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Season 4, Episode 10

Diversity in Children's Literature

March 17, 2022

We discuss the good and the bad of diversity in books, why representation matters, and the stories we want to see more of. Book recommendations for young adult and middle grade readers.

Titles Mentioned in This Episode

h Find title on Hoopla


Charity 0:01 This is Charity and Jen of Planet Book brought to you by the Springfield-Greene County Library. On each episode we discuss our favorite YA middle grade books and anything else having to do with reading. Got a book or topic you'd like to hear us talk about? Email us at Thanks for joining us. Hey, Jen.

Jen 0:18 Hey, hey.

Charity 0:19 Today we're talking about diverse books and representation, why it matters. And this is a pretty timely topic. I'm glad we're having this conversation. And I can't wait to hear the titles you're going to talk about.

Jen 0:34 Yeah. Well, first of all, one of the things I wanted to mention is just and I'm talking about just in, maybe the past two years, it seems to me almost that YA is getting representation better than the adult fiction I'm seeing.

Charity 0:53 Really? That's interesting. I would agree that YA seems to really be blowing up in terms of diversity. There are so many great authors writing really diverse YA right now. But I mean, I feel like there are good adult fiction, you know?

Jen 1:13 There is but it's still, I mean, I don't know. I was just thinking there's really a lot of choice especially, well, maybe I'm wrong. But I do think YA is doing just in the past year or two a pretty good job after being called out, right? Do you want to talk about how they were called out?

Charity 1:34 Well, oh, what are you thinking of?

Jen 1:37 I'm thinking of just the way it's the We Need Diverse Books. And it's the fact that as I was researching this topic, I'm looking at 40% so that's close to 50, we're looking at half of America are non white, you know. So yeah, 60% of America's white, but almost half of America isn't. And then when you get into characters that are what you would call obese? Well, when I looked at those statistics, 30% of children in the south are obese. So disabled people, one in four people are disabled. So we need their stories, because they make up a huge part of our society, not just because we need them. For a story to be reflective of reality it needs these characters.

Charity 2:39 We are a really diverse society. And I feel like pretty much all of our entertainment and media they're only just now beginning to do better about showing some of that diversity in terms of race, or body shape and ability. But it's still not, I feel like, really reflective of what the country looks like. So but I totally would agree with you that YA, I feel like of all the different segments of books, YA is probably doing the best. And then I'd say adult books. Middle grade, I feel like still has a little bit of work to do to catch up to where YA is.

Jen 3:19 Yeah, middle grade, I think because they're probably a little bit more apprehensive about just content. And so it can be a little bit more stereotypical or just not present.

Charity 3:35 Yeah, I think it's important too, I just want to mention, I think it's important to normalize reading lots of different kinds of books, and reading those stories that have main characters that don't look like you or come from a different culture or whatever. Like, that shouldn't be unusual. It shouldn't be weird. It shouldn't be like, oh, I'm not gonna be able to relate to this book because the character's a different race than I am or whatever. Like, a good story is a good story. I feel like I say that all the time. But like, it's just a good story and it shouldn't matter whether that character is different than you. Like, it's still going to be a great, you know, it can still be a great story.

Jen 4:19 Well, I was walking down the various aisles to kind of get a grasp on the diversity of each genre, just in our small library. And I will state we are in the Midwest, but like, take a walk down Christian fiction. Christian fiction, gosh, what percentage, and I couldn't find it, is Amish love stories. Do you know what percentage Amish people make up in this country? Point one. So people have no problem reading about people that aren't living their experience when they want to. Right, Charity?

Charity 5:01 Right. This is not to knock anyone who enjoys those Christian Amish love stories. You do you. But yeah, that's a great point that there are kind of genres and niches within genres where people are totally willing to read about a completely different experience than what you know what they're living. And so we can do that with young people's books. And for more information on this, there is that whole initiative, We Need Diverse Books. And so that's a great place to go. Just Google it. I don't remember the website right now. But that's a great place. And so there was this huge initiative about trying to make the publishing industry and certainly books for young people more diverse. And I think picture books are doing this really well. Like-

Jen 5:51 Yes.

Charity 5:52 Like, honestly, I think they may be doing just as well, if not better than YA. But it's that middle grade, we need middle grade to catch up just a little bit.

Jen 6:00 And I think what is important is that you get your story told in a way that you're not the bad guy, you're not some cause to help your, you know, you don't want to be a villain, and you don't want to be considered a victim. Only one way, like, if you only write stories about black teenage boys that play a sport, you're missing a huge part of the black boy demographic. Where if you only write about straight black boys, you're missing, you know-we just need complex characters, because that's what the world is,

Charity 6:42 Yes, we need stories that reflect kind of the broad reality of those lives. And that's really one of my-for longtime, that's been one of my pet peeves about books that are showing, like African American characters. You know, up until like, the last few years when things have really gotten better, as people are more aware of that representation, but typically, when it comes to books for kids, those books if they have a black character, like it's the civil rights era, or it's the Civil War era and they're slaves, or it's right after that, and-

Jen 7:22 Or they're marching to protest. It's not just like, contemporary, yeah, having fun, romance.

