|A student project for The Well of Sacrifice|
This post is adapted from a chapter of You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The Kindle version is currently on sale at Amazon.
We live in a world of many races, cultures, and religions. Children’s literature should reflect that diversity, but white, Christian characters and culture dominate. One recent study found that of children’s books with human characters, only about 10% featured nonwhite characters. Yet more than 37% of the US population is nonwhite, and that percentage is growing. (In these figures, Hispanic/Latino people and characters are counted as nonwhite.)
Historical fiction is certainly not the only way to show other cultures, but it is one way. Some authors may wonder if they have the “right” to write about other cultures, or fear being accused of appropriating another culture’s voice. Yet most editors feel an author’s background is a distant second to writing skill.
Although I am not Latina, I wrote a book set in ninth-century Mayan Guatemala because I’d spent several months traveling to Mexico and Central America and the culture fascinated me. With little historical fiction written about this culture and era, the book was embraced. The Well of Sacrifice was listed in the Seattle Public Library’s brochure “Chicano/Latino Doorways to Culture and Tradition.” In a MultiCultural Review article, “Great and Almost-Great Books about Latinos,” Isabel Schon called it “An exciting, fast-paced thriller that brings to life how a great Mayan city may have been abandoned as well as other details of Mayan civilization, such as their sumptuous markets….”
People who draw on their own experiences in a diverse world can create multicultural stories that explore deeper questions of how cultures interact. Eden Unger Bowditch is the author of the Young Inventors Guild series, set in 1903. She says, “The characters come from different parts of the world and find that, against their differences and against the dangers they face together, they become something of a family. As the mystery unfolds, they come to understand how the brotherhood of science is more than a common language but the very link that connects them.”
Living as an American in Egypt “has brought so many diverse and compelling people into my life,” Eden says. “Being expats, we are all drawn together. In this sense, the children of the Young Inventors Guild are expats, as it is a strange world in which they find themselves. It creates a unique bond among them that gives them strength to uncover the truth.”
Physical and Mental Conditions
Diversity involves many aspects of biology and culture. People of all ages have a variety of physical and mental abilities/illnesses. One young reader could be going through cancer treatment. Another may be blind or deaf. One might be on the autism spectrum or have just received a diagnosis of ADHD. Some children need to use wheelchairs. Some suffer from depression or an anxiety disorder.
Other young readers have family members with special needs, physical challenges, or mental illnesses. These kids may have responsibilities the average young person doesn’t have because of unusual family demands. Kids whose lives have not been affected in any of these ways still benefit from knowing about these situations. It helps them understand and empathize with their classmates, and it helps prepare them for challenges they could face in the future.
Fellow “Mad about Middle Grade History” blogger Suzanne Morgan Williams says, “My novel, Bull Rider, is the story of how Cam O’Mara helps himself and his older brother, Ben, when Ben returns from Iraq with a severe TBI [traumatic brain injury], having lost an arm, and initially unable to walk and talk. At first I minimized Ben’s injuries because I was uncomfortable with them myself. But as I wrote his character, I realized that he was still there, still the man he’d been – just changed. Good stories are about change and change comes to everyone. It doesn’t matter if a character is mentally or physically challenged, they can change. Disabled people can be interesting characters,” she adds. “Above all else – any other injury, happenstance of birth, personality trait – your character is a person.”
May B., by Caroline Starr Rose, has a young heroine with dyslexia, abandoned on the Kansas prairie in the 1870s. Caroline Starr Rose says, “I’ve come to the conclusion I am qualified to tell May’s story because it is one of identity and self-worth — something all of us must face at some point, something that becomes very real to young people as they become aware of their place in this world.”
Jennifer Bohnhoff’s historical novel, The Bent Reed: A Novel about Gettysburg, has a heroine in a body cast for scoliosis. Showing the Civil War from the viewpoint of a girl with scoliosis rather than a boy soldier gives this book a unique perspective.
Putting It All Together
Finally, it’s worth noting that books can include characters from more than one category of diversity. Christine Kohler’s novel No Surrender Soldier is set on Guam during the Vietnam war era. The characters are nearly all non-Caucasian, mainly Chamorros – indigenous Pacific Islanders in the Mariannas – or Japanese, or mixed Chamorro and Japanese. The main character’s grandfather has a disease similar to dementia. Two other characters have PTSD. That’s a lot going on in one book, but it reflects the complexity of real life. Strong storytelling means the novel is still accessible to the average teenager. According to the review journal Booklist, “This debut transports readers to an exotic place in a troubled time and reveals that being a teenager in Guam is not so different from being a teen elsewhere in the world.” By finding commonalities among differences, a writer can introduce young readers to different experiences and viewpoints.
Books that feature different cultures, especially historical fiction, can work well in the classroom. The Well of Sacrifice, has stayed in print since 1999 because many schools use it when they study the Maya. Stories need to appeal to a general audience, not just people within the culture. Writers do that, Kohler says, when they “write from the depth of emotion – from love to suffering – that we share in humanity.”
The more diversity we provide children through books, the better we’ll reflect real life – and help young people develop compassion and understanding.
Resources for Diversity:
The Children’s Book Council CBC Diversity shares news encouraging diversity of race, gender, geographical region, sexual orientation, and class.
Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Exploring Diversity page has links to book lists about many religions and races, and relevant interviews.
Multiculturalism Rocks! is a blog celebrating multiculturalism in children’s literature, with many useful links.
We Need Diverse Books promotes changes in the publishing industry to produce literature that reflects all young people.
Disability in Kidlit examines the portrayal of disability in MG and YA literature.
SCBWI has grants to promote diversity and children’s books.
The National History Education Clearing House has a database of state social studies and history standards, searchable by state and grade: http://teachinghistory.org/teaching-materials/state-standards
Chris Eboch is the author of The Eyes of Pharaoh, an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt; The Genie’s Gift, which draws on the mythology of 1001 Arabian Nights to take readers on a fantasy adventure; and The Well of Sacrifice, about a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala who rebels against the power-hungry High Priest. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The Kindle version is currently on sale at Amazon for $2.99.