Keynote address given by publisher Karl Beckstrand to the Utah Educational Library Media Association, Weber State University, 6 March 2020
How important is it that kids see themselves in books?
I’m no childhood development expert; I hope you can look past any incorrect terminology I may use and hear what I hope to convey regarding inclusion.
I was raised in paradise. San Jose, California was founded by Hispanics while the 13 British colonies were starting a war of independence in the East. Nearly half of my home town was Latino. In my day Silicon Valley was drawing high tech experts from all over the world, so my typical childhood classroom was a mini-United Nations.
I was short. I wasn’t one of the rich kids. My mom suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and a neck injury from a childhood accident. So I often arrived at school in yesterday’s clothes and without a lunch. I wasn’t just ostracized by my peers; one teacher type-cast me as Pig Pen in the Peanuts play. I was also a minority as far as the dominant religion of the area.
But my creativity was nourished and my mom often spoke to me in her broken college Spanish. She had gone to school in segregated Virginia and later developed a special bond with the black community in California.
I served as a volunteer missionary in Chile for a couple years and, more recently, served six years in a Spanish-speaking congregation here in Utah—I use my Spanish more here than I ever did in California!
I hated writing as a kid and—do I confess to a group of bibliophiles? —reading! When I was in the third grade I got the measles and my grandmother bought me a chapter book, Bicycles North: A Mystery on Wheels by Rita Ritchie. That is the first time I remember enjoying a non-picture book. I was transported to a world of adventure.
So how did I come to publish multicultural books? A journalism major offered a short path to graduation. But it gave me writing chops, which have helped me publish a western novel and several biographies.
While I should have been doing homework, I got ambushed by story ideas, which would not let me rest until I scribbled them down. Ten years after getting my undergraduate degree I went to a League of Utah Writers social (not even an actual meeting), manuscripts in hand. A gentleman I met there published my first book. Unfortunately, he died the day my book went to print. I was forced to learn book marketing on my own.
Another publisher asked me to write a true story about an immigrant child. I knew a story in my family history about a girl who came to America alone and not knowing English. That story became Anna’s Prayer—and I got hooked on family history (hence the many biographies in the works).
Language can be a huge divider. What other ways distinguish us—might make a person feel “other than”? Race, sex, dominant culture, religion, socioeconomic level, physical challenges, age, name, legal status, clothing choices, sexual orientation, size, accent, abuse, health challenges, urban or rural background, single parent/grandparent/foster parent, incarcerated parent, deceased parent, parent in the military, politics, literacy/education, mental health, learning disability, neighborhood, family, appearance—or a person may simply be the designated outcast of the group.
Why is it so common for mortals to categorize each other in ways that separate us from those who are different? I do it. Humans compare (we’re often insecure and we think comparing will make it better!).
But life is complex and it’s natural to want simplicity; and categories can simplify things in our minds. So I blame no one for seeking ways to simplify. Yet, how wonderful is it that life keeps throwing differences in our faces—giving us opportunity after opportunity to re-evaluate those simplistic boxes in our minds. Thinking requires effort, but thought and complexity also reward us.
Now that I’m over 50, I’m finding how wonderful it is to not be certain of much! Don’t misunderstand; there are things I am certain of—like the people I love. But when I am not certain of something, I tend to learn and grow. Some “growth” we fear. Let me promise you now: you can never be poorer or baser for having seen a new perspective.
Uncertainty requires courage. Facing fear is a continual theme in my stories. I think many adults are more afraid than they need to be—and that impacts children. How can you best bless a young person? Be brave and optimistic. Even when the worst case scenario unfolds, we are typically more capable than we realize, and unanticipated support often appears. Things are seldom as bad as we can imagine.
I don’t publish books about diversity or multiculturalism. That would be boring. My books don’t preach social justice, and I don’t portray characters of color to be trendy. I like to show the world as I know it—based on my minority status growing up and my observations in four continents and 12 countries. I believe travel is the best education.
If you’re like me, you love learning while being entertained. Many of our books are written in Dyslexic-friendly font. They cover cooking, generosity, astronomy, finance, and habitat conservation. They also have subtle humor and surprise endings. I tend to produce more picture books than other titles because they can be published more quickly than novels or non-fiction—and story ideas continue to hound me.
Since I’ve taught English as a Second Language to immigrants for more than 20 years, making my books in bilingual and Spanish editions was a no brainer. They come with a pronunciation guide in both languages. Since I’m learning German, language-learning challenges remain fresh in my brain. I have more than one native professional Spanish editor, since some terms can mean different things depending on the country.
