The Stories We Need

Today is the last day to donate to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Indiegogo campaign (click here to contribute now), run by a powerhouse group of children’s book writers, illustrators, editors and agents dedicated to promoting diversity in children’s literature. Funds raised will  be used primarily as grants for authors/illustrators bringing diverse stories to the field of children’s publishing.

I am not one of the powerhouses. But I am here to tell you why we need diverse books. I grew up straddling a strange divide between the Haves and the Have-nots, a sort of Half-Star Sneetch on the beach. When my half-star caught the sun, it looked like the real thing. I was viewed and treated as a Star-Belly Sneetch by most of the others who had stars upon thars. But when I met up with the other Sneetches on the beach–the ones with no marshmallows or hotdogs–most of them accepted me as one of their own. They didn’t see my half star, but noticed instead my deeply tanned skin, my unusual eyes, the shape of my nose and lips. Look for yourself. You’ll see it if you’re paying attention.

I grew up as the daughter of a U.S.-born mother, four generations removed from her mixed European heritage. And also as the daughter of an apostate immigrant from Pakistan, a father who rejected his home country but never quite settled into his chosen one, either. When I was growing up, NO one was writing stories about my kind of family. Post-911, most people still aren’t.

I distinctly remember the first time I had a sense of self-recognition in relation to a work of art. I was a young adult working as a Spanish-bilingual teacher in the Mission District of San Francisco when the movie East is East (1999) came out. Set in England, the story of a Pakistani father, English mother and mixed-heritage children resonated deeply with me. I laughed and laughed and knew it for true. It grieves me to realize I did not know until just now that two sequels followed this movie–they did not make it past “mainstream” American media filters.

The second and only other time I have recognized myself in art was just last week. Offended by images of scantily-clothed and oversexed female superheroes in a Marvel Supergirl comic, I went in search of something more realistic. And this is what I found:

Ms. Marvel (a.ka. Kamala Khan)

The newest version of Ms. Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson and especially as drawn by Adrian Alphona, tells the story of an immigrant’s daughter, a Pakistani teen from Jersey City who unexpectedly acquires shape-shifting powers. Once again, I encountered in fiction conversations and family relationships that mirrored my own experiences growing up.

Why is this so important? We read stories to make sense of our lives. Stories lay down pathways for us–how to be, how not to be–and give us the opportunity to rehearse living, in our imaginations where no harm can be done. What would we do in any given situation? And even more importantly, what could we do? What are the possibilities of our human life?

We need stories that mirror ALL of humanity for our children, not just images and stories of those in the most privileged groups, from their perspective. We need stories that demonstrate the inequities of oppression, and stories that illustrate the discomfort of privilege in the face of that inequity. We need stories about people in and out of the mainstream struggling with issues of power and institutionalized discrimination. We need stories showing how people can work together, how we can learn about each other, how we can bridges gaps of culture and power. And we also need stories of everyday life–of friendship, love, family, school–that feature ALL of our world’s children.

Sometimes when I get on this soapbox, I am accused of repeating the same, exhausted tirade about the world’s injustices. How can I hope to convince others, to make change in the world, if I keep repeating the same “failed” story? Here is what I say in response to that:

From my perspective as a first-generation, mixed-race Pakistani-American woman–The story is not failing. It is finally being told effectively for the first time. People of privilege have NEVER been eager to hear about the underside of their positions of power, and they never will. These people often put considerable personal and institutional effort into silencing the untold stories of the oppressed. But in spite of that, we are still speaking out, more loudly and numerously than ever. AND IT IS MAKING A DIFFERENCE.

From my perspective as an apparently “white,” educated, upper-middle class American citizen–As members of a privileged group becoming aware of the inequities of power and how we benefit from the systematic discrimination in place, we have a responsibility to listen to the stories of the oppressed. Disempowered people are telling these stories over and over because inequity and discrimination HURT them. Institutionalized “-isms” and stereotypes are DAMAGING and WOUNDING people. They have stories to tell, and we have an obligation to listen, because refusing to listen to the story–or even worse, discrediting it–in itself is an act of abuse. Refusing to allow ourselves to feel discomfort when we hear what it’s like to be alive while black, for example, keeps the horror of inequity and oppression away from us and pushes it back toward the people who have already been holding it too long.

What can you do?


Read more about the We Need Diverse Books campaign on:

Read a different kind of book! What I’m reading now:

The story of a thirteen-year old Palestinian Muslim girl living in the West Bank, who travels illegally to Jerusalem, believing that if she can return with a piece of her lost homeland, it will save her ailing grandmother.

2 thoughts on “The Stories We Need

  1. Hi Michelle,
    I enjoyed reading about why this matters to you, and I’m glad you shared what you’re reading now. I hadn’t heard of “Where the Streets had a Name,” but I’m always eager to read books about Palestinians, as I spent 6 months in the West Bank in 2010. Thank you!

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