Yesterday, Elizabeth Bluemle was interviewed by Audie Cornish as one piece of a three-part series on NPR’s All Things Considered program talking about diversity in books. Elizabeth has been talking diversity, or lack thereof, in children’s books since her post five years ago, Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty? As the co-owner of the Flying Pig, I was bursting with pride as Elizabeth deftly articulated the diversity issue and what we as booksellers can do about it.
Diversity and children’s books has now become a hot topic, with many people realizing that there has be more representation of non-white children in kids’ books. When asked about the database of books (now over 1,000 titles strong) she started collecting five years ago, featuring main characters of color whose stories are not primarily driven by racial issues, Elizabeth responded: “Well, I think there are so many books that are published about issues that the consumer culture has developed this idea that books with brown faces on the cover say, are going to be heavy, serious books. And while those books are very valuable and important and wonderful books to read, they also don’t describe the entire experience of human life in this country.” This list is an invaluable asset to all who work with children. Elizabeth’s point is all kids have the same range of experiences: school, family, navigating friendships, etc. and those stories should be equally compelling to all regardless of the color of the kid on the book’s cover.
The interview goes on with Audie Cornish recognizing that the “biggest obstacles isn’t the kid reader, right? It’s the adult.” As a bookseller I think we can all agree with what Elizabeth said, that adults, the ones who are paying for the books, will sometimes unconsciously steer their kids away from the books with non-white faces. Elizabeth’s tips for how booksellers can engage more kids with a wide range of diverse characters is to “…lead with the story, lead with the dilemma, the adventure and that is going to hook your readers.” Sage advice, if you ask me.
Listen to the whole interview here and then when you’re done, share it with your staff. I think if we all try a little harder, with the tips Elizabeth suggests, frontline booksellers can actually start shifting the publishing landscape little by little, so that hopefully five years from now we won’t still be talking the lack of diversity in children’s literature.