Can one publisher realistically portray all cultures, circumstances, faiths, or families? I don’t think so. Will an Arab child be harmed if she or he never sees an Arab character in a book? I’m not sure they would be; children have wonderful imaginations and—like you—can typically identify with the feelings or situations in a book regardless of outward differences. Even in middle-grade or Y.A. literature, authors seem to devote less time to a character’s physical description. I think that is laudable (and good for sales) in that the reader is more able to envision him/herself in the protagonist’s shoes.
Here’s a tip for aspiring writers/illustrators: Some books have animal or non-human protagonists—which can be easy for just about anyone to identify with. Certainly children’s imaginations facilitate this kind of connection. Still, a child WILL notice if they never encounter their own culture or circumstances or choices in literature. And that would be sad. So we try to portray as many kinds of characters as we can.
Our books aren’t necessarily books about cultures. I’m not trying to ignore cultural differences, but to normalize everyone, showing how much we all have in common. Regardless of origin or creed, most of us experience the same kinds of desires, fears, joys, family highs and lows; and of course we all need food, clothing, and shelter. No one culture has a monopoly on loneliness or loss or love, on blended or divided families, on oppression or oppressiveness, on a love for music, on a desire for justice.
Yet, I think there is a real danger in our quest for justice or equality. That is the danger of thinking we know best how to spot and solve inequities. For most of my life I believed in meritocracy—that people should be rewarded or trusted based on their choices or performance. I felt this was a good standard because it wasn’t based on physical appearance. But meritocracy has its flaws too. It can delude a person into thinking that his or her choices alone determine outcomes and happiness. Worse, meritocracy can lead to discrimination in that we can categorize people as “smart” or “good choosers” based solely on outcomes. But we can’t truly see all the factors behind “success” or “failure.”
I’ve noted that individuals (and groups) are prone to carry both praise and blame beyond what is appropriate; And that I am never in a position to judge a person based on outward appearances or even success. Individuals who seek to improve things based on outward signs alone can end up creating new problems. In this land, where human rights are so valued, our quest for equality has begun to trample the rights of the most important minority: the individual.
Perhaps the greatest individual right that sparked our war of independence was the right to worship according to individual conscience. Whitney Clayton said, “If you believe public and private institutions should credit the dignitary claims of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities, then please consider that many of the same reasons for doing so apply with equal…force to the dignitary claims of religious believers.”
The right to choose and publicly express one’s faith is one of the main reasons America separated from England. While some think faith choices are as casual as selecting a t-shirt, my convictions are the core of my identity. If you doubt that religion should have special protection under the law, consider the millions of hours of voluntary service to community and billions of dollars donated to charity each year by people of faith. Were the government to attempt to replace that giving with tax funds, it would bankrupt the nation. What would happen to crime, courts, and prisons if people of faith could no longer provide scriptural arguments for honesty or integrity? Where I grew up, it isn’t uncommon to encounter a teacher or student who believes it illegal to discuss religious texts or God in schools. Our Constitution guarantees every person the right to study and speak of faith in school.
Now, why is our country so accomplished in so many areas? It is obviously not because of a single superior race or religion or sex or caste. It couldn’t be because our shared language facilitates innovation (those of us who have taught English know it’s terribly difficult). Our country has proven the value of a free marketplace of ideas and, gradually, of finding value in all corners from all cultures and all kinds of people. Many of us know that regardless of how someone appears or talks or worships he or she may be creating the next iPhone or a cure for cancer. While crony capitalism is repugnant, the free competition of capitalism—yes, for profit—has fed more people than any other system to date.
Wilfred McClay said, “For the human animal, meaning is not a luxury; it is a necessity.…[W]ithout the stories by which our memories are carried forward, we cannot say who, or what, we are. Without them…we cannot…learn, use language, pass on knowledge, raise children, establish rules of conduct, engage in science, or dwell harmoniously in society. Without them, we cannot govern ourselves.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer: said, “When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts—only for the day.”
McClay goes on, “A fair and accurate account…must be far more than a compilation of failings and crimes. It must give credence to the aspirational dimension of a nation’s life, and particularly for so aspirational a nation as the United States. A proper history of America must do this without evading the fact that we’ve often failed miserably, fallen short, and done terrible things. We have not always been a land of hope for everyone—for a great many, but not for all. And so our sense of hope has a double-edged quality about it: to be a land of hope is also to risk being a land of disappointment,…even a land of disillusionment. To understand our history is to experience these negative things. But we wouldn’t experience them so sharply if we weren’t a land of hope, if we didn’t embrace that outlook and aspiration.…[W]e Americans allow ourselves to get our hopes up—and that is always risky.”
