Publishers are crying out for diversity in children’s books, and that’s a good thing. (It would be an even better thing if diversity were more widely represented among the rosters of acquiring editors at these publishers, though things are improving incrementally in that area.)
Writers of YA and Middle-Grade books are becoming more and more aware of the importance of diversity, and are not only including more ethnically diverse characters in their books; they are also centering books on them as leading characters. But context counts here. Lately I’ve been seeing submissions from writers who seem to assign various ethnicities arbitrarily, as if they feel they are expected to fulfill certain quotas. This paint-by-the-numbers approach to diversity can look clumsy and obvious.
To accurately reflect our contemporary Melting Pot, characters have to come alive and breathe believability. What is their social fabric like in their homes and communities? What kinds of foods do they enjoy? What are their tastes when it comes to games, toys, music? And, most important, how do they speak? What are their vocal rhythms, their slang, their verbal shorthand? If they happen to be immigrants, does their speech reveal an accent, or a struggle with the notoriously difficult English language?
Dialogue is crucial; it’s one of a writer’s tools for revealing character. And if characters reflecting multiple diversities all come out sounding alike—or, worse, sounding like bland, white-bread characters from an old TV show—credibility goes out the window. And boredom comes in.
If you read or write YA or Middle Grade, I’d love to know your thoughts on what books do a good job of representing diverse characters—and for that matter, what books might have come up short in that regard. In the Age of Trump, it’s a great time for writers to be promoting diversity in their books—but it’s not something that’s easy for all writers to pull off.