I was very fortunate to attend the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (NESCBWI) Spring Conference April 21-23 in Springfield, MA. This year’s theme was Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio, and I joined 700 fellow illustrators and authors for advice on how to do just that. The theme was especially fitting for me as lead illustrator at the very diverse Genius Plaza.

 

My biggest takeaways from the conference: The importance of including diverse characters in my art work, and the importance of depicting them authentically.

Why should illustrators add diversity to their illustrations? Look around. We live in a very diverse world. It’s important for us, as illustrators, to create environments in our work that reflect this fact. This is especially essential in work directed toward children.

Stats: The We Need Diverse Books campaign began in 2014, and its message has really gained traction. In 2013, the year before the WNDB campaign, 10% of children’s books were about people of diverse backgrounds. By 2016, that number climbed to 28%.

So what do these statistics show? They show that young diverse readers now have greater opportunities to read about and see images of characters who look and act just like they do. In 2013, 90% of children’s books were about Caucasian characters. In three short years, that number has dropped to almost 70%. These readers are no longer feeling as isolated as they did. They are becoming included. This is the main reason why we need to start/continue adding diversity into our work.

Diversity is somewhat of a general word. To some, it may stand for race, to others, religion, but there are many more types of diversity that we need to reflect in our work. Racial diversity. Ethnic diversity. Physical diversity. Gender diversity. Religious diversity. Economic diversity. Don’t feel content with adding one diverse character to your work. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, including characters from diverse backgrounds will help your many readers and viewers feel included.

So how do we go about drawing diverse characters? It’s important to strive for authenticity, not stereotypes. Don’t assume you know how to draw a race different than your own. Do your research. Source photos for reference. How do other illustrators draw different ethnicities? How do other illustrators draw their own ethnicity? Use these as guides for your own work.

When you’re ready to share your work, do just that. Share it with other illustrators, critique groups, and especially those whose diversity you’re depicting. And those illustrators you researched? Seek them out on social media. The illustration community (especially members of the SCBWI) is very welcoming. Use any feedback to correct and improve on your work.

Greg Matusic

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