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.

Odd Duck

Odd DuckOdd Duck
by Cecil Castellucci & Sara Varon
First Second, 2013

The phrase feels like a relic from an older generation, like bee’s knees. Indeed, when I occasionally say it, I can feel the echo of my parents’ voices in my lungs. “She’s a bit of an odd duck, isn’t she?” It’s almost – almost – an endearing phrase – not quite as nice as “marches to the beat of a different drummer” but a similar notion. Just enough of a raised-eyebrow judgment to acknowledge a differentness in another.

The title’s slightly nostalgic phrase makes me not at all surprised its artist is the quirky, kooky Sara Varon, whose Bake Sale was a deliciously different cookie of a book as well. In Odd Duck, she brings her signature omnisciently-bemused labeling to the endearing details of Cecil Castellucci’s story and character, including duck-protagonist Theodora’s morning rituals (“Quaking exercises, for perfect pitch and tone”), her occasional unorthodox shopping choices (“Duck food, just like all the other ducks…but also…mango salsa! Huh!”), and her eventual disapproval of the new neighbor Chad (“Feathers ASKEW!” and “Violent dancing!”). Details including rotary phones and Theodora’s lavender cloche-like bonnet (complete with a decorative, metaphorically-foreshadowing bee) insist the story is set in some bygone era. The ducks’ wide-eyed expressions and wiggly, spaghetti-like limbs (again, “Violent dancing!”) call to mind the Steamboat Willie days of early cartooning, or perhaps today’s decidedly-retro hit “Adventure Time” on Cartoon Network.

Early in the story, Theodora wishes on a star “that nothing in her happy life would ever change.” She is clearly as sentimental and vintage as her artist’s style suggests. And of course the new neighbor throws a bit of a wrench (nearly literally, as he is a builder of strange modern sculpture) into her life. She is initially offended by his unrefined mannerisms and disheveled appearance until they find some common ground on the ground: both decide not to fly south for winter. Bonded by this quiet rebellion against the birds-of-a-feather rule – a glimmer of the uncompromising nature of each of their odd-duck-ness to be fully revealed and reveled in by the book’s end – Theodora and Chad become fast not-so-fair-weather friends.

The odd-duck odd-couple’s charm lies in their utter contentment with themselves. Up until a critical plot point in which they overhear a stranger’s comments, it never occurs to either party that he or she holds the title of oddest duck. Their mostly unencumbered sense of self and gentle stubbornness to be anything else is such a delightful match to Castellucci’s story and Varon’s artwork. It’s a reading experience so well done and delightful it’s sure to inspire its readers to embrace the odd in themselves.