Friday, May 2, 2014

Why We Need Diverse Books

When I taught high school in San Jose, California, I had a classroom library for my kids to use, because some of them needed the library brought to them. I bought the books myself, at used book warehouses. Though I tried to stock my library shelves with as much a variety as I could, I had to pick from what I could find and it was obvious that there were few choices which spoke directly to the half of my kids who weren't white. Or heterosexual. Or middle class. Or free of learning disabilities. Or free from mental health issues. Or atheist. Or not struggling with anorexia. Or not on the verge of dropping out. Or...

You fill in the blank.

What is it about you that you never saw positively portrayed in a book growing up? Is it something you can keep hidden? A secret you divulge when and to whom you choose? Or is it something everyone knows the instant they look at you or hear you speak?

Several days ago, I went to a hair salon (foolishly, not my regular salon) and got a haircut. I actually had to make the stylist stop, but not before he'd given me what I'm currently rating as my worst haircut ever: a masculine, one-length-everywhere disaster. I went home and almost cried. I'm trying to keep things in perspective. It's hair. It'll grow out. Fessing up to my regular stylist will be worse than the actual haircut.

But it reminded me of all the comments I got when I first went short, back in elementary school. I got called a boy often enough that I considered just going by Wendell so I could be done with it. Instead, I grew my hair out before starting junior high (that's what we called it back then), but gave up on the charade and cut it short again in the middle of the winter my eighth grade year. By then I (kind-of) had boobs, so it was harder to mistake me for a boy.

Still, my freshman year of college saw a surge of whispered judgmental comments resulting from my appearance and the assumptions that went with it. Of course, it didn't help that I was one of the few liberal students on a religious college campus. I wasn't on a crusade to change anyone, but after two years of defending myself against the status quo simply because I was different, I transferred to a large university so I could be lost in the noise.

But I still get excited when I see a celebrity brave enough to chop off her tresses, because I feel less alone.

We need diverse books because if a little white girl with a pixie cut is reduced to a literary fairy sidekick like Tinkerbell, how much worse is it for the girls and boys who can't find themselves anywhere? What about the kids who are African American, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Jewish, Muslim, or Native American? What about the kids who are gay or bisexual or transgender? What about the kids with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, autism, or dwarfism? Kids with severe food allergies or diabetes? What about the kids in wheelchairs or with arm crutches?

All kids deserve to see themselves as a main character in an adventure: a hero, a fighter, the one who comes through the struggle even stronger. It's not enough for us to tell them they're strong, they're fighters, and that they'll get through their childhood years. They need to see the success of someone just like them.

We need diverse books because people are diverse. Author Ellen Oh wants everyone's help fixing the problem. You can find out how right here.