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Why Diversity In Children's Literature Is So Important For Kids' Development

The story starts with a letter to Earnest OglbyPunkweiler, a fictional time-traveler who answers children’s questions on a blog. The note simply read: “What color are you?”

Punkweiler may be a make-believe keeper of the universe and explorer of its history, but the question submitted at the Washington State History Museum by a young visitor sparked a conversation about race and how children learn about it.

“It gets a person to thinking, ‘What color are you? Can a keeper [of the universe] have a color?’ And of course he can,” said Stephanie Lile, director of education with the Washington State Historical Society. “So we started thinking about that and wanted to elaborate on that and how our ideas of color, community and change-making come about through children’s literature.”

It’s a subject close to Sundee Frazier’s heart. The bi-racial children’s author was born in the late 1960s and grew up in a time that lacked diversity in children’s literature.

Frazier says it’s so important for young people to see characters that reflect their reality because “it feeds something in your soul to know you are not alone.” She shared a quote from African-American author Paule Marshall: “Once you see yourself truthfully depicted, you have a sense of your right to be in the world.”

In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Frazier will be joining other local authors and artists on a panel at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma to discuss this very topic. The panel, “Diversity and Change-Making in Children’s Literature,” will be coupled with a community wall for visitors to share pictures of things that exemplify community.

Frazier says diversity in literature exposes kids to different types of people in a safe space where they can ask questions and learn.

“In the story they can see, ‘Actually, we are a lot alike. There is a common humanity as I read about this child who’s different from me and I see he or she has similar fears. I see these things that are common even though we come from such different backgrounds,’” Frazier said. “All of a sudden, the possibility of friendship with someone like that is there.”

The inspiration behind Frazier’s 2007 book “Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It” comes from her own life.  

Frazier’s parents married with only friends present because her grandparents opposed the union. This was the late 1960s and miscegenation laws had only recently been lifted.

“Fortunately, my grandparents relented their position and they realized, ‘Oh, there’s a grandchild coming …we are going to have to accept our son-in-law,’ and they did before I was born,” Frazier said, recalling a story her mother told her. “What if my white grandparents had not changed their mind and I had grown up not knowing them?”

Frazier’s books — including a sequel to “Brendan Buckley and The Other Half of My Heart,” a story about bi-racial twins — deal extensively with understanding racial identity when bridging two different ethnic communities.

“What I want kids to understand is that no one can tell you who you are,” Frazier said, “or who you can or cannot be.”

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The “Diversity and Change-Making in Children’s Literature” panel will begin at 2 p.m. The Washington State History Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free on Jan. 19.