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Can diversity in children’s books tackle prejudice?

1 November 2018

From CNN:

Marley Dias says she was tired of reading books about “white boys and their dogs” in school.

So at the age of 11, she launched the campaign #1000BlackGirlBooks to identify books featuring people of color as protagonists.
Over the past three years, Dias has collected more than 11,000 books. She is in the process of donating all the books and has given more than half to what she describes as “predominantly black and underserved” communities in the US, Haiti, Ghana, Jamaica and the UK.
The young activist from New Jersey has even gone on to author her own book — “Marley Dias Gets It Done” — and is currently developing an app so kids can find “black girl books” more easily.

. . . .

“I hope that my campaign will mean more opportunities for our stories to be told and for books with black girls as the main character to be put on bookshelves worldwide,” she tells CNN.

Yet despite the young writer’s best efforts, statistics suggest “black girl books” are still in short supply.

Just 9% of children’s books published in the US in 2017 featured African or African American characters — according to data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) which has been measuring representation in children’s books since 1985.

While that figure appears small, it actually represents an improvement on previous years. In 2014, just 5% of children’s books recorded by the CCBC included African or African American characters.

. . . .

Moreover, CCBC director Kathleen Horning points out that many of the books about black experiences have not been written by authors from that demographic.

Africans and African Americans wrote or illustrated just 3% of the books counted by the CCBC in 2017. Horning says this statistic appears to depict how difficult it can be for black authors to break into the publishing industry.

When children’s books about black people do get published, Horning says they often fall into three broad categories: books about slavery, books set during the civil rights movement and books that tell “gritty, contemporary” stories about children growing up in struggling families or teens dealing with violence.

“All of these are important stories, but young readers also want more variety,” says Horning. For example, there aren’t traditionally “many fantasies with African American characters, or books showing a middle-class black family.”

. . . .

B.J. Epstein, a lecturer in children’s literature at the University of East Anglia in the UK, notes that diverse characters are often pigeonholed by their ethnicity, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation.

In her book “Are the Kids All Right?: Representations of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature,” Epstein surveyed English books with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters.

She found the majority of stories dealing with this subject only highlighted the difficulty of coming out, and the negative repercussions associated with doing so.

. . . .

The consequences of a lack of diverse characters can extend well beyond the classroom.

“The stories that children read at a young age tell them who matters and who doesn’t matter, who’s human and who isn’t human,” explains Philip Nel, professor of English at Kansas State University.

“A story doesn’t have to tell us that explicitly. It can tell us that by failing to represent certain groups of people — omission tells us that these groups of people are not important,” Nel adds.

Link to the rest at CNN

Disclaimer: PG is in a smart-alecky mood today. (This is also a trigger warning.) He’ll undoubtedly be better tomorrow.

He wonders if there’s a reason why a publisher could not release multiple versions of the same children’s book. One could include only black characters. Another could include only Asian characters. One could include only white characters. And a final version could include characters of several races peacefully coexisting.

When commissioning an artist for a children’s picture book, the publisher could request four copies of each illustration that depicted people – one for each of the three races and one with mixed races.

For a children’s book without illustrations of children, a racial character tag could be dropped into the manuscript – “Sue was a white/black/Asian girl” – and repeated in a few other places in the story. Search and replace could do the job. If the publisher was confident it wouldn’t be accused of racial stereotyping, character names could be modified for each racial group as well – “Priscilla/Imani/Ah Lam loved running in the sunshine.”

For the cautious publisher, committed to battling prejudice in all its forms, this might be enough. The result might seem a little bland, but incautious attempts to insert different “authentic” elements or idiosyncratic language usage into each racial version might backfire. Indeed, stereotypical white/black/Asian tropes would be avoided lest they offend someone.

Some of the prospective purchasers of such books might want a version in which all of the characters were of the same race, other parents might want their children to see various races getting along with each other. A publisher fully committed to diversity could do another series of books mixing both races and genders with search and replace again. Should the number of genders increase in the future, the sensitively-structured electronic book files would make updating and reissuing new editions easy.

Professor Nel, quoted in the OP, should be happy because everyone would be “human” and Ms. Dias would be freed from any more “white boy” stories.

Children's Books

103 Comments to “Can diversity in children’s books tackle prejudice?”

  1. They can call the line “Separate But Equal.”

    (You’re not the only one in a snarky mood.)

  2. Black people complain too much, if they want to see those kinds of books they should write them themselves and self publish.
    The fact that so many books don’t have those characters shows that people don’t care to read about them, and I can’t blame them because there’s only so many ways to write that kind of story.

    • It’s ridiculous to conclude that nobody wants children’s books with minority characters if there aren’t enough of them for children to want in the first place.

      • When a good is in high demand, and supply does not meet the demand at prevailing prices, we normally see that signaled in price increases. The good is bid up, all the units are snapped up immediately, and the manufacturer runs extra shifts to churn out more.

        For books, we would see Barnes & Noble shelves cleared of the book. People would be placing special orders. Amazon would run out and be ordering large numbers from the publisher.

        Is that what we see with these books? It appears activists are signaling they want more, but consumers are indifferent.

        • You don’t seem to know what’s actually selling in children’s books. Take a look. Consumers are happy to buy diverse books.


          • Of course they are happy to buy the books. I’m dealing with the notion that there is some shortage. If there was actually a shortage, and a demand for them that wasn’t being met, we would see it reflected in prices and orders. Just like any other good. Books aren’t special.

            When this happens with a good, smart suppliers align their production to meet the demand and make money. For books, this means authors would jump on the diversity opportunity, and produce more books about blacks. Publishers would be pushing them out the door.

            There is no reason to analyze books any differently, and no reason to analyze books about minorities differently. The same economic pressures apply.

            Consumer behavior is not telling us there is a material shortage. Activists are. I’ll believe the consumers.

  3. Stories won’t really be diverse until they stop being about the race/ethnicity of the characters. As long as it’s a “black” book or a “Asian” book they’re just not going to sell that well. Once they start being good books and focusing on good stories then they’ll start being diverse.

