The first Broadway show my parents ever took me to was Peter Pan starring Sandy Duncan. I was six years old and utterly captivated. Everything about the show thrilled me: the larger-than-life sets, the sweeping music—seeing kids singing, FLYING, dancing! I bought the soundtrack and pretended I was Wendy. Some days, I was Peter.
Then a neighborhood friend said I couldn’t play Wendy. Or Peter. I looked more like Tiger Lily, she explained, because of my brown skin and dark hair. But Tiger Lily was a supporting role, and I wanted to be the STAR.
Still, singing the lyrics I knew by heart, “I have a place where dreams are born, and time is never planned,” from my favorite song in the show, I began to have doubts. I wasn’t fair and freckled like Wendy. I would never sport Sandy Duncan’s blond pixie cut. Could I be the lead role?
Perhaps a time-turner and a visit from my future-self slapping a Hamilton Playbill down on the bed would have helped. But in the absence of any examples of brown kids playing traditionally white roles… my confidence plummeted. We took turns playing Peter and Wendy after that, but I never shook the feeling that my wanting to play Peter Pan was somehow silly.
Many years later, the outlines of a new picture book character would form in my mind: a little girl with a flair for the dramatic, who loves to act, sing, dance—even design her own sets and costumes. A one-girl sensación named Carmen.
She was inspired by my love of theater, by my real-life Latinx family, and by my three daughters—who like Carmen, have a vibrant (if sometimes exhausting) enthusiasm for elaborate livingroom productions. Most of all though, she was inspired by my six-year-old self, who needed more books like Starring Carmen! on her shelves. Books with little brown-skinned curly-headed girls as the STAR.
Picture books are the place where dreams are born for so many young readers—where worlds expand through art and story. As creators, publishers, booksellers, educators, and caregivers, we owe them stories that amplify a diversity of characters, cultures, families, and experiences, so that all readers may find themselves at the center of the story—and not just the sidekick.
Recently, a discussion that has long been going on within diverse literary communities about who should be able to tell these stories, has moved to the forefront of mainstream conversation. The exchanges are heated, often uncomfortable, and vital to pushing our industry towards change. They are peeling away politeness and pretense and raising awareness about something advocates from marginalized communities have known for years: WE NEED MORE #OWNVOICES STORIES.
Last week the Cooperative Children Books Center published the first in a series of posts about statistics in #ownvoices publications from 2017—this one spotlighting Latinx #ownvoices. If the disparity isn’t immediately starkly clear in reviewing these findings, please allow this Twitter thread from David Bowles to break it down for you.
Sí, gente, there’s work to be done.
What we ALL can do RIGHT NOW though, is to help support #ownvoices books that already exist. Tell people about titles you love and when possible, buy them. Does that include Starring Carmen! and the follow-up Lights, Camera, CARMEN!? You bet it does. Anyone who knows me well knows I try to keep overt “buy-my-book” pleas to a minimum. But statistics like the ones in the CCBC post are prompting me to get over it. At the end of the day, publishing is a business. Book sales hold sway and drive decisions. #Ownvoices authors need your support.
How can you discover more #ownvoices titles? Search the #ownvoices hashtag or explore and subscribe to sites like these:
Because in the place where dreams are born—the landscape of children’s literature—no community’s voices should be limited.