Diversity Is Magic: A Roundtable on Children’s Literature and Speculative Fiction

By Rochelle SpencerNovember 5, 2015

Diversity Is Magic: A Roundtable on Children’s Literature and Speculative Fiction
WHAT IF THE SKIN behind Harry Potter’s owl-framed glasses were cocoa instead of peach?

Would a brown, tan, or olive-skinned hero in a massively popular, culture-changing series of books help a new generation to grow up with more empathy and compassion?

We haven’t done such a good job of protecting children of color — Tamir Rice and Aiyana Stanley-Jones come to mind — and of recognizing their innocence and vulnerability. That reality is fueling several new enterprises such as the #WeNeedDiverse books Twitter campaign, founded by novelists Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo, which has attracted more than 15,000 Twitter followers; and CAKE Literary, a book packaging and development company created by YA writers Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton that matches writers to book ideas. Meanwhile several important adult fiction authors, such as Chitra Divakaruni and Sherman Alexie, are turning their hands to children’s fiction, and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), whose writings on race just earned him a MacArthur “genius” grant, is working on a Black Panther comic book for Marvel.

The recent Best American Poetry brouhaha, in which editor Alexie selected a white author with an Asian pen name for inclusion in the anthology, demonstrates the dilemma publishers face about the best way to reflect an increasingly diverse society. The resulting debate raised several challenging questions: What does it mean to be authentically Asian, black, Latino, or white? Does diversity mean simply publishing more writers of color, or is diversity better served by publishing more books that focus on racial oppression and poverty? How do we manage diverse, honest representations of people of color, women, religious minorities, the LGTBIQ community, and people with disabilities when these categories are often complex and ill-defined?

Two recent anthologies, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements (AK Press, 2015) and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History (Crossed Genres, 2014), suggest the tantalizing possibility that speculative fiction in particular may have a unique power in challenging existing societal norms and values. This year, Princeton University held a symposium on speculative fiction and social justice; next year, the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s conference features a panel devoted to this topic.

When the film version of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games was released in 2012, a fan of the series noticed a series of racist tweets from readers protesting the casting of black actors to depict the characters Rue and Thresh, and he began reposting the offensive tweets, thereby creating a wide-ranging forum that exposed the many hidden assumptions and prejudices of the reading public. How was it that these readers could imagine dystopian futuristic world, but couldn’t imagine a child of color as integral to a story line? What prevented the American public from making that imaginary leap? And will it ever be able to?

To consider these questions, Rochelle Spencer brought together writers of multicultural speculative children’s fiction to talk about the genre’s potentially transformative qualities. The panel consists of Tracey Baptiste, author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently the middle-grade novel The Jumbies (Algonquin, 2015); Zetta Elliott, author of The Deep (Rosetta Press, 2013) and 15 books for children and young adults; Grace Lin, author of 18 books for children and young readers, including the forthcoming Ling & Ting: Together in All Weather (Little, Brown 2015); and Chris Terry, author of Zero Fade (Curbside Splendor, 2013). Interviewed separately by telephone were Summer Brenner, author of Oakland Tales, Lost Secrets of The Town (Community Works, 2014) and two other books for young people; Joseph Bruchac, author of more than 100 books for children, including Killer of Enemies (Tu Books, 2013); and Daniel José Older, author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series and the YA novel Shadowshaper (Levine Books, 2015).


Rochelle: If literature is to bring in more diverse readers, is it enough to encourage writers to create diverse characters? Should we also be fostering speculative fiction that is more character-driven?

Tracey: I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Fantasy makes it easier to bring up certain kinds of difficult subjects. And if you’re writing within a culture you know well, it will be easier to do justice to a character while concentrating on the plot. You’re not concerned with trying to get the character right because you know the character in and out.

Grace: It’s not an either-or situation. You don’t have to write “literary” to gain empathy from your reader. You can gain quite a bit of empathy with speculative fiction as well.

Chris: Speculative fiction is a way of speaking metaphorically, and it gives you an advantage —it’s like grape-flavored cough syrup for kids; the sugar’s in the middle. If you tell someone “this is a book about discrimination,” they’ll say it sounds boring. But if you say “this is a book about someone who ends upon an alien planet and finds a home there, and is going through a difficult time,” I think it will pique a reader’s interest a bit more.

