Help Shape the Diversity Evolution

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 16th, 2014

This blog post title may sound a little grandiose, but I don’t think it is. I can’t tell you how hopeful I am becoming about the prospect of real and lasting change toward meaningful diversity in the children’s book field. I’m trying to figure out how I can be most useful in this effort, and am enlisting your help.

Now, I’ve been blogging about this topic for years, as have countless other writers and editors and bloggers, but it hasn’t been until the past year that it finally feels like all of the individual voices and efforts have started to have a cumulative weight, some real momentum. And this real desire for change comes with a whole lot of questions about how to be effective.

Since National Public Radio’s three-part series on diversity in publishing (my part on bookselling diverse titles is here), I have heard from many, many people who appreciated the discussion. A few were parents who wanted to let me know they hoped their local bookstores would beef up their multicultural selection and that publishers would provide a whole lot more variety of content; others were listeners who wanted to know where to find my diversity database; the majority were authors of color asking for my help getting their books noticed by publishers.

And I honestly don’t know how best to help with that last one. I’m not an agent or an editor, and the jobs I do already take more time than I have. I suspect these writers, like all writers, represent a range along the spectrum from beginner to editor-ready.

How can I help these writers get their work seen?

I thought about creating a private Pinterest board, where I could post authors’ and illustrators’ short book pitches and/or sample artwork. Interested editors and agents would be invited to view this board and contact contributors directly if interested in seeing more. The board would be hidden so that the work wasn’t viewable by the public; only I and the agents and editors would be able to view the pitches. (Writers new to publishing often worry a lot about their ideas being stolen. With experience comes the understanding that this is an extremely rare occurrence, and that no two people would write the same book even given the same premise. But making the Pinterest board private would protect everyone’s privacy as much as possible while offering a chance to be seen.)

I’m not convinced this is the most effective way to create opportunity, and here’s where I need you! Please, authors, illustrators, editors, and agents, share your ideas (anonymously is fine) in the comments section here about how to broaden the visibility of emerging authors of color, including and especially those writing stories featuring main characters of color. What can we do that will really help this happen?

Be part of the evolution of our field toward a truly inclusive, real-world representation of the great range of children who live in our neighborhoods and towns and villages and cities across the country.

Thank you for your ideas.

14 thoughts on “Help Shape the Diversity Evolution

  1. Jeff Rivera

    I’m an author of color who has written books for children and middle grade kids of all colors featuring diverse characters. I encourage other authors both indie and traditionally published to continue to write stories that reflect the real world we live but I’m not convinced more books are always the answer. I think the answer is getting the existing books into the hands of kids.

    For legacy publishers that have a sincere interest in stimulating the potential readers, this would be selling books at a discount or giving away excess to the point that there are more than enough books in these young readers’ hands and in the people who have an interest in literacy: teachers, parents and librarians for example. There are books that have been rotting in warehouses that would be better served in the hands of readers.

    For indie published authors, of course having quality books (well-edited, etc.) that have surpassed the prejudice of those who assume if books are self-published that they’re automatically going to be bad. One of my books that was traditionally published, I re-edited for the middle grade and YA market and it got national coverage and won a book award. It’s been pre-sold to thousands of students in schools across America. It can be done.

    If I could wave a magic wand to fix this issue, here’s what I’d do:
    Take authors of color on tour that’s either physically visiting schools or via Skype or Google Hangouts. Cut costs of physical books to the point where the first book in a series could be gifted to every school and allow schools unlimited digital access to as many eBooks as possible. Connect school-approved sponsors who want to connect with students to cover the costs of such tours and books. And each of these books would come with fun activities involving the book.

    Many kids would love to read, if only they had books that they could actually relate to. I’ve had many young people tell me my books were the first they’ve ever read and that’s because FINALLY they found characters they could identify with.

  2. Mary Louise Sanchez

    I’m excited about all the attention diversity in children’s literature is getting lately and discussions need to continue, not just in the publishing arenas but especially in educational settings. We need to train our teachers and librarians to read stories by diverse writers and drive home the point that they can help children write even more diverse stories. When I tell children of diverse cultures that publishers are looking for their stories, they’re surprised because no one has ever told them to consider writing and publishing as a career. We can’t just speak to the choir about the need for diverse authors and materials. I feel I’m part of the choir because I was a teacher/librarian and now something about children’s literature and publishing.

    Lee and Low were some of the first publishers I knew who encouraged writers of color by offering prizes. I did enter the contest years ago when I was an emergent writer and since then I’ve tried to do all the right things like study craft, join critique groups, attend conferences and workshops, and read, read, read to improve my writing. All this work paid off when I won the inaugural SCBWI On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Award. However, even though I mention this honor in my queries, publishers, editors, and agents still pass on my middle grade novel. They have to know I’m a serious writer but I’m given no encouragement or feedback. I’m also disheartened when I read how various agents, who are in their 20s and have attended Ivy League colleges, are only interested in their little select genres.

    Today I was given hope again when I entered the Latinas in Kids Lit contest which is offering a Latino/Latina writer or someone who writes about this culture, a chance to have their finished manuscript be seen by an agent or editor. The Latinas in Kids Lit committee will also help fine tune the query before it goes on. This is such a creative approach and I wish the winner much success.