Charity 7:31 Yes, and that is such-you know, and those stories are good, too. I mean, it's not that you don't need those stories, because those need to be told too. But that is not really representative of what the black experience is. And I feel the same way reading books with Latinx characters or Asian characters. And they do sometimes they can kind of fall into those stereotypes of those groups. And it's like-

Jen 7:56 From authors or readers from what I've gathered is that when you're writing a character that really doesn't reflect what that life would be, like, we had that conversation with Alan Gratz, how he researched the Cuban community, and they told him, we would never call it America. Right? It's like, they had another word for it. So those little slip ups or when you're reading something that's for your demographic are irksome, right? Just not authentic.

Charity 8:33 Yes. I feel like it's so timely that we're talking about this, because I recently heard someone talking about the Newberys and how they are all in print, all of the winners, except for one. And it won, I want to say in 1939 or 1940, and it's a book called Daniel Boone by James Daugherty. And it is out of print, because it is so like explicitly racist. The publishers, everybody like it is out of print. And so I actually put it on hold through Mobius. So if you are a local listener, you can get it through Mobius. Because I want to see like, I'm just curious.

Jen 9:11 I'm making a leap here, but I'm guessing it's for natives, it's the natives who are portrayed.

Charity 9:22 I haven't seen the book yet. It hasn't come in yet. But yeah, I think it is an incredibly offensive portrayal of indigenous, you know, First Nation Peoples in that book. And so what are your thoughts on that Jen? Like some of those older books or award winners or classics that maybe are representative of the time that they were written in, like what's your take on that? How do you balance that?

Jen 9:50 I'm not bent out of shape when-our age demographic we did not have trigger warnings. And that being said, If a book has rape, racism, anything that could be triggering or disturbing, tell us that up front, you know. Why make somebody go through a traumatic experience? I think it's important to have those. Those narratives exist as a reflection of the society at the time. There's nothing wrong with that. But some of it, you just kind of need the warnings like this will contain, like they did with Gone With the Wind. Everybody threw a fit about that. But it's like, how is putting a little blurb at the beginning of a movie hurting you?

Charity 10:39 Right. Yeah, and I think we've gotten pretty good about that, which I appreciate.

Jen 10:45 But what do you think Charity?

Charity 10:47 think I would agree with you on that. I think, you know, I don't think that we should just ban those books, I don't think that we should destroy them. I think it's important to have those books to kind of like, almost as a teachable moment, or, like here is where we have come from. And you can have some really, especially when you're talking about working with young people, have some really insightful and meaningful conversations with those books. But you know, maybe like more as a teaching tool, or research.

Jen 11:14 I want to say that because both of us were storytime ladies. And I think you can acknowledge that a picture book wasn't the best representation. If I'm not teaching that in a college class that like, oh, this is kind of awful the way this is happening, then I guess what I'm saying is I shouldn't be reading that in story time.

Charity 11:46 Oh, right.

Jen 11:47 With the books that have been published now you really-unless it's like, the Ezra Keats. What's the-

Charity 11:56 The Snowy Day is one of his.

Jen 11:59 Yeah, the snowy day. Now that was fine. Do you think it's fine?

Charity 12:04 I personally do, yeah, yeah.

Jen 12:06 It's just, I mean, it's a normal day for a child in the city walking in the snow. There isn't a problem. So we're not saying like, don't read older titles. Just don't read the problematic ones when you have a better option out there.

Charity 12:23 Yes. Well, let's talk about some of the things that bug us. One of the things when it comes to diversity or representation, I notice that there are certain, like, tropes, or maybe stereotypes that I just know, are going to show up. So there are some books I've read that are in an urban setting. And like, I'm always disappointed when they're like, okay, this is urban. So there's always got to be a description of how dirty the city is. There's always got to be graffiti. It's like, why though? Why?

Jen 12:58 One of my favorite books, and I won't name it, but it was a writer of color. Both protagonists in the series were of color. They're going to an elite prep school. Yet one has a rich family, and one was from the inner city. And, so it wasn't really that problematic. But at the same time, take, for instance, the Hate You Give. It starts out in the inner city, and it's important to the plot, and you really couldn't not. But then it, you know, shows them moving to the suburbs, and they're moving to the suburbs. So it's just hard to say. Sometimes you need it for the accuracy. But at other times, it's like, we also need just the middle class black experience.

