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.
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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.

So while I certainly enjoyed the Great Greene Heist and could see why kids of all colors could like it too, it's hard to figure out why this decent-but-not-great diverse book should be the thing to latch onto, rather than some other decent-but-not-great diverse book.

The thing is, you could say something similar about virtually all the recent YA mega-successes. Why is Harry Potter, with its pedestrian prose, repetitive narratives, and sporadically coherent world so much more popular than the much better written, wittier, and more thematically unified How to Train Your Dragon? Why have Rick Riordan's banal one-thing-after-another plots ended up on every 10-year-olds' shelves rather than someone else's one-thing-after-another plots? Is The Hunger Games' somewhat confused exploration of reality television really that much more resonant than Nnedi Okorafor's handling of sexual violence, slavery, and prejudice in Who Fears Death?

It's not that the big successes are horrible—I had fun reading Hunger Games, and The Lost Hero, and Harry Potter, and even Divergent. But none of them is Roald Dahl, or Narnia, or Lord of the Rings, or Alice in Wonderland. The thing that binds Harry Potter and Hunger Games and so forth together, there on the top of the heap, isn't some clear superiority of quality or imagination. It's in part luck, it’s in part marketing … and, possibly, it’s also the fact that all of them, despite varying levels of diversity around the edges, are centered on protagonists who are white.

So while I do wish that The Great Greene Heist were great, the campaign to push it into public consciousness remains valuable even, or maybe especially, if Johnson's book is just okay. The problem with diversity in YA is, after all, ultimately a problem of averages—of what is considered normal, or okay, or the default. Mediocre-to-decent books with white protagonists regularly get massive marketing pushes and dutifully race up the bestseller lists, where they become the thing to talk about just because everyone else is talking about them. And, of course, when those books with white protagonists flop, nobody says, well, no more books with white protagonists—they just find the next one and promote that.

Why shouldn't mediocre-to-decent books with diverse protagonists have the same opportunity? The Great Greene Heist doesn't have the imaginative sweep of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, nor the screwball brilliance of Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma ½, nor the crystal, bruisingly beautiful prose of Stacey Donovan's YA lesbian novel Dive, to name three examples of wonderful kids' books (or comics) with diverse protagonists. But it's readable and entertaining and certainly not measurably worse than other massive YA successes. If there are going to be more wonderful books with diverse characters, there has to be space for more pretty good books, and more mediocre books, and more outright bad books with diverse characters as well.

The Great Greene Heist is as good a place as any to start working toward that goal. Marketing and word of mouth led me to acquire Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games, and Percy Jackson, all of which my son has read and enjoyed. Along the same lines, I've ordered a copy of The Great Greene Heist for him, and I suggest you do the same for your child.

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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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