The Children’s Book Council is no stranger to the discussion of diversity, particularly in recent years. Yet while topics of ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity in children’s books and publishing as a whole are of frequent focus in its programming, the topic of religious diversity has received comparatively little attention. On September 7, the CBC made strides to directly address this component of diversity in a program titled “The Diversity We Don’t Talk About: Religion in the Workplace.” The organization presented a panel of children’s publishing personnel to discuss not only religion in children’s books but the intersection of their own religious beliefs and professional lives. The speakers were: Preeti Chhibber, senior editorial manager, Scholastic Reading Clubs; Ellice M. Lee, freelance designer/art director and incoming associate art director, Philomel; and Shifa Kapadwala, publicity assistant, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. Mark Fowler, deputy CEO for Tanenbaum, an organization devoted to protecting freedom of religion and addressing religious prejudice, moderated.
Fowler began by speaking about a paradigm of polarity that is often at work when speaking about religion. People tend to focus on the extremes – for example, a celebratory room full of joy and goodwill or a “cross burning.” In other words, religion is rarely discussed as a daily component of individuals’ lives, but becomes relevant during holidays or during moments of contention. Instead, he suggests, workplaces can and should remain open to and cognizant of how a person’s faith plays a role in their lives on a regular basis. For businesses that make such accommodations, it enables employees to be more “comfortable and productive in the place they work.” Simple accommodations include providing meal options for dietary restrictions related to religion and accommodating the holidays that may not typically be listed on the calendar in an employee handbook. He turned to the panelists to discuss how religion informs the work that they do and the types of accommodations that would benefit them at their own places of employment.
For Chhibber, who is Hindu, her religion is closely intertwined with her cultural identity. As an essential component of who she is, religion plays an active role in her experiences both at home and at work: “It infuses my work ethic,” she said. Lee, a Christian, noted that her faith is very personal, and while the church has provided her with a source of strength and confidence in “facing fear” in her professional and personal life, it does not unduly influence her decision-making at work. She feels that it is her “honor and duty to share stories” that represent all types of human experience and to focus on “a broader sense of inclusion,” she said.
As a Muslim, Kapadwala discussed how her observation of holidays like Ramadan impacts her professional life. There are very practical physical concerns that come into play when she and her family are observing the holiday. For a period of 29–30 days each year, she can’t eat or drink during the daytime hours. “It’s really exhausting,” she said. And as an avid coffee drinker, going without caffeine during Ramadan means that “I’m not working to full capacity.” For Muslims, Ramadan also means eating a big feast after sunset, staying awake until about midnight, and waking again at 3:00 a.m. to eat. Though she does not often discuss her religion with fellow employees, she does hope that others realize how Ramadan might affect her performance at work; she also noted how her manager is highly accommodating.
It can be “awkward to speak about religion,” said Chhibber, particularly at work. So, for instance, when she is at a work function where food is being served and there is no vegetarian option, she might not bring it up. But, for the record, Chhibber would appreciate having more dietary options automatically available at work functions, as well as having Hindu holidays listed on the work calendar. For Lee, having a “quiet space” or prayer room available at the office would be an ideal accommodation. Fowler noted that, increasingly, offices are offering such a space to employees, seeing that it can increase productivity and the overall psychological health of employees of any faith, including non-believers.
But while such accommodations would be highly valued and appreciated by the panelists, Chhibber emphasized how she doesn’t see a need for separate religious diversity from other types of diversity. Rather, it exists along a continuum of sorts and is simply one aspect of an individual’s identity. Speaking to religious diversity in children’s books, she feels that a character’s faith need not be so starkly or deliberately presented in a book, but rather should be integrated into the rest of that character’s experience of the world. She hopes that children’s books that do show religious diversity be seen as an enhancement, rather than “something you have to overcome.” Also, as with other kinds of diversity, a quota or checklist mentality should be avoided when publishing books with religious content. Instead, she opts for more books like Jaye Robin Brown’s Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit (HarperTeen, Aug.), which is about a gay, Christian character. In books like Georgia Peaches, she said, faith is “a piece of the person, and not the whole.”
Lee pointed out how “there is a breadth of diversity in each religion,” and seconded the notion that books can and should feature religion not as the centerpiece but as a “part of a full narrative,” or an asset to an already “great story.” Kapadwala suggested that great children’s and YA books have universal “human aspects,” so while a character may practice a particular religion, the experience of being a teenager can remain “very relatable” across the board.
The speakers rounded out the conversation with a discussion of the ways in which workplaces can better foster a culture of understanding, communication, and awareness within publishing and in any other professional sphere. Fowler spoke about micro-aggressions, or comments and questions that, while not overly aggressive, show an individual’s unconscious “assumption of inherent difference,” in regards to a person’s religion or other characteristic – for example, making the assumption that a non-white person is from another country.. Rarely is there malicious intent at the root of a micro-aggression (asking someone where they are from may be an honest effort to find out more about someone), but “uncovering” personal biases is the responsibility of everyone, he believes. Chhibber, who is often asked where she is from (she’s from West Palm Beach, Florida), sees a deep-seated, unconscious bias at work in “the assumption that a book isn’t universal because characters aren’t white” or are from a culture or religion that is considered to be “other.” Yet, she also noted that tremendous progress has been made in publishing in recent years: the “ ‘othering’ of characters is not as acceptable now,” she said.
In order to carry the momentum forward, Fowler emphasized the importance of communicating, saying that religious accommodations should be a component of “ongoing, collaborative conversations” in the workplace. “Don’t wait for emergencies, crises, cross burnings” to speak out about an ignorant or prejudicial comment. Citing Audre Lorde, he said, “Your silence won’t protect you.”