Charity 13:50 Yes. I feel like a good example of this would be the reboot of the Wonder Years. I haven't watched it. But I have heard, you know, some friends say that it is kind of a stereotypical portrayal of a black family. It's like not every black family, you know, we're not all like marching in the streets and social activists and, you know, just talking about social justice all the time. Like, you know? I saw a tweet recently, where someone, I think she was a book editor, was pointing out the lack of representation in body shapes in children's books. And I hadn't really, I guess, looked at that a whole lot. But once she pointed it out, I was like, oh, my gosh, there are no overweight children in any of these books.

Jen 14:43 I think body positivity is one of the weakest areas of representation right now. Because some like there was a book, Abigail the Whale, and that's about an overweight girl. It's a picture book. I understand that there are overweight people that have been overweight their entire life that have faced challenges. But as a person that's lived the past 10 years overweight, I'm pretty happy with my life. And I think you can show a person being loved for who they are, you know? It's frustrating. And then it's really frustrating when you walk down the high school hallway and see body types of all shapes and body types and then you open a book and don't see that. Where are they living, you know?

Charity 15:35 Right. Well, I've been noticing, since I saw that tweet, I've been noticing it like in commercials. And it's like that is kind of one of the areas of diversity that we just have not caught up with in representation. Like apparently overweight people, they are not on dating sites. None of those dating app commercials show overweight people.

Jen 15:57 Oh, yeah.

Charity 15:58 And so this is one of the reasons though, I think representation matters. Because if you are that child, you're that young person you don't want the only time that you see yourself represented is in a negative light. Like what is the message that that sends to a young person? You need all of those stories, all types of stories, all types of examples of experiences. That representation is so important. But also, even if you're not, even if you're not that overweight kid, maybe you're the skinny kid. But it's also important to read about other people's experiences. That's how we develop empathy for what other people are going through and how they're living. Like that's one of the great things about stories is that it can educate us in that way. And so it's important for everybody to be exposed to those stories.

Jen 16:54 Exactly. Because as much as people want to see their own story, it's important for you to read stories about people unlike you because often you find out that they are very much like you. There are differences. I can identify with books where the protagonist is not rich. It's like, I don't really care what race, gender, sexuality, they are, as long as I'm like-I don't know, I just see it as a commonality.

Charity 17:31 Really, it's how we learn about the world. And yeah, it is how we learn that, oh, wow, this person maybe looks like they're very different, or seems like they're very different but really, we have so much in common just as humans. And I think as a kid trying to learn about the world and your place in it, like those, those are important lessons to get.

Jen 17:53 Look at something like an immensely popular Fault in Our Stars. And all of those kids that like they get their story told, but they're dying. It's like, it's okay that it was that it focused on cancer and that a character passes away. But we also want to see those characters just go through chemo, and then go about their day, and thrive.

Charity 18:21 Yes, we just want to see all of those people living their lives. I recently saw something about the movie A Quiet Place. I don't know if you've seen that.

Jen 18:29 Yes.

Charity 18:31 That was with John Krasinski and the monsters that come or whatever they are, whenever they hear noise. And this article was saying that he had kind of really pushed to have a deaf actress play his daughter, rather than, you know, a hearing actress who would learn sign language. And so like that shouldn't even need to be something that we have to advocate for. That should be like, let's normalize that. So I thought that was cool that, you know-and we, I mean, I'm thinking like, if you were like a deaf young person and seeing that, you know, seeing these portrayals of different people also shows you I think, what's possible for your life and you realize that like, oh, I can do this even though maybe I have this disability or even though my body type is different than what we consider the norm. It helps show you what is possible for your future in your world. Like kids need to see that.

Jen 19:33 And it's like a fine line between representing the struggles because I was in high school and college, during like the new queer wave where there were all of a sudden queer stories being told but everyone died at the end. It wasn't a happy-

Charity 19:54 Oh gosh.

Jen 19:55 So it's so nice to see happy endings and it's not just a coming out story. Like we pick up where, you know, it's just a story about falling in love with them.

Charity 20:09 Yes, I think those are the best stories where it's not about the fact that they are overweight or LGBTQ or of a different race. It's just like they're just a person living their lives. They just happen to be black or they happen to be queer or whatever. But that's not what the story is all about. To me those are the best stories.

Jen 20:33 Right, and I don't think the stuff that shows the, you know, worst case scenario is bad. It needs to exist too. It just can't always be just that. Because like, you know, me I like an ending that isn't happy. I'm okay. But I do want I do want there to be less suicide in young people because they're at risk of that and if they're always portrayed in this, like if they don't have, anyway to escape that in fiction. Oh, and that reminds me another one of my pet peeves are people who get mad because fictional characters are somehow changed. Like, oh, well, we're gonna make Spider Man a different race or we're gonna make Spider Man a different gender. It's like Spider Man's a fictional character. You realize that right?

