here are a few statistics, compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and can be found on the Reading Spark website listed below, to give you an idea of how books depicting characters from diverse backgrounds have grown, but still have a long way to go:
                                     2015            2018
American Indians/
First Nations                0.9%                1%
Latinx                          2.4%                5%
Asian Pacific Islander/Asian
Pacific American         3.3%                7%
African/African American      
                                     7.6%              10%
White                           73.3%            50%

For more information, please visit:

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 150 articles for adults and children, and several short stories for children. She has recently become editor of the New Mexico SCBWI chapter newsletter, and is working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what an interesting article. As a ghostwriter, I have a diversified clientele. If I miss the mark, they're there to let me know - it's great. Thanks for sharing this.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Karen. It was such an interesting discussion and opened my eyes.

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