It’s More Than Representation: My Thoughts on the Lack of Diversity in Children’s Books

I write from where I come from isn’t a good enough excuse as to why there are only white straight people in your book.


Tina Kugler’s illustration on the statistics on racial disparities

My parents always worked to make sure I had books featuring black protagonists, knew my history, played with black barbie dolls,etc… basically representation was always there. Yet I still found myself reading other things. The books my parents provided were great, but I wanted to read about superheroes, criminal masterminds, wizards, girls who disguise themselves like boys to become knights, and so forth and those characters didn’t look like me, not on the covers and no where in the books, but I was okay with that because I just wanted to read.

I didn’t care who was on the cover, I didn’t care that I mostly read “boy books” growing up or that there were no queer romances in my YA books.

I. Did. Not. Care.

I kept not caring until college. I’d pretty much stopped reading books for pleasure during my last two years in high school. To say the least, those were some rough times for me and finding new books for me was the least of my problems. Plus, it was no longer cool to talk about The Clique series, Vampire Academy, Twilight, and so forth at the lunch table like my friends and I used to do just a couple years earlier. I graduated high school, went to Wellesley College, and all of a sudden everything my parents had “forced” on me about black pride and activism slapped me in the face. I suppose you could say I woke up. That’s not to say I look back with fondess at those years, as a child, I spent picket fence in hand protesting injustices in black communities, but I do look back and thank those years for the person I am now.

Activism comes in all forms.

I hated the protests my father dragged me to because they meant nothing to me. I was a booklover, my happiness was always assured as long as I had a good book, it was my means of escaping, or so I thought when I was little. Yesterday I finally watched Catching Fire, one of my favorite book series, yet because of this article or rather thanks to it, I couldn’t stop looking at Katniss and thinking damn, 1) this is/was such a whitewashed film even thought the books weren’t  and 2) this would’ve been so much better had someone from Rue’s district been the protagonist, who seemed like the poorer ones & are basically sharecroppers. Not to mention, as the article the latter link goes to says, “if you’re going to write a story about the marginalized, why not reach down and pick the darkest girl?”

It’s thoughts like these that keep me up at night. Sure, like my dad says, you should be able to envision yourself in any book. I mean, that’s what I did for years. However, is there any wrong in wanting/should I be ignored because I want to read about a black girl who isn’t hating herself, her skin color, who isn’t a slave, who isn’t living during the civil rights movement, who isn’t from one of the various time periods in history class when I was called upon to speak for my entire race. (Ha! As if that teacher really wanted to hear my thoughts about the civil rights movement… I read Malcolm X and bell hooks for fun, don’t even go there.)

Sure as a child I was content with reading books featuring only white straight kids with no disabilities. These characters, aside from the fact that it was up to them to save their world, were freaking perfect and though I didn’t realize it, it led to years and years of me hating myself because I could never be like them and whenever I said my favorite character was Jo March, I was always quickly reminded that I would’ve been a slave at that time or that I wasn’t a boy when I said my favorite character was Artemis Fowl.

So yes, although the answer I write from where I come from is nice. I will no longer accept it. I’m not calling out one single author for there are many authors who have said something similar. However, the stories I write do not only feature black characters. I do a TON of research, even when writing black characters, because believe it or not, even people of a certain culture have stereotypes about that culture that can bleed through into their writing.

You say you write from where you come from, I ask, where do you come from?

Where I come from is pretty diverse, and no it’s not the ghetto.

I read books because I like them & identify with them in some way.

Even to this day, I don’t throw a book away because it has a white girl on the cover. That’s stupid. However like Christopher Myers argued in his piece in the NY Times, it’s time for us to show The Market that we’re tired of this falsified, warped world in which only white people survive dystopia. (<– that links to the intro post, the entire series is phenomenal!)

We need to get rid of this mess.

I love my action-adventure MG books, but why when I sign up for a panel featuring action-adventure MG/YA authors, whose books I love, all the authors are male? Don’t tell me there aren’t female MG action-adventure authors, I read two this month. Don’t tell me there are no black YA Spec-Fic authors, I can name three phenomenal ones (not including Octavia Butler, ❤ her though).