    I hope this discussion continues and encourages writers of all diverse cultures. With more and more people on Pinterest, this might be an avenue to pursue. I noticed my Pinterest board on Latino and Latina Experiences in Books is even being followed by a library!

  3. Kathy

    I’d like to weigh in on this discussion as a high-school librarian. My school has a college prep program for disadvantaged kids. Thus, the kids are smart, but 95% are kids of color (Latino and African-American). It has been difficult to find books for them. Many publishers assume that diversity books need to be low level. Many publishers also assume that books can include a secondary character who is a minority, but still attract those readers with a cover that shows only a white person. I have many students who say they just won’t even consider books about “whites.” So I am struggling against this prejudice and publishers are NOT helping me…

    1. Kish Knight

      Hi Kathy. I would like to extend the same offer that Zetta Elliot graciously offered. Tintd Teen Press (tintdteen.com) is a collaboration of 3 authors, with fantasy and thriller young adult novels for teens of color. Contact me at Tintdteen.com or at ct518_che@yahoo.com if you would like a donated copy of our novels.

  4. Sara Megibow

    Great question Elizabeth!

    As an agent, I think about this a lot. I’ve loved the WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and I appreciate industry professionals like yourself who give a platform to this vital discussion.

    Your question is: for authors of diversity and/or authors who have written manuscripts with diversity, how do we get them seen by publishers? I only see a small piece of the pie, so my thoughts are biased by my own experience. My slice of the pie is this: debut authors only, middle grade and young adult only (no picture books, chapter books, etc) and big publishing only. So, that being said…I never reject a query or a manuscript based on content. I only pass on a project if I think it is not yet ready to sell (or as you say above not yet “editor-ready”). My job is commission sales so I’m not looking in the slush pile for books to work on, I’m looking for books to sell. On the other hand, I don’t provide feedback when I pass on a manuscript so how is an author to know if it’s because they have a POC protagonist or if their craft is not yet mastered? I think about this a lot and don’t have an answer yet.

    An essential component of the discussion of diversity is that of privilege. My job is stuffed full of privilege and with that comes responsibility. So, should I ask for sample pages from Diverse Authors – no query letter needed? Perhaps that would work (although 9 years and 40,000 query letters per year tells me that there is a direct correlation between good query letter and good manuscript…sell-able manuscript). As an agent, I don’t need more places to find authors – my inbox fills up, I receive pitches at conferences, I received pitches on twitter and my job is to make money for my clients – not to manage the slush pile (everyone with an agent wants that agent selling, not tweeting – rightfully so).

    For me, connecting all authors with the tools necessary to make their craft editor-ready is what would help me sell more manuscripts to publishers. Here are some additional thoughts:

    Expand the services at SCBWI to include classes (in person and online) on the objective tools needed for a professional manuscript (Cheryl Klein is an expert at these – I recommend her highly). Perhaps offer scholarships to SCBWI conferences so more authors have access to these classes.

    Link debut authors to essential publishing outlets like Writers Beware so the author them-self is publishing-ready

    Reaffirm to authors that diverse manuscripts are considered equally and there are agents and editors hungry to acquire this material

    Spread the word that once these manuscripts are on the shelves that we must buy them (or get them from the library), read them and talk about them. This is the entertainment business and money talks. Repeat: BUY diverse books (or rent from library), READ diverse books, TALK ABOUT diverse books.

    If there is anything here that triggers anyone, please call me on it. My intention was to provide helpful suggestions although I’m not the word-smith my authors are and I know the internet can feel faceless. Keep the suggestions rolling – this is a vital discussion!

    Thanks,
    Sara

  5. Crystal

    Thank you for continuing to highlight this issue, which is a very personal one for me. I’ll add that any way(s) that major influencers (CEO’s, people on boards of organizations, etc) can continue to be educated and basically mentored on issues of race – all the better. Because not everyone in power has the vocabulary or awareness about privilege, race, etc – for many, these things need to be taught. Of course, not everyone has personal access to these decision-makers, but some do, and this is another angle. Grassroots pressure is important and necessary, yes. But so is approaching it from the top-down. Are these decision-makers’ networks talking about race and pushing the conversation forward? Otherwise, the issue will slip from the foreground (aka their minds) and continue to be seen as a publishing “option”, not an imperative.

  6. Miranda Paul

    Elizabeth—as always, you bring up great points for discussion along with avenues to explore in finding a solution!

    I know that SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) helps writers connect to agents, editors, and publishers every year through grants and awards, conference manuscript critiques, workshops, retreats, and a range of online offerings such as market directories. There is a yearly cost to join SCBWI (under $100). I’ve seen several regions/state chapters add diversity panels or discussions to their conferences for this year and next year, with the hopes of showing more openness and welcoming arms to diverse authors and illustrators.

    Someone else mentioned Mira Reisberg’s scholarships at the Children’s Book Academy, which are great because all writers really need to be on top of their craft before submitting—the market is very competitive.

    It’s been pointed out time and again, but Lee and Low’s New Voices Award and other awards for authors of color are out there, and the prize results in a publishing deal.

