There is a world-wide call for more diverse books for children – books that show children from ethnic backgrounds, children with illnesses or physical and intellectual disabilities. These children want to see characters like themselves portrayed in books, to see tolerance and acceptance of people like themselves. But few diverse writers are telling their stories
for the young reader market. So how do we fill this literature gap?
Writers put themselves in the character’s skin, as they always do. It’s their job. What if we haven’t had this experience? What if we don’t personally know a child with a disability or serious illness? We don’t know a child from a different cultural background. Writers broaden their research and educate themselves. Information is readily available on websites and writers can approach groups or organisations whose support assists people from ethnic backgrounds, or people dealing with mental or physical disabilities. Is it difficult to write realistically about someone we clearly are not? Of course it is, but writers do it every day, we walk in the shoes of characters unlike ourselves. We set up problems and create conflict and find solutions for aliens and robots and exotic animals.
The Pearl-shell Diver is a diverse novel for children, and yes, it was challenging to write. The constant searching for information seemed endless. The main character is a boy from a minority group, a small Indigenous island community in the Torres Strait. The story is set in 1898 when Australia's pearl-shell industry was at its peak and the exploitation of indigenous people throughout the Pacific was rife. Indigenous history is passed down orally and in dance and song lines, and information is difficult to confirm. Government documents written by white men can be skewed or contradictory, or simply penned in offices far from the island events. Awareness comes into play for the writer, understanding that the differences among cultures, religions and individuals, may be sensitive. Writers can’t know everything, but they can be respectful with their attitudes and values and write appropriately. Torres Strait Islander clans exchanged weapons and food and carvings with mainland Aborigines and with tribes from Papua New Guinea, there is cultural connection, but customs differ.
The story is for ages 9-13 and the external conflict is character-versus-character, where a 13 year old island boy is up against powerful people he cannot control, also extreme weather and a society foreign to him - the white man's world. His internal conflict is growing up, establishing his place in the clan and taking responsibility. These are not unusual fiction struggles. The writer’s job is to 'get into the head’ of the diverse child character, to bring adult views and language down to the appropriate age level, the child’s reality. To capture his or her 'voice, 'avoid stereotyping and show the child’s diversity .
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