Emma Lesko, an advocate for Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Literature

Emma Lesko diversity and inclusion in children's literature

SmallHeadshotEmmaLeskoEmma Lesko is the author of the children’s chapter book series SUPER LEXI. She is an advocate for diversity and inclusion in children’s literature, and offers voice writing workshops to lower elementary students. She has several years of experience teaching English and Spanish to children of varied developmental abilities in the United States, Brazil and Spain. Additionally, Emma volunteers with nonprofit Kids for Peace, and is on the planning committee for The Great Kindness Challenge movement.

So nice to meet you! Tell us about your children’s book.

SUPER LEXI is a funny chapter book series about a second-grade girl on the autism spectrum, who is just trying to navigate kid life. She gets stuck dealing with stuff like “hoopla” and “staring eyeballs,” even though they give her the “feeling of barf.” Her achievements are humble, realistic and accessible.

What inspired you to write it?

Super lexi autism diversity and inclusionThere’s a seed of my own life journey in Lexi’s stories. Her transformation is gradual across the series. Like my own path, her story crescendos from self-acceptance to self-advocacy, and finally to advocacy for others. Though fictional, my own experiences on the autism spectrum informed the plots of the SUPER LEXI books.

I am a vocal believer in diversity and inclusion in children’s books, with the purpose of cultivating empathy and perspective-taking in our kids. As such, I wrote Lexi as a highly introverted second-grader with autism, despite pressure from the publishing industry to make her more like a neurotypical kid. The idea behind this advice was marketability and mainstream appeal, which I consider unfounded and ableist.

My refusal to bend Lexi to fit publishing standards is reflected in the plot of SUPER LEXI, a stage fright story. Frequently in this type of book, the main character ultimately realizes she is a star at heart and ends up shining on stage. Lexi does not do that. Instead, she stands up for her right to be her authentic self, and unapologetically accepts her fear of “staring eyeballs.”

I’m writing the third book in the series now, and am thrilled to have found some motivation for Lexi to access her unique power and to use it for good. I have gone through a similar progression in my own life. I used to spend a lot of time agonizing over injustice, and almost no time fixing it. I recently started converting frustration into action with the Kids for Peace, a global nonprofit that provides a platform for kids to actively engage in socially conscious leadership, community service, arts, environmental stewardship and global friendship. They also created The Great Kindness Challenge, a movement that encourages schools to devote one week each school year to performing as many acts of kindness as possible.

Like Lexi, I’m finally ready conquer my own fear of “staring eyeballs” to fight for others.

Emma Lesko writing workshops

Children’s author, Emma Lesko reading SUPER LEXI and teaching voice writing workshops to lower elementary students.

Who’s your illustrator and why was he perfect for capturing the spirit of your book? 

Adam WinsorSuper Lexi Autism Christmas illustrated both SUPER LEXI books, and what a gift he has been to the series. I was initially drawn to the expressive nature of his characters and his exquisite use of light. By sheer coincidence, he ended up really understand the main character, Lexi. In the first book, Lexi must battle her fear of “staring eyeballs” when she gets cast in a school play. Adam was kind enough to share his own fears of eyeballs in the back matter of that book – he once wanted to hide his face so badly onstage that he wrapped himself in an American flag! I think his ability to empathize with Lexi takes the expressive nature of the illustrations to a beautiful level.

Who is the ideal reader and how do you see the book being used?

My ideal reader is aged 6-9. I strive to write in a way that appeals to a wide variety of readers, and not just kids with sensory sensitivities or kids with autism spectrum disorder.

In my opinion, emotions are universal, and triggers are personal.  It’s the author’s job to root a character in relatability regardless of those personal triggers, and I’ve worked consciously to do that. Not every kid gets “the feeling of barf” like Lexi when they have to perform in a school play. But every kid has had that feeling for some reason. As such, I focus a great deal on Lexi’s emotional journey, and try to portray it in a funny way so most kids can relate.

I often see my books in kindergarten to third grade classrooms as lessons on voice, communication, authenticity and empathy. I hope the third one, which I am writing now, will be used to encourage kids to use all of these skills to improve the world.

What’s the message you want your readers to take away after reading the book?

The message I hope to send to kids through my stories and my action is “You are here for a reason. You are unique for a reason. If society is not valuing your authentic self, that’s society’s dysfunction, not yours. Find your voice, find your power and fulfill your purpose.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your books?

I think when I’m discussing my deep intentions, they sound kind of heavy. So, I’d like to clarify that I write the books with the intention of making them goofy, funny, and true to kid-world.

Do you have a proud moment, inspirational story, or moving fan feedback you’d like to share?

I’ve had a few moving experiences since the release of SUPER LEXI, but the most profound are those that underscore the pervasive inclusion and diversity issue we currently have in children’s literature. Many teachers and parents have reached out to tell me about kids with sensory sensitivities or autism spectrum disorder who have been shocked to see a kid in a book that experiences the world in the way they do. For me, that really speaks to the greater issue.

I also enjoy the comments from the neurotypical kids who enjoy Lexi’s adventures, because that’s further evidence that diverse and inclusive books have mainstream marketability. They do not need to relegated to the “Issues” shelves. We all have issues. Human suffering connects us, and kids don’t discriminate based on the individual causes for suffering.

If our readers leave with only one message after reading this interview, what would you like it to be?

That I believe in the value of every child.

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About Jodi Murphy

I am the founder of Geek Club Books, autism storytelling through mobile apps for awareness, acceptance and understanding. My mission is to use the art of storytelling and technology to entertain and educate for the social good. I am a 'positive' autism advocate, mother of an awesome adult on the autism spectrum, lifestyle journalist, and marketing specialist.

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