Back in May a group of American authors began the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ campaign – a call to action for more minority representation in youth literature. Their mission statement reads: ‘We recognize many kinds of diversity, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, those impacted by their gender, those with disabilities, ethnic/cultural/religious minorities, etc. Our mission is to promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process.’
Though the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ (WNDB) team is made up of authors, editors and publishers from North America, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and campaign has reverberated in youth literature communities worldwide. In particular, one Australian author’s response to the campaign has been remarkably honest and passionate.
Children’s and young adult author and illustrator Gabrielle Wang was born in Melbourne and is of Chinese heritage. When the call went out on Twitter for people to finish the sentence ‘#WeNeedDiverseBooks because…’, Wang’s response was crushingly direct and cut to the very heart of the #WNDB campaign; ‘#WeNeedDiverseBooks because as a child growing up Asian in Australia my greatest wish was to be white.’
‘It’s different today in Australia,’ Wang says, when I ask about her response. ‘There are so many more migrants. But when I was growing up in Melbourne, apart from my own family, I never saw another Asian face, not in the street nor at school. I was born in Australia and didn’t speak Chinese or know any Chinese customs so I never connected with that part of me until I was in my early twenties. There was a lot of overt racial prejudice back then. There still is, but now it sits below the surface. This may sound strange, but because everyone around me was white, I saw myself as white too. It wasn’t until I came across my reflection in a shop window, or in the mirror that I’d get a shock at seeing a Chinese face staring back at me. I guess it’s the ugly duckling story.’
I ask Wang to recall the first time growing up she read a book with an Asian protagonist.
‘There weren’t any.’
Wang’s latest children’s books are part of Penguin’s highly successful Our Australian Girl series. She writes the Poppy books, about a character of Indigenous and Chinese heritage, and the Pearlie books, about a Japanese girl living in Darwin during World War II. The response Wang receives from fans of her diverse characters has been immensely moving. A young reader sent Wang a message to tell her, ‘Your books have made me realise it is ok to be different and to do different things!’ One bookseller said, ‘A customer told me that after reading The Garden of Empress Cassia, her daughter wanted to learn more about other cultures.’
Does Australia have a diversity problem in youth literature? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that Gabrielle Wang wants to see the issue suddenly addressed without cultural integrity. ‘There may be a lack of culturally diverse books in Australian children’s/YA literature,’ Wang agrees, ‘but on the other hand, you have to be careful when writing outside your own culture. It’s not something that should be taken lightly. Being of Chinese background, I am very sensitive to this issue. There are books I’ve read, written by authors outside the culture that have made me cringe. I don’t think one should set out to write a book with diverse characters just for the sake of getting on reading lists or because there is a lack of them.’
Accurate representation of diversity in youth literature is no easy task, and even Harry Potter author JK Rowling has been praised and roasted on the topic. One of the most enduring critiques of Rowling’s stereotypical racial representation is Rachel Rostad’s award-winning spoken word piece, ‘A Letter to JK Rowling from Cho Chang’. However, a study also showed that the series helped to ‘reduce prejudice towards gays, immigrants and refugees among readers.’
Perhaps Gabrielle Wang best summarises the dilemma, and its solution, when she says, ‘The only thing I know is that a story, first and foremost, has to come from the heart.’