Like so many Canadians, I watched the recent American election with horror. I felt a sense of shock as you-know-who won state after state. It hit me on multiple levels. It’s been five days since the results were made known. In that time, I had to come to terms with what that meant to me as a writer of children’s books.
Books are powerful tools. They teach as they entertain. They become friends and they live-on in memories. Stories encourage, transport us and nurture character.
Today, I went to the library and took out several books for my seven year old daughter to read. One is called, Ruby Bridges Goes to School by Ruby Bridges. It is about segregation. Another book which we borrowed is titled Tolerance by Connie Coldwell Miller. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we discuss racism with our children. It is a difficult subject, but it is one that cannot be ignored or put off.
As a children’s book writer, I realize I have a responsibility during this highly turbulent time. Acts of discrimination and sexism are increasing. Swastika graffiti is on the rise. Minorities are being threatened, and the threats are very real.
Recently, I read a cautionary article about minority characters. The piece advised against including characters of different cultures simply to include different cultures.
I am sensitive to cultural appropriation, and I understand that culture should not be used to marginalize or stereotype or denigrate. But I refuse to segregate my characters, to commit literary apartheid.
I live in a multicultural country, and I believe in its diversity. And the more I think about it, the more I believe it is imperative that I include that diversity in what I write.
So often, I browse through early chapter books and see princesses and fairies and girl protagonists with fair skin, blue eyes and blond hair. Surely, we are more than this? What does this say of our diversity, our national commitment to inclusion? Do best friends need to have the same skin colour, religion, family background? What are we saying to our readers when characters only play with their own ethnicity? Aren’t these questions we should be asking ourselves?
So, here is my vow to young readers:
1) The characters in my books will come from a range of cultures. They will each have their own unique personalities, and I will do my best to respect both traditions and beliefs.
2) Some of the characters in my books will have both a mother and a father. But some will have just a mother or just a father. And some will have two fathers or two mothers. Love is love.
3) I will include women firefighters and male nurses. Some dad’s will stay home, and some mothers will be managers. My characters will enjoy activities based on their interests, not on their genders.
4) Some of my characters will have physical or developmental challenges. Some may be in wheelchairs and some may use service animals.
5) One of my next books deals with bullying and gender roles. I feel strongly that villainizing a bully does not belong in early chapter books. My stories will allow for change, self-realization, sincere apologies and healed relationships.
As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers. And our stories must embody our commitment to diversity, now more than ever.