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Tales of diversity: are children’s presses doing enough to give voice to Canada’s multicultural population?

Author Kyo Maclear has noticed a pattern when visiting schools to read from her picture books, which include Virginia Wolf and Spork (both published by Kids Can Press).

“Often, I’ll go to a classroom and almost the entire class is either visible minority or first-generation Canadian, second-language English,” she says. “They’ll be kind of surprised when I walk in that I’m the author.”

That reaction is hardly surprising given that representations of minorities can be hard to come by in kidlit. Maclear ““ who was born in London and raised in Canada, and is of Japanese and British ancestry ““ ­believes her school visits have the potential to shake up outmoded notions of authorship. “I’m always really happy when that happens, because I think it’s a process of them beginning to imagine themselves as writers, as producers of culture,” she says. However, the experience belies a more troubling problem: “If these kids think I don’t really fit the profile of an author, then what does that say about their thoughts about themselves?”

There is little doubt that many Canadian children’s presses have taken strides in publishing diverse authors, but some feel there is still room for improvement. Toronto author Rukshana Khan, whose books sometimes feature Muslim characters, says she has found success abroad, but less so in Canada. Although her picture book Big Red Lollipop (Viking) was selected as a New York Times top-10 illustrated book of 2010 and her YA novel Wanting Mor (Groundwood Books) was the winner of the 2009 Middle East Book Award, she is opting to release her latest picture book, King for a Day, with Lee & Low Books, one of the few minority-owned presses in the U.S.

Some Canadian publishers do give voice to minorities in children’s literature. The Iqaluit-based Inhabit Media has a mandate to tell traditional Inuit stories via a number of media. Recently, the company approached first-time author Napatsi Folger to write a middle-grade novel in the hopes of filling a gap in contemporary fiction for Nunavut children; the resulting novel, Joy of Apex, appeared last year. “I was quite lucky to have the support of Inhabit, who are really encouraging for aboriginal [authors],” Folger says.

Folger worked hard to ensure that her writing appealed to readers in the North (where she was born) and to a larger audience in the rest of Canada, but these demands were sometimes in conflict. “Indigenous people ““ and, I’m sure, other minorities ““ have a totally different way of thinking than the majority of Canadians,” she says. “It’s hard to get that point of view into a good piece of writing so that people will understand it.”

Indeed, authors with diverse backgrounds can be confounded when attempting to publish children’s books that both feel authentic to their experiences and appeal to the mainstream. “I often have to couch the story within parameters that [publishers] can tap into,” says Khan. “That can be difficult, because sometimes that can be a big compromise to the story.”

That difficulty is particularly pronounced when it comes to depicting characters of colour. “What is accepted in terms of multicultural characters, particularly Muslims, is that they are all the same. They are all struggling with their faith and trying to fit in,” Khan says.

The problem may be that publishers are not taking into account diverse demographics, says Nalo Hopkinson, the Jamaican-Canadian sci-fi and fantasy writer who published her debut YA novel, The Chaos (Simon & Schuster), last year. “There is a supposition when it comes to black people in the Americas that we don’t read,” she says. “So we don’t need to be factored into marketing and publishing.”

Maclear hopes to combat prejudice in her own way. “There is a white default that is kind of obvious in literature: if the character is not named and described, then we’ll just make the character white,” she says.

With illustrator Katty Maurey, Maclear is currently working on a picture book titled The Specific Ocean, set for release in spring 2015 with Kids Can Press. The story will implicitly address the assumption that visible minorities exist predominantly in urban settings by depicting a child of colour enjoying nature and connecting with the ocean.

As a mother, Maclear is particularly sensitive to this sort of stereotype. “I want my kids to feel comfortable in nature,” she says. “I want them to feel like they can go to a lake or a small town and not feel alienated.”

Maclear says she was inspired by The Snowy Day author Ezra Jack Keats, who was “a trailblazer” when it came to incorporating African-American kids into his narratives. “I want kids of colour to be zoned in nature and placed there in a way that subverts the expectation that it’s always white kids who are living in cottage country and playing in natural spaces,” she says.

Meanwhile, Hopkinson advises authors knocking on the doors of publishers to remain steadfast in their pursuit. “Don’t assume that you have enemies until it’s proven,” she says. “I know people will often select themselves out ““ they won’t send their work to a [mainstream] publisher because they fear it won’t be understood. It might well be. Or maybe it will just be understood well enough to get onto the page and get it promoted. As a writer, you can do the rest.”

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Q&Q.