A few weeks ago, I attended the New Jersey SCBWI annual conference. The main theme of many workshops was diversity. Whether it related to the LGBT community, race, culture, or disabilities, a wide array of topics were discussed.
I had the pleasure of listening to and meeting the wonderful and incredibly talented Vanessa Brantley-Newton, who has written and illustrated a library full of books related to diversity, either by subject or with diverse characters. During her presentation, she spoke about her journey as a child, growing up seeing mostly white characters and also African-Americans portrayed in a negative light in books and other visual media. But all she saw around her were her loving family members and friends, of all races, cultures, and religions, the likes of were nowhere to be found in books.
Vanessa then explained her greatest inspiration - Ezra Jack Keats, one of my heroes in children's books, too. She explained how he was the first to represent a character of color in a picture book with Peter in "The Snowy Day" back in 1962. Seeing a child that resembled her, that looked like the people that she knew changed Vanessa's life. And now, she is inspiring us with all of her diverse characters in so many ways.
Vanessa's speech touched my heart, as well as many others in the room. She became emotional talking about her childhood and the joy she felt to see Peter and other characters that Ezra Jack Keats was featuring in books. She brought a tear to all of our eyes because it was a testimony of how much of an impact books can have on children.
You see, we often talk about adding diversity to children's books but we don't always understand why, and what the impact would be on children of color and of all types and backgrounds. When a child reads a book, he or she wants to relate to the character and the story. They want to feel a meaningful connection to the story, so much that the book will become a part of their memory bank for the rest of their lives. We authors and illustrators want children to love our books, to have that desire to read the books over and over again. But that won't happen if they can't connect to the book.
Vanessa is a strong advocate for We Need Diverse Books. Her presentation was probably the most heart-warming, most down-to-earth talk about diversity that I've heard yet. She has forced me to continue to think of ways to showcase our diverse population in books.
Just like Ezra Jack Keats inspired both of us, Vanessa Brantley-Newton has become my newest inspiration.
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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