The Power of Diverse Stories

You are driving down a winding road. You need to get somewhere and your time is precious. There is a car going 10 mph ahead of you. You cannot pass because the road is too curvy. You are stuck for miles. No matter what you try to do – flash your lights, tailgate, wave your arms, roll your eyes, yell out the window – the driver of this car will not speed up.

What do you think and how do you feel?

Now imagine you are in the same situation, but this time you know the driver of the nemesis car is an 85-year-old man named Edward. The only family he has left is his sick cat. Edward loves his cat. Overnight, the cat got so sick that Edward braved the roads to get it medical help right away. Edward knows the cat gets car sick – barf, poop, miserable meowing, the works – on winding roads, so he drives extra carefully to keep the cat comfortable on the way to the vet.

Now, what do you think and how do you feel?

Author Deborah Underwood shared this anecdote at this year’s SCBWI Golden Gate Conference to illustrate the power of story. Stories, she said, build empathy and understanding. When we feel connected to one individual, we can feel for all.

When we read stories, we develop relationships with characters. We know them, they become our friends, and in many cases, we grow to love them. Growing up, I loved Matilda (and every other Roald Dahl protagonist), Anne Shirley, Max, Black Beauty, Ramona, Shirley Temple Wong, the tree in The Giving Tree, the Hardy boys and Encyclopedia Brown. As I got older, I loved Jing-Mei Woo, Celie, Hagrid, Gandolf, Edmond Dantes, Lisbeth Salander and Ender Wiggin, just to name a few.

These relationships begin early. Carter sees the characters in his books as friends. He asks for Sophia, from One Word from Sophia multiple times a day. He loves the characters Stick and Stone, from Stick and Stone; he feels what they feel, kisses or pets them when they are sad and lights up when they smile. He does not discriminate in his empathy – he loves all characters be they human, animal or inanimate object. He misses these friends if we don’t see them for a few days. This began when Carter was a little more than one-year-old.

Stories teach us about each other and about the world. They teach us how to act (currently reading him a lot of potty books and sharing stories!), how to see and treat others. They are mirror and map. They give us perspective.

Except when they only give us one perspective.

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Given the statistics in children’s books alone, it is no wonder that White becomes our reference point for normal. This too, begins in infancy. The consequences are far more insidious than people of color feeling othered, lost or insecure, though those effects run deep and have lifetime ramifications. I wrote about some of these effects in an older post, found here.

This normalization of Whiteness is compounded by the near complete focus on a Euro-centric (re)telling of history in schools. The media and Hollywood exacerbate it further. White people – particularly white men – get to spread a wide variety of narratives and stories about themselves. People of color see their stories either written or approved by those in power. Or, they don’t see their stories or histories at all. With an inexcusable dearth of stories about people of color, our common narratives become stereotypical caricatures of reality. They would be comical if they didn’t shape the way we viewed others and made decisions for the rest of our lives. They would be laughable if they were not so dangerous.

Without diverse stories, it is little wonder that people find it so easy to write off Syrian refugees in desperate need of help. It is little wonder that people can believe immigrants are rapists and murders, coming to take jobs and ruin our society. It is little wonder White flight occurs in all communities of color for different, discriminatory, fear-based reasons. It is little wonder too few women hold positions of leadership or pursue careers in science, math or technology.

It is little wonder that people find it easier to believe the police account of Terence Crutcher’s unprovoked murder, despite video evidence that his hands were in the air and his car window closed. It is little wonder that an armed, suicidal white man who threatened police officers in San Francisco was given the benefit of a 6 hour negotiation, when an unarmed Black man also suffering from a mental breakdown was shot and killed. It is no wonder that a Black man reading in his car, sitting on his own front porch, or lying on the ground with his hands in the air (while helping an autistic patient, no less) can be assaulted, shot or murdered with impunity. It is little wonder that the public finds ways to justify these killings when a person’s demeanor or prior criminal record should never result in an unjustified death. The examples go on and on.

Sometimes the world is so wrong, so immoral, so unjust that we find it impossible to accept the reality before us. So we default to the stories we know. The narratives we have been told. Even when they are wrong.

This is one reason diverse stories are important. It is not because they are trendy. It is because they are necessary. We need them to shape society today and for generations to come. They teach us to see a reality beyond stereotypes. They make it difficult to define any one group by a single false narrative. They help us move beyond our implicit biases. They allow us to see the diversity within diversity. They build empathy and remind us of our common humanity. They create change.

The photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned while fleeing Syria, echoed around the world. His family’s tragic story gave faces to the refugee crisis and galvanized the world – for a short time – to push for more aid and support. Nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant’s heartbreaking testimony against police shootings in Charlotte went viral and is changing the common “thug” narrative about communities who protest injustice.

When we know each others’ stories, we have greater capacity for compassion, empathy and understanding. Stories help us past the false narratives segmenting our society. Diverse stories are necessary not just for “diverse people” but for all people. We all need mirrors for ourselves and maps to others. These stories build bridges and diminish fear.

My dream is that one day, we won’t need to use the label “diverse books” because books will simply reflect the stories and realities of all children. They will just be books. “Diverse books” still implies that white is normal and the rest of us are niche. As if we could all fit on one multicultural shelf or be represented authentically by rarely recognized cultural or religious holidays. Right now “diverse books” means everyone who isn’t White, male, straight and able-bodied. So…the majority of the world.

My hope is that one day, I won’t need to work so dang hard to fill Carter’s bookshelves with stories that reflect the world. I only have a tiny window in which I can control most of the inputs in his life; I refuse to give him a dangerously myopic understanding of the world and its people.

It may take some time before I have the opportunity to see my own stories in print, but I feel the responsibility and need to do something to support diverse books now. My new goal – in addition to my other writing goals and blog posts – is to begin writing book reviews about diverse books once a week (eep!). Hopefully, by increasing awareness about the diverse stories available, I can help them reach a wider audience.

I hope that people will purchase the books that speak to them. We can support the authors and illustrators of diverse books and show the industry there is a strong and increasing demand for diversity in children’s literature. Even better, I hope people consider purchasing books from their local bookstores. It’s more expensive than Amazon, but they do so much to support writers, artists, literacy and culture!

We need more diverse books. We need more diverse stories. We need to know and understand the complex and beautiful realities of our brothers and sisters around the world. Deborah Underwood said, “One story can change the world.”

Let’s write, buy, borrow, share and pass on the stories that will change the world.

 

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