If the problem is that there aren’t enough, get more. Find these writers, mentor them, sign them on, publish them. We, readers, grew New Adult, and with books such as Shannon Stoker’s THE REGISTRY and Sarah Harian’s THE WICKED WE HAVE DONE we’re getting NA that’s expanding beyond Contemporary Romance. If we want something, we need to tell The Market we want it because The Market does not exist without us. I’m not saying abandon books because they feature a cast in which girls of color don’t survive dystopia, although I pretty much have. I’m saying purchase books that reflect how our society is, or, as Malinda Lo did in ASH or Alaya Dawn Johnson did in THE SUMMER PRINCE, create a world in which it’s fine to be a queer and of color. Although I didn’t have books like the previous two when I was younger together we can ensure that children today and in the future do.

If the problem is that these minority voices aren’t being heard, stop talking and put the mic in their hands. It’s nerve-wracking that the only way diverse voices and posts like the one I’m writing can be heard is if they’re said by someone outside that culture. I’m not blaming the outsiders, because they’re just trying to help, but still, give us the mic. If we don’t want it, we’ll hand it to someone else. We’re not trying to be the spokesperson for our culture, but since I did grow up as a black queer girl and am one, unlike an outsider/an ally, when diversity as a trend is over, I’ll still be who I am. My experience will still be erased in children’s books, in Hollywood, and so on. For us, this isn’t a fad, we truly ever give up. Sure I could try to hide my queerness, but um, no. I did that enough growing up and I still do, I will not be silenced in this forum.

There’s a time and a place for anger…that time is now.

Whimsically Yours,


–As a post script, I will add that there are many people I interact with on Twitter and/or via my blog who say they want more characters with disabilities, from non-Christian religions, POC, LGBTQ, books set in non-western cultures, and “girl books” that read more like “boy books.”  These people I’ve talked to are librarians, writers, readers, bloggers, agents and even editors at major publishing houses. Some, like my SHC client, Dahlia Adler, are known for making phenomenal lists (<–This QUILTBAG YA/NA Compendium of her is pretty freaking awesome) compiling their favorite books featuring these types of characters. However it can’t end there, we have much work to do, but it does make a difference. Maybe not for all children, but for sure for one and that is what really matters.

–I recently read a post on the Dystel & Goderich Agency blog titled “The R Word.” That word being race, I assume. It’s a great post and it got me thinking and a bit fired up. I am in no way angry about what Mr. McCarthy wrote, in fact I’m very thankful that he wrote what he did. It’s a very honest piece. However, my reply was quite a bit too long for the comments so that’s what spurred this post.

As far as writing resources go, I have several specific links on my blog menu under resources, but for a plethora of tips on writing race, queer characters, and many though provoking discussions check out Malinda Lo’s writing advice section.

…I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂


16 thoughts on “It’s More Than Representation: My Thoughts on the Lack of Diversity in Children’s Books

  1. I would write a response post and link to yours but I have sworn off blogging for the month…comments only.** 🙂

    I see a lot of fear from white, straight writers — especially the straight authors — about “how to write THEM.” How to write the OTHER. The same thing happens when men think about writing women, or vice versa, although that discussion is generally more open since it’s become less otherized over time. There are many men who write great female characters and many women who write great male characters.

    The thing is, though, men are still privileged to be able to say that they don’t understand women enough to write a female character, or that they’re afraid of getting it wrong…while women are expected to JUST KNOW how to write male characters.

    People’s fears of writing the OTHER come from several places. People have realized there is a need for it, but are afraid of not being recognized/able to sell because they’re different. Or they fear that they will misrepresent a group or do it wrong. Sometimes that particular fear is used to justify just not doing it. When the fear of not being “able” to “accurately” portray another person of that background is sincere, it still hides a huge prejudice, which is…

    1 — They aren’t willing to do research just like they would on any other aspect of worldbuilding or character building;
    2 — What they’re really saying is that they believe that the OTHER is so foreign, alien, and incomprehensible that they can’t even conceive of the character as a person beyond how that OTHER factor defines them;
    3 — This relates to research, but apparently they have no friends from that OTHER category who they can consult for experiences and authenticity, or at least who will beta-read. Or no online resources they can draw on for same;
    4 — Claiming that they can’t “relate” to that character is a privilege, whereas by their own definition of relateability, most of the world wouldn’t be able to relate to whatever character they wanted to write. Because, shocker, most of the world isn’t white. (Using race b/c that’s the example you gave.)

    The NaNo forums are an amazingly helpful writing resource, I found, but they also contain large amounts of facepalm. People tend to ask “how do I write this OTHER character???” instead of asking, “Can anyone give me some experiences or observations from growing up black/gay/male/female/trans*/etc. that could be helpful to this character?” Instead they start from a position where they act like writing that OTHER character at all is this impossible feat.

