Today, you’ll discover a tasty new middle-grade chapter book, and hear from its writer about why diverse books matter.
What am I saying? You’ve probably heard the buzz about diverse books already.
But are you convinced yet?
Jean Ramsden is. These days, she’s connecting with her readers one-on-one. And she’s hearing from them how much it means to kids to see characters “just like me” in the books they read, on the covers, on the pages of magazines and on TV.
Jean’s book, The Secret Life of Jenny Liu (Jam & Jabber Books, 2014) is about an 11-year-old Chinese-American girl who defiantly refuses to be a stereotype. When the world tries to shove her into a box, she bursts free and discovers she has the strength to be unique.
The book confronts all the stereotypes head-on – Jenny is Asian, but she’s no good at math and spelling, and she’s not the piano whiz her teacher and slightly-tiger mom hopes she’ll be. I loved watching Jenny solve her own problems, finding balance in her own life and helping others along the way.
So why do diverse books matter?
Let’s let Jean speak for herself…
Moving Small Stones: Closing the Diversity Gap in Children’s Books
The fury of activity following my book reading had subsided—questions had been answered, books had been signed, kids and their parents and teachers had moved on to the next event—when a girl holding her copy of my middle-grade contemporary book, “The Secret Life of Jenny Liu,” approached.
“Jenny’s like me,” she said, her voice quiet but confident. “Jenny’s like me.”
Before “The Secret Life of Jenny Liu,” the young reader explained, she had never seen a Chinese protagonist like herself in a book, much less as the heroine, and much, much less on a book cover. “Jenny’s like me.” Never. What a bittersweet moment.
Telling kids they matter
Being able to read is the single biggest predictor of fundamental academic success. Across school subjects, children reap educational benefits from the act of reading. But, if a young reader can also find themselves within the pages, a book can empower them far beyond any measurable statistic by sending valuable messages like: I exist or I belong or I can be a hero/heroine or what I feel is real or what I see in the mirror is just right. What children want to believe deep down in their hearts is the same thing as adults want to believe: I MATTER.
Every child should see themselves in the books that they read, but sadly, this is not a reality. According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only 10% of the children’s books in the past 18 years (essentially, books published for an entire generation) contain multicultural content. Yet, according to census data, 37% of the U.S. population are people of color. To accept this diversity gap—as an author, publisher, bookseller, librarian or book buyer—is to send two messages to our very youngest and most impressionable minds. First, to diverse children: YOU DON’T MATTER. Second, to non-diverse children: ONLY KIDS LIKE YOU MATTER.
Closing the gap
So, how do we close the diversity gap in children’s books? Perhaps, the authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians and book buyers begin the same way “The Secret Life of Jenny Liu” begins, by considering the Chinese proverb: “The person who moves mountains starts by moving the smallest stones.” As an author, I moved a small stone when I chose to create an unexpected heroine in Jenny—inwardly diverse through her quiet, introverted nature and ethnicity, and outwardly diverse through her physically Chinese appearance.
“There is work to be done,” the late African-American children’s author Walter Dean Myers asserted in his New York Times article, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” There IS more work to be done. Much more. One small stone, one diverse book, one young reader at a time, towards equality.
Jean Ramsden is a writer, producer and educational consultant. She graduated from Cornell University and Harvard University, and lives in North Carolina with her husband and four children. Connect: @jean_ramsden
The Secret Life of Jenny Liu - all the juicy details:
Author: Jean Ramsden
Publisher: Jam & Jabber Books
Genre: Middle Grade/Juvenile Fiction
Jenny Liu is on the move again. Except this time, she hasn’t landed at yet another Chinese-American School in California but at a public school in South Carolina. Shy, artistic Jenny wonders if she will ever figure out how to fit in amongst rowdy fifth graders and eccentric teachers with hard-to-understand southern accents. To make matters worse, the class thinks she is super smart and her piano teacher thinks she is a musical genius. With school activities that test her intelligence and an upcoming piano recital, it’s getting harder for Jenny to do what’s right—to tell the truth—especially since she knows that The Real Jenny Liu would be even more of an outsider. Or would she?
[And special thanks to the wonderful Diverse Book Tours team for giving me a chance to “meet” Jean and Jenny Liu!]