Diverse #KidLit & Keeping Classics Alive

What was your favorite book when you were a kid?

I spent much of my childhood in 1980s and ‘90s reading (and re-reading) the Anne of Green Gables series, the Nancy Drew novels, and Up a Road Slowly, among other books. I loved novels featuring girls, and I could relate to the protagonists of these stories in many ways.

However, my reading material portrayed very little diversity in terms of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical and cognitive abilities, or religion. As a child, I never read a novel with a protagonist who shared my racial identity. In fact, I didn’t come across a novel with a character who shares my Muslim first name until I was in my 30s.

Today, there are more children’s books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds than there were when I was a kid. Now, my mixed-race, red-headed children have the opportunity to meet another mixed-race redhead on the pages of a book in Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald No Combina. They’ve gotten to know a fictional transgender fourth-grader in George. They’ve learned about Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood in the 1960s and ‘70s in Brown Girl Dreaming, and they’ve witnessed the emotional process a young, fictional Bharatanatyam dancer experiences after she loses a limb in A Time to Dance.

With diverse books like these more readily available — and with only so much time to read in a lifetime — do the classics we loved as children still deserve a place on our children’s shelves?

I’ve explored versions of this question on this blog before, such as in my post, What Should Kids Read Instead of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? In that post, I reference blogger Matt Hagemann’s disappointment with Common Core K-12 standards and his point that classic novels might not resonate with newer audiences.

So far, my children have enjoyed most of the books I loved as a kid, but maybe it’s because my enthusiasm for these books is contagious. Their enjoyment of these classics could also stem from their tendency to make these books relate more directly to their lives by imagining the characters to look like people they know from our modern, diverse community.

For example, when I introduced Anne of Green Gables to my children, my twins imported the diversity of our modern-day suburban community to Anne’s 19th Century Avonlea. To one of my twins, Gilbert was black because he reminded her of a specific boy in her class, and there isn’t much in the text about Gilbert’s racial background.

Readers who are familiar with the demographics of Anne’s Prince Edward Island aren’t likely to see Gilbert the way my children did, but maybe it’s time for that to change. Anne of Green Gables, now in the public domain, is ripe for retellings that overtly feature characters from diverse backgrounds. My twins and I wrote our own modern version of it with Anusha of Prospect Corner, published in 2017. As I explained in Happy Birthday, Anusha:

I wrote this middle grade novel with my twins, who, like Anusha, grapple with being the only redheaded members of their biracial family. The writing process wasn’t always easy — see The Challenge of Collaborative Writing (When Your Co-Authors Are Your Kids) and How I Betrayed My Children While Writing With Them — but it was a worthwhile experience that helped us explore our racial identities and brought us closer together.

I would love to read more novels that update Anne of Green Gables in ways that reflect our modern world — or at least reflect what it should be.

This week, in an article in the Guardian, Kaite Welsh discusses a LGBTQ, multi-ethnic update to Nancy Drew and advocates for these types of “makeovers” by saying:

[D]oes anyone really want to consume media that ignore all the progress made in the past decades? Very few people only encounter straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied people every day, and books that only show that world increasingly feel anachronistic at best, or exclusionary at worst.

I can only assume that the results of the 2016 general election in the US, where I live, and Brexit in the UK, where Kaite Welsh lives, suggest that yes, far too many people want to ignore the progress we’ve made in the past few decades. Considering the persistence of racial segregation in my country (I can’t speak for Welsh’s country), there may be many people who don’t often encounter — or at least don’t notice — people who are different from them. To the extent these voters read, they probably don’t want literature to reflect changing norms (as efforts to ban books suggest).

But, thankfully, these close-minded people aren’t everybody. Many of us want these books, and all of us need them. It’s important for children from diverse backgrounds to see themselves in fiction. It’s also important for cis/het, Christian, white people in non-diverse communities to get a glimpse into the experiences of the rest of us through books. “Fictional friends” from diverse backgrounds don’t make up for the absence of friends from diverse backgrounds in real life, but they are a start.

16 comments

  1. Love this post and the question it poses. There are so many amazing books that have come out in the last twenty years and I don’t think there’s any reason for these more diverse works not to be added to the curriculum. I think we only read classics when I was in school, but I think teachers who only teach these now are missing out on an opportunity to share amazing books with their students. Ones that are more modern and more diverse and more relevant. As much as I love some classics (Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, etc), I think I would have fallen in love with books a lot faster if something like Harry Potter was a part of the curriculum. I love seeing teachers talk about teaching books like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give as opposed to To Kill a Mockingbird. I really like the latter, but I feel like the former would resonate more with students and the fact that it’s not told through the white gaze is really important too. Kids ought to be exposed to more than the dominate cishet white male and even cishet white female voices.

  2. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and most of the books I read usually featured one (token) minority character. I love this post. Yes, let’s update those stories in the public domain. It’s more than time.

  3. When I look at shelves full of the books I loved as a kid, I definitely still have a lot of love for them, but the demographics of my kids’ book bookshelves are not what I want for my nephew. I want him to have a way more diverse set of reading experiences than I did growing up, and I’m glad that publishing is diversifying some, even if it’s still very slow.

    1. Yeah, I still love the books I read growing up, but I’m so glad my children have options that better reflect who they are and the world we live in.

  4. I read the Sweet Valley Twins obsessively, from when they were children to when they entered college. Everyone in those books was tan, beautiful, white, etc. If someone of a different race, or shoot, even just someone from out of town, appeared in the story, the novel was about how to deal with outsiders and eventually learn they are JUST LIKE US. Oh, my.

    I even have coworkers at my college who lament that their children don’t read classics, the assumption being all new books are garbage. That tells me that adults aren’t keeping up on what’s out there. I feel like books today are way smarter and more relevant to a larger audience than any classic I ever read.

    1. I feel the same way about children’s books today. They are much more relevant to a larger audience than the classics. I wish books like Brown Girl Dreaming, Zahrah the Windseeker, and A Time to Dance were available when I was a kid.

  5. I read “Cherry Ames, Nurse”, “Treasure Island”, “My Friend Flicka” (a horse story), “Black Beauty”, The Bobbsey Twins, “Little Women”, “Little Men”, and “Jo’s Boys”, “The Time Machine”, “Tom Sawyer”, “Huckleberry Finn”, “Johnny Appleseed”, “Paul Bunyan”, and more.

    1. Great list of childhood favorites. I read Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys too. Cherry Ames, Nurse and My Friend Flicka are new to me.

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