    Anyway, there also seems to be a call for authors from non-white non-straight groups to write the stories of themselves. I’ve also seen offense taken by readers, reviewers, and bloggers when a white person dares to write a black character. One person in particular I had to unfollow eventually, because in one post she would claim that EVERYONE needed to write more Asian characters, but in the next post she would claim that the white writers were trespassing by writing Asian characters. Not complaining about misrepresentation of a specific character or by an author in particular…just complaining about the fact that white people were writing about them at all. Skepticism is warranted, but I thought it was a bit extreme to demand that NO white writers write POC characters. That attitude is out there, and it’s a deterrent to many would-be writers…but I think those so easily turned off by that opinion would probably be people unlikely to write good characters anyway.

    Love the graphic, btw.

    **which is the same reason why I haven’t gotten your MS back to you yet. I won’t really be available for writerly things until after my defense.

  2. Patrice, you rock. There is so much truth in this post, and so much I’ve been mulling over for months. I was trying to pinpoint why, of all times in my life, I feel so drawn to the idea of discussing racism and diversity and being properly represented. My mother’s theory is that my mother instinct is blooming, and I’m starting to think about the world my future kids will live in.

    (I will not dismiss this, but I’m not holding it as a solid fact. ;P)

    In any case, one reason is, as a college student, I’ve found that I need that support. Books are literally my life. I’ve read from three years old onward, and books were there when I hit milestones. Books were there to get me through the teenage years. Twilight, which is so knocked on by many ‘sophisticated’ readers, powered me through two really, tough angsty years and earned me two hopefully life-long online friends.

    But it isn’t enough. Because I want to see someone like me, someone with my voice, someone that I can hug to my chest and sob over like I see other readers do. I’ve cried for books. But I want to cry because someone understood me and represented me.

    Before this point, I was apprehensive about writing a Muslim and/or hijaabi character. There are pretty awesome authors out there to live up to – and their characters, for the most part, are represented or assumed white until proven otherwise. I felt as though my voice wouldn’t be understood, or recognized, or needed.

    Now, I feel that, if I want the representation I want, I need to write them. So most, if not all, of my future WIP idea list are diverse characters – some from cultures or ethnic backgrounds I don’t even belong to, because I see those readers asking for representation from anyone respectful, and I want to deliver.

    You are totally right, though. Us wanting to put out that representation is not the answer to people who go, “You want representation? Make it.” We are making it. It’s time for others to realize that diverse people buy books and watch movies, and want change in the world.

    • Thank you, Kaye! You said everything beautifully!! It’s hard because I didn’t even think I could write a black character. I had no idea what that really looked like in genre fiction, I know there were black genre fiction characters out there–I didn’t discover Octavia Butler until I was older–but I never saw them because I always considered all characters to be white, that’s how bad it had gotten for me.

      My first manuscript I completed & queried was a contemp. fantasy set in Cairo and featured a half-Egyptian/half-Italian protagonist, who’s became bisexual after reading an amazing post by Malinda Lo in which I realized that was part of the reason she never “clicked” with the guy I had as her love interest. The other characters are half japanese/half german, dominican (love interest), and french. It’s challenging, for sure, but I tried to focus on ethnicity as a way of making sure reader knew most of them were of color. But that gets harder when I write stories not set in this world. I’m afraid people will easily whitewash my stories because I had no real way of indicating race…Malinda Lo also has some great posts on this topic.

      Maybe your mother is right, LOL! I definitely feel some sense of urgency to put my stories out there. I’m sometimes afraid that white authors will get there first, and it breaks my heart when I hear of an amazing story, especially if it’s similar to one of mine, and I think man if it only was set in this culture…had a more diverse cast this could be so strong…yet it’s just me crying into the wind.

      My dad often says that black people play the victim card too often and sometimes, it is racism, but others you really just weren’t ready…you need to push yourself further rather than giving up and “playing the blame game.” I think to some extent, he’s right, and I cling to that hoping that one day it’ll prove true and my dreams will come true. Until then I work to hone my craft. I don’t want to just be celebrated because I’m a black spec-fic writer, I want people to say my stories are amazing, my writing is breathtaking. That being said, I look forward to the day when we’re both published. I like what Diversity in YA did, going on tours and such and I feel there definitely needs to be more author tours like that, but I also feel more authors of color need to be in regular author events and festivals for that’s where I see the biggest gap. A writer friend, also a college student, who I met via our blogs and I tried to start a diversity blog. It didn’t end up happening, but now I think maybe that’s for the best. Maybe we need to find a way to bring these topics mainstream.

