Here's the thing: within mainstream culture there is an unspoken default setting and that is white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered and abled. Think "hero" and in that immediate flash what comes to mind? An image that reflects that very list. Superman. Batman. Spiderman. Ironman. Sure, the gender gap is closing some, but the canon of children's literature remains dominated by male lead characters. Without being conscious of it, even without explicit racial markers, we read characters as white. We all do, even those among us who aren't white. This point is illustrated beautifully in pieces about racebending like this one about Hermione Granger.
In April, the blog Disability in Kidlit had an Autism on the Page event that had me riveted. Reviews by autistic adults of books featuring autistic characters taught me much and had me looking at books with new eyes. Too often, books with characters that have disabilities are under-informed or misconstrued, with characters short on human depth and complexity, whose purpose is merely to provide a source of inspiration for an abled audience. Autism especially, from a neurotypical standpoint, can be grossly misunderstood, as might any disability when we do not make an effort to understand these experiences by listening to these underrepresented voices.
Like most kids, my son favors books that are familiar to him. He loves fantasy, a genre brimming with white characters. It is an effort to get him to explore new things and diverse perspectives. But it is an effort I will not stop making, for him and for myself, and I encourage you to do the same. The dividends, I believe, will include not only a greater capacity for empathy (which reading fiction may promote) and a broader world view, but the will to foster a more peaceful, inclusive, and tolerant society.
Please visit We Need Diverse Books and Disability in Kidlit and check out just a few great reads from some voices outside the mainstream:
What do a German boy named Freidrich, a Depression-Era American orphan named Mike and a Mexican-American girl named Ivy have in common? A love for music, a special harmonica and hearts that ache for someone missing. This story is a lovingly rendered tapestry of fairy tale, the Holocaust, Japanese internment, school segregation and more. Each tale is told separately but with enough plot and character development to make you cheer for the grand finale. Few books are able to blend fantasy and history so well. Don't be surprised if this one is on the Newbery 2015 list.
Funny and sweet, this graphic novel memoir is not to be missed. Like many of us growing up, Cece struggles with self-acceptance and fitting in, especially since she is the only deaf person at her school. Having to wear a conspicuous hearing aid makes her feel only more self-conscious. El Deafo to the rescue! Follow this hero along on her adventures through the pitfalls of friendship and her first crush and come away with a deeper appreciation for the super power that is imagination. Listen to Cece herself for more:
You may have had the pleasure of meeting the Gaither sisters in One Crazy Summer or its follow-up, P.S. Be Eleven but even if you haven't read those fine books, Gone Crazy in Alabama has enough meat to satisfy on its own. You'll probably be so entertained by the antics of these richly-drawn and endearing characters that you'll want to read the whole series. Complex relationships form the crux of this story: from fussy, feuding, elderly sisters to cultural tensions between several generations as they navigate a racially unjust world. We're treated to a picture of the deep south in the late 60's that is as warmly and lovingly prepared as Big Ma's soul food, and it will stick to your ribs just as well.