Thursday, June 1, 2017

Let’s Talk About the “D” Word in Children’s Books

No, not that “D” word. I mean the other “D” word. Diversity.

Back in March, I had the opportunity to share the stage with newly acclaimed author Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give) and soon-to-be acclaimed author Corabel Shofner (Almost Paradise). It was a joint book signing at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi with Corabel as the moderator. For those of you who don’t know, Oxford, Mississippi is the home of the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss at it is commonly called, a college that has a long history regarding race issues. Even the name “Ole Miss” itself has a rather negative racial connotation; it's the name slaves used when referring to the slave owner’s wife.

So there we were—Angie Thomas, a young Mississippian from “the hood” who has penned a novel pertaining to the current Black Lives Matter movement; myself, a not-so-young Mississippian from “the Delta” who has penned a historical novel pertaining to a tragedy that was pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement; and Corabel Shofner, another not-so-young Mississippian from both Jackson, Mississippi (Angie’s hometown) and the Mississippi Delta (where she spent a great deal of time with her landowning grandparents)—all on the same stage, openly discussing the issue of race, both past and present.

After our book talk, a professor from the college asked a question which she had previously asked her students and which none of them could (or would) answer: “When it comes to books for children, why does representation matter?”

The professor stated that all of her students were white. Of course, that made it easier for both Angie and me to answer quickly that the reason they couldn’t answer the question is because they have always been represented. And when you’ve always been represented, it’s hard to accurately answer the question of why representation matters.

After our initial responses, we both gave more personal responses. We talked about the books that got us to reading when we were kids—books such as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for Angie and The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou for me. After we shared our personal experiences, I was able to take the conversation a bit further. Being a parent, I was able to talk about how seeing themselves in books has mattered to my own children.

 Because my children have been raised in a more diverse environment than what I was raised in, it never occurred to me that representation mattered to them. It wasn't until my son, my third child, had to do a reading project for school. He had to choose a character from one of his favorite books and make a replica of him or her. The book he chose was Captain Underpants. The character he chose was George. When I asked him why George was his favorite character, he replied, "Because he's brown like me."

That's when I began to have flashback moments of my middle child and her early novel reading experiences. She loved many types of books, but she pointed out that her favorite books were Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, and What Momma Left by Renee Watson. It never occurred to me that she loved those books because they all featured a main character who looked like her.

Even while watching television, my son, who is now ten, will take note if there is no diversity in the cast. Just recently he watched a show on a popular children’s channel and commented afterward, “I can’t believe that there were no brown people at all on that show.” This isn’t something we taught him. This is something that is instinctive. He feels a deeper connection to a book, TV show, or movie, when there is someone with whom to connect. On the flip side, he gets absolutely giddy when there is representation on a show. Really, he does. He gets so excited that he points it out, “Hey, there’s a brown kid on this show.” It makes him feel good to see someone like himself, whether it’s on the page of a book or on a stage before a TV camera.

Any guesses as to why this is one of my son's favorite shows?
So why is representation important? When a child is a part of any type of minority group, whether it’s based on skin color, gender identity, physical or mental challenge, religion, culture, or any other group that I have failed to list, it makes that child feel special to see himself or herself represented. And that is why that “D” word—Diversity—is so important in children’s books.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Why does representation matter to you?


  1. Couldn't agree more, more windows, mirrors and doors.

  2. My ten-year-old loves Jessie too!
    This is a great post. You hit the nail on the head about why representation matters, and why we must work towards greater diversity in publishing (and in all life!)

  3. Thank you for bringing up this very important topic, Linda. Representation definitely matters. As a child, I always looked for some similarity between myself and the characters in books I was reading. That was not easy to find. I'm glad there were more diverse characters in the books available to my children, but we still have a long way to go!

  4. I'm white, but I've gotten to the point where I can't not notice a lack of diversity on TV shows as well. And one or two token characters, sidekicks or love interests only, isn't enough. Plus I'm so tired of the cute straight white boy who is the chosen one for no particular reason! My husband and I have enjoyed the Troll Hunters cartoons, but why does *he* get to be the hero, and not the Hispanic girl (love interest) or the chubby kid with braces (sidekick)?

  5. Thanks for sharing the reactions of your children to media. We are fighting the fight for our children, but they are fighting the fight for themselves now. That's why diversity is important -- not just that children deserve it, but they will demand it.

    1. They do! My children are livid at Justin Beiber for his racist comments to the hit song he's a part of, Despacito. They demand honesty and respect, and it gives me such joy that they're not quiet about it as I was at their age.

  6. Thank you for this post. Representation matters because we live in a world populated by people of all colors, religions, and backgrounds. If literature is going to show, it should show the truth, in all its variations.

  7. I was raised in Jamaica where we were all one people was emphasized more than race. So lack of poc on television didn't bother me much. But as an adult I have seen how it affects others in countries where they feel like the minority. So representation is important to ensure no one feels left out whether or not you feel it personally. That's what I learned as an adult.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!