Diversity in Children's Lit: Mediocrity Matters as Much as Masterpieces

The Great Greene Heist, the target of a campaign to promote kids' books with non-white heroes, isn't a great work of art. But neither was The Hunger Games.
Arthur A. Levine Books

Varian Johnson's new kids’ book The Great Greene Heist has become a rallying point for a very worthy cause: increased diversity in children's literature. As writer Kate Messner explained on her blog, half of all five-year-olds in the country belong to a racial or ethnic minority, yet white kids continue to hold center stage in most children's books and young-adult fiction. As a result, large numbers of kids don't see themselves reflected in the books they read, and non-white, or non-heterosexual, or even non-male children end up learning that they are marginal, or secondary, in their society.

Messner concluded that the best way to show publishers that there's an audience for diversity was to push a book with a diverse cast onto the best-seller list—and she suggested focusing on The Great Greene Heist, "because it’s incredibly well written, a page turner of a read, and full of diverse, complicated characters." Other independent bookstores and authors have taken up the challenge, offering prizes and incentives, creating what is essentially a grass-roots marketing effort acknowledging that not all readers, and not all heroes, have to look the same.

Is the book any good, though? By which I mean, is it funny, thoughtful, compelling, imaginative, witty, well-written—all the things that you find in great children's literature, or, for that matter, in great literature for grown-ups?  Well, there are certainly good things about it. The plot, about crisscrossing efforts to steal a middle-school election, bounces along with pleasant if not entirely unpredictable twists, and the prose does its job well enough: "Now wasn't a time to be normal. Now was a time to be infamous" is a pretty great rallying cry.

Another nice thing is the low-key way that The Great Greene Heist handles issues of discrimination. At one point, the school secretary tells Jackson, the protagonist, that "Boys like you are always up to one thing or another," causing Jackson to muse, "He hoped she meant something like 'boys named Jackson' or 'boys who are tall,' but he suspected her generalizations implied something else." The book, then, acknowledges prejudice without seeing it as crippling, an appealing and inspirational—if somewhat simplified—formulation.

But, despite its virtues, I'm not quite able to give the book the full-throated endorsement I'd hoped to. The Great Greene Heist certainly isn't bad, but it's not really anything special either. The very reason people are rallying behind it—the large, diverse cast of characters—isn’t executed as effectively as it could be: There are so many people to get to know that we don’t get to know any of them very well. Our hero, the con man with a heart of gold, Jackson Greene, is more a collection of tics and traits (likes basketball, wears a red tie skewed to the left, likes gardening) than a fully realized character. The high-school setting is vague as well, not over-the-top enough to work as pure absurdist comedy (in the vein of the animated series Phineas and Ferb), but not carefully observed enough to ring true to actual middle-school experience (like Nora Olsen's recent wonderful take on high school in Frenemy of the People).  Jackson's scheming is fun, but the book doesn't really acknowledge the intrinsic cruelty of the scam-artist, and therefore lacks the bite of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer or the less well-known but wonderful Great Brain books by John Dennis Fitzgerald.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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