  4. Long time ago we have developed an app, stories and illustrations addressing this very issue. With just a few clicks the reader/buyer/parent can personalized any given story function of child gender, race, even age group. Same for the siblings or parents mentioned in the story.
    Did not work back then. Still think was / is a good idea worth another round of funding.

  5. Diversity worked well for the Austrian Empire, didn’t it?

  6. Snarkiness aside, this is about reading stories that represent the individual, which can have a deep impact on young boys and girls. When I see people complaining about diversity being represented, I always think of this video featuring a girl with an amputated leg.


    • When I read/hear about these sort of stories, I think back to when I was five years old. I told everyone my favorite superhero was either the Flash or Aquaman, even though my favorites were really Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. But I said the Flash and Aquaman because they had yellow hair, as did I. And seeing someone we had in common like that really affected me. This despite the fact that hair color almost always changes as you get older, or can be easily changed or can go away altogether, as mine has, sadly, as my forehead increasingly encroaches on what was formerly my hair’s territory.

      So if something as relatively meaningless as hair color affected young me that much, I have absolutely no problem seeing how important it could easily be for other young humans to see characters in fiction which more closely resemble them in far more significant ways.

      • Thank you, a kind heart in this predominantly white, anglo-saxon boys club.
        I used to enjoy the banter on the Passive Voice, but this goes beyond banter or snark to straight offensive.
        One less female reader for your blog.

        • Wow. I don’t even know what to say to this, other than this is the first racist comment on this post.

        • Typical. You want diversity of the superficial stuff – race, color, gender, etc. But diversity of opinion/thought other than your own viewpoint is ‘like, literally like Hitler, like’.

        • Thank you, a kind heart in this predominantly white, anglo-saxon boys club.

          I’m not an Anglo-Saxon. I’m a Viking. My DNA analysis said 96% British Isles and Ireland, but there was 1% Northern European and Scandanavian. If that’s enough for a US senator, then it’s enough for me.

          • Anyway, calling an O’Brien a Sassenach is “an insult, if you like.”

            Or to continue quoting Tolkien:

            “It’s a compliment. And so, of course, not true.”

            • In that case, perhaps I’ll be an “Other.” I seem to have a slim DNA link to that noble race.

          • Viking isn’t even an ethnic group, it’s a profession.

  7. PG: a lot of commercial art these days is done on computer and coloring is almost always a separate step. So the artist need only draw the book once and color everything but the people, leaving them white…er, blank. That would be the default. 😉
    Next step would be to color the people with placeholder colors–purple, orange, gray, and plaid. That too gets saved.
    Final step would be to do a search-and-replace for whatever cliche color tone they want to represent the various audiences.
    They could even do a search and replace with the character names. With ebooks and the right database software on the back end they could on the fly address any of the 600 distinct tribes in the country, not just the six or seven official census pigeon holes.



  8. Quite enjoy reading the Passive Voice and can’t help finding it interesting that a positive piece about a young woman who longed to see people of her race and gender as protagonists in the stories she was reading, who then went out and gathered such stories to share with others and even wrote one herself provoked feelings of “snarkiness” in those never confronted by the same lack of options in their own childhood reading material. Something to perhaps ponder a bit…

    • Or perhaps the snarkiness comes from experiencing a “diversity training” course that focused on demanding people see everybody else in terms of what makes them “other” instead of what makes them “kin”.

      Divide and conquer works best from the inside.

    • I had the same reaction, Kady.

    • Kady – I understand your feelings, but the title of the OP (written by a white woman) “Can diversity in children’s books tackle prejudice?” seemed silly to me, especially when it was about a “young activist” who is a young woman of color.

      The young activist wants to have more books with “black girls as the main character.” That’s perfectly fine, but I didn’t see any way that more black girls as main characters would have anything to do alleviating prejudice.

      Are we tackling prejudice on the part of black girls toward white girls (or white boys with dogs) being depicted as protagonists? Or are white girls supposed to read books with black girls as the main character and tackle prejudice that way?

      Is prejudice alleviated by reading books with imaginary characters of a different race? Or by reading books with imaginary characters of the same race?

      Huckleberry Finn was long regarded as a classic by those who championed the cause of black civil rights because it showed a close relationship between a white boy and black man of genuine virtue. Now, it has fallen out of favor at least in part because it depicted an intelligent but unschooled black man speaking with an unschooled accent.

      My cantakerous response was partly a reaction against what strikes me as increasingly muddle-headed virtue signaling on the part of a great many people at CNN and other large media organizations.

      When I was in elementery school, my best friend was Japanese, born of parents who (I discovered later) were interned in US camps during World War II. My second best friend had been born in Mexico.

      I sometimes wonder if the massive politicization of race since my childhood would have made such cherished friendships impossible today. If so, that does not seem to represent any sort of beneficial social progress as far as I’m concerned.

      I appreciate your comment and hope you will return to read more posts on The Passive Voice. I think I will not revisit diversity or prejudice for some time, if ever. It’s really not what I like to write about.

      • PG, do consider that a lot of “diversity” peddling is about perpetuating overgeneralizations and stereotyping that no competent writer would allow in their stories. It bears little relation to actual people’s actual lives and it trivializes the real challenges of the real world.

        Children’s books as a solution to prejudice? Really? How cute.

        Challenging that kind of pigeonholing is relevant to the craft. It’s worth reminding people that handwaving like that doesn’t work in the the real world and should have no place in good fiction. Unless you’re writing dystopias.

        Just a suggestion.

      • I appreciate the pondering, PG. Definitely led to some truly interesting insights into the real points you were trying to make and the potential for meaningful conversation that even the author and subject of the piece might feel invited to join. There are no doubt unintended consequences to every effort to tackle this difficult, and in the US at least, deadly issue.

        My aim would not be to silence you on the topic, as you seem to be indicating would be your choice, but to encourage a moment of self-reflection when the impulse arises to snark, particularly when one has the responsibility of an influential platform.

        I find the quite human and natural impulse to snark itself can be a sign that we’re feeling challenged and the need to defend ourselves. But when acted on, this reaction can actually perpetuate the underlying problem rather than signalling a moment for listening and contemplation that can open pathways to actually moving through the problem together with the person/people who prompted the feeling in the first place.

