By Padma Venkatraman
This year, a day before I was scheduled to fly to Washington, DC, to receive the Walter Dean Myers Award for The Bridge Home in the company of friends and family and colleagues who had supported and believed in me for the past three decades in this country, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the ceremony was canceled. So I never had an opportunity to personally thank WNDB for all that it has done as an organization and continues to do to support diverse authors and diverse books.
WNDB has grown from a hashtag into a supportive community where diversity is respected and welcomed and nurtured, and a leading organization in the continuing battle for diversity in books. I admire, more than I can ever express, Ellen Oh and all the founding members of WNDB, especially Aisha Saeed, to whom The Bridge Home is linked through the marvelous blurb she provided. I have immense gratitude to each and every WNDB member who strives so hard to bring more diverse books into the world. Because our voices still aren’t heard loudly enough. Not here in the United States, my home, nor in India, where I was born, nor anywhere else around the world.
When I began writing for young people, I was a nineteen-year-old, on my own, half a world away from the land I then called home. Partly out of homesickness, partly as a diversion from the white male-dominated field of oceanography that was my area of study, I felt driven to write books about India for Indian children. Because, bizarrely, in the 1970s, as a brown girl growing up in a brown country, I still only saw white protagonists in books. Whenever I had spare time, I’d write—and some of my earliest work was published by Indian publishers. An overjoyed Indian reviewer was delighted that the animal characters in one of my very early books had Indian names. And I was staggered by the importance of this battle for representation in this field. And after I became a citizen, my passion burned even more fiercely—I wanted to write books about brown children for readers in the United States, my new home. I wanted to turn what had been a sort of hobby into my profession.
That said, I wasn’t by far the first, here or in India, to write books about brown children. Such books, though rarer than they even are today, were published. They may not have found their way into children’s hands. But we—diverse authors and diverse books—have been around a long time. To my knowledge, as early as the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, books for children were already being created by independent Indigenous and Black authors.
Unfortunately, even BIPOC authors aren’t always aware of our long history. I’ve often heard new authors say that when they were growing up, they didn’t see protagonists like themselves. I never tire of hearing this oft-repeated refrain, because it’s important to hear. That said, I disagree when anyone implies or suggests that diverse books for children just didn’t exist. On a similar and related note, I also find it disturbing when diverse authors fail to respect those whose work has paved the way for us today.
Last year, after I completed a keynote at a national conference, a new BIPOC author on a panel casually referenced Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop as “that educator who said that thing about mirrors and windows.” No one else seemed upset and the statement passed by without comment, but the incident wounded me. Deeply.
For centuries, we BIPOC (and other diverse and marginalized authors) have had work and ideas stolen from them. In so many ways, societies send us the message that our history doesn’t matter. This is upsetting enough, without diverse authors failing to acknowledge or provide proper attribution to those who came before us. We must remember that we stand, as the recent title of a book by Steven Bickmore suggests, “On the shoulders of giants.”
The history of diverse books is beyond the scope of this article, but I’d like, at the very least, to pay a tribute to a few American authors whose work I discovered, and whose stories or histories inspired me on my journey to publication in a pre-WNDB world. On a trip to India, in my early twenties, I came across (and immediately bought), books by two Asian authors: Lawrence Yep’s Dragon’s Gate and Linda Sue Park’s Kite Fighters. I loved those books—and they made me think—I can do this. I want to do this. I will one day write about my culture for kids in the United States.
As a doctoral student and then as a post-doctoral researcher, I didn’t have a lot of spare time, but I started to search for other multicultural and diverse books. I bought them with my graduate student salary whenever I could. My stipend was meager, but after the economic strife of my childhood in India, I felt rich as opposed to American graduate students who complained they felt poor. As I moved from one place to another, I also became a staunch supporter of the United States Postal Service (because I could never part from my growing library of books).
Unfortunately, I think I might have helped them out more, monetarily, than our current administration has because I paid substantial amounts to mail my boxes of books that began to include work by Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Jacqueline Woodson, Christopher Paul Curtis, Mildred Taylor, Pam Munoz Ryan, Janet Wong, Marilyn Nelson, Renee Saldana, Joseph Bruchac, and Dhan Gopal Mukerji. My definition of diversity always included LGBTQ+ authors and so I was delighted to discover Annie On My Mind.
