This is the second week in a series of author guest posts about diversity in children’s literature and the BookPeople Modern First Library initiative. Author Chris Barton shared his thoughts last week here and here. For more about BookPeople’s Modern First Library initiative, and for more recommendations of wonderful new and classic picture books to read, visit bookpeople.com.
After ballet classes, I visited a nearby bookstore. On Saturday mornings, my mama took me to our public library. Between second and third grade, I won the library’s summer contest for the most books read.
I loved Story. But it wasn’t Story that made me feel the Force.
It was, in 1977, Princess Leia—or more specifically, her hair.
I don’t recall having read a single children’s book about an American Indian. This was before the Cooperative Children’s Book Center began keeping track of Books By and About People of Color, but in 2013, only 34 children’s books about Native Americans were published. It’s safe to assume that in ’77, the number was even lower.
However, I had seen photographs of Hopi girls and women with their hair curled in side buns (not exactly like Leia’s, but similar enough to evoke a relationship in my young mind).
I decided that Leia must’ve been like me, a mixed blood Native girl. I didn’t know what she was doing a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or how she’d become a princess and senator. But she was strong and smart and a leader, all of which were compatible with my vision of Native women.
When we talk about diversity in books, we often mention the concept of “windows and mirrors.”
I ached for a mirror. Books, for all their blessings, had failed me in this regard. However, I saw “Star Wars” in the theater over 380 times.
I’m proud of my youthful determination and imagination. I’m glad I was able to re-envision Leia to reflect that part of myself. But I shouldn’t have had to stretch that far.
Today, I’m an author of books for young readers. Some of my stories have Native American protagonists. Some don’t. I’ve also written from the point of view of African-American, Asian-American, European-American and Mexican-American characters.
As a reader, I support stories that feature diversity. As an adult, I give them to the children in my life. I offer them books about heroes who are like them, heroes who are different from them.
Please join me in ensuring that all kids know they belong in the world of books.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Feral series, which includes Feral Nights and Feral Curse, as well as the Tantalize series, which includes Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical. Two graphic novels, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, both illustrated by Ming Doyle, complete the Tantalize series.
These adventure-fantasies are originally published by Candlewick Press in the U.S., Walker Books in the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand, and additional publishers around the globe. Her series are often noted for their diverse protagonists, humor, social conscious and compelling action.
Cynthia is also the author of several children’s books, including Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu; Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Indian Shoes, illustrated by Jim Madsen; all originally published by HarperCollins.