        I’m certainly feeling the emotion some of your readers are expressing in their responses to your commentary, and am pretty sure that a snarky response would entrench their feelings of frustration/irritation/anger/vulnerability rather than make them feel heard and more invited to become part of the solution. 🙂

        Even so, some really great points being brought up on this thread. Increasingly enjoying the conversation as it gets more “real.”

        • I agree with Kady. Given that this has unleashed a litany of commentary about how ‘diversity’ is both impossible and pointless, I’d say that the snarky bit underneath the article, rather than leading people to think on ways to include and champion more people has instead served to defend a status quo of ‘white people run the joint and minorities are whiny for wanting more’.

          How are stories with more diverse characters supposed to tackle prejudice? In theory, by allowing kids, when they are younger, to read about a richer background. By allowing kids who have only ever seen white people in stories to see people like themselves and pretend to be Black Panther instead of Superman for once. Did you grow up seeing yourself in every story you read? I’m betting you did, since you appear to have zero empathy for people who didn’t.

          There are kids who, while they connect with characters who aren’t specifically ‘like them’, do not get to see themselves casually represented everywhere. And if race or any other trait means so little to children, which, I believe is true moreso than with adults, then why is most assigned reading (in fact most reading available, period) still written by and about straight white men/boys?

          How about LGBTQ children? When they aren’t seeing themselves in stories, they don’t have as many tools to understand themselves, and the narrative that ‘you SHOULD be different than you are’ remains entrenched and powerful. A single book with a LGBTQ protagonist can help a kid understand their feelings and make them feel like they are okay, more than okay, that they are valuable – no matter what else the story is about.

          Can you just ‘change the genders’ of characters and make a book that was written about a straight couple seem like a gay one? Yes, and absolutely not. Straight couples experience the world different in key ways than gay ones, and simply ‘swapping pronouns’ can lead to some strange and laughable results. As much as we may be similar, everyone is not the same.

          What you’ve said here doesn’t serve to further the narrative as much as to release a kind of frustrated backlash at ‘social justice warriors’ (see: ‘trigger warning’ snark), and it’s disappointing to read underneath a sincere child’s effort to donate books and a more thoughtful discussion about the subject in the article itself – which seemed more straightforward stats and a few quotes than ‘virtual signaling’.

          • The article says widgets are in short supply. Do we see a huge run up in sales of the current supply of widgets? Are they out of stock everywhere? Are orders backlogged? If not, there is not a short supply.

            Consumer behavior determines if widgets are in short supply. Some may want consumers to use more widgets, but consumers don’t care. It’s very basic economics that applies to all goods.

      • My cantakerous response was partly a reaction against what strikes me as increasingly muddle-headed virtue signaling on the part of a great many people at CNN and other large media organizations.

        This sentence alone has a lot of meat in it.

        I sometimes get the feeling that Large Media Organizations live in a parallel universe. I’m also sure that I’ve never been to this parallel universe but that it is a land of never-ending cliches.

        But I live in Fly Over America…it may amount to the same thing.

    • Same here, Kady.

  9. On the whole “substitute white/black/Asian/Puerto Rican for plaid” thing: Yes, people are individuals, not little chunks of culture. But saying that their culture doesn’t have any effect on them is to deny and denigrate their culture. When I read about a Japanese person, I expect that some part of them will be influenced by their ideas about being Japanese, in whatever way this particular individual takes that in and understands it.

    Anything else is bland.

    • First you need to actually know their culture, not project somebody else’s or worse, some dated outsider’s stereotype on them.

      That is not easy.
      Takes actual research, for starters.

      I’ve seen it done well, occasionally.
      I’ve seen it door poorly, often.
      More often than not, the poor efforts are just creator preening.

      • And even with all the research you can’t cover all cases/examples, so you will be pointed out as wrong even if you do everything right.

        I’m reminded of that silly movie ‘Back to School’ with Dangerfield. He hires people to do his classwork for him, one was an artist tasked with writing about the meaning of something they had painted. They got an ‘F’ because it wasn’t what the class’ instructor thought it meant.

        (Which is why I’m playing in a future centuries after a world war, space flight, and discovering that we aren’t the only (or necessarily the brightest) life in the universe. No one can claim what would have changed/stayed the same after all that time. 😉 )

      • Think Patterson did much cultural research for his Alex Cross books? The character is a detective chasing bad guys. He could be any race.

    • “Anything else is bland.”

      Or a ‘trigger’ for someone looking for a reason to act upset.

      We’ve seen the cries that a white male can not write a book about blacks or women. And you dare not write about their culture – because you can’t possibly know anything about it – or you’re seen as belittling it.

      So, how can we write anything that doesn’t reflect/show/describe something somebody somewhere is going to get upset about? Honest question.

      “When I read about a Japanese person, I expect that some part of them will be influenced by their ideas about being Japanese, in whatever way this particular individual takes that in and understands it.”

      Would you believe I know a Japanese person (3rd generation here in the States) that seems to know less about Japan than I do? She even prefers the British way of making tea so I’d get hit by the ‘You’re doing her culture wrong!’ gang for writing her as she really is. Even better is the Jamaican that spent her youth in Japan (her father was stationed there) that showed me how they do that little tea ritual.

      • Or how about variants *within* a given culture?
        Regionalism and regional rivalries are a real thing.
        Or racism within cultures. Not going to name names but quite a few “minority” pigeonholes have their own kinds of discrimination.

        But getting back to the op: even if they get things right and present stories with accurate “minority” characters and don’t get savaged over “appropriation”, how is that going to impact prejudice anyway?

        If children’s books have such power, wouldn’t TV shows have it, too? Maybe even multiplied? Or real world notables being celebrated?

        Once upon a time the most popular show in the land was about an upscale black family. Everybody caught that. It was must see TV. It changed, what?

        Cultural inertia is a thing. Minor moves have minor effects and even big moves have minor or even counterproductive effects.

        Title be a question. Answer, no. Not really.
        If it were that easy the matter would’ve been settled ages ago.

        Some folks take themselves just a wee bit too seriously.