Zetta: All literature is about power, but speculative fiction addresses power directly. Speculative fiction is important, and the speculative fiction I write shows people of color negotiating and distributing power, and that’s something that may be unfamiliar to white people and can be jarring. Some people think empathy is achieved through self-identification, with the idea that this character is “just like me,” and that’s not my goal. I see a lot of limitations with this way of thinking about empathy. For me the goal is to expose some of the dynamics behind injustice. After all, you’d have to be an alien to not have empathy for a 12-year-old killed on a playground.

Chris: How do you draw those connections without being didactic or sounding like a scold?

Zetta: A lot of that depends on the skill of the writer. If you are living a daily reality where you’re fighting to achieve justice, those issues will appear organically in the story, and you can avoid sounding didactic and preachy. But I’m also for a little scolding and public shaming.

Tracey: Also, a 2013 study published in Science found that readers of literary fiction experience greater empathy than do readers of genre fiction, but the study could have achieved those results because the participants were given excerpts to read rather than choosing the books themselves. Some speculative fiction is more character-centered and creates empathy; some doesn’t. When you talk about having empathy, you have to think about who is writing the book. I’m going to write a book very differently than a white man will write a book, and even if we’re writing the same story, we’re going to have very different approaches, which will elicit different responses from the readers. For me, I think it really comes down to what the author intends for the reader to experience.

Chris: It comes down to how critically a reader is willing to think. Or is able to think. The burden is on everybody — both the reader and the writer.

Zetta: You have to consider why people gravitate toward certain kinds of fiction. A large number of people gravitate toward speculative fiction because they want an escape — an escape from what they perceive as the burden of reality. I don’t write about blue aliens with three eyes. I write about black people, and you can identify them. Writer and theorist Ramón Saldívar says that speculative fiction is a prime or optimal way to explore what is possible in our society, and it’s also a way to critique what’s happening in our existing reality. There are of course readers who believe in a particular narrative about this country that doesn’t include oppression or genocide or dispossession. These readers aren’t going to be drawn to one of my novels. But my books will resonate with readers who want to see black teenagers, families, and kids in heroic roles addressing injustice and having adventures and wielding magic as a tool of power.

Summer: Young people yearn for ways to connect. We all do. Fiction and poetry can help us find our own shoes as well as walk in somebody else’s. As for my personal reading list of “literary” and “genre” fiction, I only want to read a good book. I find that characters in the best crime and sci-fi novels struggle with the same problems and moral dilemmas as their literary brethren.

Joseph: I’ve always been a firm believer that reading can create empathy. It was that way for me from my earliest years when I identified with the main characters in such stories as Kipling’s still amazing opus The Jungle Book, which has an Indian subcontinent boy as its protagonist. My response to the Science finding that “genre fiction creates less empathy” is to ask a question: which genre are we talking about? There are books in every genre that are plot-driven, as opposed to character-driven. And there are books — the ones I’ve always loved and attempted to write —that are both.

Daniel: There’s so much cross-pollination between the two — so I don’t know if you can say there’s an empathy gap between speculative fiction and literary fiction. And neither is better than the other in terms of representing race.

Rochelle: Zetta recently wrote about how a young patron went to a library requesting a book on Michael Brown, only to find that it would take a year or more for a traditional publishing house to produce the book. Are traditional publishing houses able to keep pace with the needs of culturally diverse audiences? And, secondly, what do you think can be achieved through campaigns and programs that push to change the industry?

Chris: The publishing industry is going to have to adapt or go extinct. As the world becomes more diverse, white won’t be the standard for much longer. Publishing houses contain people who are passionate about literature, but it’s also a business that’s motivated by money. And as writers are creating their own paths and finding success on their own through independent publishing, the publishing industry is going to want to be a part of that.

Grace: I’ve been talking about diversity in books for quite a long time, longer than 10 years, and I feel like something is going to happen. We’re at a tipping point, and finally, finally, the publishers will have to change. The money will talk to them.

Self-publishing is important and a force to be reckoned with, but I don’t think traditional publishing will go extinct. And this is just my opinion, but I think independent publishing will be able to attack current issues in a meaningful and a faster way, while the role of traditional publishing will be figuring out which books are the timeless ones. With this push for greater diversity, we can finally make traditional publishing see that diverse books are also timeless. That’s part of the problem — the publishing industry has never seen diverse books as timeless and classic.