John dos Pasos said, “[Our ancestors] were not very different from ourselves, their thoughts were the grandfathers of our thoughts; they managed to meet situations as difficult as those we have to face, to meet them sometimes lightheartedly, and in some measure to make their hopes prevail. We need to know how they did it. In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past that idiot delusion of the exceptional Now that blocks good thinking.”
McClay goes on, “that ‘idiot delusion of the exceptional Now’ expresses something that nearly all of us who teach history run up against. It’s harder than usual today to get young people interested in the past because they are so firmly convinced that we’re living in a time so unprecedented, enjoying pocket-sized technologies that are so transformative, that there’s no point in looking at what went on in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To them the past has been superseded—just as our present world is forever in the process of being superseded.
“While this posture may be ill-informed and lazy, a way to justify not learning anything, it also represents a genuine conviction, amply reinforced by the endless passing parade of sensations and images in which we are enveloped—one thing always being succeeded by something else, nothing being permanent,…always moving,…moving into a new exceptional Now. But it is a childish and disabling illusion that must be countered.”
Have you noticed that anti-Semitism is growing again? That the rising generation thinks consolidating power into the hands of a few is a good idea? You are in a special position to help young people know the truth. To know that blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians fought for our independence. That one of America’s first millionaires was a black woman (a hundred years before Oprah). Regardless of whether you believe in a creator, you can educate people how rights are not a gift from governments, but are inherent to every individual. That every person is free to choose his/her thoughts and—at least here—actions; that we are not tumbleweeds at the mercy of the elite.
Our system seeks imperfectly to ensure equal opportunity for every individual. No system, no person can guarantee equal outcomes for all. Because an Asian family appears to have all the resources and education it needs to prosper, doesn’t mean we can see their disadvantages. How arrogant to presume that they experience no opposition and that another culture exclusively owns disadvantage? If reparations are needed, they must come only from those who caused harm and go only directly to those actually injured.
People condemn our nation and Constitution saying they were built on slavery. They ignore that slavery was a global infection and that churches and states of Western Civilization (including ours) were the pioneers of abolition and eradicated slavery in our part of the world (today slavery is worse than ever in much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East). If you read the first draft of our Declaration of Independence, you’ll see that our founders wanted to end slavery, but southern states wouldn’t join the fight against England if those words remained. And if America wasn’t strong enough to gain independence, it would not be able make changes of its own accord.
Our young people need to know how these things were accomplished in such a difficult world. Our secret is in allowing anyone a chance to dream and the opportunity to try for those aspirations. To this day, liberty and equality have to be fought for—but they bear astounding fruits.
My new philosophy (to quote Sally from Peanuts) is to extend love and kindness and opportunity where I can to anyone I meet—because he/she is a fellow creature—and I have no hope of knowing all a person’s circumstances. Since I can’t know all the merit/lack of merit of someone’s choices, I’ve gone from lazy categorizations of ignorance to mindful complexity—back to simplicity in seeking to extend love and respect to everyone on the merit of being a being. I have a long way to go in implementation; but it’s a simplicity not based on laziness (though it has the benefits of laziness:)
Difference is beauty. It is the dynamo of prosperous community. It enriches us all. Your family life alone tells you that we grow because of adaptation brought about by differences. Whether we see our connectedness or not, we are all interconnected and benefit from every other culture.
Printing, gunpowder, and the gear came from China; the turbine from Africa; Algebra from Arabia; the zero, compass, and steel from India; irrigation from Iran; the Piano and Glasses from Italy; the telescope from the Netherlands; the telegraph from Switzerland; Smallpox vaccine, slide rule, and steam engine from England; the electromagnet, radio, and morphine from Germany; refrigeration and penicillin from Scotland; the antenna from Japan; dynamite from Sweden; the electric motor from Russia; the internal combustion engine and automobile from France; the telephone, TV, PC, Laser, and light bulb from America. Much of the world enjoys American music which is a mixture of African, Celtic, Creole, and spirituals. Perhaps most importantly, Chocolate came from Latin America.
If a child feels her/his culture or circumstance is valued, she or he will feel more a part of the community, he or she will be more confident to speak up and share ideas—perhaps lifesaving or life enriching ideas. We are a robust nation because we have valued ideas and effort, regardless of source!
Are you a librarian who isn’t afraid to give a child a book with a difficult vocabulary? I hope you’ll also be fearless in sharing complex ideas too! If you’re looking for resources or guidance on equity amid differences, see http://Ready.web.unc.edu/.
How much more enriched will we be as we seek to cast off our categories and see one another for the glorious miracle that each of us is? This is my invitation to you.
[See Wilfred McClay’s book: Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story]