Friday, November 11, 2016

Calling All Writers

I am calling all writers to say that we have an important role in influencing our culture - we need to be writing more stories with characters of all different races and religions, LGBT characters, characters who have disabilities, and these characters need to be dynamic human beings who have rich life experiences and not be stereotypes or token characters. We need to do this especially in children's stories. And we need to write a mixture of stories that specifically address problems and discrimination issues, as well as stories that do not focus specifically on differences, that are about something completely different and simply have that character as the star. And we need to start it at a young age, so that kids who identify with the characters will see themselves represented and feel good about themselves, and so that people who don't identify will learn to respect and appreciate people who are different from them. This is important, and it's something we need to start doing now.

So for example, think of a story you know for kids that is about anti-bullying - it can be a book, movie, TV show episode, just any story that you think sends a strong anti-bullying message to kids. Do you have one in mind? Okay, now look at the character in the story who is being bullied - are they white? straight? cisgendered? able-bodied? thin? middle class? Think about how many of our anti-bullying stories are like that, how much of our anti-bullying rhetoric treats everyone like we all have equal privilege, and doesn't address the fact some people are targets of bullying much more than others. We need to write anti-bullying stories about kids who are called racial slurs for being African American or Asian or Latina or Middle-Eastern, for being Muslim and wearing a hijab, for not speaking fluent English or for having an accent, for feeling like a girl inside even though other people think of them as a boy, for having a crush on another kid of the same sex. I am not suggesting that white straight cis kids cannot be bullied as well - I was bullied, and I am not trying to erase anyone's experience who has been bullied. I am saying that in addition to the bullying narratives that we've already seen in mainstream culture, we need new ones. We need to hear the voices of people whose experiences are already being erased. Stories like Chrissa Stands Strong do not cut it, they don't address the issues that kids are dealing with today and they don't give kids the tools to stand up to bullies who are yelling "Build the Wall!" at their classmates. We can do better. We need to start doing better.

And even if you are writing an anti-bullying story about a white, straight, cis, able-bodied person, I urge you to dig deeper into the systematic reasons why they are being bullied. For example, if someone is being bullied because of the way they dress, maybe that character comes from a low-income family and cannot afford the "cool" clothes that the other kids wear, or all of the latest gadgets. If a boy is being bullied, the reason is often because he doesn't act tough or because he acts "girly," which is an example of sexism in that we view female-associated traits as undesirable. If a girl is being bullied, is it because she doesn't conform to beauty standards? Because she is a "prude" for not wanting to do sexual things, or a "slut" for wanting to do sexual things? If someone is being bullied because they just don't act like the other kids, examine issues of neurodiversity and how our brains do not all work the same way. No matter who is being bullied, look into the expectations that our society places on them to look a certain way and act a certain way, and basically be someone who is white, straight, cisgendered, middle-class, Christian, able-bodied, thin, neurotypical. Almost all bullying has its roots in systematic oppression. And when we write stories about bullying, it is our job to bring that to the surface.

In addition to the anti-bullying stories, we need more diverse characters where the whole story isn't about their specific difference.  About a year ago, I was rereading some of my favorite picture books from when I was a kid, including the Little Critter series. Most of the books were really funny and had lots of cute moments, like when Little Critter is mad that he can't keep frogs in the bathtub, or when he tries to wash his bedroom floor with a garden hose, or when his little sister pulls the paper towel roll from the bottom and they all fall down in the store. I was laughing my head off rereading these books. But when I got to the book called A Very Special Critter, which is about Little Critter meeting a new classmate who used a wheelchair, it suddenly felt bland. It felt like I was just reading any old generic story that teaches kids that some people use wheelchairs and they are just like those of us who don't, it totally lost that cute, funny, charming quality that all of the other books had. I felt like it didn't do justice to the character who used the wheelchair - yes, he was portrayed in a positive way - winning first prize in an art contest and winning ice cream for the whole class - but the book did not have the same humor as the others. There is no reason why this new boy could not also want to keep frogs in the tub or wash the bedroom floor with a garden hose. The story emphasized that this new boy was "just like us," but the book itself did not feel that way. And this is what I mean - when we write stories about all different characters, we need to be sure we are creating unique, dynamic characters that have rich experiences and are just as good as any other characters.

Here's a good example of what we should do. In the Baby Sitter's Club Little Sister series, there is a book called Karen's New Friend, where Karen gets a new classmate, Addie, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. At first, Karen takes the wrong approach, trying to help Addie with every little thing even when Addie doesn't like it. But then, Karen experiences first-hand what that is like - two girls who are sisters come to stay at her house, and things are weird between them. Like, the girls clearly don't want to be there, but they are being overly nice to Karen like hanging up her clothes for her - and it feels weird. At one point, one of the sisters reminds that other that they have to be extra nice to Karen because her parents are divorced. They've basically been tiptoeing around doing every little thing they can for Karen, treating her like she's been through a tragedy or something. Karen is very upset by this, but it makes her realize just how upset Addie felt, and she apologizes to Addie and learns how to be a good friend to her. But's here's most important part: the story doesn't end there. Addie does not just exist to be a lesson to kids and then disappear. Addie stays in Karen's class and is a regular character who has thoughts and ideas and a life story, and in the book Karen's School Mystery, Addie and Karen are hall monitors together and they solve a mystery together of who has been stealing things out of kids' desks, and they come up with a plan to catch the students in the act. So, the series has the initial books where Karen learns how to be a good friend to Addie, but they also have a follow up story in which Addie is a star and solves a mystery and it's not focused on her cerebral palsy. These are the kinds of stories that we need more of.

I'm thinking again of the Babysitters Club and how all the stories start out introducing all the members of the club - explaining that Kristy loves sports and isn't into makeup and fashion she gets great ideas and has a huge step-family, Mary Anne is serious and cries a lot and lives with just her dad because her mom died of cancer and she has a boyfriend, Claudia is Japanese-American and is an amazing artist with great fashion sense and not into school at all and has an older sister who is perfect, Stacey is from New York and dresses really sophisticated and she has diabetes, Dawn is from California and her parents are divorced and her brother moved back to CA with her dad so she just lives with her mom and only eats health food, Jessi is African American and is an amazing ballerina and is aspiring to be a professional dancer and loves to read, Mallory has red hair and freckles and is the oldest of eight kids and aspires to be a writer. We always get that summary of the group at the beginning. There are even stories in the series that address the racism, like when Jessi first moves to the neighborhood, and in the book Keep Out Claudia where a racist family does not want Claudia or Jessi babysitting for them. So, there's no reason why we can't have a group of kids where the narrator explains that their friend is a transgender girl. Another character can be a Muslim who wears the Hijab and is celebrating Ramadan, and you plan to get together have dinner after sundown during the time that they are fasting. Another character can be an immigrant from Mexico who is undocumented and sometimes worries about getting deported and does not get to do things that other people can do easily like get a drivers license or financial aid for college. When the kids talk about who they have crushes on, some could have crushes on people of the same sex, and some could have no crushes because they do not have romantic interests. All of these characters can exist and have stories, and it is up to us to push them into the mainstream media so that they become normalized, so that it doesn't occur to kids to bully someone for these reasons, and have that bullying turn into violence later on. 

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