I’ve had a commenter show up with (the almost inevitable) “What’s the point? Why should western literature have to be diverse? Do you expect reciprocity from other cultures?” argument. Apparently my “naive liberalism” offends them enough to make them call into question the entire project.
So for the sake of this commenter, and the inevitable other ones that will no doubt follow, here is why I think this kind of project is important. I’m going to say it once, and then I’m not to engage with it any more. I have more important things to do than fight with people who are wrong on the internet.
The thing I have begun to realise as I go through this list is that the really interesting thing about this may not be in the individual books. If you’ve been reading, you will have seen that there are books that have failed miserably by the metrics I have set up that I have gone on to recommend anyway. And there has been (at the time of my writing this) one which passed beautifully yet left me fairly unimpressed. This is definitely as much an art as a science, and not an easy thing to measure. Yet I think it’s an important exercise because of what it shows us across the board.
At the time of writing, I have only reviewed 21 books. Out of those, only 3 have passed the Bechdel, and at least one of those was on a technicality. Only 2 have had characters of colour in them. I am still waiting for my first queer character (though since I started with the 0-3 age-range, that’s not too surprising). I think what is going to become more and more interesting as I go is how badly our canon as a whole does in this regard. And that, really, is the point.
Talking about reciprocity is a nonsense. A white middle-class family can very, very easily read hundreds of books to their children without ever having to encounter a book that doesn’t show characters just like them. Not only that, they won’t have to go in search of such books. They won’t have to even think about it. In fact, if, like me, they prefer to expose their kids to other cultures, or even the idea that there are people in the world who look and act and think and pray differently to them, that becomes something they have to actively pursue.
So to ask whether other cultures are likely to reciprocate is to miss the point so thoroughly it is almost heart-breaking. A black family who wants to read books to their children containing characters just like them, or even stories from their own cultural heritage (whatever that may be) has to actively seek those books out, and perhaps even write them into existence. The books in public libraries, school libraries and book shops are still, overwhelmingly, mostly about white cis straight characters. This is changing, absolutely, as it should be, but there is still a massive skew. I don’t need Sleeping Beauty to be black, really (though I wouldn’t object), and I don’t need Japanese cultural stories to have white people in the illustrations, but what I do think should happen is that those two cultures should be equally represented in the canon. And that is not currently the case by any stretch of the imagination.
My hope for this blog is that it will give parents a reference point for picking out the books that do show the wondrous variety in human experience. Eventually, I hope to be able to provide alternatives to the established canon (represented, in this case, by the 1001 Books list from which I am working). I had to start somewhere, and it is a long-term project.
I am absolutely certain this is not the last time someone is going to pop up to ask me why children’s books should “have to” measure up to my metrics. The simple answer, of course, is that they don’t have to. The simple answer is that if you’re not interested in exposing your children to a variety of worldviews, or discussing these issues with them, then this project is not for you. Assuming you’re white (which, if you have this attitude, let’s face it, you probably are) all you have to do is ignore me and go to the library and pick any one of hundreds of books with characters just like you and never even think about it. That’s what us “naive liberals” call “privilege”. In the meantime, those of us who care about everyone having a voice, those of us who care about our children becoming empathetic towards all humans, not just the ones who look like us, those of us who are part of those underrepresented groups of people, will be over here, paying attention to the skew in the canon until we don’t need to any more.