Chris: The timetable of mainstream publishing is only part of the equation. Can a good book be written about Michael Brown in the year since he died? The author would need more time, and then you have to add to that the time the publishing industry takes to warm up its gears.

Summer: The story of Michael Brown is a story about a town (like many towns) and a young black man (like many young black men). It’s a story with universal truths. I hope someone writes it very soon.

Tracey: Self-publishing really is nimble. But, in addition to self-publishing, there are other types of publishers — school and library publishers, for instance — who can produce a book in a year. I’m an editor in educational publishing, and our timeline is much shorter than it is in trade. So if a writer comes up with an idea in August 2014, we can have that book ready in August 2015. Publishers can also escalate their timelines to have a book ready much more quickly. You see this happen with celebrity books. You see celebrities announce they’re writing a book in September, and it comes out in December.

Grace: It’s possible for traditional publishing to have a very fast turnaround, but they don’t do it well. Because of this, I think that, in the future, the roles will have to be more delineated.

Tracey: When traditional publishers produce something very quickly it’s because they know they’re going to make that money back very quickly. That’s when they take a risk. We know it’s normally two or three years before a book comes out, and this kid who’s looking for the Michael Brown book, he might have moved on by then — and that opportunity would have been lost.

Zetta: I find it extremely frustrating when people say that the publishing industry is capitalist and profit-driven, and therefore we have to see diverse books become profitable in order to publish them, because that’s simply not true. African Americans have a buying power of a trillion dollars and have been advocating for diverse books for more than a hundred years. Every other corporation, from Ford to Coca-Cola, has been trying to sell to the Latino market, and Asian Americans are the fastest-growing immigration group. And the biggest market any publisher could find for books is in China. The push against diverse books isn’t about merit; it’s about power.

Tracey: We still need people of color in the publishing industry. As someone who works within the industry, I’ve seen books with questionable images on covers — for instance, the cover for a book on African American history included a stock photo crowd shot without a single African American person in it, and another cover featured Norman Rockwell’s painting of Ruby Bridges, The Problem We All Live With, with the racial slur [in the painting] still on it. Fortunately, when I pointed it out, it wasn’t too late to change it to an image without the slur. But again, no one had noticed it. It almost went to press, and not because these people were trying to be malicious; their reaction was one of embarrassment. They were just unaware. So there is something to having more people of color working in the industry.

Zetta: You need critical mass; for instance, you need at least three people of color on an awards committee for the perspective of people of color to be heard. One person, which is usually what happens, isn’t enough, and one person on an all-white team isn’t going to make a difference. Having a whole bunch of people of color working as interns and going through the slush pile isn’t going to be helpful either. You have to have people of color as gatekeepers.

Joseph: I am all for these campaigns and strategies. They do make a difference. We just need more and we need to support them. But it’s true that mainstream large publishers are often behind the curve. The best way readers can “demand” that publishers be more diverse is by buying whatever diverse books are available and asking for more. Self-publishing is a strategy to consider, but with care. Not every author can be a good editor of his or her own work. My editors have saved me again and again with their careful reading and helpful responses to early drafts of my books.

Summer: I believe demands on publishing houses will generate the most effective change. It’s the publishers who maintain established relationships with distributors, school districts, and bookstores, and they fund marketing and supplementary materials like curricula. A self-published book requires an enormous effort to attract attention.

Rochelle: Author Jacqueline Woodson pointed out that the internet has made people aware of not only police brutality, but also, the need for more diverse books. What do you see as the role of social media in encouraging people to read diverse books?

Joseph: As is usually the case, my friend Jacqueline is right on the mark with that observation. With all the various platforms afforded by social media, we can connect more directly with each other, build and strengthen movements, or just plain get the word out. I have a website, email every day, and I’m on Facebook and Twitter. Not that it is all perfect. Like any tool — say, with a hoe — you can hit people over the head with it or use it to cultivate new growth. There are lots of ways the internet can be misused. But it’s our job to harness its positive potential.