        • Don’t even get me started on being mixed race. No one from either side wants you around. This is the problem. When it is about being white/black/asian/etc it isn’t a real story. It’s a virtue signal. However, if the people in “charge” don’t understand the culture they come down on you for appropriating or denigrating… How frustrating would it be for a person to be Hispanic, right about her experiences as a Hispanic, only to be told she was white.

          People should just write about whatever they want. If you’re black and you want more books with black people in them, time to start writing.

          • Or how about the bi-cultural “Marginal Man” types?
            Life is complicated, human foibles endless; books and especially kids books can’t even begin to address the endless ways we find to mess each other up.

          • I have two bi-racial grandchildren. They are very much wanted from all sides, not just their side. One identifies as white; the other identifies as black but also Mexican (because most of her friends are Mexican — she calls herself a Mixican). I’m Irish, my ex is Cuban. Our daughter identifies as Hispanic. We’re all stirred together and it works fine in our family, social, and work lives.

          • IM sympathetic Jeff. I am from and my children and grands are a biracial and multi racial family.

            While it is true that some/ many see only color, or want to leave ‘white’ people our of people of color tropes, or one side of our ethnic heritage is at war with other side of our bloodlines… we as a family insist on and take a different point of view. Even though we are sometimes called the most cruel slurs.

            We try to take the point of view that we belong whether others agree or not. That we strive to have a much larger view that takes others in.

            I cant recite it quite right, but it is a guiding scripture I think:
            They drew a circle to shut me out
            A thing to ridicule, a thing to flout
            But I had the will and the wit to win.
            I drew a circle that took them in.

            [no doubt someone will correct, lol]

            Somebody has to lead to a new day, I tell my family.
            We think this is one solid way to proceed publicly. There’s not a day that goes by without a grand or sibling or elder being insulted by someone who does not like blacks, latinos, asians, native americans [yes we carry all those in our mosaic family] and those who disdain esp ‘the mixin’ of the races.’

            But. And. onward we go.
            We assume good will: that everyone is learning. Even when they throw hatred toward those who have good will.

        • “Title be a question. Answer, no. Not really.”

          Yeah, should have been my first line. 😉

          ‘Look – we’re doing something!’

          No, you’re just pretending to to get attention.


        • “Or how about variants *within* a given culture?”

          Or a given time?

          Write something accurate for fifty years ago and watch them scream because they know their parents couldn’t possibly have lived like that.

          Heck, twenty years ago feels like we were living on a different planet, what will twenty years from now look like?

          MYMV and it’s gonna be one heck of a ride …

  10. We can do more than order up different colors for covers. For eBooks, just let people order up their favorite flavor of protagonist. Click white, black, Asian, Eskimo, Mexican, Russian…

    A few appropriate paras identifying the selected protagonist are included, and names are changed if they will help remind the reader of a specific group. John becomes Juan, Abdul, or Akio.

    (And I didn’t know Alex Cross was black until I was half-way through the third Cross book.)

    • “(And I didn’t know Alex Cross was black until I was half-way through the third Cross book.)”

      And there you have the answer. The answer the trigger brigade doesn’t want you thinking because it means they are the problem and not a solution.

      You didn’t know or care the color of the writer – you cared about the story they wrote. (I’m assuming here as you made it to the third book! 😉 )

      The only people that care about race/sex/color are those that the race/sex/color of the writer matters more to them than the story.

      Children don’t start out caring about color or race or sex – they are taught by us. Maybe if we stopped treating it as a big deal they wouldn’t learn to think that it is.

    • Heinlein’s seminal Johnny Rico is Filipino. He is still called a racist in certain circles.

      Any day now, Patterson will be targeted for appropriating the idea of an african american detective since he clearly is neither a cop nor black.

      James Andrus at least will be safe so the genre might survive.

      • Patterson is safe, he belongs to the correct political party. I look at the book section in Target quite often, and it is filled with books for little black girls. Years ago, this was not the case. Also many black romance covers, anecdotally as many as the white ones.

        Good, I hope they are selling a ton of them – but even if they are not big sellers, the fact that they have so much shelf space is an advantage born out of virtue signaling.

        If white folks think they are gonna write black characters and get away with it – you havent been paying attention. The OP here wants to do away with white characters AND white writers in the name of ‘equality.’

      • Funnily enough I’ve just started re-reading Tunnel in the Sky and realised that, with the exception of Caroline who is identified as a Zulu, I’ve no idea of the ethnicity of the characters and nor does it actually matter. It seems they can be whatever the reader chooses to imagine and, this being the future and SF, the culture depicted can be one where colour isn’t significant.

        I recall someone writing that they thought the hero Rod was black and I’m looking out to see if I agree; it certainly didn’t impinge on me when I read it 50+ years ago. Maybe I then had a default assumption that the characters were like me (and hence white) though the cover artist could have easily changed that impression. I suspect that in those times the publisher would have preferred that neither author nor artist departed too far from a European norm and in those days the gatekeepers ruled.

        • Heinlein’s “racist” reputation is totally unearned.

          He was actually inclusive in the right ways–he only mentioned ethnicity where it matters to the story or when he’s making a point, like in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. And most of his future societies are globalist instead of tribal.

          His actual practices are discussed here:


          • Eh. It’s not completely unearned, thanks to Farnham’s Freehold, but when you look at the rest of his work it’s really very difficult to account for that one aberration except to blame John Campbell.

            • Not necessarily.
              There’s more to FARNHAM than meets the eye.

              Look at when he wrote it.
              He was purposefully challenging fundamental social assumptions in that stage of his career; STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, GLORY ROAD, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, even TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE…
              Those were all contrarian, one might even say “counter-culture”, stories.

              FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD core conceit is of a massive nuclear war that ends civilization, re-starting the clock as it were, with the core of the new civilization coming from central africa. Now, think to the central africa of the period: it’s the Africa of Idi Amin, the Mau Mau, the Africa of child soldiers, of Hutus vs Tutsis. is it really a surprise tbat, extrapolating from that, he envisioned that kind of *dystopia*? And don’t forget that FARNHAM himself was far from a shining example of acceptable values. Look athow he treated his family.

