Speaking OUT: A Rainbow of Reasons We Need Diverse Books

by Amy Jussel
June 24th, 2014

June 25, 2014 You’re in for a treat if you’re following the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks on social media or their website, as it’s brimming with an extensive collection of worthy kidlit, summer reading, youth voices and amazing resource roundups curating books and authors bridging the diversity chasm that big publishers and media giants sadly miss.

From School Library Journal’s resources for diversity in children’s (kidlit) and young adult (YA) literature to Pinterest social media boards and Twitter lists inclusively reflecting robust storylines depicting every race, creed, color, sexuality, special needs group along both the mental and physical spectrums, diversity adds dimension and wisdom that help fill in the holes of our gaping knowledge chasms.

It goes without saying that choices and opportunities to “see yourself” in media make a huge difference to readers who identify with the characters, but equally important are the vast audiences reached gaining a greater depth of understanding of how others walk through the world.

Diversity is not just some politically correct method of social emotional learning and “teaching tolerance” either, it’s about genuine inclusion, acceptance, and the ability for media to uncork conversations about the human condition.

Ashoka conveys this beautifully in their “start empathy” initiative, building strong collaborative foundations with abilities to resolve conflict and listen with the keen senses of 21st century learning we’ll need in our global, interdependent society.

Before I get to the ‘positive pick’ selection for today’s diversity post, I’ll add “We need diverse books” not JUST for equality, but for plain ol’ QUALITY…a substantive multicultural lens to challenge our propensity to churn out formulaic “me too media and marketing” that continues to astound me with dumbed down “sameness” in cookie cutter mode from toys to fashion, books and beyond. Our choices in mass media have become like Pegasus with clipped wings.

NPR recently cited the CCBC data showing only 6% of children’s books published in 2012 featured diverse characters, capturing the vapid pulse of pop culture offerings quite well,

“First it was vampires. Then there were werewolves. This led to zombies, cyborgs, and fallen angels. In the end it was mermaids, rising from the waters to take the last gasp in a publishing craze we are all hoping is really dying out—that of the paranormal romance…”

Diversity is key…in characters, content, creativity and imaginative storylines

bringing us voices and views that haven’t been heard.

speaking out logo cover

Today’s post is hand-selected as the perfect project to support for a rainbow of reasons beyond Pride 2014.

Award-winning photographer Rachelle Lee Smith focuses her lens on youth documenting the stories and experiences of LGBTQ youth in a dynamic photo essay compilation over the course of TEN years.

Her book is called, Speaking Out: Queer Youth in focus and is slated to be published by two indie publishers, PM Press and our friends at Reach and Teach, renowned for their stellar peace and social justice curations from toys, games and eco-friendly items to human rights projects bringing books into being that need strong backing and support sorely lacking in mainstream media.

The project’s video poignantly captures the importance of the work, hand-scrawled with emotional snapshots and vignettes of life by the subjects themselves to give voice to the vision.

“This project is important because it not only shows a moment in time…

…It also shows change over time.”

Speaking Out is a ‘for youth by youth’ compilation, seen in galleries, schools, magazines, U.S. Department of Education, Human Rights headquarters, youth programs, “and even in the church” as the video says, providing an authentic lens that helps to debunk stereotypes, open hearts and minds, and document the massive movement and colossal changes in the last decade that have shifted seismically in the lives of these kids.

Just think about that a bit. TEN years. Documenting the lives of the same youth over time…

A then + now photographic essay of feelings, changes, looks and growth from the very individuals growing up smack dab amidst these history-making culture shifts…It’s like a StoryCorps Smithsonian moment in photo essay form!

These kids are not only a part of living history…the IndieGoGo campaign to get the book itself published is a nod to the shifting media landscape and new world order in how worthy voices and talents emerge with small and mighty fervor.

speaking out process

Publisher and co-founder of Reach and Teach, Craig Wiesner, said:

“Having a long-time activist like Candace Gingrich (Newt’s sister) writing the foreword and teenager Graeme Taylorwriting the afterword (on Ellen Show at age 14 here) it shows just how far we’ve come in the last 20 years and how much more we still need to do.”

As for helping others and opening dialogue, he added,

“A therapist friend insisted on taking our pre-publication print to a client who was struggling with his son coming out…If a book like this had been available when I was a teen, it would have saved me a lot of suffering.”

There are profound reasons this book deserves to come to light in an affordable, accessible manner, helping an entire generation, like the “It Gets Better” docu-series from the Trevor Project gained “viral” mass media momentum, heralded for literally saving lives with a keen focus on anti-bullying support for LGBTQ youth…or the recently post from The Good Men Project with the Lambda Literacy Foundation titled, “Can LGBT Books Save Lives?”

I don’t need the special ‘rainbow regalia’ or the special month of June’s Pride to wave the ‘fund this’ flag…

Speaking Out appeals to me universally as media that matters…Bringing forth indie, creative, visual insights into a portrait piece that’s easy to support as a staunch “Straight Against Hate” advocate of human rights for all, while giving some much needed Windex to an often stereotyped media lens of LGBTQ youth depictions.

All too often we see characters portrayed as caricatures.

speaking out visual

This non-fiction book upends all the contrived casting and instead turns the storytelling and starring roles over to real life youth, ages 14-24 who “provide rare insight into the passions, confusions, prejudices, joys, and sorrows felt by queer youth.”

Speaking OUT gives a voice to an under-served group of people that are seldom heard and often silenced. The collaboration of image and first-person narrative serves to provide an outlet, show support, create dialogue, and help those who struggle.”

As Rachelle Lee Smith, the photographer herself sums,

“I believe there is power in words, strength in numbers, and freedom in art.”

This feels like a perfect project for Pride 2014, amped by the urgency of June’s hourglass running low…Their team just shared that if Speaking Out gets fully funded, The Arcus Foundation has promised an additional $10,000 matching grant. So help ‘em out if you can…

As always, I had to ‘dig a little deeper’ and ask Craig what that money ‘buys’ in this passion project, and he revealed that it’s the difference between a self-funded high end quality piece and a larger scale marketing effort to get it in the hands of those who need it the most, affordably and accessibly.

Now of course, I’m thinking of all the organizations that should partner and ‘pay it forward’ with their own social media outreach, from Advocates for Youth to PFLAG to the Trevor Project and Inspire Foundation…the massive coalition building in the anti-bullying and social emotional learning spheres could do wonders for all of us to learn about lives lived that may not mirror our own…(Great BuzzFeed post about WRITING from the perspective of characters that ‘aren’t you.’ )

Yep, diversity matters. And so does this book. Join me in “Speaking Out” with support. 

Back to Rachelle Lee Smith’s Author Page