I felt inspired to write this after reading my friend, author Heather Tomlinson's astute blog post on diversity and the two recent New York Times articles by Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher Myers on the lack of color in children's books.
I think a lot about diversity. When I was growing up in a small Connecticut suburb I was the only half-Indian Jewish girl I knew for miles and miles. I never read about someone like me in a book and I read a lot of books. I found ways to identify with the characters, but I always felt like something about me had to be altered to fit.
In 2012, I published my middle-grade novel, The Whole Story of Half a Girl, which is loosely based on my childhood experiences. I wrote it so someone like me could see themselves in it. I also wrote it for anyone who felt different, who felt outside the majority, who felt like they were supposed to alter something about themselves to fit in.
When I first entered the public school in my town as a fifth-grader after being in a private alternative school, I became friends with some of the African-American kids who were bused in from another less affluent town. I was an outsider and it seemed to me, so were they. They sat at their own table separate from the rest of the students, the white students. But I wasn't bused in. My skin wasn't dark enough. I was different from the kids who were bused in, but I wasn't like the white kids either. I realized then, that I wasn't like anyone else and never would be. I wasn't like my Jewish relatives and I wasn't like my Indian relatives either. I didn't know where I belonged.
Enter Lisa Bonet. She was a revelation to me. She was the one person in the media I connected to the most. I loved The Cosby Show, but I also somehow knew (how did one find out these things before the internet?) that in real life Lisa Bonet's mother was white and Jewish and her father was African-American. She was the closest I knew to anyone like me and I was obsessed with her, her style, her confidence, her beauty. She was so cool and she was like me. I never found my “Lisa Bonet” in a book, but if I had, my mind would have been blown. There is a difference between relating to a book and a TV show. Reading a book is a private, solitary act. When you connect deeply to a literary character, it feels like that character was created just for you. It's a powerful experience. If I had found my Lisa Bonet in a book, I would have felt truly recognized for the first time in my life.
As I got older, I understood that I was as much a singular oddity as any human being, but I do tend to connect more with people who have experienced some sense of otherness, have felt singular and odd in whatever way they have. I enjoy filling my world with diverse friendships and diverse thoughts and will always write with diversity in mind, but diversity is diverse. It can be expressed in so many different ways--through skin color, cultural identity, sexual identity, religious identity, socio-economic identity, or all of the above.
I want my children to read about many perspectives both to identify with and learn from. So bring on the books about diverse African-American experiences, and Asian experiences, and Jewish experiences, and Jewish, part Asian, part African-American experiences, and everything else our world is that I didn't mention here.
I hope some day for children's literature to be like a well-shuffled deck of cards. In the meantime, it's my job as a parent to expose my kids to more diverse reading selections. As writers, it's our duty to reflect not only our world, but the world.