When we moved to Vermont from Manhattan, the biggest shock wasn’t the change from city to country; it was the shift from color to (not black-and-) white. We couldn’t get used to the lack of diversity. It felt unnatural, limited, and wrong. When tourists of color happened into the store, we embarrassed ourselves with our enthusiasm. For the first year, I even had a hard time telling some of my customers apart; in addition to the uniform Caucasian-ness, there was a sameness of dress—cotton turtlenecks, fleece vests, jeans*—and hair, lots of straight, shoulder-length hair. (Josie’s Mediterranean Jewish ringlets are quite exotic here.) Up until 14 years ago, Josie and I spent our individual lives in areas of the country that were richly multicultural.
Last I checked, Vermont had the United States’ least diverse population. I think we’re at 97+% white. In Vermont’s defense, its record for equal treatment is excellent; we may not have a big nonwhite population, but folks that do live here have equivalent opportunities and salaries as their white counterparts. But the point I’m making is, Dorothy, we’re not in New York City anymore.
All that by way of saying, we understand the challenge of making ‘books of color’ mainstream purchases for white audiences.
At the New England Independent Booksellers Association trade show next week, the Children’s Bookselling Advisory Council is holding a panel discussion on this topic. I’d love for booksellers, authors, publishers and editors, sales reps and publicists to attend and share their successful strategies for getting past reluctant or stymied gatekeepers and reaching across color lines to share wonderful, diverse books with kids. I’ll be posting a follow-up in ShelfTalker after the panel.
Here’s the description:
Multicultural Kids Books: Selling Color in a White World
We all want to support and sell wonderful multicultural books, but many of us live in areas with fairly homogenous populations. How do we get past unconscious color barriers, both our own and our customers’, and put great books featuring characters of all colors in the hands of children? Participants will leave with helpful resources, including sample booktalks, tips for successful conversations with hesitant customers, resources for meeting the needs of multiracial families in your neighborhood, a list of helpful websites, and an annotated bibliography of great multicultural books by age. Panelists will include bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle (The Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, Vt.), author Mitali Perkins, Stacy Whitman (Editorial Director of Tu Publishing), and Karen Lotz (President and Publisher of Candlewick Press).
One of the resources I’m preparing is a bibliography of 2010 titles that feature kids of color, especially those where race is not a major issue in the book. The character(s) of color must be featured prominently (not as sidekicks or observers) on the covers of the books I’m including. Publishers are invited to send titles of all books meeting these criteria for inclusion in the bibliography — ebluemle at publishersweekly dot com. I’ll also make sure those titles are included in the LibraryThing.com collection of books in print that satisfy those criteria (but are not limited to 2010 titles).
It’s been a year since I first posted about race in children’s books. Some progress has been made, but it’s also been a year in which Tea Party politicians† have actually gained a foothold in the national discussion. More than ever, we need books for children that present a wide range of experiences, family structures, and racial and cultural differences to the future voting citizens of our nation.
I’m excited about this panel and the discussion among its participants. Hope to see you there! If you can’t make it, but would like to share your own successful efforts along these lines, please comment below and I’ll share your thoughts with the participants.
* Confession: I wear that Vermont uniform myself now. It’s inevitable. And comfy. Edited to add: And in case it isn’t clear from my Vermont’s-equal-opportunity comment, our customers, while mostly Caucasian, are the most broad-minded, open-hearted bunch of people anywhere. We are lucky to be able to sell color in our white town. But not all towns are like this, and I want to help booksellers and librarians in those towns share more diverse books with their clientele.
† Edited to add: I understand that it is jarring to read a blog post and come upon wholesale criticism of something one supports, especially in a blog devoted to children’s bookselling. However, publishing and bookselling are affected by politics, and I do have opinions about those effects. Normally, I would avoid such specific criticism, but the growing ugliness of intolerance and racism expressed in our country — openly, and with defiance, even — is so disheartening and alarming to me that I cannot ignore them.
My personal political opinions are of course solely mine, so please don’t be annoyed with PW (which is merely supporting my 1st Amendment right to free speech). What I value most is this dialogue; whether we agree or disagree, these are vital issues of our time, and should be debated.