Why We Need Diverse Literature and How to Find It

Why do we need diverse literature?
First, we need to know and understand ourselves. People need literature that helps them see others like them – to know they are not alone. We need literature that reflects many ways of being and ways of living in our world so we all have a chance to see someone like us. Second, to interact respectfully with others in society, it’s helpful to realize that there are people in the world who have another perspective. We can explore our differences and similarities through literature. There is a quote on the Lee & Low website attributed to both Rudine Sims Bishop & Ginny Moore Kruse “A single book can be a mirror for some people and a window for others.” Those mirrors and windows help us understand and connect with people in the world around us, but we need more than just one story. We need a multitude of stories.

In the following TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the “Danger of the Single Story.” Adichie explains that many individuals only know one story about a people and that may lead to stereotyping. When we know only one story about a culture, the risk is that we assign that story to all the people we believe are part of that group. Adichie provides an amazing and at times amusing presentation that speaks to the need for more stories about each other. This video is from 2009, but even if you have viewed it previously, it’s worth a second or even third look. Photographer Matika Wilbur also touches on this idea in her TED Talk. She’s concerned about the single picture that many people may have in their minds about Native Americans due to media exposure. Her current project is photographing individuals from 562 federally recognized Tribal Nations with a goal to “unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues, the beauty of Native culture, the magnitude of tradition, and expose her vitality” (quoted from her blog). She is not only creating portraits, but is collecting their many and varied stories to share. This video is also well worth the few minutes it takes to watch.


Wondering where to find a multitude of stories?
It’s no secret that there is a serious lack of diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Literature. There have been a large number of blog posts and articles recently to that effect. But there are some diverse books being published. They are not in the numbers I would like to see, but they do exist. They can be hard to find, so we have some resources on our blog to help make it easier. In the tabs at the top of this page, we provide a release calendar that displays titles scheduled to be published in the coming months. In addition, we have a resource page with links to many excellent websites/blogs that review and share diverse literature along with links to publishers focusing on diverse materials. We created a Goodreads profile with a growing list of titles and there are also blogs in our blog roll on the right-hand side of the page that focus on diversity.

But how can we know which stories are accurate representations?
Matika Wilbur noted in her TED Talk that some Native American images and stories from the media have been damaging to Native people. As a school librarian, I want to provide many diverse stories for my students, but not all stories are helpful. Just look at some of the early Newbery Award winners. There were a few books with cultural diversity, but several fed into stereotypes (one I highlight below). As an educator, I have to evaluate the resources I am providing to our staff and students. I am clearly not an expert on every culture in the world, but here are a few questions* that help guide me in my selection process for school and also as a reader:

  • Who is the author and what experience or knowledge do they have as they write from this cultural perspective? (This helps me understand the lens the reader will be looking through)
  • If they are not a native of that culture, is it published by a publisher from that culture and/or has it been favorably reviewed by someone from that culture?
  • Are the characters distinct, fully developed and free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • If there are illustrations, are they free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • Is it a well developed and engaging story?

It can be helpful to know the lens of the author. In the case of Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children (1926 Newbery winner), the stories were filled with broken English, verbal caricatures and misinformation. I read Shen last year and was horrified. As I investigated his knowledge base of Chinese culture, I found a post from a blogger named Amanda. She pointed to the April 1, 1994 issue of School Library Journal. In it Margaret Chang wrote, “Chrisman had never been to China, did not read Chinese, and claimed to be aided by two Chinese speakers, but gave no sources for the stories in his book” (p 42). According to the book’s description Shen is comprised of “Sixteen stories reflecting the spirit of Chinese life and thought.” Chrisman appears to have taken what he knew about Chinese culture, consulted a Chinese shopkeeper or two in California about some of the details and proceeded to create original stories. He may have even been doing this in some way to “honor” Chinese culture, but this is not a book I will be purchasing or sharing with my students.

I tend to specifically seek out books that are written from an insider’s perspective like No Crystal StairYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Since You Asked, but there are also people born outside a culture who have provided authentic representation. Debby Dahl Edwardson is not Inupiaq (Eskimo) by birth, but she’s been a part of that culture for many years. She has written powerful stories with fully developed, realistic characters in her YA historical novels, My Name is Not Easy and Blessing’s Bead. My Name is Not Easy is a look into the effect of the residential schools on Native students and their families. She did not rely on stereotypes, but created complex and unique characters. On her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Rees shared Beverly Slapin’s very favorable reviewI would recommend Edwardson’s books without hesitation and there are many other talented authors that learn about a culture and successfully represent it in their novels.

