Everything Old is New Again

Posted July 21st, 2014

In preparation for a lecture I was giving on the use of poetic elements to enhance prose, I dug through a few old newspaper and magazine articles I’d written for sample passages in which I had done precisely that. In the midst of my search, I came across a piece of reportage from 1977 that had particular resonance. The title of the piece was “Broadway Orchestras: A Pit of Discriminatory Hiring,” and it was all about a lack of diversity in Broadway theater orchestras, discussed at a public hearing I was sent to cover.

newspaper article

“During this year, the Houston Opera Company produced two major Black shows. The first, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, featured 35 musicians in its orchestra. The second, Porgy and Bess, features a 43 man orchestra. Of these 78 musicians only seven were black. 

“Eleanor Holmes Norton, of the Commission on Human Rights, brought these facts to attention recently in a public hearing entitled “Hiring Practices for Broadway Musical Orchestras: The exclusionary Effect on Minority Musicians.”                       

“The hearings, designed to ‘determine which recruitment and hiring practices result in this (exclusionary) pattern…’ brought out some of Broadways key producers, contractors, and Black musicians. Among them were producers Norman Kean and Philip Rose, contractors Earl Shendell and Mel Rodnon, musicians Gayle Dixon and Jack Jeffers, and actor, producer, director Ossie Davis. 

“What brought on all the hooplah?” 

Akua Dixon

Akua Dixon (photo: James Rich)

Reading this piece gave me chills, for a range of reasons. For one, Ruby Dee, widow of the late Ossie Davis, had just passed. For another, the viola player Gayle Dixon, sister of friend and cellist Akua Dixon, was a personal acquaintance. Akua had just recently mentioned Gayle, who passed years ago. These twin facts were reason enough for my goose-bumps, but there was a third. The piece was about diversity or, more precisely, the lack thereof. In this case, it pertained to Broadway orchestras. These days, a lack of diversity most often pertains to children’s literature, a subject I have addressed on more than one occasion. Apparently I’ve been bumping up against, and speaking out about, this issue for quite some time.

I wonder about the state of Broadway orchestra pits today. It’s been a long time since I last followed up on the subject. I’ll have to get the skinny from Akua. As for diversity in children’s literature, well, in case you haven’t been keeping up, the stats remain pretty dismal. But this isn’t a piece about statistics. This isn’t even a piece about the dollars and sense of publishing and marketing a more diverse selection of books for an ever-expanding, diverse population of readers. Instead, I want to talk about the good of it all. What comes from sharing books featuring children of one race or culture, with readers of another? That’s what I want to speak to.

The Road to ParisI know a thing or two about sharing children’s books across the color line, and not because I’ve taken polls, but because I’ve written and published more than 60 books since I entered this field, in 1977. Over that time, I’ve gathered hundreds of letters and emails from readers. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I’ll wager that a significant percentage of them are something other than African American. Some are Asian, some are Latino, and many are white. How do I know that? It’s usually easy enough to judge from the name but often I don’t have to because the readers, unbidden, choose to mention their ethnicity. Yes, they write to tell me how they feel about my books, but also to introduce themselves. In the process, they share basic information about who they are: their names, ages, schools, grades, where they come from, and their ethnic backgrounds. Mind you, if we adults didn’t make such a big deal of the latter, these young people wouldn’t either!

The notes and letters I receive from children and young adults across the country, and around the world, are very telling. Here’s what I’ve learned from readers:

They like humor.

They enjoy being moved and inspired.

Some have come to my books disliking poetry, but have come to love it. Many have since tried their hand at poetry, themselves.

Some come to my books as reluctant readers, but leave as avid readers.

They relate to my contemporary storylines.

They see themselves in my characters.

As for the color of my characters? Basically, my readers could care less. When they comment on race at all, it is only to explain exactly why race doesn’t matter:

Bronx MasqueradeMariah T. says: “I’m white but to me race doesn’t matter, not one bit, and I’m reading your book Bronx Masquerade, and so far, I love it.”

Zach A. writes: “I think that if most of the characters in a book are not the same race as you, that should not stop you from reading it. That’s racist and just plain silly.”

Ary B. comments: “I stick my nose in your book, and have a hard time taking my nose out of it. I can put myself in your characters’ shoes and pretend to be them, even though I am white. I think African American authors should actually be recognized more, because it is nice to think that instead of assuming everyone is white, which white people tend to think, we are looking at the world in a whole new perspective.”

Can I get an Amen?

Unlike adults, children and young adults get it: the thing that matters most about a book is Story. And when readers are given the opportunity to dive into stories across lines of color and culture, they walk away with valuable lessons, such as:

  • ­We are more alike than we are different.
  • We all bleed.
  • We all experience joy and laughter, suffering and pain.
  • We all need love and blossom when we have it.
  • We are all capable of both good and evil.
  • What separates us is not our color, but our character.

