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Conservative Backlash Against Diverse Kids Books Just Proves Why We Need Them

Scholastic is launching the school year with a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit whose aim is to put “more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.” Their work includes grants, internships, and working with classrooms and schools to increase the availability of diverse books. And part of that is working with Scholastic, via its book club program, to curate a list of diverse books for all ages, starting at the Pre-K level.

Given that, in 2018, more books were written about animals than children of color — plus the fact that books about white children make up 50% of new books — it’s heartening to see the work that Scholastic and WNDB are doing, as well as the effect they are having. Those numbers are pretty bad, but they’re actually better than back in 2015, when 73.3.% of all children’s books had a white protagonist. WNDB also takes a wider view of diversity beyond just race; the organization outlines on its website that the goal is representation of “all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”

So what could the problem possibly be? According to a response in The Federalist, these books are hoping to “saturate” kids with so-called “identity politics.” The phrase “identity politics” is maddeningly vague, but is usually wielded by the right to dismiss anything that centers on something other than the normative straight male, white, cis, able-bodied perspective. This, of course, ignores the fact that being white, straight, cis-gendered, male, and able-bodied are also identities that inform how people see the world.

Beyond that bad faith argument, it’s hard to know where to start with the meandering post’s attempted takedown of diverse kids books. The writer, Joy Pullmann, cherry-picks the books most likely to offend conservative readers — pointing out books that center on transgender and non-straight kids in their storylines as well as disparaging a book about a girl whose mosque is vandalized by a “hate crime” (quotations Pullmann’s). Pullmann is equally dismissive of a graphic novel by Dan Brown based on his firsthand experiences at a Syrian refugee camp. It’s pretty appalling to see her brush aside books about very real suffering — however fictionalized.

But wait: According to Pullmann’s article, children should be happy with books written long, long ago (back when that 73.3% number was even higher). Interestingly, one of two examples of classic children’s literature she suggests is Huckleberry Finn — you know, that old standby that features slavery, child abuse, and children drinking and smoking. Furthermore, books with diverse characters learning to be true to themselves are apparently redundant, because, in Pullmann’s words, they’re already the plot of “two-thirds of Disney movies” (?!). So, let’s get this straight, Joy: Should we stop publishing children’s books altogether, since the basic message is basically “covered”? Or should the only new books be the ones that resemble the already-existing books written by dead white men? And again…how are these “suggestions” of yours somehow not political?

There is also an underlying argument here about whether or not the themes of these books are appropriate — such as, say, a middle schooler struggling with being attracted to girls and boys, or another realizing her dad is secretly dating her friend’s mom. But if those themes aren’t considered “appropriate,” certainly neither is the entire history of children’s books that deal with pretty darn adult themes (again: Huck Finn). The idea that children are encountering racism, sexism, or homophobia for the first time in the pages of books ignores the very real IRL experiences of many of the children that WNDB hopes to serve.

And what of the cis, able-bodied, white child readers out there? These books are for them, too! After Toni Morrison died, my cis, white, able-bodied self remembered the first book of hers I read, The Bluest Eye. I was eleven, and probably missed a lot of what was going on. But as a white child growing up in an overwhelmingly white community, reading it was formative in how I learned about our country’s history. Yes, I had learned about it at school, but getting to know the characters of the book provided a more intimate, urgent, and real experience.

Seeing yourself in books is powerful, and should not be discounted. But diverse books allow all readers to gain a more expansive view of the world. And isn’t that a lot of why we want our children to read in the first place?

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