This morning my Youngest Son broke my heart. On the way to school, he began crying.
Me: What’s wrong, honey?
Youngest: I don’t want to go to school.
Me: Why not?
Youngest: It’s just so hard.
Eldest Son has dyslexia, and I highly suspect Youngest does as well. His reading sounds eerily similar to the way Eldest read at that age, he makes the same quirky writing mistakes and he’s missing some very basic knowledge–like how to rhyme.
Me, wanting to pinpoint the areas we need to address and work on regarding his reading: What’s hard about it?
Youngest: It’s just so hard to be so good.
Yeah, that broke the floodgate. Youngest has a simultaneously fun-loving and extremely difficult personality. He wants to have the most fun possible without getting into trouble. This makes him delightful and trying on many levels.
On Fridays, a student who listens well and follows the rules gets to chew gum. If your name appears in The Notebook, you have to stare glumly into space while your peers chomp away on Hubba Bubba.
I can only imagine how excruciating it must be for Youngest to suppress his inner urges to chat, make his peers laugh and have good, old-fashioned fun. In fact, I expect him to be cantankerous and uncooperative at night because he’s stuffed his natural tendencies deep down inside where they can’t get out. For eight hours straight! School must feel like his own personal version of hell.
Gum. Who knew it was such a powerful motivator?
Book reviews, estimated sales numbers and the acquisitions committee. Who knew they had such power over the words we write?
If you haven’t heard the #YesGayYA scuttlebutt floating around the cybersphere, I suggest you check it out. Blog posts abound and tweets on the topic are more prolific than the dust bunnies under my fridge.
#YesGayYA. Check it out. Check out how authors are being asked to suppress their inner stories in favor of more publicly palatable writing.
I’m not going to debate race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities or religious beliefs. Instead, I simply want to call to attention to the very idea that diverse children are traditionally under-represented in literature.
I think these stories are being written. I also think their perceived marketability greatly influences whether these stories make it into the hands of the children who desperately need to read about characters just like them.
No matter what your heritage, your love life, your spirituality, your mental health or your physical afflictions, you need to know you are not alone in this grim world. You need to know that people like you flourish in fiction. You need validation that you are inherently worthy.
Kids of all ages need to know they are accepted and acceptable. Not just that they are tolerated, or worse yet, completely disregarded.
I agree with Youngest. It’s just so hard to be you. It’s hard to write what we feel. It’s hard to publicly declare what we believe and it’s damn hard to read what might cause us pause.
People need affirmation, and I will not stand idly by and watch suppression. It kills me to picture little boys struggling to tamp down their inner selves so they can chew a piece of gum. It breaks my heart to think of all the diverse children seeing themselves (if at all) as mere sidekicks and supporting characters in the novels they read. It absolutely crushes me to think I may have a part in fostering the suppression of someone’s inner-most personality.
Today, I vow to write the story that begs to be written and not be swayed by public opinion. I vow to support my fellow writers who write with abandon to portray diversity in an appealing light. I vow to buy books based on the storyline and my connection to the character, rather than based on a character’s traits. I vow to encourage children, parents, librarians and others to read diverse books instead of leading them down a narrow hallway of white-washed stories.
I vow to accept my role in reaching all of our youth, not just those like me. I will not play a part in suppressing the inner you. Not if I can help it.
How about you, dear readers? Do you feel that favorable diversity thrives in literature? Do you believe that all types of kids are represented in the books they read, or do you think writers, publishers and parents can all be more proactive in validating every child?
Which types of books would you like to see more of?
Personally, I like novels where the diverse trait isn’t the novel. Rather, I love when characters are simply the sum total of their backgrounds and I can learn about their diversity through connecting with them.
Oh, what a great post! I agree that suppression of who we are and what we experience in life is very difficult. If we cannot express our unique traits (and voice) through our writing, where can we express it?
I have written a few books spotlighting characters that have suffered from one or another form of child abuse. I experienced it daily as a social worker…and in my personal life.
Some readers find the topic too difficult to read….I find it liberating.
