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San Diego Author Aims To Tackle Lack Of Diversity In Children's Books

July 31, 2014 1:20 p.m.

San Diego Author Aims To Tackle Lack Of Diversity In Children's Books


Kevin Gerard, Author, Diego's Dragons

Phillip Serrato, Associate Professor, SDSU

Related Story: San Diego Author Aims To Tackle Lack Of Diversity In Children's Books


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Parents and teachers are overjoyed when a series of books come along that makes kids want to read. Very Potter, the twilight books, and the hunger games are all extremely popular kids ñ taking readers of millions of girls and boys. But on closer examination, there is something missing in these popular children's books. Educators and social critics have noted the lack of books showing children of color as lead characters. San Diego literature professor joins us to talk about what effect that has on kids, and a San Diego author will talk about his series that features a Latino boy as a hero. The author is Kevin Gerard, writer of the series Diego Dragons. And Professor Philip Serrato joins us, welcome to the program. Give us an idea of the cultural gap that exists in children's literature.

PHILIP SERRANO: One thing to bear in mind, this is not exactly a new issue. It has received a lot of attention lately, but that kind of attention seems to come and go over the years. It is actually an issue that has been endemic to the field of American children's literature sent the beginning. Recently, a study came out from the cooperative children's book center at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Every year they published the results of surveys of diversity in children's literature. The most recent findings from 2013, they did a survey of 3200 books for children. What they found was that of all of those books, 5% were by or about African-Americans. 1.7% were by or about American Indians, and 5% where by or about Asian-Americans or Asian-Pacific Americans, and 3.3% were by or about Latinos. This is not included other population such as gay and lesbian, disabled, Jewish American, etc.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: These percentages are obviously very low, why is that?

PHILIP SERRANO: For the most part you have publishers driven by the profit motive, they are more interested in mass appeal than they are in covering different kinds of needs that children have, that the educational systems need. With that profit motive in mind, they are interested in mass appeal in publishing books that will see as most easily marketable to or accessible to or consumable by as broader spectrum of potential book buyers as possible.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kevin, does your series respond directly to the lack of Latino or kids of color into those books?

KEVIN GERARD: Absolutely yes. Diego Ramirez is the protagonist in this story. He is a sixth grader who wins a writing contest for his whole school district. He wins a dragon statue, that eventually comes to life, and he names it magnifico. All but a handful of characters in the series are Latino.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What drew you to that? Did you see a lack in the marketplace and said this needs to be corrected?

KEVIN GERARD: Absolutely. I wrote another series and I visit schools all of the time. I started to meet thousands of Latino students who love to read fantasy series. I started asking teachers and librarians, how many middle grade fantasy series are there with Latino heroes? I was shocked when every one of them said there are none. There are a few with Latino girl heroes, but the boys in those theories are not portrayed very well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see, so this is a serious now, how many books are out in Diego's Dragon?

KEVIN GERARD: The third book came out last December, but there ultimately be five books.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Couldn't this story be about any little boy who just happens to be Latino? Or is it grounded in Latino culture?

KEVIN GERARD: I try very hard to make each of the books in the series grounded in Latino history or culture. But, on the other hand, I like to write stories about things I would like to do. I would like to win a writing contest as a kid, and when a dragon statue and have it grow up and be my pal. Diego is what's called a guide, every Dragon, magnifico is the leader of the dragons of the sun. Every Dragon of the sun has to have a guide, and now it's a child on earth or another planet, galaxy, or another one. Diego is guide to the most powerful Dragon on the sun.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you have written a story you would have liked to read when you were a child, and you've placed that story in a culture and setting that many young Latino boys and girls would imagine and respond to.

KEVIN GERARD: When I talk to teachers and librarians I decided immediately that I wanted to write a story with the hero that, as a trained sociologist, looks like them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What this research tell us about the benefits of children reading stories about their own culture and seeing characters that look like them?

PHILIP SERRANO: I think most obviously it speaks to issues of self-esteem. On that subject, one of the favorite quotes that I remember comes from Franscisco Aragon. He has written a number of beautiful collections of poetry for children. In an interview in the year 2000, he mentioned when you do not see your self in books you start to think that you are weird. Diverse literature for children offers opportunity for children to see themselves. It offers them cultural affirmation and validation, even something as fundamental as seeing their own body represented, and not feeling they are strange or invisible.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet there is a problem labeling literature as multicultural, tell us about that.

