Where Diversity Lives

This week Mental Floss produced a video titled “47 Charming Facts About Children’s Books” hosted by one John Green, wherein the celebrated teen author shares interesting bits of trivia about a selection of iconic books for children and teens. And the video is undeniably charming. The facts themselves, an amalgam of sort of effervescent curiosities, delight with their bubbly humor. And John Green is himself the very embodiment of charm; his simultaneously off-hand and ingenuous relation of this bevy of “facts” is positively infectious. You can watch the video here.

corduroyAs charming as it is, though, this video is also white. Really white. Of the 47 books considered, exactly none of them is written or illustrated by a person of color. We do have Corduroy, by Don Freeman, which features an African American family (though the fact in question is about the stuffed bear). We have a translated book, in Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. But that’s about it. Perhaps there was a person of color among the stable of authors writing the Nancy Drew series under the Carolyn Keene pen name.

I find this lack of diversity troubling.

I hasten to say that John Green is one of the good guys. One of the best guys. He is warm and generous and an unfailing defender of broad, diverse reading. He is a brilliant writer and thinker. And he is single-handedly responsible for turning lots (and lots) of young people into young readers (I can’t point to a study that says this, but good luck convincing anybody in the know otherwise). Having been named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine it is no stretch to suggest that his voice is particularly resonant, and in my experience he employs that influence, overwhelmingly, speaking out for justice.

But perhaps that’s what gives me pause. There is a missed opportunity here. Most of these books are undeniably iconic, and I imagine that many of them resonate deeply with the video’s audience. The caption beneath the video proclaims “In this week’s episode of mental_floss on YouTube, John Green looks at the fascinating stories behind the books from your childhood.” I suppose one could make the argument that the list, being  a collection of historical titles, simply reflects the historical lack of diversity in publishing for children. But I’m not buying it.

For, whether or not the video intends to represent a broader swath of children’s literature, it does. Some among us see it, we chuckle and grin, we glow in the nostalgia of our childhoods, and our memories are troublingly homogeneous. Whenever a group of books stands as a sampling of the canon, that collection needs to represent the breadth therein. This video uses its own irresistible charms to reflect the profound charms of the books it considers. It reminds us how deeply the roots of our earliest reading experiences extend. Should not everyone be able to share in that kind of recollection?

Yes, we need diversity on the shelves in libraries and bookstores and in children’s bedrooms. But if we want to find diversity there, we need to sow it, wherever books are told.

5 thoughts on “Where Diversity Lives

  1. I tweeted your post. To my surprise, Green replied. A flurry of tweets. On twitter I am debreese. Recap: In my tweet I tried to get at how diversity isn’t on his mind. He said he doesn’t write the script; just reads it and that it is conjecture to say what is on someone’s mind. He’s right about that. My response was that I figured that, given his videos about history/Native ppl, diversity would be on his mind and that he’d try to ask for revisions to script. He said he is ultimately responsible and they’ll do a new video. I offered a couple of suggestions.

    • Storified the tweets here: https://storify.com/Debbie_Reese/john-green-responds When BookCon fiasco broke, John Green was caught up in it–can’t recall how/why. I do recall him saying that he thinks diversity is important and wasn’t going to do panels that were all white, but that his publisher (agent?) had booked him on things that were all-white. He did a post promoting the Varian Johnson’s book, THE GREAT GREEN HEIST (the book that the We Need Diverse Books campaign rallied around). A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of writing about him being characterized as the god of YA lit. He has no control over that, obviously, but it is interesting to watch how he navigates the diversity issue. He has good intent, I think, but I suspect he’s rather clueless about it overall.

      • Hi Debbie:
        I’m glad that the post has generated some conversation in the greater diversity discussion. I have found the differing perspectives to be really fascinating, and I’m so encouraged by our communal interest in improving diversity of all kinds in the literature available to the young people we care about so much.
        I don’t know John Green well (I have met him a few times, though I’d guess he wouldn’t remember me), but I do follow his writing and vlogging. He is anything but clueless. Indeed, I would characterize him as a powerful ally with sophisticated understandings. I am willing to bet that I am guilty of exactly the same sort of oversight I’m pointing out, the only difference being that not as many people are paying attention.
        Rather than insist upon some sort of perfection, let’s all of us look for dedication to improvement. The road to better diversity is a bumpy one, and all of us are going to trip. My hope is that, as we stumble, we can help one another up.

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