We Need Diverse Books
I am Caucasian by social standards. But I don't feel "white." I know that is an odd statement to make, so let me explain.
My skin is olive-toned. My eyes are brown. My hair is brown. My father is Irish with the bluest eyes you've ever seen. My mother is Italian and Blackfoot Indian. My grandmother cursed in Italian whenever she got angry about something, and even though I didn't understand her words, they felt magical.
I never felt like I fit in anywhere, especially when I was a child. I felt different than everyone. I was different. I had make-believe lands and make-believe people inside my head that spoke to me frequently—telling me tales I longed to know. That made me weird. My fundamental religious upbringing made me weirder.
Fortunately, I lived in a diverse community. My closest friends were black, biracial, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Jamaican, and white—all of us mixed together. I marveled at all our differences. How my mother cooked homemade sauces and pastas while my Haitian friend's mother made the spiciest of dinners but sweetest desserts. I marveled at the stories my Jamaican friend's father used to tell, though it took me a while to understand his thick accent. His laugh was infectious. And I marveled at the magnificence of seeing a black mother and a white father together in a world where same married same.
I escaped into books to find others who felt different like me. I fell in love with Mary Lennox in the Secret Garden by Frances Hodgsen Burnett, even if she was disagreeable, because she had lived in India. And I cheered for Colin when he got out of his wheelchair and learned the beauty and magic of nature. I fell in love with Karana in the Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, and I fell in love with Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. I fell in love with Peter in The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. And don't fault me, but I even fell in love with the Giving Tree by Shel Siverstein, because that tree was the most kind and generous soul my eight-year-old self had ever met. I became best friends with the trees in my own backyard after that. Almost thirty years later, as I drove by my childhood home, I saw my favorite tree had been cut down, and yes, I cried.
As the mother of a child with a learning disability and a reading disability, I felt that difference tugging at me again throughout my son's childhood. People treated us poorly. Many people couldn't get past the fact that his skin was brown yet mine was white. Many people couldn't get past his learning differences. My son also grew up feeling different. Where did he fit in? He wasn't white. He wasn't Puerto Rican. He wasn't a typical learner. One educator told him that he would grow up to be homeless, on the streets, and he'd end up in jail for stealing. She told him this because he couldn't concentrate on an assignment she was trying to teach him. He was twelve years old.
Now he is a junior at a high school for children with learning disabilities. He sees his future. It is filled with college and music and a successful career and many people who love him. Because someone, finally, listened to my voice. Listened to my cries for acceptance.
And this son of mine who "doesn't read" because it is too difficult came home from school one day and told me, "I read a story about a kid who doesn't fit in anywhere because he's Indian but he goes to a white school. I really love that book. It's not like any book." He was talking about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
And shortly after, we watched the movie "Perks of Being a Wallflower" and my son said, "Is that a book? I must read that book." And he did. All by himself. And it took him a very, very long time. But he came to me when he was finished, and he sat down next to me and said, "That is the greatest book." We sat there in silence for a long time, and finally he said, "I realize that I like books that are about people's lives. You know, people who are different, like me. But there aren't really books like that out there."
And I responded, "That's a genre that you like. You like realistic fiction." But I knew what he meant, and I didn't know how to explain why. But I also couldn't explain why. Because my son finally discovered he loved reading.
The world is a diverse place. Books need to tell everyone's stories. Ask your friends, your coworkers about their childhood, about their culture, their traditions and customs. Chances are, they are very different than yours. But there is a beauty to that difference. There is a beauty to sharing those differences and becoming a community. We all have individual backgrounds, but there is also a commonality. We are all human. Showing diversity in books will help us remember that we are all human. All of us.
I urge you to pick up a book with diverse characters in it. Step inside another's world for a while. See what they see. Hear what they hear. Feel what they feel. I dare you to tell me your world hasn't changed because of it.