Selling Color to Customers: A Bookseller’s Guide

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 7th, 2010

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post about the NEIBA trade show panel on how to sell multicultural books to white customers. After hearing from our wonderful guests — author Mitali Perkins, Candlewick President and Publisher Karen Lotz, and Tu Books Editorial Director Stacy Whitman — I spoke from the bookselling angle.

In this discussion, we were focusing primarily on representations of race and ethnicity in children’s books, although multiculturalism also includes diversity of cultures, religions, gender and sexual orientation. We were also talking about books NOT aimed at educating readers about race, but books that happen to feature main characters of color, across the whole spectrum of genres: humor, family stories, fantasy, magic, adventure, nonfiction…. and our goal of finding and sharing the stories of Black, Asian, Hispanic characters doing all the fun stuff their Caucasian counterparts do in books.

I encouraged booksellers to look honestly at our own assumptions about what people will want to read, and what we think to show them. (This goes along with Mitali’s suggestion to look at what we face out in our stores, and feature in displays.) I spoke about inadvertent racism, and about taking a look at our own reading habits. Are we ourselves reading widely? Are we ignoring ARCs with brown faces on the cover? It’s so easy to fall into “monocultural” thinking, especially when we are surrounded by it.

Thinking about our own approach to race in children’s books requires ongoing self-assessment for all of us booksellers, me included. For instance: when I handsell books to customers, I usually gather three to five possible titles and booktalk each one. And even though this topic is obviously extremely important to me, I still sometimes find myself needing to remind myself to include books with main characters of color in these groups of books when recommending them to white customers. Not often, but sometimes.

And I confessed to sometimes wanting to ‘take the easy way out’ when I sense a customer’s resistance to a book just because of the race of the main character. It’s not appropriate to lecture customers or make them feel bad, but you can use your own enthusiasm for the book—and your book-recommending expertise, which they already appreciate—to make headway.

For instance, when you see that resistance look on a customer’s face and they say those coded things like, “I don’t think that’s really for him,” or “Oh, she wouldn’t like that,” you can say, “Kids in town LOVE this book!” (Of course, that has to actually be true. You never compromise your integrity or reputation by pretending a book is good or popular when it isn’t.) And you can make one more gentle try, by saying why you chose that book for that customer’s grandchild: “You mentioned that Christopher loves sports, and the boy in this book is training for a cutthroat kite-flying championship. Three boys made kites after reading this adventure.” If they still say no, at least they will be more aware of why they’re saying no.

I have never once had a white kid customer avoid a book with a kid of color on the cover, unless the book looked bleak. Adults tend to be much more conscious of race, and therefore sometimes when I am booktalking a little stack, I don’t show the covers as I speak. I just loosely hold the books as I talk about them, and then hand the stack over to the eager customer. Again, I think this helps make people aware of why they are rejecting a book, especially if they have been interested in a story and suddenly find that interest dampened. And that awareness is the first step toward change.

And perhaps, after three or four more visits to the bookstore that always match Christopher with terrific books he loves, she’ll be willing to take a chance. The more we normalize broad reading choices, and the more regularly we convey with our own behavior the expectation that of course customers will be interested in wonderful books about main characters of all colors, the more successful we will become at selling those wonderful books.

The language we use to booktalk books is very important. I encourage booksellers to handsell books with people of color on the cover the same way they booktalk books with white kids on the cover when talking to white customers: hook them with the story, the character, the dilemmas and adventures. You don’t mention race unless race IS the story. Take historical fiction as a parallel. For many kids, the minute you describe a book as historical fiction, their eyes glaze over. But if you say, “This book is about a girl who gets kidnapped from her home and tries to escape and become a spy,” well, they’re in.

I concluded my part of the panel discussion with a mention of resources.

One of them is this list I’ve compiled of more than 685 contemporary multicultural titles that feature kids of color, but that are not “race issues”-driven books. You can sort them by age range, and click on any title to learn more. One great feature is that you can add comments to books. I invited everyone (and invite you!) to add their successful booktalks for these titles in the comments sections. Again, it’s the World Full of Color library.

FP Multicultural Cheat Sheet

I will also be posting (1) my PowerPoint presentation from the panel, (2) a “cheat sheet” for bookstores that lists 70+ outstanding multicultural books you can recommend for babies through teens, and (3) online resource links, many of which are available in ShelfTalker posts here, and here, as soon as I can figure out where to upload larger pdfs. (Panel attendees, I have your email addresses and will send you the resources directly, but the PowerPoint pdf test email got rejected by email servers for being too large, so I’m trying to figure that out, too.)