Summer: Commitment to social change takes time; it takes energy; it takes working in concert with others. The process is often slow and tedious. Writing is also slow and tedious and takes time and energy. It also requires solitude. People who are invested in social change are inclined to use their gifts on behalf of social change, but there is a potential conflict in how much time and energy you have to divide between art and social change. It’s a struggle to find a balance in how you manage your time.

Daniel: There isn’t just one way in which literature can be oppressive; it can be racist and sexist and misogynistic, and self-publishing and social media are forms of resistance. It goes back to being honest. #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter is honest, and that’s a good thing. There’s been a pushback against white normalization and that forces us to stop lying. The world is not white, but literature is. When we look at the whole of literature, it is overwhelmingly white.

Rochelle: You’ve all been interviewed about diversity many times before. Is anyone growing tired or even resentful about talking about diversity? Do you feel that talking about diversity takes away from focusing on the work itself?

Tracey: I feel as though I’ve been on a lot of these panels, especially in the last year. As exhausting as it is to talk about it all the time, it really does keep the pressure on. I think Lee & Low Books is preparing a survey out about diversity in the publishing industry, and Macmillan just signed on to do it. So as exhausting as it is to keep talking about it, it keeps the pressure on so that now the publishing industry doesn’t have much of a choice but to address it.

Grace: My first book was published in 1999, and all my books are Asian or Asian-American themed. I feel so passionately about it that I put pressure on myself — I feel as though I have to write about an Asian character because there just aren’t a lot out there.

And at the beginning of my career, I talked about diversity, but toward the middle, I stopped. I got tired of it. I’ve been talking about diversity for 10 years and not a lot has changed, so I contributed by making the books I believe in.

But with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign pushing this issue, I feel like we have reached a tipping point, and it’s only recently that I’ve started talking about it again. It’s not that I don’t believe in these panels or issues, but I do get tired when people say “come talk on this diverse panel,” and it’s the only panel I’m asked to be on. Our books are so much more than our diversity.

Zetta: I’d been writing on blogs, doing presentations, and speaking on television, and I felt like when people did know my name, it was from my work as a diversity advocacy. So I decided to pull back from the advocacy work and focus on the publishing. But the children’s publishing industry is dominated by white women, and the only way we’re going to get change is if white women talk to other white women about the importance of diversity. But they won’t if they feel diversity doesn’t directly affect them and their children. I know fantastic white women, and I have white women allies. But as weary as I am of talking about these issues, I’m even more tired of white women not calling their peers out for publishing’s lack of diversity.

Tracey: In 1965, a white woman, Nancy Larrick, published “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” a landmark essay published in the Saturday Review advocating for more diverse children’s literature. And I don’t know if much has changed at all since then. But what’s needed is action. Indie publishing is one way to revolutionize the industry, but the problem is that it’s inconsistent in its quality.

Zetta: This is part of the problem. The publishing industry depends on reviews, and indie books don’t get reviewed. Also, in 1965, the Council on Interracial Books for Children was formed, and their advocacy work was distinct from #WeNeedDiverseBooks; their Bulletin of Interracial Books for Children demonstrated more of a willingness to call out books that lacked diverse characters or had irresponsible representations. If you aren’t calling people out for the books that are being produced, you won’t have change.

Joseph: A lack of cultural diversity can lead to the stagnation of society, the death of intellect.

However, I do want to be able to talk about more than diversity. I do not want to have to dwell on it to the exclusion of craft, of character, of just telling an interesting story well. I believe that in the end, it is always the quality of the work itself and not just what it is “about” or what stance it takes that counts the most if it is to be successful, memorable, and sought out by readers.

Daniel: I go back and forth about it, but I see it as part of my work as a writer and as a member of the Latin community. I get why I’m called. We can’t pretend everything is fine. Police brutality, racism — they’re still here. And publishing matters. We have to be open and honest about the issues we’re facing. If we can do that, then we can make change.


Rochelle Spencer is co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women Writers of Color (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), and her work appears in several publications including Callaloo, Poets and Writers, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Calyx, Publishers Weekly, and the Crab Creek Review.

LARB Contributor

Rochelle Spencer is the author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora's Surrealist Fiction (Routledge, 2019) and co-editor, with Jina Ortiz, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). This fall, she is teaching AfroSurrealism at Sarah Lawrence College and online at Fisk University.


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