Difficult topics are always difficult to read and write. I applaud those who do so in both instances. Hot button books are not for everyone and gratuitous material isn’t my thing. The balance is sometimes hard to find.
Thanks for commenting. And more importantly, thanks for the work you do, both professionally and as a writer.
I think there’s a time and place for both kinds of books/characters. There’s a time when race, sexuality, etc NEED to be the center of attention. By all means, if that is your story, don’t try to change it to make it less in the reader’s face. However, I do enjoy reading a book where a minor character actually faces a major difficulty, like a history of abuse, or alcoholism. It adds instant dimension to that person and gives them a chance to shine throughout the story even though the tale may not be theirs.
So true. A balance must be struck for all types of readers and writers. I’m not so much a fan of in-your-face themes myself, and prefer a more subtle approach. However, I get a bit flustered when topics, issues and/or characters are dismissed in favor of a more sugared version to appeal to the masses. Because when you get right down to it, there really is no typical-every child anymore.
I always love hearing from you. Thanks and hugs~
Aw I so love you for this post! It IS true and sad that fiction–especially that written for kids, both young children and young adults–is often lacking in diversity. I think of Jess Verday writing a short story for an anthology with a gay teen romance, and being asked by her editor to change it to a heterosexual story. Or of the U.S. publishers Justine Larbalestier’s Liar originally creating a cover for the book–about a troubled African American teen–with a white girl on the cover.
I also think about how, in both cases, the authors stuck by their guns. The Liar skerfuffle had a happy ending–a new cover. But in Jess Verday’s case, the hubbub over her withdrawing the story led to the entire anthology being cancelled.
It’s natural that we want to protect our children, but we have to be careful not to turn that protection into smothering. When we’re afraid to allow something birth because it might challenge our assumptions or make us uncomfortable, we aren’t doing anyone any favors–whether we are authors, publishers, editors, book cover designers, librarians, or well meaning parents.
I know your post is about the writing end of things–and I applaud the determination to write what feels TRUE, regardless of whether it is “acceptable”–but it’s also interesting that this post came so close to Banned Books Week.
It’s amazing how many censorship attempts are rooted in trying to protect our precious little babies. But as you know, our precious babies are facing a difficult world: one where everything they think they know about life and about themselves will be challenged over and over again. By allowing them to explore widely and deeply in a diverse world, and then being by their side to talk with them about what they discover, we’re doing something better than protecting them. We’re preparing them for a future where they will need to rely on their good sense, and will need to know they have a supportive home base to return to when they are upset or confused by what they encounter. Books and stories help us teach our kids the skills they need to navigate the world. They’re like training wheels for life. And as such, they’re much more effective when we allow them to unfold naturally, even if what grows from them isn’t “safe”.
Hm, I had a lot to say about this! Go figure. Thanks for this thought-provoking post Cat!
You’re absolutely welcome, my dear. And I agree more than words can express.
The moment we try to censor life and the words that portray it, we begin to kill the very essence of our humanness. Restricting conversation on difficult topics will not make them go away. It will simply force them underground, and there is no greater disservice to anyone than that.
If I have learned nothing else from youngest it is to simply be who you are. You author a post on writing, but it is just plain good advice. I think I’ve been pretty good at being me, but DS has taught me more about living life BIG.
PS. Young deeply misses his “best friend ever…he just likes me, mom!”
Amen. If only the rest of us could so fully experience our daily lives, we’d all be better people. Of course, squeals of “I love this pillow, I love this Pillow, ILOVETHISPILLOW” might get distracting if we all delighted in the simple pleasures like he does!
And assure him that Best Friend Ever also misses Youngest!
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Thank you for writing this post. I especially like your last lines: “Personally, I like novels where the diverse trait isn’t the novel. Rather, I love when characters are simply the sum total of their backgrounds and I can learn about their diversity through connecting with them.” To me, that’s the point: when we can simply move past our differences and interact as people- just people.
JM, so true. I think the difference is between tolerance and acceptance. We can often tolerate others different from us and feel like we’re doing a great job. Accepting them the way they are and into our lives is something else entirely.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting!