Sunday, February 7, 2016

Books May be Mirrors, but What do they Reflect?

Today's Booklouse entry will contain no photographs.

There will be no photographs because I would have to include what would be a nearly infinite number of photographs, and I'm not up to that challenge.  Nor, I suspect, is the internet.

Let me set the scene.

I have the world's most dangerous and lovely part time job for a book lover--I am the Program Coordinator at a certain place that connects teachers, librarians, creators and children's literature.  

I am surrounded by ALL THE BOOKS (as the meme goes).   All the books--incredible formal collections of vintage, old books.   Cutting edge, newly published books.  Award-winning books that take one's breath away with their vision, beauty and connectivity.

And I am surrounded by all the other books.  There are so many other books--so many of them lovely, fine, excellent books that just slipped under or over the radar of popularity or awards.  And of course, there are just books--books that kids may enjoy but that aren't particularly far-reaching or deep.  I have no problem with these books because many children love reading books such as these--books that are written in rapid succession and published quickly.  Books that are like potato chips--delicious and easy but not terribly filling and not necessarily something one would want to make a meal out of all the time.  But they are books and children enjoy reading them and reading for fun is a worthy thing to do too.

And I cannot deny that  there are the books that, for reasons that range from the subjective to objective, I feel aren't so good--some I would go so far as to deem pretty awful--for whatever reason.

So in this dangerous job of mine, I recently oversaw a donation of a fairly large number of books to a school whose children desperately need books.   I asked the principal if there were any specific needs or guidelines (s)he would prefer, so that, if possible, I could curate a collection best suited to the student's needs.   (S)he said that, while the main goal is to get books into the student's hands, books reflecting diversity of all kinds would be ideal.

A fellow librarian/friend and I set to work putting this collection together, keeping foremost in our minds the principal's request.

We come now to the crux of this post.

We went through hundreds of books.

We examined the cover art and interior art if there was any (because children are highly visual when selecting a book and the cover of a book is like the doorway.  And we all know that if the doorway to a place is off-putting or forbidding, we aren't going to open that door, are we? No we're not.)

We read the summaries on the book flaps and on the backs of the books.
We read the first few lines or even the first chapter (in the case of an upper elementary or YA book).

In the end we did put together a suitable number of books to donate.  But we had to eventually abandon the principal's request for this reason:

an appalling lack of diversity.

Books are often called mirrors in that they reflect the values and events of the world around them. They reflect not only the author's sensibilities but the sensibilities of the readers as well.  This has always been the case, and is a theme I touch on in other posts on this very blog.

In terms of cover art and illustrations,  over and over and over I saw main characters depicted as uniformly white.   Or, if there was a character drawn representing a different  ethnic, cultural or religious background, they were off to the side, or tucked into a lineup surrounded by fellow white characters.  

And I can't remember seeing differently abled individuals depicted at all--and no, eyeglasses do not count.

Before any readers of this blog start blasting me out of the water for this, I have no problem with cover art depicting white characters for books in which the main characters are explicitly white.   I'm not looking to erase anyone for the sake of anyone else.

But this wasn't just a case of a few books.  This was nearly all the books.  Over and over again.


Am I laying blame?

Not exactly.

Authors write from what they know.  Writing from one's heart and  personal experiences creates stories that resonate.   As a writer myself I can attest to this--when I write from a place of my own strength and knowledge I create far stronger narratives than when I have written through guesswork or even research.

And for that matter, book illustrators and artists logically must create from the story--if an author explicitly states the ethnicity or culture, religion or ability of a character, the illustrator/artist is, logically, going to draw the character according to that information.

So the problem is not that authors aren't writing from what they know, or even that illustrators and artists aren't depicting characters faithfully to the narrative.   The problem is that we need to nurture and encourage people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to  tell their stories and draw their pictures--to add their voices, senses of humor and creative sparks to a field that has predominantly been created and built according to a single cultural/ethnic perspective--that of people who happen to have light colored skin who live in a country, in a culture, indeed in a world where people with light colored skin hold much of the power.

If this wasn't the case, then I wouldn't be writing this.  If this wasn't the case then principals and teachers, librarians and parents, wouldn't be clamoring for "diverse books" because there would be no need to do so.

"Diverse books" would simply be called "books" and  would already be part of our shared narrative as captured and treasured within the paper or virtual pages of a story.

And I, for one, look forward to the day when this is true.

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