The Tipping Point for Diversity — Turning Talk into Action

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 6th, 2014

world full of color childThere is a terrific, impassioned conversation happening over at the CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) discussion group right now, about race and identity and representation in children’s books. In fact, I’ve noticed that this kind of conversation is happening so much more often, and in a deeper, more honest and layered way, than it ever has since I began blogging about the topic four and a half years ago. Much has changed since Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty? and A World Full of Color (both about the paucity of diverse children’s books) and The Elephant in the Room (about the striking whiteness of the publishing business itself). What’s changed isn’t, unfortunately, the publishing-diversity landscape; it IS a little bit better, though only just a little. Statistics gathered and assessed by the CCBC folks and discussed by the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee, among others) — remain dismally disproportionate to the real world. What has changed, though, is that awareness has grown exponentially. The conversation is happening throughout our field, and I think we are finally, finally beginning to approach what Malcolm Gladwell termed “the tipping point.” And that means that we may at long last see a more effective shift from talk into action.

Even if we ignored the human need to hear and share stories that reflect our own lives and introduce us to others’, U.S. population statistics bear out the sheer economic wisdom of publishing diversity and getting past treating black and Latino and Asian and Native American and Muslim (and and and!) stories as “other.” Nearly half of the children born into this nation are not Caucasian. We need to wake up the day care centers and playgrounds all around us and provide books for all of our kids.

We also need to get more agents and editors and art directors and publishers of color into the halls of publishing, and that will only happen if kids in high schools and colleges are exposed to careers in the field. As someone said in a recent conversation at the Kindling Words writing retreat last week, “Send editors to Howard University to talk to students. Send them to high schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Let kids know these jobs are out there.” All too often, we make lazy assumptions, that (1) kids of color are also kids from struggling socioeconomic backgrounds, and (2) that they will therefore not want or be able to take the low-salary entry-level jobs at publishing houses. Even if the first point is true for a student, however, the second may not be. An editor participating in the Kindling Words discussion, who is herself white, pointed out that there are many white editors who came from economic backgrounds other than upper middle and upper class. This was actually news to me, and made me aware of my own assumptions here. And of course it’s true; people who are inspired and motivated work hard to find ways to take starter salaries in fields they love. We just need to let young people know about these careers.

In terms of publishing more books by writers of color and/or about children of color, there’s a lot to be done there, as well. In the picture book realm, how about not assuming white is the default race for picture books about families and friendships and other everyday joys and challenges? What an easy way to change the landscape for our children! When it comes to novels, let’s broaden our acceptance of subject matter and a variety of experiences. For example, there isn’t one African-American experience; there are as many ways of being African-American as there are of being white, and it is silly of us not to embrace that editorially.

We need to get out of the “niche” approach to publishing. Sure, not all readers will read all books, but if we market a YA romance about black characters as somehow “niche,” we do everyone a disservice. Matched would have been just as fun a read if the main character were Indian, and our job is to stop segregating books. If we lead the way for the reading public, they will come. If every jacket cover with a brown face is about racial issues, all readers, not just white readers, will suffer from issues fatigue and turn away from those covers. (More book jacket thoughts are in Who Will Create the New Normal?, a blog post I was invited to write for the CBC.) Right now, we are in a transition phase, where publishers feel they must resort to silhouettes and other ways of masking race in order to get white readers to pick up a book featuring main characters of color. I understand why this is, and I agree that it is probably true because of issues fatigue and the legacy of niche thinking, but we need to start tipping the balance now into proudly showing those nonwhite main characters on the covers, backing those books with enthusiasm and marketing dollars, and expecting readers to pick them up. I wrote about this at length for Lee & Low’s wonderful, active diversity blog in a post called True or False: Multicultural Books Don’t Sell.

The Vermont College of Fine Arts has a new scholarship for writers of color, co-sponsored by literary agent Barry Goldblatt. As described in the press release, the Angela Johnson (yay!) scholarship is “a talent-based grant for writers of color attending the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Master of Fine Arts program. The $5,000 scholarship will be awarded to up to two students annually.” The release cites “the hope of helping attract more writers of color to the leading MFA program for writers of literature for young readers, coupled with the need and desire of the publishing community and readers themselves for more diversity in authorship and content….” I love that this scholarship exists and hope there are many more of them across the country!

As for ourselves, let’s take a look at our own bookshelves, at our reading and recommending and gift-giving habits. Let’s read books outside our own race and culture. Let’s give our white nephews and nieces and children and grandchildren great books featuring kids of color. If you’d like some ideas, I’m still maintaining the World Full of Color database, which boasts more than 950 children’s books (baby to YA) featuring main characters of color where race is not the driving force of the story. (Race is always a major part of identity; what I mean here is that the plot does not revolve around race, racism, intolerance, political/historical events based in racial issues, etc.) Please feel free to share this database with teachers and librarians, parents and friends, and alert me to omissions.

Let’s discover fantastic books and recommend them to each other and the world!

How else can we take meaningful action that will lead us forward to a place where we are recognizing and representing and celebrating and supporting the incredible diversity of our nation’s children? I don’t think there’s a more important, worthwhile thing we could be doing in this field.