Planet Middle SchoolWe live in a country that, in word at least, celebrates its cultural multiplicity. Isn’t it past time that the books we share with our children reflect that, as well? There is only one right answer to that question, by the way.

If we live in a culturally diverse world—and we do—it behooves us to learn something about the cultural groups we live among. One of the least intimidating ways to learn those lessons is between the pages of a book. Yes, I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.

As we in the diverse children’s book community like to say, let’s move the needle. This issue has been stuck on pause long enough, and it’s our children—Native American, Asian, Latino, African-American, and white—who are paying the cost.


Posted July 10th, 2012

censorshipBanning books, ripping them from classroom shelves, de-facto censorship at the point of publication—what the bleep is going on, here?

Okay. I’ll try to calm down, but the effort required is tremendous.

Deep breaths. Let me begin, again.

When I was a little girl, I was an avid reader. The library was my sanctuary, and story was my safe place. I lived between the pages of a book. That said, the books of my childhood let me down in one respect. Too few of them featured characters who looked like me, or who shared my life experience. Reading book after book after book without seeing my face reflected began to make me feel invisible.  No child should ever feel that way between the pages of a book.

As an author of books for children and young adults, I have devoted more than 30 years to addressing that imbalance, by creating literature featuring children of color, primarily African American and Hispanic. The impact of that work, and the work of other authors of color—Latin, Asian, Native American, as well as African American—has already been felt in the generation that followed ours. But we’re still playing catch-up, in many ways. There remain genres in which our voices have been too seldom heard, fantasy and science fiction among them.

Now, just when our children are finally beginning to feel a sense of inclusion and empowerment, our books our being banned from school classrooms. And, yes, I said our because I align myself with any ethnic group targeted for censorship. There is no Latin children’s book community, or Asian children’s book community, or Native American children’s book community. There is only the children’s book community, and what affects one member affects all.

Censorship harms all children, not only the targeted ethnic group du jour. A book is the safe place for a child to learn about another culture. It is there that children come to understand that all humans are more alike than different. I was reminded of that in a letter I received from a reader who wrote: “I learned that no matter how different we are on the outside, we’re all pretty much the same on the inside.” That is one of the great lessons to be learned from books featuring Latin, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, African, and African American characters. Only someone, or some state, that wants to perpetuate the racial divide would take issue with that.

Are you listening, Arizona?

Of course, race-related censorship is not the only kind out there.

Today, I’ve got another itch to scratch.

What set me off more recently? An attack on author Rachel Held Evans for her blog about the stranglehold Christian bookstores have on the Christian publishing industry. She wrote about the frustrations felt by many believing authors who find themselves creatively straight-jacketed by a marketplace that prefers its literature sanitized, and a little left of reality. I resonated with much of what she had to say, and felt pressed to add my voice to the argument.

I’m livid about people trying to dictate what a Christian writer can, and should, write.  Or, for that matter, trying to dictate what can and should constitute “Christian fiction.” Let me explain.

I’m something of a rarity. I’m an author who publishes on both sides of the aisle, namely with both Christian and secular publishers. Over the years, I’ve noticed that as long as I’m focused on picture books, the problems are, for the most part, slight. However, the minute middle grade and YA fiction is the genre, hold your horses. “Language” suddenly becomes an issue. And by “language” I mean so-called edgy words like “damn” or “hell.” (“Shit” is completely out of the question.) As for subject matter, let’s not mention witches, or prostitutes, or—gasp—homosexuals. Mind you, I’ve never featured gay characters in any of my fiction, nor used the word “shit,” but I most certainly object to the idea of being told that I can’t.

Here’s my problem. I’ve been a student of the Bible since 1974 and, in all that time, I’ve noticed the following: stories in the Holy Bible include passages on witches, sorcerers, mediums, prostitutes, pimps, racists, adulterers, despots, and homosexuals, among others. These stories do not suggest that one should become a pimp, witch, prostitute, etc. But the Word of God does not shy away from their mention, or instruct readers to ignore the reality of their existence.

Some of the stories we find in scripture are cautionary tales, some are tales of redemption, while others focus on transformation. Instead of pushing for a literature that is “safe”—something the Bible never was—why not allow the creators of Christian fiction the freedom to follow the models found in scripture?

Consider this: Father Abraham pimps out his wife, Sarah, not once, but twice. The prophet Hosea married a whore, and did so on God’s instruction. Rahab, a prostitute, became a hero of the faith, and an ancestor of King David and, through him, an ancestor of Jesus Christ. What, exactly, do Christian booksellers do with those stories? Are you going to tell me that such stories are good enough for the Holy Bible, but not good enough for contemporary Christian authors?  Really?

I realize nothing I say here is going to convince these booksellers to take off their blinders, but still. One must speak out. Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, for taking the lead.

I’m not sure I know how to take on the censors. I only know that silence won’t work.

The Lord never neglected to call a spade a spade. Neither will I.