How to bring diversity in children’s literature

Jan 03, 2019 Mathangi Subramanian

Agents, editors, authors and illustrators need to seek out and nurture underrepresented talent through commissioning books, providing editorial support, and being generous with our contacts.

After years of writing personal essays, editorials and books, I have recently started calling myself a professional writer and have come to the realisation that my favourite genre is writing for children and teens. Despite this, my literary wish for 2019 is that as much as I love books for children and teens, I hope that in India, I will not be the one writing it.

In the US, where I grew up, I am a woman of colour and a member of a minority religion. Stories like mine are often untold and so, sharing my words feels like a radical act. In India, where I am a member of the privileged majority, I am no longer starved for visions of my life. Instead, I am starved for visions of the lives of others.

Generating material for the world’s youngest readers brings with it a specific kind of joy. It is powerful to realise that a picture book could be the first piece of literature a child ever encounters, and could therefore be the start of their literary taste. To know that my middle grades novel might contain the language an adolescent needs to describe his or her burgeoning identities. To imagine that the bio printed on the back of my book for young adults might make a teenage think, “This writer is not so different than me. Writing is something that I could do, too.”

All over the world, children’s literature has a diversity problem. In the US, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported in 2017 that only 6% of published books for children were penned by black, Latino, or native American authors. Regardless of authorship, only 4% of books for children and teens had LGBTQ+ content. The same year in the UK, only 4% of books for children and teens featured a black, Asian or minority ethnic character. In Australia, a recent study by Victoria University found that books for children and teens almost exclusively star middle class, heterosexual, white families, and most protagonists are male.

India doesn’t yet have a diversity count, but if it did, I suspect the results would be equally troubling. Many of the authors and illustrators whose books fill my three-year-old daughter’s bookshelf are friends of mine, artists whose work I adore. Most are also caste Hindus. Many are wealthy, just like me.

The uniformity of those of us producing children’s books translates into a uniformity in their themes. Even though most of the Indian picture books my daughter reads are written and illustrated by women, the stories star light-skinned, straight haired boys — something my dark skinned, curly haired daughter has started to notice. Her books by and about Adivasis and Dalits are often folktales or historical, as though these groups existed only in the past. The books that we have dealing with issues like poverty, disability, queerness, adoption, and loss are all titles I purchased abroad — as are all the titles that feature Muslim, queer, and Sikh characters.

As a writer myself, this pattern is disturbing, but logical: I tend to write about what I know, and here in India, what I know is privilege. Even writing a 20-page picture book about the experiences of those with less power than me requires in-depth research; something which, now that I’ve become a mother, I have less and less time to do. It is easier, not to mention more authentic, for me to write about my own life. I’m sure many other authors feel the same.

Indian children’s publishers are aware of this lack of diversity and many are taking steps to address it. But in order to be truly inclusive, the industry must undergo radical changes. Children’s publishers — and publishers in general — must pay book artists a living wage. Writing is difficult, skilled work, and I would not be able to do it without the women who help clean my house, cook my food, and care for my child, luxuries I can afford because of my husband’s financial support. Agents, editors, authors and illustrators need to seek out and nurture underrepresented talent through commissioning books, providing editorial support, and being generous with our contacts. Festival organisers must consciously feature diverse speakers. Readers must demand diverse titles, thereby proving that there is a market for all kinds of stories.

So often, India’s diversity is described as our greatest liability, when in reality, it is our greatest strength. Our children deserve to know this truth. There is no better way to show them than through stories.

Mathangi Subramanian is a writer and educator. Her novel, A People’s History of Heaven, will be published later this year

The views expressed are personal

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