    There are Twitter pitch contests that don’t require posting full or partial manuscripts online as well. These aren’t geared toward diversity.

    As you know, we’re going to explore the ideas of mentorships and possibly the private Pinterest board (or forum of some sort).

    Here’s to keeping this conversation going, and taking action!

  7. Keila Dawson

    Pinterest is a good idea for illustrators. For pitches, there is a new wordpress site http://mswlparagraph.wordpress.com/ where agents post what they are interested in acquiring.. Maybe pitches could be organized in a similar fashion,. I notice a password is required to access a certain part of the site. I also wonder now that #WeNeedDiverseBooks has their own official site, http://weneeddiversebooks.org/ if this is something they would be interested in adding on in the future. No doubt maintaining a site is a lot of work.

    I totally agree with the comment above from Carol about illustrations. A picture is a thousand words. Something I discussed with my own editor when creating characters of color, especially since it’s a picture book!

    I think subject matter is just as important. There’s a place for serious and or political and or topics that are written specifically with certain populations or cultures in mind, then there’s subject matter with universal themes. I recently started a perfect picture book pair page on Facebook and a board on Pinterest with those kinds of themes. If a parent or teacher is looking for a story on girls with strong personalities, read Suki’s Kimono and Stand Tall Molly Lou Lemon.

    Mira Risenberg, Founding Instructor and Director at Children’s Book Academy offered assistance to writers of color to take her class a few months ago. I’m not certain about the response to her offer.

    We definitely need to keep the discussion going!

  8. Zetta Elliott

    I wish I shared your optimism, Elizabeth, but an editor recently approached me seeking diverse material and then proceeded to praise my writing and reject ELEVEN picture book manuscripts. I did find a home for one picture book at a small press in Maine, but I don’t think writers of color can afford to wait for the industry to change. What’s that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? What has changed *structurally* to make it more likely that writers of color will get past the industry gatekeepers? I think members of the kid lit community need to embrace alternatives to traditional publishing. Below is my “pitch” on behalf of indie authors like myself who are responding to the urgent need for diverse books.

    The bias against self-published books is not unjustified; many are poorly written and shoddily produced but when the traditional publishing industry excludes so many talented writers of color, self-publishing is often their only recourse. If we all agree that the traditional publishing industry is not as inclusive as it needs to be, is it fair punish those writers who have sought out alternative ways to tell their stories? There is a large pool of talent in this country, yet the publishing industry is only giving certain individuals the opportunity to shine.
    The marginalization of writers of color is the result of barriers placed along the path to publication for far too many talented writers. Some Black organizations recognize this reality: awards like the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the NAACP Image Award, and QBR’s Phillis Wheatley Award accept nominations of self-published books. Respected bloggers at The Pirate Tree and The Book Smugglers don’t discriminate against self-published books, and their reviews prove that indie authors can contribute a lot to the field of children’s and YA literature—if they’re given a chance.
    Members of the children’s literature community are paying close attention to the diversity debate but the industry will not change overnight. If the most trusted review outlets exclude self-published books, then they are upholding the status quo by privileging a system that clearly disadvantages writers of color. They are also denying their followers access to titles that might help to fill the “diversity gap.”
    The Brown Bookshelf recently published a series called “Making Our Own Market.” They note that although many African American authors have been publishing independently for decades, “self-publishing still brings a stigma. The books are less likely to be reviewed, considered for school and library collections, and seen as on par with traditionally published titles. At The Brown Bookshelf, we grapple with covering them too. We receive a range of work from outstanding to less than professional. But if we want to change the face of publishing, we need to welcome self-published treasures too.”

    Maya Gonzalez and I are inviting members of the kid lit community to participate in our new initiative: Kid Lit Equality. You can find out more here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zetta-elliott/black-youth_b_5797870.html

  9. Carol Chittenden

    Like you, I’m not an editor, publisher, illustrator, or agent. Unlike you, I’m not an author. But by golly, I’ve been a children’s bookseller for 28 years, and a few things have become obvious, even to me. One is the importance of visuals: people DO judge books, and the characters within them, by their covers. Especially in picturebooks, we could really use more high concept cover art depicting ATTRACTIVE characters. Even glamorous. (Think I Had a Favorite Dress , by Boni Ashburn, or the work of the Dillons, among others.) Enough with the mice and bears and pigs: bring on a handsome, swarthy hero, a brown-skinned Cinderella whose gown sparkles. Draw/paint them with realistic care (none of that scribbly stuff that passes all too often for “art”) and appealing personality. Invest in the illustrators who can do that, and give them enough time to work. Today’s 4-year-old will be a teen before you know it, with purchasing power, strengthened self esteem, and a LOT of decisions to make.

    1. Kish Knight

      Point well taken. Books are judged by their covers, and for example, a fantasy novel, regardless of the hero/ heroine’s race, should depict the fantasy playground within which a reader will fall. When I, as a reader, am purchasing paperbacks in my favorite bookstore, I hone in on the covers, study the charcters’ eyes, examine their souls, look for flaws, etc. Just from a cover. … Well-crafted covers are very important.

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