I’m no stranger to the inequities that exist for People of Color, Indigenous and Queer authors and artists. I’ve been teaching and lecturing about it and its impact for 20 years in the children’s book industry. I speak from knowing and teach from understanding on a personal level.
So why the element of surprise, or at least something akin to surprise, when after teaching how to make children’s books for the last 3 years, I confirmed what I already knew?
Maybe the heart is always surprised when faced with the reality of inequity. I don’t know. Maybe it just hit too close to home.
What I saw was nothing short of a consistent and persistent pressure in our society to silence and erase marginalized communities, explicitly and implicitly. No surprise, right? Nope.
Still totally shocking? Yes.
I am haunted by what I witnessed. Not once, not twice. But to some degree, constantly. I cannot give one individual example that isn’t echoed nearly verbatim by another and another. Real lives and hearts and bodies.
As I paid attention to what happens when people tell their stories, or try to tell them, I could see clearly the shape and layers of our oppression. I could see more clearly my own as I stood among my people and listened.
What I had initially thought was my own story, what I initially thought were my own limitations and wounds, I confirmed without doubt were shared by all of us in a community.
Some people outside of PoC, Indigenous or Queer communities, may have had some similarities. Sadly I noticed white Americans who experienced strong trauma in their lives carried similar challenges to folks who’s primary trauma was simply being born to a marginalized community. The difference however, is that being a part of a marginalized community permeates all aspects of life, ancestry, past, present and potentially future.
So how does silence and invisibility in children’s books impact our ability to tell our stories and be seen?
I will answer with my own experiences because I know that my story holds the bones of all the stories I heard. To some degree, what I am about to share I saw in all of us. It moved me to understand that it was not isolated, but consistent and persistent for PoC, Indigenous and Queer authors and artists.
- Before telling my stories my mind would be distracted by doubts.
Even though I am filled with stories I would think that I need to be formally educated to tell them ‘properly.’ I felt that no one will listen and that my story is not important. It is not the kind of story that gets attention. Or that I can’t tell my story, too many people would be hurt or angry if I told what I really want to tell, so safer left unsaid.
- When I began telling my stories I couldn’t get it right no matter how hard I tried. Everything kept slipping from my hands.
I would feel inspired and excited but once I got going the story would be disjointed and confusing; endings were difficult. I couldn’t naturally hold my voice and flow. And if I ‘tried’ to write I felt all this pressure and seemed to fold up; I couldn’t figure things out or understand how to put things together. After a lifetime of hearing stories in the media, there seemed to be a disconnect between ‘what a story is’ and what my story is.
- What’s important to me doesn’t seem important to anyone else. I have to constantly stand up for myself.
White editors unconsciously modified a story of mine, erasing the most essential part that had to do with identity and belonging. They were ‘educational experts’ so I didn’t question their frame at the time. It wasn’t until after publication that I found the change. I felt that by not being on my guard I let kids down and was misrepresented.
- I want to be seen and acknowledged for my work. At the same time, who do I think I am?
Just as my work was about to take off in a significant way, I got sick, very sick and was derailed for years from doing what I have been compelled to do all my life. Survival took all my focus. I realized that being seen felt dangerous in a way I could not put into words and my body responded unconsciously. It was only after I was out of survival mode that I could fully understand what took place and why.
- When I engage with bigger systems in the world, I feel smaller.
I get overwhelmed, feel heavy, even lose interest. It’s like I can’t speak the language or play some invisible game that everyone else seems to already understand. I am very smart, but end up feeling dumb and ill equipped.
- Violence in the media against my communities can take me out for hours, days, sometimes weeks. It just depends.
Experiences like Orlando light up the pathways of fear that exist within me, my friends and family. Depending on how close it hits to my own experience as a woman, Chicanx, queer or those I love, I can’t work as well; I don’t want to speak to as many people; my creative flow gets jammed; I have to take a break from projects that bring out my vulnerability and/or power. I hide inside in a million different ways.
Experiences like the ones above may come in waves, or at different times and in an ever changing variety of ways. It can be challenging at first to see the accumulative effect in yourself, especially without placing blame squarely on your own shoulders. But when we see the patterns in context, we begin to understand that we are not alone.
How can we create change when the silencing is so pervasive?
Touching the reality of silence in the world, including our own is an invaluable step.
It’s important to respect silence and how it has kept us alive. And when it is time, and not before, we can begin the walk home, toward #ownvoices.
The healing is real. The power that’s rising matters. As the adults, we must begin with ourselves. If we want to change our representation in children’s books in a profound and lasting way, we can’t leave it to someone else. We must begin with the silence in our own lives, in our own communities. We were once the kids we’re talking about. We are the ones who can make the most difference.
What we need are the stories in all of us. This is what we must call forth. The lasting storytellers will rise and keep telling more stories. But right now, we need everyone’s stories. Your story. Your voice. Your experience. Your life. Your laughter, your way of seeing. You. Are. Filled. With. Stories. The stories of a hundred years, five hundred years! MORE!
I understand the insideousness of silence, the layers and layers. It is a surprisingly powerful act for those of us who aren’t used to seeing ourselves in books or hearing our voices in the world. It can be hard to put into words what happens on a soul, even ancestral level as our voice grows stronger in the face of insistent silence.
What I know.
When our children see us center ourselves as PoC, Indigenous and Queer people in children’s books we break silence and change the world they see everywhere else.
No child should long for their own image.
Join me in the truth that we are not just here, we are gorgeous in our BEing!
Support children’s books as a radical act….support your own gorgeous voice rising.
Read PART 3 of this series and learn how School of the Free Mind, my online school, supports #ownvoices rising in children’s books.