Campaigning for Better Books

The current political climate is proof positive that we need diverse books. The connection between the election and the need for better representation of diverse perspectives in literature might not be readily apparent. Let me see if I can connect some of the dots…

Donald Trump’s rhetoric has stoked fear and hatred and emboldened the alt-right to demonize the social justice movement. Many Americans listened, convinced of the assault on their values and way of life. They felt that they had to “take their country back” and elected Trump to do the job.

The lack of empathy for people of color, LGBTQ folks, and the Muslim community by nearly half this country is frankly shocking. Americans in rural areas voted overwhelmingly for Trump. My guess is that many of those people aren’t exposed to much diversity in their everyday lives. (That’s not to say that people in rural areas are backwards or close-minded; it’s rather a gentle suggestion that everyone’s world is made bigger through reading.)

Enter books. I’m going to borrow here from the work of Dr. Gordon Allport. Dr. Allport’s intergroup contact theory states that direct contact reduces prejudice. The extended theory holds that knowing a person of one’s own group has a close relationship with a member of an outgroup can lead to more positive attitudes about the outgroup.  In the absence of opportunity for direct contact, text provides people with imaginary contact that has similar results. Books provide windows into the lives and experiences of people who are different and can help nurture empathy. This is important for adults, but even more so for children because (forgive the cliché) the future rests in their hands.

I’ve written before about Marley Dias and her #100BlackGirlBooks project. I’m delighted to report that she’s not alone. I’d like to highlight three amazing campaigns for better books:

1)Let Books Be Books: This campaign is out of the UK, but it’s absolutely relevant here, as you’ll see from the list of publishers who have responded. It comes from the people who brought you Let Toys Be Toys, an effort to end the labeling of toys as “for girls” or “for boys.” They extended this to books, seeking to stop the marketing of children’s books along gender lines. They argue that these books (pink, sparkly, princess themes for girls and blue, action/adventure, pirate stories for boys) send kids limiting messages about gender, prevent them from exploring wide interests, and “provide fertile ground for bullying.” So far, publishers like Usborne, Scholastic, and Doring Kindersley (to name a few) have agreed not to release any new titles marketed specifically to one gender. Check it out at http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/letbooksbebooks/.

2)Step Up Scholastic: Organized by American Indians in Children’s Literature, the Ferguson Response Network, and Teaching for Change, Step Up Scholastic for ALL Children calls for “children, teachers, and parents, to write to Scholastic to demand they publish and distribute children’s books and catalogs that reflect and affirm the identity, history, and lives of ALL children in our schools.” Given that Scholastic has a major presence in elementary schools across the nation (who doesn’t remember bringing home Scholastic catalogs or attending one of their book fairs?), they have a real opportunity to be a leader here. And they are hearing us (and these kinds of grassroots efforts do work). Recently, they pulled the book A Birthday Cake for George Washington off the shelves because the public demanded its recall due to its irresponsible and dishonest depiction of slavery. To learn more, visit https://actionnetwork.org/letters/stepupscholastic-for-all-children.

3)We Need Diverse Books: WNDB started in response to an all-white, all-male panel of children’s book authors at a BookCon event in 2014. It’s “a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Their mission is to provide children with books featuring diverse characters so that all kids can see themselves reflected in the pages of a book. You can find more information at http://weneeddiversebooks.org/.

Please, if this resonates with you, do all you can to support these campaigns and those like them. Follow them. Like them on Facebook. Sign their petitions. Boycott publishers who market by gender. Critique your Scholastic catalog. Write a letter. Do whatever it takes to get diverse books into the hands of the people, especially the children. Never underestimate the power of a good book.