Professor Zetta Elliott’s article, “Something like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry,” is extremely powerful, and if we substitute “booksellers” for “publishers” and “publishing industry,” it may help remind us of what’s at stake here, and how we can help. She writes: “What I am trying to say to children’s publishers is that the lack of books for children in our communities IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. I am not asking you to level the playing field as a “favor” to people of color. I am asking you to work with us in our efforts to transform children’s lives. Isn’t that why you chose this field in the first place? … And, of course, there is a desperate need for ‘slice of life’ stories that don’t (only) focus on racial or cultural conflict…. People of color make up a third of the population, and before too long, we’ll reach 50%. In 2050 will we still be petitioning the children’s publishing industry to be more responsive to our needs….?”

The great news is, there are some really fundamental, simple things we can all do to be responsive, and I hope you all will share your own tips and techniques for making bookstores colorful and welcoming to all of our customers, and for sharing terrific books by and about people of color with a wide audience.

9 thoughts on “Selling Color to Customers: A Bookseller’s Guide

  1. Olugbemisola

    Elizabeth, this is a fabulous resource — I’ve found myself pointing people over here many times in the past few days; so many of these tips are useful for all of us bookish folk — parents, educators, librarians, readers, book buyers, friends, and family.

  2. Ellen Sugg

    A wonderful post!

    Two personal favorites are Jerdine Nolen’s THUNDER ROSE and RAISING DRAGONS.

    I would also add that our niece and nephew are African-American, though we are not. A customer who is not a person of color may be very interested in finding a book with multicultural characters as a gift.

  3. Sheela Chari

    This was a great post and helped me understand where the bookseller plays a role in promoting diversity in kid’s books. Thank you so much! I enjoyed the previous post, too – especially about the necessity for writing and reading books about kids of color doing all the “normal”, fun, cool things that their Caucasian counterparts do. I think it is a matter of opening up the range of experience that children from all parts of the world can take part in (and the possibility of reading about those experiences).
    Thanks again!

  4. Ty Jackson

    Authors, writers and illustrators of color MUST do a better job of making more contemporary books with diverse characters and fun stories that all cultures can relate to and enjoy. Big Head Books, a new publishing company is out to do just that!

  5. Sharon Flfake

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it. As an African American young adult author, I can’t tell you the number of hugs and “I love you and your work,” that I get from not just children who look like me, but Caucasian, Asian, Latino and other youth. My stories are their stories, they tell me. Last year, one Caucasian girl told me that the African-American father in one of my novels was her role model, because her own dad wasn’t in the home. A Caucasian boy in Washington started a group for gay youth based on the very title of one of my books, The Skin I’m In. He said it taught him to accept himself just the way he was. When I was young, there weren’t very many authors of color. White female authors were the ones that I read primarily, because they somehow knew me and my story. Today the same is true for my work as well as that of other author’s of color–young people see themselves and their friends in our books. It’s why this year I’ve heard from youth in Vietnam and China, Belgium and Africa, Bermuda as well as Australia and elsewhere. Young people get it–good books tell everyone’s story–if we let them.

  6. Doret

    I think its very important for kids to know there are stories with kids of color that have nothing to do with race. Some young readers may only associate kids of color characters with assigned reading and historical fiction.

    Elizabeth, I agree once bookseller establishes a good track record with customers, they will be more open to buying books with kids of color in the future.

  7. Ellen Mager

    Elizabeth: Thank you so much! The informatin is amazing I put both posts into a 4 page file for future use and to share with NAIBA the possibilities for Children’s bookselling topics. We had so few this year. Now I have to figure out the down loading things you mentioned. I’ll wait till my high school student comes in tomorrow! Thanks again!

  8. Trish Brown

    Elizabeth, this is such a wonderful resource! While I know kids tend to relate to the story rather than the ethnicity of the characters, it’s great to put a book in their hands that they can relate to on all levels. We’re always on the hunt for books in which the characters just happen to be people of color. I can’t thank you enough for championing this issue.

  9. Jeff Rivera

    Great advice. Kids are naturally color blind. They just want a great book. It’s only when adults point out that they “wouldn’t be interested” in something that they assume it must be true.

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