Holes and Dreams in the Pursuit of Diversity Within Diversity: Louis Sachar’s Holes and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming
In today’s children’s book publishing marketplace, there is an acknowledged lack of diversity in a wide range of areas, including ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, disability, and religion. Recent movements such as the We Need Diverse Books campaign (founded in April 2014) have inspired industry folks to take more definitive actions toward diversifying publishers’ book lists. However, as I argue in my preface, merely calling for diverse books is not sufficient. Publishers should be seeking books that offer diversity within diversity, or diversity within stories about marginalized characters, ensuring that portrayals of these characters are authentic rather than stereotypical or tokenistic.
To explore the insufficiency of “diverse” as the ideal for today’s children’s literature, I turn to two middle grade books written prior to the founding of We Need Diverse Books: Holes by Louis Sachar (1998) and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014). Both works accommodate yet exceed calls for “diverse” representation, offering subtle and complex meditations on race and history in 20th century America by imagining and exploring coming-to-racial-consciousness through their respective child protagonists.
Because of their starkly different genres and settings, the books explore separate aspects of race and history in the United States and thus offer different yet complementary reflections. Holes, a magical realism novel set in a fictional stretch of Texas desert, features a juvenile correctional institution, which we can read as an allegory for a modern form of slave labor. The book’s protagonist Stanley and his best friend Zero must reject the institution in order to restore justice to a space that has been governed by a cycle of varying forms of racism, speaking both to the cyclical nature of racism in the US and the necessity of resisting it. On the other hand, Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir about growing up during the Civil Rights era in the South, frames Woodson’s coming-ofage journey in terms of both her nascent identity as a storyteller and her early experiences with segregation, racism, and inequality, demonstrating that despite facing oppression, Woodson has not only retained agency over her own story but also turned it into literary art.
Ultimately, I conclude that reading these two texts together highlights the fact that while racism in the US cannot be erased or ignored, neither does it have the final word on the experiences of marginalized people.