Walking In (Neuro)Diverse Shoes
I wrote a guest blog on WriteForKids (aka Children’s Book Insider) a few years ago called We Need More Diverse Books. The co-founder and editor of the site, Laura Backes had asked me to write what I thought the Children’s Book Industry (its authors and illustrators) could do to include more diversity in their books. She wanted an informational piece that would hopefully bring awareness to the lack of diversity in our industry. Just some words that might inspire other writers and illustrators to use more diverse characters and themes in their projects. What an opportunity to motivate…and rant!
The We Need Diverse Books campaign had just emerged in the industry, thanks to Ellen Oh’s infamous hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and so the movement began. I was on board one hundred percent and with being new to the Kid Lit world, I noticed immediately the mostly male dominated, whiteness of it.
I was a rookie at the time, but writing nonfiction books that were different from my colleagues and that seemed to break all the traditional picture book writing “rules.” Plus, a lot of the topics I delved into were unconventional. Unlike the books on the market, some which featured fuzzy animals having people emotions, I published nonfiction that addressed and brought awareness to real emotions and mental health issues in an honest way.
Currently, in our culture and in many areas of the world, there is still such a stigma about mental health. Unfortunately, it's considered “diversity” in the children’s book world because there aren’t a lot of books that explain it in a positive or nonmedical labeling way. Mental health is something that most people don’t like to talk about. It’s something that makes most people feel uncomfortable when they talk about it. A lot of people don’t know how to talk about it with kids. I hope that I do. To me, it’s my passion and so vitally important.
So, my sole purpose of the WriteForKids article was to answer Laura’s question (what I thought we could do to include more diversity in our books) and to provide reasons why this was essential to children’s book publishing. Not such an easy task! I didn’t want to come across as overly opinionated and I also had a hunch that being the new children’s author that I was, some of my peers may not value my opinions anyways.
That didn’t stop me though and surprisingly, I think I made a bit of a difference. The article got great exposure on the site and it wasn’t long before other writers and creatives in my Kid Lit communities started discussions with me and others within the communities. It appeared that more creatives were setting intentions to include more diversity in their work (even if it went against the grain of traditional trends).
That was 2014,
so, how far have we come to diversify children’s publishing?
If you want actual statistics that reference data about the diversity gap of the people that work in this industry, have a peek at publisher Lee and Low’s Books figures from the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey (by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.)
Aside from facts that outline the lack of diversity in the industry, all it takes is a browse around your local bookstore or library to see how far we’ve come as far as the diversity in children's books. It’s getting better, but we still have much to do.
Personally, I have written many books about mental health since then, including diverse topics such as; ADHD, Addiction, Anxiety, and Depression.
My books are slowly getting distributed worldwide and my sales have been consistent with most of my titles, but I think parents, educators and mainstream media still place such a stigma on a lot of these diverse topics. Some even fear to expose their children to them before they are ready.
Of course, they do.
But, what about the kids that need them?
It’s challenging work to educate and spread awareness about these sometimes delicate subjects with kids, but unfortunately, our culture demands books like these because these same kids are being confronted with these diverse subjects in their life.
As the diversity gap in children’s publishing becomes smaller, an unwritten rule among the writers has also emerged regarding the authenticity of diverse books. It is felt by a majority of the Kid Lit community that the diverse stories (and those with diverse characters) should only be written by writers that share those experiences and identities.
How can a person who isn’t gay possibly know what it feels like to be gay and then write about it. Or, how can a person who isn’t experiencing anxiety possibly write about it? So, another movement came about called #OwnVoices (meaning books with diverse characters that are written by people who share those identities).
Writing diversity is all about representation and a writer MUST understand what it feels like to walk in those diverse shoes before they can write about it.
I can honestly and unfortunately say that I identify with a lot of mental health topics authentically. I have witnessed, felt, been diagnosed, and overcome many experiences related to mental health. This gives me strength and inspiration to want to write about it and to possibly help other people with theirs-particularly kids.
Just recently, my daughter has educated me about the idea of Neurodiversity. It’s basically the concept that everyone has different brain functioning. There is no “normal” or “abnormal” because we all process things in different ways.
One interpretation of neurodiversity, from John Elder Robison for Psychology Today states that; “…neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome. This represents a new and fundamentally different way of looking at conditions that were traditionally pathologized; autism, ADHD, and other conditions emerge through a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental interaction; they are not the result of disease or injury.”
This is so enlightening and makes me rethink society’s medical and mental health care systems. What other neurological conditions have we been overlooking and instantly diagnosing and labeling as diseases?
It’s so easy to consider diverse neurological differences in terms of pathology. So many conditions in our society are seen (and diagnosed medically) as diseases. Some people (even recognized medical professionals, government agencies, and mental health organizations) consider Autism and many Autism Spectrum conditions as disorders that need to be “cured.” In most cases, the solution is to prescribe a pill in order to regulate and control the diverse thoughts or behaviors. Before the Autism Rights Movement, so many kids and adults with cognitive differences were misunderstood, treated poorly and some were institutionalized.
Neurotribes author Steve Silberman spotlights just these experiences. He writes about the advent of The Autism Spectrum and Neurodiversity in his book and provides essential and recommended reading on his website for parents and clinicians.
Our culture places so much value on what is the “normal” way to think and process and feel and behave instead of altering our systems and values to respect and accommodate ALL ways of thinking and processing and feeling.
A renowned website of the Neurodiversity community (Neurocosmopolitanism.com) that I was recently researching on, best describes Neurodiversity as this: “…the diversity of human brains and human minds. The enormous diversity among individual human minds is a product of multiple factors, including environment, culture, family, and personal history. But human minds also possess an innate diversity, which interacts with these other factors to produce the unique individuality of each human being. The neurodiversity paradigm is a perspective that recognizes neurodiversity as a naturally-occurring form of human diversity, like cultural diversity, racial diversity, gender diversity, diversity of physical ability, and diversity of sexual orientation.”
My next project that spreads awareness and education about mental health is going to be about Neurodiversity. I am excited to declare that I will be collaborating on this with my creatively talented and intelligent daughter Jade. We are also currently scouting out fellow creative Neurodivergents to illustrate some of the pages with us. (Particularly people that have been formerly diagnosed with Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder.)
Together, we are going to create a book that speaks to Neurodivergent kids and their families. A book that includes, accepts and respects all different ways of thinking and processing and feeling and behaving. A book that will hopefully help Neurotypical people to understand and take a glimpse at what it might be like to walk in neurodiverse shoes.
Tracy’s debut fiction picture book with illustrator David Barrow is called Put Away Your Phone! and their second picture book together is called Too Many Things! Check out Tracy's latest book called Being The Change In The World.
Stay tuned for Tracy and Jade Bryan's new picture book called Spectrum
(All sales and proceeds from Spectrum will be used for the creation and publishing of the book and the remainder will be donated to an organization that advocates Neurodiversity and that offers support and impacts the lives of fellow Neurodivergents!)