Mirror, mirror: I can’t see myself!

2015-02-24 14.28.33A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at the Multicultural Institute Event at the University of Central Oklahoma (The Conference was reschedule for April 17th and 18th). The theme I chose for my presentation was Books for Diversity. I write books and I promote diversity so choosing that theme was pretty obvious, but I didn’t realize I would spend so much time researching and preparing my material for this upcoming presentation.

Researching about diversity has opened my mind to a new world. A world I knew existed but didn’t know that it needed my help. Let me explain:

What are diverse books, in the first place? These are books that portray main characters from different cultures and backgrounds. But diversity is a vast word, and in my case I focused on ethnically diverse books:

  • An ethnically diverse book may tell a folktale or have a culturally driven theme, like the abuelita eating tortillas and making tamales in a small villa in Mexico. These books look to inform about different cultures and point at their traditions, customs and heritage.
The Wanting Monster-EL Monstruo Quierelotodo
The Wanting Monster-EL Monstruo Quierelotodo
  • Other ethnically diverse books show diverse MAIN characters, of any race or color as part of a story, in any part of the world, and in an everyday situation.
  • Also, a book is considered diverse when the author comes from a different background. In my case, my books are diverse not only because I’m a Peruvian who lives in the United States but also because I identify my characters as Latinos living universal stories. I introduce some or our traditions in a subtle way, as part of the story—their diversity is not what the story is about. For example, in No Birthday for Mara, she celebrates her birthday with a piñata; in The Wanting Monster, the characters Tito and Andy are depicted as Latinos, with a certain color to their skin. These books are also in Spanish.

    No Birthday for Mara-Mara sin cumpleaños

You would think that in 2015 we have massive numbers of multicultural, diverse books published, but the reality is other. According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), their latest data showed that only 10.48% of the 1,183 books with human characters that they received, featured a person of color. These numbers have been about the same for the past eighteen years! And from this data we can conclude that the numbers about Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and other ethnicities and races, are the same.

In my opinion, these low numbers are disappointing and only a reaffirmation that we, authors, have to produce great books that reflect all people. Some blame the publishing industry that only publishes trendy books. But the truth is that if we as writers don’t create manuscripts that depict interesting characters and stories with main characters who are ethnically diverse, then we won’t see those books on the shelves. Also, we have to take responsibility as readers, too. We need to purposely buy those books that have diverse characters because we need to send a message to the publishing industry: WE WANT MORE DIVERSE BOOKS!

Books serve as mirrors and windows. If we want our society to continue to 2015-02-24 14.34.15grow and be inclusive, then we have to include all kinds of people in our literature, and help break the stereotypes that follow each ethnicity. Children dream through literature: let them dream freely of a world more equal and fair regardless of the color of their skin.

In the picture: My son Fabio joining the campaign #weneeddiversebooks


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0 thoughts on “Mirror, mirror: I can’t see myself!”

  1. I do agree with what you say, and, when I stop to think about it, it is something I do almost without thinking in my writing. In my latest book, the main protagonist is mixed race, being from a Scottish mother and a Jamaican father. She has friends who are of other races altogether too. I hadn’t set out to include diverse characters, but I’m happy I did.

  2. Writing a novel that’s set in Ireland was an ethnic adventure for me, because when I started, I knew nothing about the place and its people. I wanted to write characters who had real viewpoints, so for three years I did cultural immersion research, which included studying the Irish language, and visiting the country. And then, it ended up that the characters also had physical and psychological problems that I had to study, although that was easier for me to do, because I’m a retired Registered Nurse.

    People often try to write books that include diversity, but if they don’t do the research, all they write are the stereotypes, usually accompanied by dialogue that’s hard to read, because it’s spelled in a way that the writer thinks shows a characteristic accent.

    Perhaps I knew what I needed to do, because I’ve lived in different countries, including several years in a place where people of my appearance were in the minority. I don’t know what it will take to get other writers to put into diversity the kind of effort that it deserves.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Christine. I agree, diversity in books can feel like stereotypes if writers don’t do their research. Personally I dislike books that portray Latinos under one light only. We are more than our ethnicity. Hopefully, more writers will get on board. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. I met a female playwrite this week, who is from India, has lived in England and now lives in my country. She began stage acting from a young age. Years later she became frustrated with the parts available as they were all stereotypical. She complained to the director about the lack of diverse parts. He told her the only way she’d get the parts she wanted was to write them herself. She did and has been happy ever since.
    I agree with you and her, we need more diverse stories. It is way past time. <3 Not everyone is white, rich and carefree. I like 'real' people because as humans our feelings and emotions are universal.

  4. You make a good point. I would also like to add people with disabilities to this. There are very few books about children in wheelchairs, for example, or with rare syndromes. Wonder and Out of my Mind are wonderful, but rare exceptions. Books for children dont have to preach to get a message across. But they do have to inform.

    1. Agreed, Ali. As I said on the post, “diversity” is a vast word, and yes, it includes religion, gender, people with disabilities, nationality, sexual orientation, etc. etc. and probably that will be the subject of a future post. By the way, loved Wonder too. But I think it’s great that we are starting this conversation. I know that I want to include even more diverse characters in my books, it’s important to do so.

      1. Me too! My books feature a boy in a wheelchair. Its not about that, but highlights how it impacts on his life, and also that he’s a boy just like any other boy in all other ways.

  5. Thank you for this interesting post. I am blind and use screen reading software which converts text into speech and braille enabling me to use a standard Windows computer. The software is called JAWS (Job Access With Speech). One of the characters in my story, “Samantha” is mixed race, with a black father and a white mother. In my collection of short stories, “Sting In The Tail” one of the characters is blind and has a guide dog (as do I). Kevin

    1. I do to mine. All the humans in the Goblin Trilogy have to be mixed races, because they were descended from a random handful of survivors in a big city. My current WIP is scifi, so it pretty much has to have a spectrum of characters as well. The main character in fact is of Indian descent, though fifth generation UK citizen. Doesn’t really matter on a Moon colony, does it?

Mariana Llanos

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I’m Mariana Llanos and I write books for children and poetry in English and Spanish. I am originally from Lima, Peru, but now I live in Oklahoma with my husband, our three children and our dog, Juliet. I started writing poetry since I was very young. I loved reading so much that I wanted to create my own stories to share with the world. I published my first book, Tristan Wolf in 2013. Since then, I haven’t stopped, and I have many more stories, poems, and project that I want to share with YOU!

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