Flooded subways and technical snafus didn’t thwart our multicultural panel at NEIBA this past weekend. I had been so excited about our speakers: author Mitali Perkins, Candlewick President and Publisher Karen Lotz, and Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director of Tu Books, the new multicultural fantasy imprint of Lee & Low Books.
I introduced the panelists and outlined my purpose in convening them: to examine our own biases and assumptions about the books we recommend to our customers, and to bring great books featuring kids from a multitude of races/ethnicities and cultures to the attention of all readers.
(Right here, I want to differentiate between books ABOUT race and books featuring kids from different races. There are many wonderful books about racial issues and questions of identity that readers of all backgrounds love. The thrust of this workshop, however, was to seek out and find ways to share books about ordinary kids (who just happen to not be European/Caucasian) having great adventures, both realistic and fantastical.)
Mitali Perkins opened the discussion with the most wonderful description of her early reading life, as a little girl who identified with Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, with Anne of Green Gables, with Fern in Charlotte’s Web. She, like all children, identified with the characters in the books, not with the color of their skin. She quoted Hazel Rochman: “Fiction makes immigrants of us all.” Her talk turned powerful when she related her first experiences with racism on the playground of a new school — the first time she saw herself as “other.”
She spoke brilliantly about books serving as both mirrors and windows, and the need for all children to have both kinds of books: those that reflect themselves, and those that provide entree into other lives and cultures and worlds. She also pointed out that children who are not born into the dominant culture become adept at picking up cues, at crossing culture lines and learning what it’s like to live other lives, while children of the dominant race/culture who are not exposed to people and literature beyond their own become monocultural.
She also brought up novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s admonition to avoid the “danger of a single story,” that is, the danger of thinking that one story from a culture is representative of all stories from that culture.
One of the most useful ideas for booksellers came from the end of Mitali’s talk, when she suggested we invite people of color (she didn’t use that limited and somewhat troubling phrase, just said “people,” but we knew what she meant) into our stores and ask them to share with us honestly what they see. Do our stores speak of welcome, inclusion? Look around at what we face out, what we pull out for table and window displays; are a variety of people represented? What are we communicating to our customers?
Mitali is so articulate, and she also brings the most delightful warmth and liveliness and grace and tolerance to even the most difficult anecdotes (like the terrible playground incident) she relates.
Karen Lotz from Candlewick spoke next. I’d invited her because I’ve always felt that Candlewick does a wonderful job offering books that happen to feature characters of color without relegating them to a niche market. Every book is presented with an equal presumption of value, and is expected to sell in the mainstream marketplace. How do they manage that when it seems to be a challenge for so many publishers?
Karen said that she is lucky, in that Candlewick feels free from gatekeepers of the kind that would control or limit what they publish. Candlewick is a creatively-led house, story-driven, driven by the artists’ vision for the books. She said their “whole team shares the mission of broadening the range of books available to children” at every age level.
Part of the reason Candlewick has embraced multiculturalism so consciously from its early years is that in 1998, the employee-owners of the company commissioned an independent study to look at expanding its U.S. audience, and the study came back suggesting that some of the Candlewick list was “too white and too British.” You’d never know it to look at their list now! (Makes me want to commission a whole raft of studies….)
One of the “aha!” moments from Karen’s talk for all of us was her anecdote about a mysterious summons for a meeting with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that had something to do with Candlewick’s wildly successful “Ology” books. When they met, it turned out that Mr. Abdul-Jabbar wanted to know where these books were for brown kids, the books with high production values that make kids excited, the “books with bling.” Where indeed? That opened Candlewick to the idea of making the investment in those extra production touches on books for kids outside the dominant culture.
She mentioned an Indonesian idiom, cuci mata, which means to “wash your eyes” and see the world anew. It was a phrase President Obama’s mother taught to her children, and Karen thought of it in relation to her conversation with Mr. Abdul-Jabbar — one of those serendipitous moments that makes you see something in a fresh way. As Candlewick continues to learn and grow, Karen said, she (and other publishers) are also looking for tips from us on how best to sell books across color lines.
Karen’s presentation was both lovely and inspiring. She’s a marvelous publisher, and her humble admission that she is still learning struck such a wonderful note. (Full disclosure: Candlewick pubs my books, so I would have every reason to be biased about Karen Lotz, but ask anyone who attended the panel and they will agree with my assessment, truly.)
Stacy Whitman from Tu Books had gotten stuck in the flooded NYC subway system on her way to catch a train to the trade show in Providence, and since our panel convened at 10:15 am, there was no chance she’d make another train. But she gamely agreed to phone in her portion of the panel discussion, and joined us via one of those three-armed grey com phones they rustle up in convention centers. (Thanks to NEIBA’s Steve Fischer for helping us get that worked out!)
I can’t imagine trying to talk to an invisible audience (silent because they want to hear every word coming in over the speaker phone), but Stacy did a great job.
She spoke about the origins of Tu Books, a new imprint of Lee & Low that is focusing on fantasy and science fiction featuring characters of color. (I really, really want to find other ways to say “nonwhite folks” without defining people by what they aren’t. If anyone has suggestions for an inclusive term that is better than “people of color,” please let me know!)
Stacy mentioned RaceFail, an online discussion of the many ways racism rears its ugly head via exclusion, whitewashing, and other nefarious practices in publishing and other media. Click here for an article followed by a list of links to other articles and conversations on this topic.
The audience’s “aha!” moment during Stacy’s talk was when she raised a question. “Keep in mind how diverse our communities really are,” she said, even if they have homogenous pockets. How are you reaching those diverse customers? Do you need to do a different kind of outreach than you are currently doing?
She mentioned the following as great outreach possibilities:
Library outreach (book talks in libraries)
Social networking possibilities
School outreach (book talks) – Also, are there kids who never order from the book clubs?? Fundraise to get books to those kids, too.
We were so grateful that Stacy was able to “join” us, despite the travel and technical challenges of her morning. Her imprint’s first two books debut next year, and you can follow her blogs here and here.
This post’s length has already approached the limits of human endurance, so I will share my part of the panel presentation (with resources!) in a separate post.
I will close with this wonderful feedback from a member of the audience. Margie Leonard of The Blue Bunny in Dedham, Mass., said, “Every time there’s a booksellers’ gathering in New England, we should have this seminar.” Another bookseller found me in the corridor later and said, “It was really nice to step back and think about why we do what we do, in addition to all the workshops on our business practices.” And Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music said, “We already try to do this, but I’m newly fired up!” I think we all were. Thanks so much to our wonderful panelists!!