Books as Mirrors
That’s not true. The kid on the leftmost wears a red shirt and the one in the middle wears a blue shirt. The boy at the left of the table? His jacket is yellow. And the girl to right of the table wears a green skirt, while the girl behind her wears a maroon skirt.
The boy with the yellow jacket is dark-skinned. So is that girl at the right of the table. The kids are of various races.
You ask, “How on earth are we supposed to know that? We don’t have telepathic powers to read your mind.”
I guess you have a point. Let’s make some changes.
Now look at the image below.
Okay, I tricked you. These kids are actually wearing clothes of the same color since they’re in school uniforms. But now, there’s less ambiguity that some of the kids are darker-skinned and others are lighter-skinned. There’s less ambiguity that the kids are of various races.
Fewer of you would ask, “How on earth are we supposed to know that? We can’t read your mind.”
Fewer kids would ask, “Where am I in this picture?”
In an ideal world, I suppose the reader is able to imagine all the different colors on a bare-bones black and white image. But this is not an ideal world. Many kids have not had enough opportunities to see marginalized groups in visual media. When presented with an ambiguous image like the first one, many can’t help but make the default assumption that the dominant group is the one being portrayed. So it falls on authors, illustrators, colorists, editors and publishers to do better for them.
In a prose novel, depending on the story an author is trying to tell, diversity might be explicitly pointed out, or subtly pointed out by contextual cues (names, languages etc). In illustrated books and graphic novels, illustrations provide an opportunity to subtly show readers that various skin tones exist without beating you over the head with it.
We Need Diverse Books.
BUT, WAIT! It’s not just about providing mirrors. Who provides those mirrors is equally important—looking beyond diverse content and focusing on diverse voices.
If you’re an author thinking about writing a marginalized protagonist, and you’re not part of that marginalized group yourself, these are the basic questions to ask yourself:
1. Why are you writing a marginalized protagonist?
2. Have you done your research?
And yet, good intentions and having done copious research and being able to write it well does not mean YES! ALL SYSTEMS GO! because . . .
3. Are you taking away the chance to tell that story from the very marginalized group you’re writing about?
But no one can tell you, “No, don’t write that.” You have to decide for yourself. For more on this topic, read what Gail D. Villanueva says.
In this essay, I’m merely skimming the surface of diversity with the topic of race and skin tone. We Need Diverse Books defines diversity as:
We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.
I still have a lot a lot a lot to learn about representation in my own writing and drawing. Every day I worry that I get things wrong and might unintentionally hurt a reader. Every day I’m learning something new and feeling a little sheepish for my previous ways of thinking. And that’s OK. We learn, apologize, and do better.
I’m going to leave you with something you can do to uplift diverse voices: support their works. For starters, here are some graphic novels by diverse voices:
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Thank you for joining us today, Remy! Here's more information on Remy's debut:
A poignant illustrated middle-grade novel about an eleven-year-old boy's immigration experience, his annoying little brother, and their cake-baking hijinks!
When Jingwen moves to a new country, he feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he's often stuck looking after his (extremely irritating) little brother, Yanghao.
To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she's at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they'll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.
In her hilarious, emotional middle-grade debut, Remy Lai delivers a scrumptious combination of vibrant graphic art and pitch-perfect writing that will appeal to fans of Real Friends.
Editor's Note: The concept of books as mirrors is credited to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. To read more about her life work, visit this page.