Dalton Higgins talks about Diversity in Children’s Literature

Dalton Higgins: not too happy about cultural representation, as is.

Dalton Higgins’s article, “What Does Diversity in Book Publishing Mean to You?” published late last week on Open Book Toronto, reflects on diversity in children’s literature and the obstacles authors face in attempting to publish alternative content aimed at youth.

A report released in the U.S. by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and brought to attention in a New York Times article by Walter Dean Myers in March, launched heated debates when it remarked that of 3,600 children’s books published in the U.S. in 2012, only 119 had “significant African or African-American content.” Further investigation showed that only 93 were about black protagonists and/or families. Perhaps the multicultural representation came from elsewhere. Yet, only 76 books were reported to feature significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific-American content, and only 54 books included significant Latino content.

As Higgins remarks, the CCBC stats might not be particularly jarring if one isn’t a member of a diverse community or does not interact with diverse groups of children. However, if one finds oneself in a metropolis like Toronto, and at all connected with the publishing world, it is enough of an incentive to turn one’s thoughts homeward and do a little investigating about the children’s literature publishing scene here. Are the numbers equally diminutive? Higgins writes that he has begun conducting research in Toronto, that the findings are jarring so far, and advises us to “stay tuned for results.”

Royson James, in a 2008 Toronto Star article, called “Suddenly, black literature is hot,”  explores the upsurge of powerful books by black Canadian authors, which—after releases such as The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke, Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes, Brunhuber’s Kameleon Man, and Afua Cooper’s Governor-General nominated The Hanging of Angelique throughout the early 2000s—began to command the attention of readers and publishers both nationally and internationally. “Once dismissed as insular, un-Canadian and irrelevant to mainstream readers, black authors are appearing on national bestseller lists and drawing great interest from major publishers,” writes James. The renaissance, James suggests, was due to the high profile success of a number of black writers, the encouragement of editors, the reach of black literature, and its ability to touch diverse diasporic communities, and, of course, talent.

“Maybe I’m biased, because I am teaching it, but this literature is one of the most dynamic, most interesting being created in Canada right now; and it may be one of the most profound,” were the words of University of Toronto professor and Governor-General award-winning author George Elliott Clarke, quoted by James. “For years, it was [only] small publishers like Anansi Press and Natural Heritage that took a chance on this literary genre.”

With more recent releases such as Lawrence Hill’s Blood, the translation of Marcel Trudel’s Canada’s Forgotten Slaves, Esi Edugyan’s 2011 Giller Prize-winning Half-Blood Blues, the GG-nominated Dirty Feet (Les Pieds sales) by Edem Awumey, the celebrated long poem Ossuaries by Dionne Brand (reviewed in The Puritan’s tenth issue), it appears that, at least in Toronto, important literature by or about black Canadians is still finding its home and its resonance, having gained the confidence of big publishers after spending years relying on the faith of smaller presses.

Still, as Higgins reminds us, all great literature begins by sparking the interest of young readers, by encouraging children to read, by putting a book in a child’s hands that might activate that “aha!” moment we so often hear about with writers—the moment when one is so moved by a work of literature that one decides to write a book. For this to happen, children need access to books with which they can profoundly relate, ones in which they see themselves and their environment represented.

If my experience as a teacher has taught me anything, it is that the purpose of encouraging children to read is not simply to promote literacy. Literature has powerful qualities beyond didactic practicality. The aim is to introduce literature that a child can invest in—that will provide both intellectual stimulation and emotional reinforcement. Books that raise questions of culture, familial identity, and social surroundings are crucial to this process. To ignite a love of literature, one must encourage literature with which students can identify: one that speaks to their fears, their interests, their needs.

Royson James

Royson James: black literature is hot.

Growing up in Rexdale, Toronto, in an area consisting largely of landed immigrant families, my experience in elementary school meant meeting new students weekly, some of whom did not yet speak a word of English. The teachers would give instructions, then ask the bilingual students to translate the instructions to the new students. The teacher’s tide of English was followed by waves of Filipino, Spanish, Ukrainian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Swahili, and Italian, depending on the classroom.

It wasn’t until years later that one of my friend’s mothers told me that our grade school teacher used to drive across the city to the only children’s bookstore in which she could find books whose characters were representative of her eclectic mix of students. She used to complain about the dated books the school provided, which did not speak to the new students’ experience. She said that the books made the central focus of childhood schoolyard bullying and sibling rivalry, and not the more immediate concerns of her students: adapting to a new language, a new culture, and cultivating a sense of belonging as a displaced person and as a sudden minority.

This was the reality of the early 1990s. Naturally, things have changed. My sister, who before relocating to teach in South America taught elementary school in North York, assures me that Toronto schools have at last caught up with the city’s multiculturalism (these things take time, after all; more than one-half of Toronto’s more than one million immigrants landed in Canada between 1985–2001, according to a government census). City schools now provide relevant literature to reflect an array of different cultural trends and a diversity of children’s experiences, and provide teachers the resources to make these books readily available. If this is indeed the case, there is comfort in knowing that we belong to a community in which no children have to wait until adolescence or adulthood to find the books that matter to them.

On another hopeful note, the CCBC lists “small presses committed to publishing multicultural materials.” A promising three of the ten listed on the American site are Canadian presses (Annick Press, Fifth House, and Second Story). Toronto also has some terrific eclectic bookstores, such as Rainbow Caterpillar uptown and A Different Booklist at Bathurst and Lennox. Still, with the immigrant population in Toronto at over 46 percent, and with 100 percent of Toronto’s population exposed to multiculturalism, diverse children’s literature should be more of a standard than the domain of specialty shops.

The CCBC notes that while multicultural children’s literature is alarmingly under-represented in North America on the whole, it is “among the multicultural books” that the most innovative and engaging “stand-outs” are to be found. This is hardly a wonder, especially if the books’ “stand-out” qualities correspond to the very questions of cultural relevancy discussed above.

Nowhere is the question of cultural diversity more relevant than in Canada. Without eclectic children’s literature, how many important, powerful, provocative future writers do we stand to discourage? It is worth remembering that the writing of great literature begins with the reading of it. While the percentages of diverse children’s lit available in Canada remain to be seen, and Toronto’s children’s lit scene stands to be investigated further, Higgins makes one thing clear: “the publishing industry in Toronto feels a lot less inclusive than most other cultural industries.” This lack of diversity affects not just the content of the books being circulated and the aims of the authors who write them, but the perspectives of the children who read them. The fear is that if certain perspectives aren’t represented, it sends the message that they don’t matter.

“Given that books have significant power to help shape our children’s understanding of the world,” writes Higgins, “this can feel like scary times indeed.”

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