              Sure, it wasn’t socially acceptable in the heart of the civil rights era and it sure as heck isn’t politically correct to bring that up today, but he was pushing boundaries. This was the time the genre came of age, the age of DANGEROUS VISIONS, BEHOLD THE MAN, LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. And he got away with STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.

              Given his past tendencies and real world behavior, wouldn’t it make more sense to see it as a writing exercise and, maybe, at a time many were glorifying Africa and african culture–Kwanzaa was invented around that time–a reminder that “noble savages” weren’t all that noble and that destroying the existing civilization was no guarantee that its successor wouldn’t be worse.

              I see it as a cautionary tale and a reminder that there is nothing universal or eternal about western values, not a reflection of his personal beliefs.

              It’s just a story and I see no reason to judge the author by the deeds of his characters. Yes, Heinlein was a product of an earlier age but he was a smart, educated, and by all accounts thoughtful person. He had his foibles like everybody but there is no reason to suspect racism was one of them. If anything, his literary footprint argues the opposite.

              • The news from Africa at the time was the Congo rebellion. The epicenter was the province of Katanga. There were atrocities on all sides, European mercenaries, local militias, and Belgian mining companies stoking the fire.

                The news was a daily series of stories of a society that had completely broken down after gaining independence from Belgium. There was no internet at the time, three TV networks, and daily newspapers everywhere. The UN finally intervened to stop the slaughter from all sides.

                Heinlien was writing the book while all this was happening.

                The Hollywood movie Wild Geese is based on the antics of white mercenaries at the time. Read about Mike Hoar for a bit of color. He just died a few months back.

                • More to the point… You just don’t have all that many post-Holocaust utopias in sf. Dystopia is the subgenre, and the effects are always exaggerated. But the target is the nastiness of humanity without virtue, not a specific segment of the human race.

                • Quite true.
                  I can’t quite recall any post apocalyptic Utopias.

                  The closest I can remember is the Sealand society of Wyndham’s CHRYSALIDS/RE-BIRTH and they were pretty ruthless and only interested in helping the one young girl.

                  Somebody might have written a story where kindhearted samaritan types survive to build the new world but I can’t think of any. At best, the descendants of the ruthless evolve into a more “liberal” society.

                  The general consensus seems to be that only the most ruthless and effective (or brutal) get to survive the “downsizing” to rebuild. That the world devolves into two camps: the ruthless and the dead. Or soon to be.

                  Mostly it’s a matter of picking out a particular group the author thinks might survive in truly Hobbesian “state of nature” times.

                  I suspect the attraction of this subgenre is the same as with horror; the vicarious experience of truly awful things contrasted to the less awful reality outside. “Things could be far worse.” 🙂

                • The Postman had a pretty good society of people banding together to resist the dregs. There are too many good people who are skilled in violence for it to be believable that every group would be ruthless. I also find it laughable that a group would have to be ruthless to survive. I’m sure there would be plenty of ruthless groups. I also think there would be a group here or there who could protect themselves without reducing women to cattle and murdering everyone who isn’t them.

                  But the least believable, least possible, the most absurdly stupid idea is that of a utopia. Utopia isn’t possible in a dystopian or otherwise. Humans are people of choice. There will always be people who choose good and those who choose evil, and those who choose to go along with whoever gives them the best chance of survival.

                  As much as I love Star Trek, even the original ToS had people who were in it for themselves and Trek is oft lamented as unbelievable.

                • I can’t quite recall any post apocalyptic Utopias.

                  Canticle for Leibowitz and the sequel do a good job. It’s such a good book, I’m not going to ruin it for anyone with details.

                • @Jeff: its not a matter of going all-out dystopian. As you and Mr O’Brian point out, there is a middle ground of sorts. But those decent survivors have to face tough choices of the resource allocation type. Especially, early on. Ruthlessness =/= evil. It just simply means doing whatever it takes to manage the cold equations.

                  Any group unwilling to say no is going to end up a target sooner rather than later. Strategic resources will need to be protected or nobody gets anything in the end. And the end will arrive sooner rather than later.

                  That is the intrinsic horror of postapocalyptic fiction. Not the massive numbers of quick deaths in the bombs/impact/outbreak but the slow deaths to follow in the aftermath. The scenario will vary according to the milieu and disaster but if the disaster is global the collapse will be total. Our civilization is *that* fragile.

                  Doesn’t mean there won’t be a follow-up civilization…eventually. But in the meantime it won’t be pretty.

  11. I’m conflicted on this subject. I’m a brown woman, raised on Western literature (which I love). The white default, though not negative in itself, is so ubiquitous that I was almost 30 before it occurred to me that I could write a character that was also brown. It sounds stupid, but my mind had always associated fiction with european ethnicity, because that comprised the majority of what I’d been exposed to.

    That was an AHA moment tantamount to the one I experienced when I first saw a woman wield a lightsaber. There was this huge feeling of “Is this how you guys feel all the time!??! THIS IS FANTASTIC!” I didn’t realize what I’d been missing.

    So, representation is important to me. However, I have the same knee-jerk reaction that most writers do when being told what I can and can’t/should and shouldn’t write. Add to that, white writers are placed in this impossible catch-22 where they are told WE NEED MORE MINORITY CHARACTERS but if you’re white, don’t you dare CULTURALLY APPROPRIATE! It’s this crazy line you can’t ever be sure you’re on the right side of–and any misstep might well be the end of your career. Even minority writers are told by their publishing that they can’t write a book with a minority character unless the book is about their minority struggles. It’s ridiculous.

    Indie publishing tears down one of the major barriers to more minority writers + more minority characters, but it doesn’t solve everything. There are some very significant social, economic, and cultural inhibitors to more minorities writing fiction–and in most cases, expecting the least influential element of any group to enact massive change isn’t logical.

    If we REALLY WANT more inclusivity, we need to stop crucifying white writers who are socially, economically, and culturally more equipped to shift the balance. Encourage better representation, sure, but then LET PEOPLE WRITE.

    • Exactly.
      Meaningful change comes naturally at its own pace.

      Once upon a time traditional publishing insisted on white characters and weren’t particularly open to “minority authors”. Doing away with both is a good thing but forcing the opposite bias doesn’t help the situation any. If anything, it breeds resentment and reaction. Pendulums can swing back and forth for a long time if given a forcing function but will achieve balance pretty quickly is left alone.

