I have never read a story that took place on a Canadian reserve. I also don’t remember ever reading a story that took place in India. There are many places and peoples in the world which, realistically, I know next to nothing about, but nonetheless can say something about, even if that thing is a stereotype that ‘everybody knows’. This is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story.”
Adichie is a fantastic speaker–her TEDTalk made an impact on me when I first listened to it over a year ago (I often go on TEDTalk binges, they tend to be really interesting, funny, and amazing ones, including two that I think of daily, plus they’re great for background sound to mindless work since you usually don’t have to actually look at the screen. I’m pretty sure I listened to her the first time while writing out labels at work).
Adichie highlights an important issue–the lack of books that feature and highlight different cultures and subcultures. When she started to write, she says, “All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out” essentially, they were completely unlike her. This trend of having white protagonists has hardly improved over the last few decades. In 1967, Nancy Larrick looked at all of the children’s books published between 1962 and 1964. Only 6.7% of the books had non-white characters (Hughes-Hassell 212). In 2011, a report was released that showed that only 8.8% of books for children and young adults were multicultural (Hughes-Hassell 213).
This age group is so important. It is as young adults that people begin to form their ideas about their identities, where they fit in the world, and what that world looks like. If the dominant literature shows them that it is best to be white, and that the world looks white, they lose something important. Telling the stories of the marginalized challenges the ‘accepted story’ of that marginalized people. It creates a space for youth of that group to see themselves in the story, and at the same time widens the world of those not of that community.
I have brown hair and blue eyes. I’m so pale that I don’t tan, I burn. I come from a happy upper-middle class family, where I have two parents, two siblings, two dogs and a big backyard. I identified with most of the characters I read as a teen; of course I did, they were just like me. If the body of young adult literature were more culturally diverse, so would everyone else.
Hughes-Hassell, S. (2013). Multicultural young adult literature as a form of counter-storytelling. The Library Quarterly, 83(3), 212-228.