There’s a campaign happening online to push for more diversity in children’s books. Children’s authors and illustrators and editors and librarians and so on are posting pictures of themselves holding up signs that say, “We need diverse books because [fill in the blank.]”
It’s an issue I believe in, and one I think about a lot when I write. But I missed the memo about the campaign. I guess I’m not in the right social media circles. Also, I don’t do Tumblr. And anyway, I’m not much for taking selfies.
But then I was browsing through the children’s department at my local public library today, and I came across Big Snow, by Jonathan Bean.
Big Snow is about David, who can’t wait for it to snow. His mother tries to distract him with one indoor activity after another. But everything David does reminds him of snow, and he can’t stop checking the weather until the storm he’s been waiting for finally arrives. The story is lively, warm, and universal. The text is perfectly structured, with illustrations that alternate between cozy indoor scenes and zoomed-out double spreads that show the progressive tableaux of David’s neighborhood as the day darkens and the snow falls, accumulates, and drifts.
The pictures are packed full of fun details to discover, from the bird feeder blowing in the wind and the snow-plow clearing the road to the darkening sky and the rising snow drifts. But what I’m interested here are two details that have nothing to do with meteorology.
The first, and much more obvious, detail is the color David and his parents’ skin – medium brown. (Their hair is black and curly.)
The second detail I didn’t even notice until I’d gone through the book a couple of times. It’s the menorah in David’s next-door neighbors’ window. (It remains unlit until the final spread, when keen-eyed readers will learn that it’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. And there’s a Christmas tree inside David’s house, by the way.)
But wait. This is a book about snow, not religion or race. Why throw in those extraneous details? Because not every kid is white and not every kid is Christian (or non-disabled, or growing up in a household headed two biological, heterosexual parents).
We need diverse books because kids who don’t fit the dominant demographic need to see characters like themselves. And because kids who do fit the dominant demographic to see characters unlike themselves.
It’s important to have books that explicitly address famous African-Americans, say, or Jewish holidays, or other topics that specifically focus on experiences that makes different kinds of people different. But it’s also important to have books that show people who don’t fit the dominant demographic living ordinary, everyday lives. Because guess what? Jews and blacks and people who use wheelchairs or are adopted or have two dads spend most of their time living ordinary, everyday lives. And kids need books that show just how every-day and ordinary that is.