Writing authentic diverse characters was the topic of discussion at a Children’s Book Council panel on June 15 in New York City. The speakers were authors Matt de la Peña, Patricia McCormick; Kate Sullivan, senior editor, Delacorte; and Marietta Zacker, Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency. Ashley Woodfolk, marketing manager, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, moderated.
The panelists kicked off the talk by sharing instances of “inappropriate representation” in depictions of diverse characters. De la Peña (Last Stop on Market Street, Putnam), who also teaches writing, recalled a passage from one of his students’ novels that takes place in the Marshall Islands. The main character steps out of his shack and marvels at the beauty of the landscape which, to de la Peña, is not something that character would ever do. For an individual who has lived in the Marshall Islands his entire life, there would be nothing extraordinary for him about his island home; rather, he’d likely take the view for granted. This was an example for de la Peña of writing about a character “from outside,” rather than from a place of lived experience and understanding.
McCormick (I Am Malala, Little, Brown) has also observed her share of work from students in writing classes that feature characters from diverse backgrounds, but which don’t achieve verisimilitude. Often, she sees that as writers develop their work, they will sometimes use “stereotypes as place holders,” getting to the hard work of creating multidimensional characters later in the process. “Well-meaning people are going to get it wrong from time to time,” she said. When mistakes are made, she feels it is important to avoid “piling on this venom,” as seen, for example, in the aftermath of the publication of A Birthday Cake for George Washington. She believes that if writers feel as though they must “write defensively,” that does a tremendous disservice to free expression. “Books that get it wrong give us wonderful things to talk about,” she said. And the upside to this fear of scrutiny is that writers are strongly compelled to do ample research, particularly when writing outside their personal experiences and cultural backgrounds.
De la Peña believes that a writer’s “motivation is a big key” when it comes to writing diverse characters. He believes in asking the question “is this the story you really want to tell?” It ultimately comes down to integrity of the writing. A character who is “black on the outside but not inside is a fake character,” de la Peña said. Echoing that sentiment, Zacker urges writers who are creating characters from backgrounds other than their own to ask themselves honest questions about what lived experiences they can bring to a particular story. While writers may be well-intentioned, and have the desire to provide a voice for people who may be underrepresented in literature, “wanting to help is one of the worst motivations of all,” she said. One of her students wrote a story that contained a problematic passage: a white man picks up and rescues a non-white girl from a brothel. She could see that the white man in the story was in some respects the writer himself, expressing his own desire to perform the heroic act of saving a child. While the writer certainly may have meant well, she felt that the scene was not authentic or appropriate.
The panelists also discussed what they see as successful representations of characters outside of an author’s personal experience and challenges they may have encountered in their own work. McCormick made note of Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, which she feels takes readers “so deeply into the experience” of a child with Asperger’s. Also, she counts Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered and Threatened, which convincingly portray the lives of bonobos and chimpanzees, as an example of an author stepping very far out of his own experience. McCormick herself says that she struggled initially to write authentically about sexual slavery and human trafficking in Sold. However, she explained that by tapping into her own experience of sexual assault, she was able to channel certain emotions that she felt might be similarly felt by her character.
Sometimes there are familiar motifs that writers fall back on when writing about certain cultural groups. Zacker noted how food is often used as a way to differentiate characters’ different cultural backgrounds, but that these types of details can rely more on stereotypes than serving as character development. Zacker recalls reading a scene from a work in progress, in which a Latina character is looking through her refrigerator, Zacker was expecting the writer to describe a cornucopia of ethnic foods on display in the character’s refrigerator, and yet the writer subverted her expectations by showing yogurt in the refrigerator rather than arroz blanco (anyway, the writer smartly pointed out, they would never have leftovers of arroz blanco, because it would have all been eaten that day).
So, should white writers write from a non-white perspective? Zacker believes that we are living at a pivotal moment, when the stories of traditionally marginalized individuals are being welcomed and sought after. She doesn’t believe that white people should necessarily feel comfortable writing non-white characters at the moment, but that authors of color should be given the encouragement and opportunity to tell those stories themselves. Once more non-white writers are published, then some of the discomfort surrounding the issue of white authors penning characters of color may diminish, she suggested. “It’s not us and them, but about bringing everyone into the fold,” she said. De la Peña added that, regarding writers of color write their stories and white writers also writing diverse characters, “It’s not instead of, but also.”
In publishing, Sullivan remarked that there can be a quota mentality when it comes to publishing books featuring characters of certain ethnic backgrounds. There can be a tendency to reason, “We already have a book on this,” and pass on a project of quality. It’s something that de la Peña has witnessed as well. Rather than think of a story about Mexican characters as being “our Mexican story,” he hopes that publishers take diverse books at face value, as stories that have diverse characters, but aren’t necessarily focused on diversity as a topic. Publishers and writers also have a tremendous resource available to them, in the form of readers themselves – specifically, sensitivity readers, or individuals of particular cultural and ethnic backgrounds who can provide insight into the authenticity of a story that is based within their cultures. “Different sensitivity readers give you a breadth of experiences,” said McCormick, who recommended that a writer seek out more than one sensitivity reader to broaden the perspective. It’s useful to cast a wide net, suggested McCormick and to “get out of publishing bubble. Go as far outside your experience as possible,” she said.
Sullivan acknowledged that there was a time that she felt “very uncomfortable” talking about issues of inclusion and diversity within her field,but she is not hesitant now and also observes that “higher-ups are pushing themselves” for more diverse books. De la Peña also suggests that readers and gatekeepers ought to look more deeply into what diversity means, and to recognize that no one cultural experience reflects all: “There’s so much diversity within diversity,” he said.
Books featuring under-represented demographics not only reflect the reality of society, but enable “children to see themselves” in stories. “That’s where the love of reading starts,” said Woodfolk.