We may not have balanced representation in publishing yet, but there are some fabulous pieces of literature that can be our mirrors and windows. Let’s seek them out and share them.

Chang, M. A. (1994). Chinoiserie in American picture books: Excursions to Cathay. School Library Journal40(4), 42.

*Some of my questions were developed with influence from Full Circle’s Criteria for Authentic Native American Books & Oyate’s comprehensive evaluation criteria

New Releases

July was a slow month for new releases, but makes up for the lack of diverse books by publishing 4 in the last few days. Plus, a new one from one of my favorite authors, Walter Dean Myers!!

 

everIf I Ever Get Out of Here, By Eric Gansworth

Arthur A. Levine Books

Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reininger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan’s side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis’s home — will he still be his friend?

Acclaimed adult author Eric Gansworth makes his YA debut with this wry and powerful novel about friendship, memory, and the joy of rock ‘n’ roll. –Cover image and summary from Goodreads

dramaWay Too Much Drama, By Earl Sewell

Harlequin Kimani Tru

The toughest lessons aren’t always taught in the classroom… Maya is ready to put the fabulous back into her life—and that means getting her manipulative cousin, Viviana, out of it. Bad enough that Viviana is living under the same roof and tried to claim Maya’s boyfriend, Misalo, for herself. Now she’s going to Maya’s high school and she’s part of the quiz team competing on a TV show…alongside Maya, Keysha and Misalo. 

Maya has no sympathy when Viviana finally starts to feel the pressure of fitting in to her new world. That’s until her cousin does something drastic…and dangerous. Maybe Viviana isn’t as tough as everyone thought. Maya could be the only person who can help bring her back safely. Question is…does she want to?

cruisersThe Cruisers: Oh Snap!, By Walter Dean Myers

Scholastic

The Cruisers are in trouble — again. The freedom of expression they’ve enjoyed by publishing their own school newspaper, THE CRUISER, has spread all the way to England, where kids from a school “across the pond” are now contributors to their own school’s most talked-about publication. When photos start to go alongside the articles written by kids, things get suspicious. Zander, Kambui, LaShonda, Bobbi — and a bunch of students from Harlem’s DaVinci Academy and London’s Phoenix School — come to learn that words and pictures in a newspaper don’t always tell the whole story.

With his signature on-point pacing and whip-smart characters, award-winning author Walter Dean Myers delivers another awesome book about the Cruisers, a group of middle-school misfits who are becoming the coolest kids in the city. — image and summary from Amazon

 

star powerStar Power, By Kelli London

K-Teen

Charly St. James takes on her biggest challenge yet when her television show goes for a ratings sweep by making over the life of a not-so-willing small-town teen with a big secret. . .

Charly St. James is on top, and she’s determined to keep it that way. That’s why she and the producers have come up with a plan to take The Extreme Dream Team to the next level–by turning loners into VIPs. After all, how can you enjoy your new digs if your life is jacked up?

But when Charly meets her first makeover, Nia, she knows she’ll have to do more than dress her up and boost her self-esteem. Nia is living in the shade of her twin sister, who is luxuriating in a major case of pretty girl syndrome. And the more Charly tries to get Nia to shine, the more her twin sabotages her mission. Good thing Charly loves a challenge, ’cause these twins’ troubles are more than skin deep. . . — Cover image an summary from publisher’s website

 

 

Review: Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices

open micTitle:  Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices
Editor: Mitali Perkins
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 127
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review copy: ARC
Availability: September 10, 2013

 

 

 

Summary: Listen in as ten YA authors — some familiar, some new — use their own brand of humor to share their stories about growing up between cultures. Henry Choi Lee discovers that pretending to be a tai chi master or a sought-after wiz at math wins him friends for a while — until it comically backfires. A biracial girl is amused when her dad clears seats for his family on a crowded subway in under a minute flat, simply by sitting quietly in between two uptight white women. Edited by acclaimed author and speaker Mitali Perkins, this collection of fiction and nonfiction uses a mix of styles as diverse as their authors, from laugh-out-loud funny to wry, ironic, or poingnant, in prose, poetry, and comic form. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Take a moment to admire the cover. Go on. Cute, isn’t it?