    • Hi Heather, thank you! I really liked your post especially when you talked about doing research, it’s so important! I’m so glad to connect with you, it’s cool you went to Wellesley!!

  3. Interesting. As for myself, unless there is a specific reason for one ethnicity over the other, that sometimes along with sexual orientation and sometimes even gender is usually one of the last things I think about when crafting a character. I usually choose it if not on a whim, based on whatever feels right. I think I end up being fairly diverse, but it isn’t really a conscious decision. Then again, I moved around a decent amount to varied locales and so may have been exposed to more than some authors growing up.

    Do you think most authors without diversity choose to make their characters white, or for them their default person is white so they do it without thinking, or something else?

    • Hi Aaron! I really liked what you had to say as often I don’t think about it either, but I find, possibly because I am a person of color, I naturally end up writing about diverse cultures and people without even thinking about it. I write the world not always as I see it but as I want it to be.

      Because of this, I don’t think authors mean to write all white characters, at least I really like to believe that isn’t the case for most. Like you said these decisions are often unconscious ones. They’re so unconscious that because I grew up reading a lot of white characters, many of my first stories had white protagonists. It wasn’t until I stated engaging in conversations such as this one and challenging my preconceived beliefs that I realized I was perpetuating the same things as these other authors I was quick to commentate on.

      That’s why I think discussions are so important. It makes you aware that, for example, you’ve been using a lot of stereotypes and cliches in your writing. I believe if discussions like this one continue, and aren’t just fads, we’ll start to see richer worlds. It’s funny because I’m currently writing a NA Urban Fantasy with a black protagonists but the love interest is white and I was just having a mini-debate with myself on whether I did this because I wanted to or because I’ve never seen a male of color represented outside of stereotype therefore I can’t think of them as viable love interests for my character. It’s all very interesting and it’s hard to let things go once you start engaging in these discussions.

      • Yeah, probably it is accidental. And there is something to be said for talking about it openly, too. A lot of it might be experiences. I grew up with Black and Latino friends and my first adult relationship was with a Middle Eastern women, and I see three those ethnicities come up in my work a lot. But I don’t know that I’ve ever written an Asian character and I’ve never really been close to someone of that ethnicity. Not sure.

      • That’s a good point! I feel the same way. I think that’s why I do so much research, because I’m always afraid I’m going to get someone’s culture wrong. Ha, I’m even afraid sometimes to get my own culture wrong, but talking about it openly does help.

      • I’ve been thinking about this recently…it’s slightly different when writing in fantasy. There, the problem is definitely that “northwestern European-based” fantasy worlds are indeed the default, with the typical white sausagefest of characters. (Sorry. I just learned that expression and have been waiting for a relevant time to use it…) Northwestern European history is generally what’s taught to most people in school; they’re familiar with the culture. To many fantasy writers, writing diversity means researching and worldbuilding an entirely different culture/history/world. Which of course they protest because it’s a lot of work. But which sounds fairly fun to me, as there’s also a lot of clamoring for non-Europe-based fantasy along with a call for more diverse fantasy. There are also misconceptions about how much people traveled during medieval times, and what their conceptions about race and culture were. These things have changed a lot over time. A well-built fantasy culture should have its own approach to those issues.

        Buuut…I have to admit, my character “designs” usually pop into my head if they are main characters. My first three big wips featured white girls as protags or shared protags. One was a character who’d been bothering my imagination until I found a place to put her; one was shamelessly based on me; and the last one I made as unlikeable as I reasonably could in order to develop her character later. Haha. I have a POC POV character in this current wip. But my first wip that I started when I was 14/15 is more diverse overall than the one I’m currently on, so…I guess it kind of changes per project. Part of that has to do with the world structure, since all have been fantasy. But I really have no excuse for the UF project other than the “but it’s how I imagined the character” thing… :/

  4. I absolutely agree. I don’t want to point fingers, I just want to speculate and maybe throw the conversation in another direction as well: I’ve heard some authors express concerns about publishing traditionally versus self-publishing because of the likelihood of that publisher to want characters’ genders and ethnicities changed to something “mainstream” (in other words, “white, straight, and sometimes male) so that the books will sell. Book covers in particular have this problem because they’re your first entrance into the story you’re reading. And if a publisher doesn’t think the book will sell, they won’t print as many copies, so the new book by an unknown author has less exposure than, say, a book by Stephen King. I wonder if that has anything to do with the diversity we’re exposed to?

