Galley Cat posted an interesting article yesterday regarding the diversity in kid's books, or lack thereof. I was struck by one statistic: in a survey of 3600 titles by the Cooperative Children's Book Center (2012), only .6% of the titles featured American Indians. This statistic should be bothersome to us for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, it means in my view that Native American children have fewer reading options than their peers regarding stories with relatable characters, characters that most closely mirror some of their own life experiences. Does that mean a child can't appreciate a finely written story with characters possessing a different set of life experiences? Of course not. And I say that as someone who inhaled Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, one of the very few young adult novels not only with a Native American protagonist but also written by a Native American. But let's face it: kids also love to devour stories with relatable characters. I know I did.
That's not to say that there aren't lots of inspiring stories for children already, but it might mean we're missing a golden opportunity here. With more options and better representation of minority voices in children's literature, perhaps that could translate into more lifelong readers. Perhaps there would be more Native American authors writing for children. Perhaps there would be lower drop-out rates on the reservations which can currently range from 30-70%. Perhaps there would be more Native American college graduates. Books are impactful. Books can do great things, beyond simply entertaining a young reader for a couple of hours.
When I first decided to write young adult contemporary novels (e.g. realistic novels for those aged 12-17) around five years ago, I remember discovering that too many stories were set on the East Coast, with upper-class (mostly white) kids who went to pricey boarding schools. Even as a Caucasian, a girl who grew-up outside of Chicago in a middle-class home, I could not really relate to these stories. Imagine being Navajo or Apache or Gila? Rarely were any of the main characters minorities; even fewer, if any, were Native American. It seemed to me, even then, that there was this big gaping hole that should be filled.
That said, I didn't pen my debut young adult novel Hooked to make a social point. Rather, I included a Native American teen girl in my story because it made sense. The story takes place in Arizona where there are 22 tribes. My Phoenix home borders the Gila River Indian Community. Since my story was set in Phoenix, why wouldn't there be a Native American girl (Gila, in fact) as a main character in my story? It seemed very logical and natural to me.
Since my novel has published, I've received a great deal of feedback on social media as well as emails from people thanking me for including a Native American character in my story as a main character, and not just as the trusty sidekick or secondary character. Much of the feedback has come directly from teens and parents from tribes all across the country, not just in the American Southwest. The feedback plus the book and blogger reviews tells me quite clearly that kids, teachers, librarians and parents are clamoring for more authentic minority voices in children's literature, not only as a way to read about relatable characters but also as a way to appreciate and foster different viewpoints and life experiences. It's a beautiful thing.
Hopefully the publishing industry will listen too.
Liz Fichera is the author of Hooked and the upcoming Played.