PHILIP SERRANO: It's a bit tricky, I think the rise of the concept of multicultural literature came from a good place. This interest in creating a diverse reading experience and diverse representation, I think what ended up happening, it has come to be seen as a shorthand for books that provide certain sociological insight into what it means to be of a particular background, and I think I can end up foreclosing potential readers and book buyers interest in text, because they see those as texts working in certain sociological ways, as opposed to realizing these texts have much to offer in terms of critical thinking, pleasure, and aesthetic experience.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kevin, what kind of reaction have you received from Diego's Dragon?

KEVIN GERARD: It has been positive and very widespread. I don't want to compare Harry Potter to day goes Dragon, but they share one element. I believe Harry Potter was extremely important, because children of all backgrounds related to him. They went crazy for him. I have had children across the country from all different backgrounds though completely crazy for Diego and his Dragon. That is what I believe large publishers need to see, that they are really going to have this mass appeal.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why is there a feeling, professor, that if the book has a lead character that is not white, that it will not have mass appeal?

PHILIP SERRANO: That's a good question, and I honestly don't know, because I don't think there's any reason it could not have mass appeal. Like Kevin mentioned, a text with a checklist of a particular ethnic background is still able to have universal appeal, it's able to resonate with children from various backgrounds.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kevin, did you have any obstacles getting this series into circulation?

KEVIN GERARD: Many obstacles. I'm sure there will be many more to come, it is difficult.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So in trying to convince publishers to go for this, that this is a good idea, what kind of responses did you get from publishers?

KEVIN GERARD: I was turned down flat by publishers and agents. I don't necessarily believe it was because it was Diego's Dragon, I have had other series and stories that I've written. I got so frustrated that I started my own publishing company. I'm an independent publisher here in San Diego. But I would really like a bigger publishing house to take notice of Diego Strachan. The only way to do that is sales, it comes back to the numbers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The fact that there are not many books out there featuring kids of color as the main character, it has been well known for many years as he pointed out. What is being done about it?

PHILIP SERRANO: I think you have a lot of critics, librarians, and scholars who are talking about it. The conversations are taking place in the media, we need diverse books, things like that. Those kinds of conversations are taking place. The hope is, that publishers will hear these conversations, but that is the difficulty. Where scholars, teachers, and librarians can identify this problem, but in the final analysis, it is the publishers deciding what does and does not make it into print, it is also the publishers running the marketing programs. To what extent are they giving ñ the kinds of books that are in print ñ to what extent are they giving them the kind of push that would be beneficial for giving books the kind of disability that they deserve?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are there good books featuring Latino kids, that are largely forgotten about, that are not currently in wide circulation?

PHILIP SERRANO: That's what's unfortunate, you have a lot of smaller publishing houses doing a fabulous job trying to make these books available. But then you have bigger publishers who might have something special on their hands, and they don't realize it, books like Juan Felipe Herrera's dazzling amazing books. In a conversation with him, he mentioned that the publishers literally did not know what to do with the books, so they ended up with ring away and disappearing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm interested, what have kids said about this book?

KEVIN GERARD: I'm glad you asked the question, because I will tell you what they have said, but first I want to say everything that we're talking about today, kids don't care about it. Kids want to open up a book and be taken away on a journey, and be amazed, and have a great time. They don't really care about anything else. I'll tell you about a wonderful little girl who lives in Kalispell Montana. Her mother reviews middle grade fantasy books, and I asked her to review Diego's Dragon. She said sure, but I want my daughter to read it first. So I mailed the book, and waited a week, that seemed like ten years, and I got an email from her mother with so many capital letters, so many exclamation points, saying that hurt daughter had read dozens of dragons books, and Diego's Dragon was now her favorite Dragon story, and she proclaimed Kevin Gerard to be her new favorite author.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If they are only given the chance to read it.

PHILIP SERRANO: Exactly, that is a challenge, how did these books get made available to children?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank my guests, I am out of time. Thank you both very much.