    Another recommendation I’ve come across is gender-swapping characters, or purposefully changing their religions/ethnicities/etc. to better embrace more diversity. So that way, even if we’re not thinking in totally diverse terms when we start working, we’ll begin the process of opening our minds and broadening how we see our own stories. (I feel like that’s a horrible way to put it, but that’s how I see this battle possibly being conquered.)

    I personally delight in stories where, as you stated in your example, the world just accepts everyone the way they are, no matter who they are. I feel like those books take the focus off of things like color and gender and sexuality and instead of making them into topics that have the potential for preachiness, they become just another part of who the characters are — small pieces of greater, fuller characters whose mission isn’t reliant on their skin tone or gender or (dis)abilities — and the reader is instead able to focus on who the characters are based on their actions.

    Thank you so much for posting this! It’s a great topic that needs to be discussed.

    • Hi CL, thanks for your comment. I’ll try to unpack it and give my thoughts on everything 🙂

      With your first part about the whitewashing of covers and publishers asking authors to change characters, I like to think that is more of a myth than a reality. I know there was an instance a while ago in which an agent offered representation, but suggested a couple of the characters, one of which was gay, should be cut/merged into other ones and the authors publicly wrote about it, misinterpreting what the agent was saying for in response to their post the agent publicly expressed what had happened. That being said, it’s definitely the fear of every one who writes characters of color. I want my characters to be on the cover of books, would I rather have words on the cover than a whitewashed cover, yes. There is no way I would let a publisher white wash my character. I know authors don’t have much control in the cover design, but that’s something I feel we need to not budge on (whitewashing) of course, no new author wants to become a problem author so it’s hard.

      As for gender-swapping, I suppose I do that all the time. I’m writing a New Adult Urban Fantasy set in New Orleans, and originally the protagonist was white because I found this picture on Pinterest and the girl was perfect/she oozed the personality the character had. Then I challenged myself and made her black because NOLA is most black and so I felt I could add a lot more to the story if she was too. It’s not simple to do, but with enough research and heart it can be done well. Of course, I think those who come from POC/LBGTQ, etc… backgrounds are going to be more likely to do this, not because others don’t care, but because of the answer I’ve heard so often…I write what I know and I don’t know that.

      The types of books in which the world accepts everyone are the ones I prefer. Although I tend to write more contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy so that’s often not the worlds I end up creating, but I do put that in there when I can as you’re right, it makes it might less preachy and much more real. The thing about diversity is people can tell when it’s forced so you really have to put in a lot of behind the scenes legwork (i.e. research) so that it comes off purposeful and real.

  5. My 2 older kids like to participate in a contest at their middle school called “Battle of the Books”. In past years they used the books nominated for the Maud Hart Lovelace award as the reading list, which has never been that diverse. The 2014 list is the worst so far. However, this year, the organizers decided to also include other books not on the list. Were any of the added books about non-white characters or written by non-white authors? No. If you’re going to go off list in the first place (which should have happened after seeing the very first year of nominees), why not try to make the list look more like your reader population?

    With all of these recent conversations going on, I’ve determined it’s time to stop just watching this happen. I’m jumping in to help steer the list for next year. Thank you for expanding on your thoughts and helping me keep this in the forefront of my mind, my reading, and my writing.

    • I’m glad you found my post helpful, it was quite the impulse post!

      A lot of these lists aren’t diverse at all. I was a Cybils panelist this past year and the books we read are nominated by the public, but the public barely nominated any diverse books. Of course most of us panelists are bloggers, librarians, etc…and so we’re looking for books that our diverse audiences want. It’s rather unfortunate, but I’m happy to hear you’re participating in the formation of the next list. I’m going to be working on reading & reviewing more books featuring diverse characters in addition to my writing & blogging.

      I wish you the best of luck with it! And I’d love to see the finalized list, I’m always looking for more books to read 🙂

  6. I don’t know if me previous comment got cut off, but this is COMPLETELY TRUE. I have always struggled to find characters I could completely identify with, and being a YA SF writer who has POC main characters I know its hard to want to sell diverse characters without making it seem like that character is their tag. Like, I worry if I had my black MC on the cover, no one would buy it. It’s a shame, isn’t it?

    • What you just said is definitely something a lot of other authors who write POC characters deal with. I’ll have to find Malinda Lo’s post on this topic. It’s hard because in one hand you don’t want your book not to sell, but it drives me crazy when there are words as a cover instead of the POC protagonists…however I prefer that to a white washed cover. It’s a tough situation, and it’s hard as a debut author to fight it.

Share Your Thoughts :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s