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Celebrating Diversity Through Real Lives

by Susie Wilde

*This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Kids & Books.*

When Jane Yolen's Encounter was published in 1992, I was eager to share it with students because it showed a view of Columbus' arrival through the eyes of a young Taino boy. Or so I thought. I felt differently after I spoke to individuals at oyate, a Native organization committed to seeing that "Native lives and histories are portrayed with honesty and integrity." From their feedback, I learned that the book did not have the authenticity I supposed it had and did, in fact, have several representations that were insulting to the Taino people.

Like many I'd been convinced by the beauty and engaging quality of Jane Yolen's writing. So, I began to wonder, how does one find authenticity in books whose characters represent diverse backgrounds?  There are no easy answers -- save one.  I believe that memoirs told by members from within the group represented are the most certain path to true representation. Below find recent memoirs for a variety of age groups (grouped younger to older readers) by authors from a diversity of backgrounds, viewpoints, and cultures.

I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings

"For as long as I can remember, my favorite color has been pink," proclaims Jazz, a young tiara-wearing girl. Readers become quickly rooted in the experiences of this smiling, young girl who delights in dancing, singing, wearing a mermaid tail in the pool, and playing princess with her friends. Then comes a page that pictures a frowning Jazz who says she's "not exactly" like her friends because she has "a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way!"  The deeply personal tone of this book recounts Jazz's real experiences, the child-centric perspective consistent and convincing.  It escapes didacticism as Jazz describes her natural inclinations, the difficulties produced by societal judgments, and her parents' gradual understanding of what Jazz has always known, that "what matters most is what a person is like inside.  And inside, I am happy. I am having fun. I am proud! I am Jazz!"  (picture book for ages 6 and up)

Here I Am by Patti Kim

The author composed this wordless book 40 years after emigrating from Korea.  Entering the United States, she felt she was in a "scary movie" as she tried to adapt to "a new country, new words, new people, new school, new home." Many of the book's illustrations appear in a series of separate frames. These seem a perfect way to express the fragmented experiences of the young male protagonist.  In the first frame, he touches the airplane window next to him as if he is holding onto the last view of his homeland and after he has landed in America, he looks uncertain in a monochromatic bustling urban airport with signs the author-illustrator has depicted so that they are incomprehensible to readers. In the last part of the arrival sequence, the reader can see a bit of glowing red in the boy's pocket. This contrasts with the somber colors of his home and apartment.  Only inside his room does the boy reach into his pocket to hold the red seed that releases vibrant memories of his happy life in his countryside home.  Pages continue to show the contrast of his isolation with periodic flashes of that comforting red seed.  One day, however, he fumbles the seed, which falls out of the window and bonks a brown-skinned girl on the head.  She becomes his friend and gradually the simple line drawings depicting their adventures show the boy with an upturned smile and joyful eyes. (picture book for ages 6 and up)

El Deafo by Cece Bell

In the initial illustrations of this graphic novel, Cece plays happily with her older siblings and friends, screaming Beatles songs into a pretend microphone.  Her vitality is immediately apparent, as is the dramatic onset of an illness that necessitates a rush to the hospital. Cece recovers slowly, and yet, "Something is different, though. But what? I can't quite figure it out."  Readers may, however, for the words in which the nurse offers her ice cream are faded and Cece draws pictures without acknowledging the woman. In the next frame, Cece wonders why her roommate receives a sweet treat and she doesn't. 

This begins years of adjustments, shown graphically through Cece's poignant expressions and equally meaningful speech balloons. Sometimes the speech balloons are completely blank, or contain the nonsense syllables Cece hears. Later, after   Cece gets a hearing aid,  the text is bolded as if she's hearing people scream erroneously believing she'll understand them better,. 

Are things better or worse when Cece gets the larger, super-strong Phonic Ear, initially to improve her hearing for school?  It's heavy and uncomfortable but her new ability to hear conversations, even in the teachers' room, lets Cece imagine herself as a superhero, El Deafo.  In many ways, Cece's difficulties are similar to those of many girls who encounter boundary-pushing, manipulative, overprotective, or patronizing friends.  But Cece's deafness makes all these types of unsatisfying relationships more painful.  Like many young girls, she struggles to find her place in the world and ultimately realizes that her difference is her power! (for ages 10 and up)

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This free-verse memoir describes Woodson's life from birth through childhood with all the elegance the author shows in her picture books and novels.  Woven skillfully into the narrative are her interpretation of time periods such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Jim Crow era, and the ripple effects from the development of the Black Panther Party.  Woodson views these periods through her personal filter.  Her "eras" are more defined by time spent in Ohio until after her parents' separation, moving to South Carolina to live with her loving grandparents, and relocating to Brooklyn with her mother.  These hunks of historical and personal epochs may sound grand and sweeping, but the book succeeds largely because the settings, events, and characters are drawn in small, sensory, lyrically-described moments.  South Carolina crickets at night "seem to know their song is our lullaby," and as a young girl, Woodson feels at home with "a front porch swing thirsty for oil. A pot of azaleas blooming. A pine tree. Red dirt wafting up around my mother's newly polished shoes."  Touching and powerful, each poem is accessible, emotionally charged, and gives a glimpse into a child's soul as she searches for her place in the world. (for ages 11 and up)

 

 

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw

Twenty-one year-old Shane Burcaw has no disability when it comes to humor, honesty, and writing.  Self-deprecating to the extreme, Shane explains his appearance. "My arms and legs are slightly fatter than a hot dog," his atrophied elbows and wrists "look exactly like Tyrannosaurus Rex arms." His normal head "sitting on top of my tiny body," makes him look "like a bobblehead doll in a wheelchair."  Burcaw has had SMA (spinal muscular atrophy), a degenerative neuromuscular disease, from birth.  He's weathered millions of shots, broken bones, bathroom embarrassments, ability loss and readjustment, the insertion of a feeding tube, and the prejudice of those around him.  There are so many things in this book that are common to all -- a little boy who waits too long to pee, worrying about how to make friends in middle school, a passion for video games, a teenager trying out pickup lines.  And yet Burcaw's irreverent, profanity-rich take on life is original, his approaches unique, his insecurities based on more frightening realities than most.  With excellent timing, Burcaw recounts the events of his life from painful early physical therapy to launching a blog designed to make people laugh. Burcaw lightens the sometimes traumatic situations he writes about with snark and impudence. (for ages 14 and up)

 

 

Memoirs give views of authentic inner thoughts and feelings as well as powerful accounts of external events. How could memoirs be anything but authentic when the authors have the courage to write genuinely about the things in their lives that matter? 

 

 

To find lists in NoveList featuring a variety of titles for teens and older kids highlighting the lives of all kinds of real people who've made their marks in a variety of fields:

  • Click on the Nonfiction tab from the NoveList homepage
  • Choose the desired age level
  • Select Biography and Memoir (Teens) or Biographies (Older Kids)

 
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Susie Wilde, a read-aloud advocate and children's book crusader for over thirty years, has reviewed for magazines and newspapers and shared her favorite titles with children, parents and teachers.