I published my first picture books after more than a decade as a children’s-literature professor and critical writer, and a central area of overlap between these two sides of my professional life resides in my commitment to diversity and inclusion. Put more generally, I locate this common ground in self-reflective practice grounded in a pledge to learn more and do better.
To reject any sense of self-satisfaction, I’ll immediately recognize that our field is dominated by white women like myself. My work as an educator and an author toward “inclusive excellence” (as it was termed in a faculty training I attended led by Romney and Associates at Simmons College) is undone if I fail to support and amplify the work of Native people and people of color. So, in my storytime and professional-development practice, I always include books by diverse creators. As a professor, I conduct diversity audits of my syllabi each semester to hold myself accountable for including updated, diverse, scholarly, and creative voices. I write assignment prompts and draft class plans that center discussions of representation, inclusion, privilege, and oppression. I listen to feedback from colleagues, mentors, and students.
How might such efforts translate into writing for inclusive excellence? First, the six children’s books I’ve published or contracted are picture books or early readers, which means characterization isn’t constructed just by my words, but by illustrations, too. As I’m able through my publishers, I seek collaboration with diverse illustrators to enhance character specificity and authenticity, and I turn to sensitivity readers. Such steps ideally deepen what I offer as an author with my own perspective and limitations.
And I’m mindful of author Mary Robinette Kowel’s words, “It's not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it's about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.” My published picture books feature queer secondary characters whose queerness isn’t central to the stories. Gay, white farmers Jay and Kevin in A Crow of His Own (2015) and lesbian, Asian, and white Momma and Mommy with their adopted children of color in Real Sisters Pretend (2016) are simply part of a realistic representation of the diverse world in which my multiracial, adoptive, blended, queer family lives. I’ve fielded critiques saying such inclusion is “political” or agenda-driven, and I reject the opposing notion of exclusivity as a neutral stance.
Finally, while resistance to inclusive excellence often cloaks itself in false neutrality, I value how striving for it compels me to action. After all, we daily ask students and young readers to grow and take risks in their learning and reading, so it seems that doing the same as educators and authors can only enhance what we offer them in our teaching and writing.