At the beginning of any new project, one of the things I need to figure out is who I am writing for. Is my audience four to six-year-olds or fourteen to eighteen-year-olds? Who will be doing the actual reading—Parents? A developing reader? A word ninja?
Having a clear sense of who the book is meant for will direct the many choices I have to make along the way. I have to decide on format—Picture book, graphic novel, something longer? Do the words need to leave space for illustrations or will the words do all the heavy-lifting? My reader will influence everything from story structure to word choice.
Now that I’ve been writing for as long as I have, many of the decisions come easily. I know from long practice the kind of language I can employ for different readers. I know the shape of the stories that they might need.
But I am not done.
Not by a long shot.
I have been carefully following the conversations surrounding the picture book A FINE DESSERT, and its depiction of slave children. This book was crafted with care by an author and an illustrator at the top of their game. Both do top-notch work for children and approach their work with the absolutely best intentions.
But they failed readers.
I urge you to read the summary of this conversation here and also to listen to Daniel Jose Older’s panel discussion on the topic. Additionally, please read his article in the Guardian about how children’s literature can and should reinforce #BlackLivesMatter. (Also follow the work of We Need Diverse Books.)
The thing about white privilege is that it allows white writers (and reviewers) to define the “ideal reader,” however unconsciously, as a white reader. I suspect this is why the creators of A FINE DESSERT made the choices they did.
In order to perceive the problems with the book, they would have needed to put themselves in the shoes of a black child reading the book and in the shoes of the parents reading this book aloud. As Older says in the video, “Slavery is an open wound in America.” And I will add that the horrors of this open wound are not equally shared. Calling slavery “case closed” is easy for white people, impossible for people of color.
So this is my challenge to myself and to each of you… Let us consider our readers—all of our readers—as we embark on new projects. I want to do everything in my power to consider the impact of my words on the child holding the book. Not just one child but the multitude of children (especially ones who differ from me in significant ways) who will bring their own life experiences and world view to the story. I want each and every one of them to find a place among my words.
To do this requires listening—to children, to people of color, to people who challenge me out of my comfort zone. It requires vulnerability—to make mistakes, to be corrected, to admit my failures. It requires empathy—to the open wounds, to the traumas, to the need to be heard.
I want to be that kind of writer.
I will try.