Why focus on representation?
My story, Indigo Takes Flight, is a reflection on the theme of “Difference.” Through it, I hope to encourage self-acceptance among children who question their place in a world that too often punishes nonconformity. It took me a long time to learn that being different is a beautiful thing—I wish more people heard that message from a young age.
“But aren’t you trying too hard?” some ask, when the topic arises of celebrating diversity in stories for kids. “Aren’t you forcing representation?”
Well, am I? Why write about characters who differ from the norm? Isn’t the point of crafting protagonists to make them as widely relatable as possible? Why focus on LGBTQ+ identities, on minorities, on neurodivergent folks, or on others who don’t fall into the typical mould of Western expectations? Why focus on these aspects of humanity, when presumably the majority of consumers will not identify with them?
The obvious answer to these questions is that representation is vital for all of us. Everybody deserves to see themselves looking out from the pages of a storybook. Everyone deserves to have a voice. This is certainly true, and has been expressed before by people much more skilled with words than I.
Recently, though, I’ve been wondering—in focusing only on the personal fulfilment that diversified fictional characters can offer to marginalised groups, are we not forgetting the other half of the equation: that is, the responsibility of non-marginalised members of society to educate themselves about the differing experiences of those around them?
As a friend once asked of me: If it is essential for a Black child, a transgender child, or a Deaf child to be able to see themselves as the hero of a story, surely it is also essential for a white child, a cisgender child, or a hearing child to read the same story, so that they might grow up seeing folks different from themselves as heroes, too? I believe that all people—not only those who are just beginning to find representation in modern fiction, but those who have long enjoyed such representation—need stories which celebrate diversity.
We’re making progress. More and more I hear news which gives me hope: grade-schoolers respecting their peer’s aversion to physical touch because of a children’s TV show character on the spectrum, or high-schoolers banding together to stop the bullying of a gay student, thanks to the representation of LGBTQ+ issues in popular fiction.
We have quite a bit of work still left to do, however.
We won’t be done until a woman in a hijab is met with smiles rather than raised eyebrows, whether she appears in a novel or in the supermarket aisles. We won’t be done until a boy in a skirt garners no more attention than a little girl in pants. We won’t be done until all colours, all shapes, and all abilities are prized for their uniqueness, and until no one speaks of “forced representation” anymore.
Krista Lambert is one of the emerging writers contributing to 10 Stories to Make a Difference. Her story, Indigo Takes Flight, illustrated by Chris Riddell, is all about coming to terms with who you are – and finding acceptance from those who love you.