Open Mic is an anthology with a colorful mix of stories in different mediums. Gene Luen Yang discusses the problematic casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender movie using comics to tell his story. G. Neri lays out a cultural map of Berlin using a blend of humor and free verse poetry to describe a multi-cultural family in a place not quite ready for diversity. Debbie Rigaud creates a snapshot of the relationship between Simone and her great-aunt Ma Tante.

One story in particular stood out to me: Mitali Perkins’ story gave me a glimpse of her teenage life. The story centers around Mitali and her two sisters playing the Game of Guys and being perfectly comfortable with who they were. Recognizing Mitali in her own story, I realized how personal each of the stories in Open Mic were. The autobiographical thread running through the short stories and poems is a story in itself. The story told is, like the title says, a story of life between cultures.

My main complaint is that of length. Only ten stories? The last work, Naomi Shihab Nye’s gorgeous poem “Lexicon,” left me wishing Open Mic would continue on. The value in this sort of anthology is that it’s so rare — an anthology written about and by people who have actually experienced life between cultures. These are voices that need to be heard. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ten voices, there were hundreds? Thousands? Here’s hoping many more such anthologies will follow.

Recommendation: Get it soon or borrow it from the library when it comes out.

Four YA Books with Indian or Indian-American Protagonists

I haven’t read many YA books with Indian or Indian-American protagonists, so I thought it would be fun to see what books I could find. Here are four books that caught my eye, thanks to CBC Diversity’s Goodreads page:

Shine Coconut MoonShine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

A Beautiful LieA Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master

An extraordinarily rich debut novel, set in India in 1947 at the time of Partition. Although the backdrop is this key event in Indian history, the novel is even more far-reaching, touching on the importance of tolerance, love and family. The main character is Bilal, a boy determined to protect his dying father from the news of Partition – news that he knows will break his father’s heart. With great spirit and determination, and with the help of his good friends, Bilal persuades others to collude with him in this deception, even printing false pages of the local newspaper to hide the ravages of unrest from his father. All that Bilal wants is for his father to die in peace. But that means Bilal has a very complicated relationship with the truth…

LovetornLovetorn by Kavita Daswani

When Shalini’s father gets a new job in L.A., she is torn away from her life in India and the boy to whom she’s been betrothed since she was three. L.A. is so different, and Shalini dresses and talks all wrong. She isn’t sure she’ll survive high school in America without her fiancé, Vikram, and now she has to cope with her mom’s homesickness and depression. A new friend, chill and confident Renuka, helps Shalini find her way and get up the courage to join the Food4Life club at school. But she gets more than just a friend when she meets Toby—she gets a major crush. Shalini thinks she loves Vikram, but he never made her feel like this.

In Lovetorn, Shalini discovers that your heart ultimately makes its own choices, even when it seems as if your destiny has already been chosen.

Author Kavita Daswani has always been fascinated by child marriages and betrothals, and this story of a traditional girl from India, who is exposed to so many more freedoms and experiences after being dropped in a completely alien culture, is a fresh and contemporary look at the subject.

E940_SCH_BornConfused_0.tifBorn Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Dimple Lala doesn’t know what to think. Her parents are from India, and she’s spent her whole life resisting their traditions. Then suddenly she gets to high school and everything Indian is trendy. To make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a “suitable boy.” Of course it doesn’t go well — until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web. Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue. This is a funny, thoughtful story about finding your heart, finding your culture, and finding your place in America.

New Releases

We’ve found two humorous contemporary books that will be released this week. They were previously reviewed here. It’s interesting that the covers are both related to eating and they’re yellow too. It makes me wonder how many other diverse books have food on the cover.

family
The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong by L. Tam Holland

Simon and Shuster

Summary: A hysterically funny debut novel about discovering where you come from—even if you have to lie to get there.

When Vee Crawford-Wong’s history teacher assigns an essay on his family history, Vee knows he’s in trouble. His parents—Chinese-born dad and Texas-bred Mom—are mysteriously and stubbornly close-lipped about his ancestors. So, he makes it all up and turns in the assignment. And then everything falls apart.

After a fistfight, getting cut from the basketball team, offending his best friend, and watching his grades plummet, one thing becomes abundantly clear to Vee: No one understands him! If only he knew where he came from… So Vee does what anyone in his situation would do: He forges a letter from his grandparents in China, asking his father to bring their grandson to visit. Astonishingly, Vee’s father agrees. But in the land of his ancestors, Vee learns that the answers he seeks are closer to home then he could have ever imagined. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

really
A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook and Bendan Halpin

EgmontUSA

Summary: Two teenagers. Two very bumpy roads taken that lead to Heartland Academy.

