Back in 2009 I wrote this blog post about a school visit I did during hispanic Heritage Month. This was seven years ago. SEVEN!!! I was a beginner writer and my kids were super young. I wrote during nap times and at night. I didn’t really know what I wanted to write. My stories were all retellings of my favorite Celtic legends, mashing together Marion Simmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon with my favorite fairy tales. When I went to that dual immersion school and saw so many happy faces ready to see a Hispanic author, I realized I didn’t know of any books that portrayed children who looked and sounded and lived like those little ones–like my own children. I have an agent now (hi, Linda!!!) and I’m doing my MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, always with the intent of becoming a better writer. Hopefully I won’t have to way seven more years to see a book of mine on a shelf.
But that school visit was a turning point in my life. Now, in the midst of the whole diversity revolution, everyone talks about the problem of the lack of representation in media, especially children’s books. I’m a huge supporter of the We Need Diverse Books organization. They’ve been a great support to me too. Remember this?
In an effort to do my part in this revolution for more diversity, I wrote a short essay giving my opinion of why we need diverse books. Why do YOU think we need diversity in books?
Why do we need diverse books?
“Literature is the expression of society”, said Charles Nodier, a French author and librarian who, according to Wikipedia, introduced young Romanticists to gothic literature and vampire tales. If books were photos in our social-medialized society, would they really show the nature of our world and society? Would everyone be able to see themselves on the pages of a book?
One of the first things people do when they see a photo is look for themselves or people they might know. The same is true about books. When children read a book, they look for aspects of their lives and their situations. They read books with curiosity to learn about other people too.
The first book that I read by myself was Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. I lost my favorite grandfather at the age of five, and I saw my relationship with my Abuelo in that book. As a child, I didn’t have a pet goat, lived in the mountains, or ever slept in a bed of hay. Heck! I’d never seen snow in my life! I didn’t have anything else in common with the “girl from the Alps” but for the sorrow of missing a beloved grandfather. Reading about Heidi’s pain when she was separated from her grandfather helped me deal with my own grieving at having lost mine to death.
The next books that marked me as a person were the works of Brazilian luminaire Monteiro Lobato. Through his stories about cousins Little Nose and Pedrinho, I learned to love the Brazilian people, their traditions, their history. In spite of the Argentine-Brazilian eternal rivalry in the soccer field, I saw my Brazilian neighbors through the window of books and learned to love them. Eventually, I earned a degree in Latin American studies, with an emphasis in Portuguese language and literature. All because of a series of stories about a grandmother and her grandchildren in a small Brazilian farm.
In books, my greatest friends and companions throughout my life and especially my childhood were mirrors to myself and windows to the world.
They empowered me to pursue my dreams and fight for them. A child who doesn’t see herself in books is lacking the tools to face life, to make sense of the world around her, to know what she could be capable of. A child who doesn’t see a different reality from his lacks the tools to learn how to empathize with those living under different circumstances. He lacks the tools to make sense of aspects of the world he isn’t a part of.
As a child, seeing aspect of myself in a book I was empowered. When I read about a character of my ethnic or cultural background, I got the message that my story mattered enough for someone to write about it. I learned I wasn’t alone in my sorrow. I learned that I mattered.
My children are growing up between cultures. Like I did as a child, they yearn to be heard, seen, recognized, empowered by a book. Words give life and voice. And I want my children—and all children–to have a voice, to make sense of life, and to feel empowered. That’s why we need diverse books.