Friday, May 2, 2014

We Need Diverse Books and We Also Need People to Read Them

I'm off to MN to see the Starry River of the Sky production (very excited!), so I'm not sure how active I'll be able to be for part 2 and 3 of the WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. I'm going to try, of course, but in the meantime I'd like to share a bittersweet message that was passed on from Lucia Saperstein from the Open Book Foundation, who organized a visit for me in Washington last October.  She had given some preparation suggestions to a friend of hers about another school visit I was doing and received this (which I've edited a bit, for identification reasons):

I really appreciated your suggestions for the Grace Lin visit to our elementary school and adoptive families group.  The presentations were fabulous in every way (I attended 4 while she was in town). I wanted to share with you one lasting impact that I had not anticipated -- opening the eyes of our school librarian.  She is a white woman, probably mid 40s, from a rural area near here.  When I started talking to her about preparing for the visit, it became clear that she had not read anything by Grace Lin and didn't know anything about her, even though "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" was one of the state books last year.  
I sensed push back from her on my interest in the Asian elements of Grace Lin's work.  But little by little, she read, and she read to classes, and later she told me that Asian children who had never spoken during library time were excitedly sharing and speaking and asking questions... I struggled during the lead up to Grace Lin's visit because I was trying to help the librarian who at first had no enthusiasm (the public library assigned Grace Lin to the school).  In the end, I think the librarian realized how much all the children loved her work...  
I was also very happy that my daughter's teacher embraced Grace Lin.  She even showed up at a night presentation at the public library and told me that, as an African-American, she was deeply moved by Grace Lin's talk about embracing her race and culture.

This is why we don't just need diverse books, but we need people to realize that these diverse books are books for everyone. The above is just one of the many examples I can give of the misguided dismissal of my books. The librarian who was surprised how well my "ethnic" book went over with all the students. The father who was surprised that his son loved "your Oriental dragon book" so much that he (the son) insisted on giving it to all his friends for birthday gifts. I could go on and on...

And this is not to brag about my book, this is to say that it's easy to sell both kids and diverse books too short. I'm extremely honored to speak at schools with diverse populations, but I know my old elementary school with its homogeneous population found sharing my books just as fun, rewarding and eye-opening. I am thrilled when an Asian-American girl loves and connects with my books, but I know an Iranian anthropologist, a Jewish 4th grade boy, and a half-Indian teenager  that love some of my books just as much.

Diverse books are for everyone...a good story is a good story, multicultural or not.