Last month at an ALA Annual librarian dinner, author NoNieqa Ramos talked about her YA novels, diversity, and resisting the status quo. Here she shares a version of her speech.
NoNieqa Ramos’s message to librarians
In The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, my protagonist Macy is defined by society as poor. She’s defined in her school by her ADHD and emotional disturbance. I’ve been asked, why do I write characters like Macy? Macy, who has a father in prison, a mother who invites a revolving door of men into the house, and has mental health issues that are defiantly unsexy.
I write characters like Macy because maybe characters like her need to be defined by other words. Like resilient, like brave, like blazing with undying loyalty to those she loves.
But is she disturbed? I know adult hypocrisy, systemic injustice, and inequity, disturb her. Maybe more of us need to get disturbed.
We should all be disturbed by the data from Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen and David Huyck and their updated infographic using the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s publishing stats on diversity in children’s literature.
Still revealing that despite the so-called “diversity wave,” 50 percent of children’s books are white, 27 percent of books are about animals and vehicles, and the rest? Of the 23 percent that are Native American, Latinx, African American? How many of those are actually #ownvoices? Even as we provide a scant few windows and mirrors, how many of those are warped? Broken?
The truth is, our paradigms need to get disturbed, decolonized, dismantled, and queered up. But the truth also is, pointing the finger at everyone else is a helluva lot easier than pointing to our own hearts and minds and self-preserving agendas. Confronting our flaws like my character Verdad has to do in my latest novel, The Truth Is.
The Truth Is is about a 15-year-old Verdad, who’s survived a shooting by a white supremacist. She’s dealing with the anniversary of her best friend’s death when she meets and falls for trans boy Danny and discovers some ugly truths about herself, like her anti-black racism and homophobia. And the horrifying number of LGBTQIA homeless youth.
The truth is even with the “wave” of incredible lit out there from writers like David Bowles, Meg Medina, Tami Charles, and Kwame Alexander, it’s NOT enough to have diverse books in our classrooms and libraries. We need to get them in our curricula, into all-school inclusive auditoriums.
Truth is powerful. Like light, even if it’s deflected, our souls reach for it.
Right before I finished the school year, I got called into the principal’s office.
My previous school district is big on “project based learning.” Several students approached me to do a Pride-based project involving literature, dressing in Pride colors, and discussing social justice and identity.
When the summoning blared over the intercom, one of my LGBTQIA+ students was walking beside me. “It’s because of us isn’t it?” they said.
Apparently, I was told by an administrator, our project made other kids, (so the parent phone calls said), feel excluded.
I asked if any parent had complained that their children felt excluded when we celebrated Native American history month, or “Hispanic” history month, or African American history month . . . He stopped me at Breast Cancer Awareness week.
I was then told our project needed “more eyes” on it. A comparison was made between our project and the P.E. project of another school where kids were asked to simulate being runaway slaves.
And whose “eyes” did this administrator need if an educator of over 15 years whose mission is diverse representation in literature wasn’t enough?
The administrator next suggested my project wasn’t appropriate for middle school. I suggested making children who start identifying who they are and who they are not in elementary school wait until high school to receive love and validation and dignity was developmentally inappropriate.
After the meeting, the administrator sent me an email with an attachment. Eureka! He had finally found a district policy that could shut down my project, and I might add, the future projects of other teachers during Pride month. The attachment basically stated teachers were not allowed to be political. Because LGBTQIA+ rights are not human rights–it’s just politics, right? By the way, the administrator had completely misread the district document, which applied to elections and not LGBTQIA+ people at all.
The truth is, the books I used and the concepts inside were OK for the shelf but not OK for the curriculum. The truth is educators are on the front lines and we have the power to uphold the status quo that continues to oppress the marginalized or rise against it.
But it’s painful. The truth is, we want to feel enlightened when we read the words of Martin Luther King Jr. but we don’t get Dr. King would have been at the front of the Black Lives Matter movement. The truth is we teach about World War II and the Holocaust and bow our heads at the horrors, but turn away from the horrors happening inside this country at the borders right now in the internment camps of migrant families and children.
I conclude with this: We the librarians and educators and writers and publishers hold this truth to be self-evident. We are the resistance. And when we procure, promote, and openly discuss diverse books written by #ownvoices, we obliterate the status quo. We arm the next generations of students against racism, hegemony, and patriarchy, give them the arsenal they need for a future of peace.