Charity 21:28 Right, these are fictional characters. It doesn't matter what color they are.

Jen 21:30 Winnie the Pooh is still Winnie the Pooh if you draw a bear and paint it brown. That's what he was actually based on a brown bear.

Charity 21:35 Yeah. It's so funny.

Jen 21:38 Yeah, I just really don't get it.

Charity 21:43 Are there books or authors that you like that you've read that you think are doing this well when it comes to representation? I wrote down a few authors. And one of them that I think does the black experience really well is Jacqueline Woodson. And if you have not read Jacqueline Woodson, read Jacqueline Woodson. A lot of her books, she's done a little something for every reader. Like she's done picture books, she's got middle grade titles, she's got adult novels. So there's something out there by her for any age. But I love her books they're always about black people, a black family, a black kid, but it's never about them being black. They're just living their lives. And they're so beautifully written.

Jen 22:33 I remember reading Each Kindness to a K through six group. And it was almost nice to have a black student be kind of the bully, the bad guy, because-

Charity 22:46 That's right you don't see that very often.

Jen 22:48 A child is like, I can't remember it's hair pulling or it wasn't anything awful. I was thinking about how in literature, with tropes, it's often you're either a savior, or you're a victim, or you die in that first round. And then you're the bad guy, because everybody's scared of your type of difference. And then you get to have your normal story told. And then once we've kind of experienced all of those in representation, you get to go back to you can be the bad guy, and it can be okay. You know, I think that shows when that's one way of seeing oh, okay, that we managed to write this character as a villain, and it not be just because of this one characteristic.

Charity 23:44 Yes. Yeah. I like K.A. Holt and Donna Gephardt. They've each written some middle grade titles that I thought did LGBTQ representation really well without being, at least in my opinion, stereotypical about it. And it just felt like this is just a quality, like, it's just right, you know, but it's not all about that. And they felt like more authentic portrayals to me.

Jen 24:13 I find the graphic novels and I don't have an author off the top of my head, but graphic novels are where I find a lot of diversity right now in being done in the right way.

Charity 24:27 That's true too. Graphic novels and comics, there's a lot of diversity kind of across the board.

Jen 24:34 Lauren Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. Is that the one or is it Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me? But again, it's just kind of okay, so now we get to have the story where again, the character's almost like a bad guy, but not because of their sexuality. They're bad, not the greatest character because of their actions.

Charity 24:57 Well, this has been a great conversation. There are great authors and books to read out there. Look for those diverse books, those representative books. Don't be afraid to read books just because the main character maybe looks different than you or is different than you. Those are great stories that introduce you to other people, other worlds, other cultures. And that, I really believe, is only a good thing.

Jen 25:26 Yeah. And then when you have the chance to meet these people in real life, you don't have as many stereotypes in your mind. You have their experience to draw from because you read it.

Charity 25:41 Exactly. This conversation makes me wish that we were talking about movies, and you know, how we need better representation, in certain movie genres.

Jen 25:52 I think, though, Netflix and and it's kind of like, these stories have somewhat always been told under alternative press, if you will. So the small press, the small publishers, and in literature. But for movies, it's like we're getting those stories now. It's a lot harder in movies. There was independent film, but right now, just the stuff we get on Netflix and Hulu and prime is so, so rich, compared to 10 years ago.

Charity 26:29 I mean, this is a great time, I feel like to be maybe a young person, because there's so much more representation now. I mean, even though we kind of just critiqued it, there's so much more now than there was when you and I were like young and growing up. Like there was none.

Jen 26:51 Right. And I guess that's what I was trying. Okay. When I was saying YA is doing such a good job it's because when I was once I hit middle school, I basically started reading adult fiction, because that's the only place you could find your story. Because the YA wasn't really filling that need for me. Whereas now I think you can find your story on YA shelves.

Charity 27:16 Yeah, yeah, it is much easier to find your story and to find yourself, see yourself in stories than it used to be. And I love that that's kind of hot right now. And I think that's only going to get better as even the book world gets more diverse too. Which is happening slowly, but it's happening.

Jen 27:38 And for the people that complain like I you know, the trolls on the internet, that are like, ah, that's all there is now or that look at oh, the tokenism the whatever. It's like, I want to go back to one of my first points when you start looking at statistics: we are a diverse country. So these people are just having their story told, instead of only having to read the white, straight, male perspective.

Charity 28:08 And all of those stories they are worthy of being told and they deserve to be told. Well, Jen, this has been great. Thanks for joining me.

Jen 28:14 All right.

Charity 28:15 Send your book and show suggestions or comments to We'd love to hear from you. Check out the library's website at for these and other great book recommendations. Follow us on Facebook for the latest news and events. This has been a production of the Springfield-Greene County Library District. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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