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In 2019 Books Still Lack Diverse Characters

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Jasmine Guillory, Bethany Hegedus and Tanya Engle are champioining diversity in literature so women of all backgrounds can see themselves in books.

By Alexis Green

Strolling through book stores, covers may all start to look the same. Something is missing from these endless shelves: color. A lack of representation in literature leaves readers behind who long for stories similar to their own.

“There weren’t a lot of books about little black girls going around and having adventures,” romance novelist Jasmine Guillory says. “I always wished there were more children’s books that represented me.”

While representation has improved, it remains an issue. In 2018, more children’s books featured animals as the main character than a Latinx, black, Asian or Native American child according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of Education.

The lack of diversity offers authors the opportunity to make a difference and have conversations about race through their work. 

“Children’s books and picture books, in particular, are like a trip to the museum,” author Bethany Hegedus says. “It’s important for everyone to have access to beautiful art and also to see themselves reflected in stories.”

The author of Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou, Hegedus hopes highlighting figures of different backgrounds in her books will spark important classroom conversations. As a white creator writing cross-culturally, she works to provide educators with the necessary tools for handling topics on race to address the needs of all students.

She saw the tragic, yet inspiring story of Maya Angelou as the perfect way to accomplish this goal. Hegedus admires the poet’s story of overcoming barriers and turning pain into art and hopes her audience will too.

“I want any kid who is reading the book, no matter what color they are, to know that no matter what life throws at them, they have a choice about what happens next,” Hegedus says. “We can always rise.”

Tonya Engel, the illustrator of Rise, feels the book does just that and knows the pain seeped in Angelou’s story will mirror the pain in some readers’ lives.  As a young black girl raised in the South, Engel relates to the poet and believes children will be inspired by the author’s voice to develop their own. Books were Engel’s exposure to art while growing up and she fell in love with the illustrations and the journeys within stories.

“Picture books were sort of like the adventure into the outside world. I could visit places across the world and spread my wings with my imagination,” Engel says.

Reading gave her access to other people’s lives, an experience the illustrator feels is important for kids. She points out that books are often one of the first chances children have to see diversity across the color board.

Portraying this diversity with authenticity is very important to the artist who treats each one of her illustrations like a piece of fine art. 

“When we look at skin, it glimmers of shades. It’s just so one-dimensional when you make skin one color,” Engel says. “Skin is like when you peel back an onion because there are so many layers. It’s not just one shade.”

With vibrant hues ranging from blue to yellow, the illustrator spends countless hours and resources to capture the complexity of a character’s skin.

“In romance novels, black women are celebrated and get our happy endings.”

JASMINE GUILLORY

Guillory, author of The New York Times bestseller The Proposal, also understands the importance of using art to tell diverse stories. It is always a top priority for her to feature covers featuring black women.

“I wanted someone to see it in a bookstore and realize that it was meant for them,” Guillory says.

The writer looked to romance during hard times because she could always count on a happy ending to uplift her. Staying true to herself, she infused life experiences with fantasy to create books showcasing black love.

“As a black woman, there’s so much out there in the world that’s negative about us that makes other people attack us,” Guillory says. “In romance novels, black women are celebrated and get our happy endings.”

Often black women are reduced to maids or prostitutes in novels, the author points out. She loves giving readers a view into black life and breaking down stereotypes, but that is not her main goal.                

“I’m delighted when people discover my books and say that they’ve learned something, but the people that I write for are other black women or women of color who are happy to get their stories told,” Guillory says.

She works to provide people with stories that speak to their experiences and treats characters of color as “whole wonderful people.” Writing about black characters comes naturally to Guillory since she draws from personal experiences. However, other authors must be more intentional to ensure their characters do not fall into stereotypes.

“In writing, there’s this extreme need to get things right because they’ve been done wrong for so long,” Hegedus says. “We’re all responsible for getting it right no matter what our color is.”

While Hegedus, Guillory and Engel are all approaching this issue of a lack of diversity in different ways, they agree there is a need for more writers of color. Increasing representation in publishing ensures voices of communities are heard and that children have role models in the industry.

Hear Betheny Hegedus and Tonya Engel read Rise at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 11:30 a.m. in the Read Me a Story tent.

See Jasmine Guillory speak on the panel Modern Royalty and Romance on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 11:15 a.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.030 and on the panel Destination Romance at 2:45 p.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.026.

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