      The natural (but slow) path is to remove all forcing functions and barriers to entry and let the real world express itself. Over time, you’ll get there.

      Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Clear all biases instead of substituting one bias for another.

    • Agreed, Rebekah. It seems to me that this problematic “solution” that only people of a certain demographic have the right to write characters from that demographic reflects the conflation of three separate problems – imbalanced representation within most available books, imbalanced access to (traditional) publishing and imbalanced representation within the community of those doing the writing.

      Solving the last two problems would go a long way toward resolving the first problem without the censorship implicit in creating rules about who has permission to write which characters.

      Self-/Indie-publishing has gone a long way to address the issue of access, and with time will hopefully encourage more minorities to imagine the possibility of themselves as writers and take up the craft.

      Traditional publishing has a severe diversity problem within its ranks that certainly needs to be addressed more consciously. One important step would be to remedy the career path, which currently relies on entry and mid-level positions paid so little that only those with access to subsidies from their families can afford to pursue the career. With better representation within the gatekeeper class, a wider range of work would likely appeal to them. There might also be more vigorous pushback when mis-informed ideas such as “minority characters don’t sell” are floated.

      Who is writing what characters, on the other hand, is rightfully left up to the writers themselves. Telling a white writer that they have no right to create characters of color is as wrong as telling a writer of color they have no right to create white characters, or to have their work published at all, regardless of what they write, for that matter. While it might naturally occur that many writers would be inspired by their own life stories and experiences to create characters that reflect those worlds and experiences, ideally no one would ever expect or demand them to be limited in that way. Indeed, who would be left to write about aliens and elves?

      That said, it’s also problematic to ignore the long history of white (usually male) writers being the vast majority doing the writing of minority characters, if they were written about at all, and far too often in a manner that reflected no genuine research or compassion for the characters, but rather a reflection of lazy prejudices. Given that history, it’s understandable that there might be a desire for a moment of active quieting of those voices (in regards to the experiences of oppressed minorities) in order to promote and listen to those stories being told by people from those communities themselves. Sitting around a campfire, wouldn’t it be more interesting to hear each person tell their own story than to listen to one person tell their own, plus everyone else’s stories?

      But rather than relying on censorship to solve the problem, I would suggest a three-pronged approach. One would be for dominant culture writers inspired to write characters from traditionally marginalized communities to take the responsibility seriously. That means deep research, including, when possible, seeking feedback from members of that community. Those generous souls might be able to point out blindspots that are nearly impossible to avoid when raised a member of the dominant culture.

      The second would be for dominant culture writers, readers and industry types to actively seek out and promote quality works of minority writers. History has overwhelmed their voices and some active effort to amplify their voices is more than justified.

      The third would be for would-be critics to actually read books accused of mis-representing minorities, regardless of who wrote them, and point out specifically where the deficiencies lie for the benefit of the author as well as all those looking to improve their own work.

      The result of these combined efforts might be better written books by everyone and better quality renderings of all characters, especially those who suffered poor quality renderings in the past, plus better representation within available books and among those writing them.

      • imbalanced representation within most available books

        How do we determine if the cast of characters in any given novel is balanced?

        • Good question, Terrence. I was referring to a disproportionate number of white male main characters in the fiction both available and presented in school reading lists and such, particularly in the past. Rules and enforcers regarding the matter seem likely to simply introduces new problems, nor would the uprooting flowers already in the garden seem desirable. Perhaps merely the genuine encouragement and nurturing of a greater variety of blossoms. How’s that sound? 🙂

          • Plenty sensible.
            Times change, people change with them…
            …as long as it’s not at gunpoint.

          • OK. But that doesn’t tell us how one determines the imbalance in “representation within most available books.” “Within” is the key word.

            Imbalance within books is different from imbalance in the types of books in a collection.

            An imbalance in a collection can mean more white male books than white female books. But, an imbalance within a book deals with the cast of characters appearing within the specific white male book or white female book.

            • I’m starting with the context of the original article, Terrence. “Within” books refers primarily to protagonists as it relates to the titles children are exposed to in general, in the manner in which the article was focused. It was an attempt to distinguish between diversity on the page from my points about diversity in the real world in terms of access to the market and diversity of voices doing the writing. Hope that clears it up.

              • OK. How is imbalance within a book determined? How do we apply the standard when examining a book? Can we pick up any random book and determine if it is imbalanced? How?

  12. I can’t be the only kid growing up who literally didn’t see the people in the books except as ways to inhabit the story. Skin color, race, religion, sex, none of that mattered to me as long as I got to tool around in worlds with spaceships and swords and dragons and talking animals and secret gardens. I didn’t “identify” as any of the characters, because they were transparent to me.

    (And no, I’m not white!)

    I get that some kids are like this, but I question whether *all* kids are like this. The stories I needed as a child were like that Chesterton quote (was it Chesterton?): “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

    The person killing the dragon didn’t matter to me. The message that dragons could be slain was what came across. I was perfectly capable of getting that I could be that person.


    • Yes!
      The single most influential novel I ever read was Heinlein’s BEYOND THIS HORIZON. Not because it was the second I read after actively targeting the genre, not because the protagonist was named Felix or because of its mostly utopian society (with a few dark secrets in the background) but because of his personality. Here was a competent, wealthy, adult who was contrarian, snarky, and whose greatest ambition in life was to know everything about everything. And bummed out that he couldn’t quite get there.

      That was me at 14.
      Still is.

      Did I care his last name was Hamilton or his ethnicity is undetermined? Nope.

      It was his personality and attitude I identified with.

      Plus he got the girl and she was definitely was worth saving the world to get her approval.
      More, the story answers a question I hadn’t thought of yet: What does the dashing hero do after saving the world and getting the girl?
      Answer: he grows up.

      The second half of the book is even more fun than the first.

      That is the very problem that trying to change the world with kids books fails to consider: sooner or later the kid grows up and goes out into the real world. Cocooning kids does them no favors.

