During the 45 years that award-winning author Nikki Grimes has been publishing children’s and young adult novels, she’s seen massive changes in the industry.
First, protagonists today are far more diverse, she told Ms. There are more protagonists of color and characters who are disabled, non-binary, questioning or LGBTQIA+. Then there are the issues covered: Alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence, racism, foster care, homophobia, mental and physical health, sexism, eating disorders, sexual violence and death are regularly addressed, sometimes in graphic and other times in narrative form.
All told, the field is burgeoning, with young adult sales jumping a whopping 30.7 percent in 2021 over the previous year.
But not everyone is cheered by these developments. Right-wing organizations such as No Left Turn in Education and Parents Defending Education, in tandem with conservative media, have launched a campaign to squelch this progressive turn. Diverse books scare them. As they see it, many children’s books are offensive, highlighting family dysfunction over family cohesion and presenting sex, sexuality and gender fluidity as matters of course. In their eyes this amounts to “grooming” youth for pedophilia and exploitation.
Likewise, texts promoting racial and gender equity are seen as divisive, urging readers to question whether white male power is either natural or necessary. And it’s been effective. The American Library Association reports that last year saw 729 challenges to 1,597 books that the right considers “inappropriate for children.” The goal? To remove targeted books from classrooms, school and public libraries.
Not surprisingly, Grimes—who has published more than 100 books, several of which have been opposed—remains unfazed by the criticism her work has engendered.
“The comments go in one ear and out the other,” she told Ms. “My own childhood factors into many of the things I write. The notion that children don’t have to deal with trauma is wrong. As a child, I had to figure out how to survive, how to make sense of mental illness and alcoholism, so when the right comes after me, I refuse to engage. Yes, some stories are ugly, but they’re our legacy.”
As a child, I had to figure out how to survive, how to make sense of mental illness and alcoholism … Yes, some stories are ugly, but they’re our legacy.Nikki Grimes
Indeed, changing the historical record motivates Dr. Oriel Maria Siu, and her writing is meant to challenge childrens’ understanding of immigration policy and undo the myths they learn about Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas.
“I left tenure track jobs teaching college-level ethnic studies because I became convinced that the need to rewrite narratives is greatest at the elementary school level,” Siu said. “The discovery myth is foundational and permeates the core of what children think about race, the land and themselves.”
The fundamental lie of Columbus’ “discovery” gnawed at her, she says. Nonetheless, her first book, Rebeldita the Fearless in Ogreland, did not address Columbus but instead zeroed in on U.S. immigration protocols.
“In 2012 my brother-in-law was deported to Panama after he was stopped by police because of a broken headlight,” she said. “We have not heard from him since and assume he is no longer with us. At the time his daughter was one year old. I came up with Rebeldita, a little girl named Rebel, because I wanted to give children a story about taking action to stop the cruelty of deportation and show them that it is possible to organize for change. The book was first published in Spanish. An English edition followed and a bilingual version was released in May.”
Siu’s second book, Christopher the Ogre, Cologre, It’s Over! counters the myth of Columbus’ American discovery; a comprehensive teaching guide provides educators with the tools needed to discuss white settler colonialism and the ongoing legacy of conquest from students at every grade level.
“K-12 curricula are full of lies,” Siu said. “ The myth that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants erases Indigenous people. Children need to see themselves reflected in stories; my work always tries to contextualize, historicize” and correct misrepresentations.
The importance of this can’t be overstated, she said.
I came up with Rebeldita, a little girl named Rebel, because I wanted to give children a story about taking action to stop the cruelty of deportation and show them that it is possible to organize for change.Dr. Oriel Maria Siu
Nazarena Cordero, a therapist who specializes in treating children, agreed. “Children internalize what they see and hear,” she told Ms. “If they don’t see themselves in books or other materials, they can feel unworthy, apart from the mainstream. Anything that makes a child feel different—immigration status, poverty, living in a queer household or simply feeling like they don’t belong—can lead to self-hate and an inner struggle to love and protect themselves.”
This lack of self-acceptance worries playwright Winter Miller whose first children’s book, Not a Cat: A Memoir, was released in March. In the whimsical tale, illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff, Gato explores the many identities that make him who he is.
“I had a cat named Gato for 13 years—he died in October 2021—and he was always with me,” Miller said. “He came to play rehearsals with me, flew on planes with me and walked down the street with me. He was very public. People would meet him and tell me that he didn’t seem like a cat. It made me think that even with cats, there is a spectrum. People would also always want to know if he was male or female. But Gato was not attached to gender and the absurdity of the question was something I wanted to probe. And just as there is no single way to how a cat should behave, there is no single way for people to behave. Kids as young as 2 get it. Gato’s message for kids is for them to be themselves. For parents the message is to celebrate their kids for who they are and not do harm by trying to make them into someone else.”
In addition, Miller hopes that Gato—and the many books that promote a similar message—will give readers the tools they need to resist bullying since bullies lose motivation when their targets ignore them. “I’d like to think the current political moment is an opportunity to build love and smooth hate,” she said.
Nikki Grimes agreed; regardless of topic, her work strives to plant compassion, empathy and hope in readers, she said. At the same time, like Siu and Miller, she sees her work as a corrective, a way to prove that the right is wrong and that a more inclusive, accepting and humane world is possible.