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Local authors leading campaign for more diverse children’s books

Quick, check your kids’ bookshelf: How many characters look just like them?

The answer likely depends on what race they are. And that’s a reality that many in the literary community — including key players from Austin — are working to change.

The We Need Diverse Books children’s literature campaign has been accelerating since its launch last April, when authors across the country railed at the all-white, all-male lineup announced for a kids’ books panel at New York’s BookCon festival. Authors took to their Twitter streams, maligning the shut-out of women writers and those of color, and a hashtag — and movement — was born.

As librarians across the state are set to gather in Austin next week for the annual Texas Library Association conference, it’s worth noting what a difference a year makes: There’s a national festival devoted to children’s diverse books planned for next year in Washington, D.C., and a writing award with corresponding grant supported by celebrated author Walter Dean Myers’ estate. The Texas Book Festival featured a We Need Diverse Books panel in October, as did the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association earlier this year. Next week’s Texas library conference will include a diversity summit as part of its program as well as a “Colorful Canon” panel exploring how to build diversity in children’s literature.

The yearning for diverse books has been around for decades, but social media coalesced individual conversations at readings and panels into a movement, note Austin writers who are involved with the national effort.

“With the Internet we now have a larger voice,” says Austin illustrator and writer Don Tate, the WNDB board’s artist outreach coordinator (and former American-Statesman graphic artist).

“We’re not just talking to ourselves; we’re able to reach parents and teachers who might not have the resources to go to a national conference and hear the panels,” says Austin’s Cynthia Leitich Smith, a member of the WNDB advisory board and best-selling author of the “Tantalize” and “Feral” series.

Social media’s reach — the #WeNeedDiverseBooks initial campaign logged more than 60,000 tweets in just a couple of days — already has resulted in some sales increases, Tate and Smith point out.

“We’ve been having this conversation for a long time, and I think our voices are finally starting to be heard,” Tate says. “Some of the (publishing) numbers as of last year were starting to uptick. Now whether they will continue to uptick remains to be seen.”

Indeed, children’s publications featuring “significant African or African-American content” doubled, from 93 in 2013 to 179 in 2014, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison that has studied diversity in children’s literature for the past 25 years. Books with Asian content or characters also increased, from 69 to 112. Titles featuring American Indians or Latinos, however, were stagnant, the group found.

Boosting the numbers is a multifaceted effort that requires buy-in from not just authors, but also editors, booksellers, librarians and parents, those involved say. In Austin, that’s led to projects like the Modern First Library, a collection of titles designed as fresh alternatives to tried-and-true classics, says Austin author Chris Barton.

Disheartened by a magazine article that recommended first readers “that were all from the Nixon administration” and fueled by the increased calls for making children’s literature reflect the true demographics of young readers, Barton hatched the idea of teaming with BookPeople and other Austin writers to recommend newer picture books that would resonate just as much as the classics: ones like “Grace for President,” which features an African-American girl as the heroine, and the lucha libre-inflected “Nino Wrestles the World.”

“We didn’t want there to be a medicinal feel to it,” explains Barton, whose newest book, “The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch” (Eerdmans, 2015), features Tate’s illustrations. “These are fantastic, exciting books that also happen to naturally pull in more diverse characters.”

Meghan Goel, children’s book buyer for BookPeople, loved Barton’s idea, which she said is central to the store’s mission of supporting books that generate dialogue about the world.

“As a bookseller, I think I have certainly been trying to raise my awareness for probably the past four or five years to really analyze our selection and to make sure we can speak to any child’s experience that can come in our store,” she says.

BookPeople’s teaming with AISD has also resulted in a wider reach for stories like “Grandfather Gandhi” (Atheneum, 2014), Bethany Hegedus’ picture-book biography of Arun Gandhi, explains Sanchez Elementary librarian Ana Loya.

“It was excellent and so unique and a great example of getting as many different kinds of stories to kids as possible,” Loya says. “History has so many struggles, and we’re still trying to include everyone. Why not help children understand how to include others through their books?”

That means expanding the diversity conversation to include everything from religion to learning differences and sexual orientation.

“A lot of librarians like to use the metaphors of books being both windows and mirrors,” says Sally Miculek, assistant director of the Georgetown Public Library. “A kid needs to look out and see perspectives that are different from their world just as much as they need to see aspects of their world reflected back to them. … I don’t say, ‘Oh, you’re going to like this book because it features an urban kid and his friends look like a UN meeting.’ It has to be a great story.

“If you look at the ‘Origami Yoda’ series, which was so popular, (the main character) has Asperger’s, but that’s not something that’s particularly highlighted as important. Through his origami, he has a way of connecting with his classmates and a way of being relevant and important. I think it’s great that it doesn’t have to be overt.”

Indeed, a “diverse” book could mean anything from a retelling of a classic folk tale to one exploring a historical event to contemporary or genre fiction that includes a diverse cast of characters. And while authors note that publishers haven’t always been attuned to offering all those kinds of titles, Austin’s Varian Johnson said his editor for “The Great Greene Heist” (Arthur R. Levine/Scholastic, 2014) was very supportive of his wish to write a middle-school caper story that featured a black hero and supporting characters of varied backgrounds.

“I wanted to showcase diversity, but in a fun way,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to necessarily teach a lesson or a moral. … Kids want to see themselves in all kinds of books. It shouldn’t be that the only time you see yourself in books is during the 28 days of Black History Month.”

And writing diverse characters isn’t the sole provenance of diverse authors, notes Austin’s Jo Whittemore. Whittemore has Korean ancestry and has written Asian characters, but with copious research she’s also created characters who stutter or who are Jewish, African-American or Greek. Like many of her peers, she also stresses the importance of parents being open to all titles for their children.

“As much as teachers and librarians help, it would be great also if all parents were more open to (their children) picking out a book that doesn’t have the white girl on the cover,” she says. “If they can get their children learning and expanding their views — if you start at a young age, it’s just second nature.”

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