Justin was just having fun, but when his dad walked in on him with a girl in a very compromising position, Justin’s summer took a quick turn for the worse. His parents’ divorce put Justin on rocky mental ground, and after a handful of Tylenol lands him in the hospital, he has really hit rock bottom.

Emmy never felt like part of her family. She was adopted from China. Her parents and sister tower over her and look like they came out of a Ralph Lauren catalog– and Emmy definitely doesn’t. After a scandalous photo of Emmy leads to vicious rumors around school, she threatens the boy who started it all on Facebook.

Justin and Emmy arrive at Heartland Academy, a reform school that will force them to deal with their issues, damaged souls with little patience for authority. But along the way they will find a ragtag group of teens who are just as broken, stubborn, and full of sarcasm as themselves. In the end, they might even call each other friends.

A funny, sad, and remarkable story, A Really Awesome Mess is a journey of friendship and self-discovery that teen readers will surely sign up for. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: When You Where Here

hereTitle: When You Were Here
Author: Daisy Whitney
Genres: Contemporary, Literature
Pages: 257
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Won from C.J. Omololu’s Book Giveaway
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Danny’s mother lost her five-year battle with cancer three weeks before his graduation-the one day that she was hanging on to see.

Now Danny is left alone, with only his memories, his dog, and his heart-breaking ex-girlfriend for company. He doesn’t know how to figure out what to do with her estate, what to say for his Valedictorian speech, let alone how to live or be happy anymore.

When he gets a letter from his mom’s property manager in Tokyo, where she had been going for treatment, it shows a side of a side of his mother he never knew. So, with no other sense of direction, Danny travels to Tokyo to connect with his mother’s memory and make sense of her final months, which seemed filled with more joy than Danny ever knew. There, among the cherry blossoms, temples, and crowds, and with the help of an almost-but-definitely-not Harajuku girl, he begins to see how it may not have been ancient magic or mystical treatment that kept his mother going. Perhaps, the secret of how to live lies in how she died. (from Amazon)

Review: In a literary landscape where fantasy and dystopian novels are best sellers, it is nice to have a quiet novel. A novel that explores the human condition in a beautiful, yet understated way. A novel that allows the reader to connect with a character as he or she grows and comes to understand meaning in the small things in life. “When You Were Here” is such a novel that examines life after a loved one succombs to cancer. It’s a beautiful story that explores grief and then finding acceptance after death.

What I really liked about this novel is the fact that this touching story is told from a male’s perspective. Having a male narrator/main character in YA literature is somewhat of a rarity and I enjoyed reading Danny’s discovery of the last few months of his mother’s life, especially her time in Japan. Danny is unflinchingly honest about his feelings – his anger that his mother wasn’t able to see him graduate from high school, his love for his ex-girlfriend Holland –  as he works through the stages of grief and in the end discovers himself. By learning to be honest with himself, he learns how to ask the questions he needs from the people who knew his mother and to be honest with Holland. I loved the fact that the character’s spoke to each other instead of a book filled with misunderstandings. It was clear that Danny had a healthy relationship with his mother, told through touching flashbacks, that helped him become the young man who is able to handle becoming an orphan at the age of 18. His maturity doesn’t seem forced, in that children with ill parents are often much more mature than their counterparts. It is because of this attention to character detail that makes Danny feel very real and relatable.

Last week I wrote about creating diverse worlds, even when having main characters who are Caucasian, as “When You Were Here” does. I wasn’t even thinking about this novel when I wrote the article, but the world Danny lives in is a perfect example of a diverse world. The novel begins in Los Angeles and Whitney makes sure to make Danny’s world a reflection of the multicultural city that is Los Angeles. I was definitely able to relate to the city presented in this novel because it is the world I live in. When the novel moves to Tokyo, Whitney doesn’t treat the city as a novelty, but as a real place where people live and work. In fact, Danny loves Tokyo and that love is clearly presented. Danny doesn’t view Tokyo with a tourist’s wonder, but as a citizen of the city and in the end, he calls it home. I do not know whether Whitney actually visited Japan, but she definitely completed thorough research into local customs, beliefs, language as well as most likely asked the right questions about Japanese culture. Her careful attention shows the respect it takes when writing another culture when one is the other and I commend her for it.

While I didn’t read this by the beach, “When You Were Here” is beach reading material and the perfect companion for summer.