Not all LGBTQ books should be coming-out stories or bullying stories. Not all stories with black characters should focus on slavery. Diversity in children’s books is growing; however, many of these stories still focus too heavily on oppression and injustice, on “the problem.”
White characters in children’s books deal with a wide variety of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with their race. They grapple with heavy personal issues and they go on fun, exciting adventures, too. So why do we continue to focus on oppression in diverse books? Black characters, Latino characters, characters with disabilities, gay characters and all other characters should be created in such a way that they are more than just their races, their disabilities, or their sexual orientations.
The Risks of Focusing Solely on Oppression
Focusing solely on oppression and injustice or on the struggles of having a disability, for example, doesn’t allow children to see others around them as people similar to themselves. It reduces the complexity of their lives to a teaching lesson, to a life of suffering, or to a source of pity.
Oppressive narratives are often restrictive and inadequate, and sometimes, even stereotypical. And they’re often void of creativity and imagination. Non-fiction children’s books about black historical figures, for example, can help teach black children about their history; but children also want to find aspects of their ethnic heritage and their culture outside of their history books. They want to see characters like themselves having adventures in space, fighting zombies, and having typical days at school. Ethnic-themed lists appeal to parents, but children want more. They want diverse characters they can identify with in fun, exciting stories. Focusing solely on oppression often sacrifices the cultivation of wonderment that embodies high-quality children’s books and prevents children from being able to identify with characters and better understand themselves and those around them.
Books featuring diverse characters in myriad situations doesn’t just benefit the marginalized groups reading the stories, either. It also benefits all children, allowing them to understand those around them much more than books on ethnic traditions or historical figures could ever allow.
A Healthy Mix of Diversity in Children’s Books
There needs to be a healthy mix of diversity in children’s books. Some books should celebrate the differences between groups, and others should speak out about injustice. But we also need diverse children’s books that teach inclusion.
There needs to be more books with diverse characters without focusing on problems, struggles, and injustices. Culture and race, disabilities, and sexual orientation can be organically weaved through stories in a way that isn’t so forced. These aspects of the characters’ lives can be part of the story, without being the story. Authors of children’s books should be depicting characters of colour, characters with disabilities, and other marginalized groups doing many things, in all sorts of places. And just as importantly, teachers and librarians must commit to reading and promoting these types of books to children.