    • I share your experience M.C.A. As a young girl, I dove enthusiastically into books with no concern about the main character being a reflection of my personal demographic. I think the experience of being a voracious reader not only allowed me to learn from the experiences of other, albeit fictional, people, but also made me more empathetic, having literally walked in someone else’s shoes, if only in an imaginary world.

      It was only after I grew up that I realized that as a girl, I had experienced many of my literary adventures as an imaginary boy, and that boys had generally not had the corollary experience of frequently walking in the shoes of a girl. It seems to me some of the genuine bafflement men often express over the views and perspectives of women, while often women can understand the feelings and perspectives of the men even if they don’t share them, can be partially traced to this difference in childhood experience.

      Love the Chesterton quote, BTW, and agree that all children can get the message that dragons can be killed when it’s a little blond boy holding the sword. If, in addition, they also see a wide range of other types of children holding the sword, it supports the subconscious lesson that not only can dragons be killed, but also that ANYONE can kill them.

      • It seems to me some of the genuine bafflement men often express over the views and perspectives of women, while often women can understand the feelings and perspectives of the men even if they don’t share them, can be partially traced to this difference in childhood experience.

        Perhaps the women just don’t know they are wrong about the views and perspectives of men? The next step after acknowledging that is admitting genuine bafflement.

        • No doubt you’re right Terrence. I certainly did not mean to imply that women always understand the views and perspectives of men and that men are always baffled by women. I was referring to the times when women do understand and the man/men in question would agree they’ve been understood. In my experience, this happens more often than the reverse, but that may just be my personal experience. What is yours?

          • My experience is that men really don’t care about it. It’s like many things activists care about. Nobody else does.

            • Aaah, yes. It can be challenging to care about issues that we don’t perceive as affecting us directly. I can certainly relate. But there are often opportunity costs. Losses we don’t perceive.

              My hope would be that the efforts made by those who do care will broader diversity to the world of publishing, in every dimension of it, and that the result will enrich not only the pool of reading material presented to children and adults alike, and thereby increase the number of experiences described by Rebekah…

              That was an AHA moment tantamount to the one I experienced when I first saw a woman wield a lightsaber. There was this huge feeling of “Is this how you guys feel all the time!??! THIS IS FANTASTIC!” I didn’t realize what I’d been missing.

              ..but also broaden and enrich the reading lives of those who don’t care about the issue, who might not realize what they’ve been missing.

              • My hope would be that the efforts made by those who do care will broader diversity to the world of publishing, in every dimension of it, and that the result will enrich not only the pool of reading material presented to children and adults alike, and thereby increase the number of experiences described by Rebekah…

                With KDP, Amazon has done far more to diversify available books than all the people who care. And they probably didn’t care.

                God Bless the free market.

          • BobtheRegisterredFool

            Perhaps there is enough variation between men that a woman talking about understanding the perspectives of men as a class is not particularly wise?

            If one created a model averaging me, Felix, and Passive Guy, it would describe none of us well, and some of us very poorly.

            Human perspectives are an individual thing. This thing we see of dividing humanity into groups, and talking about the perspective or voice of group y is at best going to be inaccurate and at worst is simply an exercise in laundering propaganda. Yes, there are cases where mob psychology or shared views are important to consider, but such things are only up to bearing so much weight.

            • I completely agree, BobtheRegisteredFool, and feel uncomfortable when making broad statements. Everyone is an individual and every individual’s experience is unique to them. Absolutely. Any attempt to create a composite model that described every aspect of all individuals would be absurd and do a poor job indeed.

              Yet at the same time, I feel that to ignore the existence of shared experiences that disproportionately affect one group over another can be as misleading as trying to describe everyone as so unique that they are completely unaffected by the experiences they have as a function of being in a particular group.

              Is it not as disingenuous to say that despite the fact I, Lady Gaga and my grandmother are all white females, we have no common experiences that relate to our being white females as to say that because we are white females, our experiences have all been the same?

              I regret that talking about these issues can feel divisive to some. The aim is quite the opposite. It’s to bridge and heal the divides that currently exist whether we acknowledge them or not. It seems to me the path forward leads through the uncomfortable exercise of examining our own experiences and listening to experiences of others with respect and compassion.

              I thank Passive Guy for not only his efforts to generate this fabulous blog and kicking off this discussion, but also the other commenters for their thoughtful contributions. I’ve learned and grown from the interchange.

              • Yet at the same time, I feel that to ignore the existence of shared experiences that disproportionately affect one group over another can be as misleading as trying to describe everyone as so unique that they are completely unaffected by the experiences they have as a function of being in a particular group.

                I suspect we will soon move from micro-aggression to nano-aggression.

    • You aren’t. Until I began running in to so many people to whom it matters I didn’t believe the claims that for some it did.

      I don’t work that way, so I don’t get it at a fundamental level, but it clearly does matter to some.

    • I was the same way, Maggie.

      When I was young, it never occurred to me that characters in novels were or were not of a particular race, unless the author made it clear. I also never had a problem with reading about characters who were of a different gender – I remember enjoying Little Women immensely, more than Little Men.

      Although I grew up with children of multiple races, it never occured to me that, as the stories played out in my head, any of the characters ever were of one race or another or of any race at all. They were people in stories who lived lives that were often different than mine.

      I realize that some people had and have different experiences than I did and do, but I find the hammering of the racial drum offputting and the source of extreme divisiveness. I have read a lot of history of the Second World War and, too often, I am reminded of Hitler’s use of race/ethnicity to manipulate people and its consequences.

  13. I stopped reading comments about half-way down, for a reason. I want to address the OP and y’all started chasing PC Rabbits.

    I also found it ironic that title of the OP didn’t do the subject matter – er – justice. As a kid, I was pretty bored with little boys with dogs, ‘Timmy and Lassie’ was the one I disliked the most, so I can relate to that.

    I’ve been toying with using multi-racial characters in one of my stories, and frankly have not gone ahead with it because of the ‘cultural appropriation snark’ that tends to flame up when a white woman attempts to write about multi-racial characters.

    So using ‘search and replace’ characteristics is possible, but isn’t it worse than bland? The archaic term “Pap” comes to mind. (Oatmeal based baby-food.)