My love of poetry helped me broaden my horizons, and I read not only the work of those from eras past such as Langston Hughes but began to sit in on lectures at the University of Rhode Island, where, through colleagues like Peter Covino, Mary Capello, and Jody Lisberger, I was introduced to the likes of Richard Blanco, Percival Everett, Scott Hightower, Gregory Pardlo, Tracy K. Smith and so many others. They didn’t write for young people, but I nevertheless learned a great deal from them because writers are writers, no matter who the audience might be. And I engaged in enlightening conversations with scholars in library sciences like Donna Gilton and Naomi Caldwell, who taught me so much.
As for the list of authors I mention, some who were already in the field when I entered it were missing from my early research, such as Grace Lin and Sharon Draper. Unfortunately, while I discovered white authors who had written about my cultural heritage (usually to great acclaim), I didn’t stumble on the very few desi authors who were committed to writing for young people by the time I arrived. But as soon as my debut novel, aptly named Climbing The Stairs, was accepted for publication, I intensified my research.
I was delighted to find a handful of North American desi authors were already out there: Mitali Perkins and Kashmira Sheth were the only two, I believe, who were publishing extensively in the US before my debut was released; just across the border, Uma Krishnaswami, Rachna Gilmore, Ruksana Khan, had written several books that were available in Canada and, luckily for me, the United States. As a person with an invisible disability, I was moved by Tending to Grace, which is inspired by the author’s own childhood experience. I learned of editors like Shelly Tanaka, publishers like Bobby Coombs, and librarians like Carrie Banks and Kathleen T. Horning. I avidly read books released by Lee & Low. I dipped into blogs and kept abreast of lists and discussions by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Edith Campbell, Debbie Reese, and Laura Jimenez. My road was rocky and uphill and solitary all the way, but I know these people who came before me made my path easier, although I walked my path alone.
After over a decade of ups and downs: Celebrating the release of Climbing the Stairs to multiple starred reviews after receiving over 30 rejections from agents, having Island’s End win numerous awards only to watch it go out of print, and having a bookseller order Jhumpa Lahiri’s books instead of mine at an award ceremony for A Time to Dance. After speaking about the importance of diversity and my diverse author colleagues whenever I was invited to speak (which wasn’t often in the very beginning), and mentoring up and coming diverse authors when I could to whatever small extent I could, I received a phone call, letting me know The Bridge Home had won the Walter Dean Myers Award.
I wept. Because at last, I felt seen.
Perhaps even more important than that, I felt as if the girl who left India on her own as a teen to travel overseas to a part of the world where she knew no one, had finally been received by a family, to which she’d for decades wanted and hoped to belong: The family of diverse American authors dedicated to writing as well as they possibly could for young people. A family that has existed since before I was born. A family that I hope will not only find ever-greater success, but that will also never forget to honor pathbreaking diverse librarians, educators, teachers, scholars—and above all—diverse authors of the past.
It’s up to us to care for the constellation of our community, by ensuring that the stars who came before us always shine bright, by holding their stories in our hearts and keeping their names on our lips.
Dr. Padma Venkatraman is the author of The Bridge Home, A Time to Dance, Island’s End and Climbing The Stairs, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House. Her next novel, Born Behind Bars, is scheduled for October 2021 release. The Bridge Home secured 8 starred reviews and is the winner of a Walter Dean Myers Award, South Asia Book Award, Golden Kite Award, Crystal Kite Award. Her previous novels were also released to multiple starred reviews and have won numerous honors and awards. Before becoming a full-time author, Padma Venkatraman obtained a doctorate in oceanography from the College of William and Mary, conducted research at Johns Hopkins University, and directed diversity efforts at the University of Rhode Island’s graduate school. Visit her on Twitter @padmatv; on Instagram @venkatraman.padma; or via her website: www.padmavenkatraman.com.