    To those of us who dare write non-Caucasian characters, I say this: Better to beg pardon afterwards than beg permission before. Tell the critic that you’d love to read their book, should they ever publish one.

    We all know just how hard it is to finish writing a book, even a short story takes a lot of work. I know a dozen people who would gladly have me ghost-write for them…as long as I do all the writing. (Snort – like that’s gonna happen!)

    I think it’s the duty of all writers to seek out friendships with all kinds of people, just to have a knowledge of other humans. We can’t hide behind our keyboards forever, it makes our writing bland.

    • Heh, this is looking more and more like a good reason to have a pen name, one that won’t tell the reader or the critic one’s color or sex. Harder to hold or attack what you can’t see/know.

      • I hear that you’re saying.

        But then there’s what happened when J. K. Rowling tried it – she got outed.

        We all start with the best of intentions. (Hmmm…sounds familiar.)

        • Ah, but most of us aren’t already house-hold names! 😉


          • I get your point. But a pen name should have some kind of background story, shouldn’t it? I thought it was sad when they dropped dox on her.

            I just used my initials – I’ve been at this since 2010 and am still unknown.

    • Yup.
      Write what the story requires.
      If the story requires a black or jewish FBI agent, go with it. If it requires a seven foot tall midwestern blonde, go there.
      Just do the best research you can.
      Or set it in a parallel universe. 😉

      Somebody somewhere will be offended anyway so you can’t let it get in your way.
      Life is too short.

    • Hi, Kat 🙂 … I’ve written two books with main characters that are bi-racial (The Absence of Color and The Prettiest Feathers). Zero negative feedback. C’mon in, the water’s fine.

  14. A few thoughts on the OP:
    A. At a certain level, I understand Ms. Dias’s exasperation. As a Christian, I tend to find the default atheist/agnostic stance of most protagonists in popular entertainment to be somewhat wearing. On the other hand, I also thought that part of the purpose of children’s literature was to broaden one’s horizons by introducing them to different ways of living. Was I mistaken?
    B. The OP complains that “only 9%” of children’s books involve black protagonists. I mean, that does seem like it’s a little low–except for the part where that’s actually fairly representative of the percentage of people who live in the US and UK and are black (US: 13%; UK: 3%; Combined: 10%)
    As a side note, by the way, the article is a classic example of how people project past conditions onto the present. The person described in the OP is convinced that the monochromatic children’s literature of her childhood (anyone remember the controversy when Charles Schultz introduced Franklin to Peanuts?) is still representative thereof. It isn’t.

    • Oh boy, don’t even get me started on the default atheist/agnosticism thing. ESPECIALLY in SF/F. I even had one writer authoritatively proclaim on a panel that religion was for fantasy when you wanted to worldbuild backwards/primitive cultures.

      *long, heavy sigh*

      • Guess that person never read Lord of the Rings, eh?

      • One of the best things in David Weber’s HONORVERSE series is his treatment of religion. He allows for zealots, honest true believers, and casual followers.

        Can’t say he focused on any outright atheists though some of the antagonists are amoral enough they can hardly be anything else.

        • Agreed. Weber’s one of the only writers today I know of in my genre who gets it right.

          Readers notice. I get letters. (“You not only had Christians in your book, they were from different denominations and bickering about doctrine!”)

          • Religion is a major component of culture and societies’ shared experiences. Has been that way since the caves.

            Pretending that it won’t have any role in future societies ignores basic human nature. At a minimum you need a society totally disconnected from real world humanity; aliens, humans raised by robots, etc. Even a multi-generational atheist dystopia would be hard pressed to totally suppress religion.

            It simply has to be part of world building unless the story is so narrowly focused that it never moves very deep into its world. Which happens, but still… ignoring it only gets you so far.

      • I agree, but I also admit that I’m part of the problem. In book one of my own sci-fi, my characters don’t mention religion at all. The main reason I did this was in thinking about how in my own experience, I get drawn out of the story when I read about a character or society scoffing at religion as backwards or about how the religious of this future society are some sort of radical fringe who believe in a dying mythology.

        If they do this merely for world building purposes (along with not-so-subtle virtue signaling) it seems silly to alienate a large portion of your readers early on for no reason. If it’s for plot-specific purposes, then ok, but show the spectrum as Felix said above.

        Going back to my own choice not to include it (yet), it also came down to how religion factors outwardly into my private life versus my workplace. Am I virtuous at work? Absolutely. Would people know I’m a Christian at work? Only the ones who either straight-up ask me or sort of figure out that I live a pretty clean-cut life. Religion doesn’t come up a lot at work and in business in less you make it come up. Example: after seven years of working in the same department and over a year of being in the office next door to each other, I told a woman I work closely with where I go to church (weekly). You know how it came up? She told me the name of the church that was functioning as their polling place, and I smiled and said, “Oh, that’s where we go.”

        So a lot of my characters have the same interactions among each other. It simply hasn’t come up (at least “on-screen”).

  15. I write all kinds of people. As a reader, I read all kinds of people. I like to be inclusive and respectful.

    What I don’t like is when writers dwell on the differences of characters to the point of destroying the character, or reducing their humanity to a set of characteristics and particular challenges. To me, it feels like they’re reinforcing challenges, negative expectations, and even stereotypes, as if those are something a person MUST go through to be a valid member of the group.

    As an Indie (mostly), I also get to control a lot of what I do, including contracting the covers, other art, typography, editing, proofers and all the rest. Out of all of those people…and there are a couple of dozen that I work with regularly…I know the apparent primary race of exactly ONE of them. Just one. And that’s only because we’ve met in real life.

    One thing I’m very sure of is that Indie publishing is absolutely open to anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or other identity. ANYONE can write to their heart’s content and put out polished and professional work in this day and age. They can do it without anyone knowing anything more than their words and talent. There is no racial barrier in Indie publishing.

    My point is only that if there is a desire to see more diversity in books…anyone can write them. The market may or may not be there, but the opportunity to get those to market is 100% open and available to anyone.

  16. If we don’t know the color of the independent author, that might mean we don’t care about the color of the independent author. Worse, I doubt even Amazon knows, and probably doesn’t care, so nobody knows anything about the color palette of their collection.

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