A World Full of Color

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 10th, 2009

Hoo boy, have I got a great list of books to share with you!

Ever since the August 27 ShelfTalker post, Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?, I’ve been immersed in the ongoing conversation about—and search for—contemporary books featuring kids of color that aren’t primarily about race. The response to that post was terrific, a heartening reassurance that a lot of people throughout the industry care deeply about this issue. But I also heard from so many authors and illustrators, teachers and librarians, booksellers, editors and publishers, all working toward a similar goal, who have been “shouting into the wind” far too long, trying to draw attention to these books and the need for more of them. That’s frustrating and disheartening.

The good news:

a) The Internet has enabled public gathering places (like this blog and many, many others), where cross-cultural communication is so much easier than it used to be. (“Cross-cultural” here refers to bookselling, teaching, library, publishing, artist, author, etc., cultures, although the other meanings are also applicable.) Getting the word out about great books featuring kids of color can hit mainstream channels, if we all take care to do it.

b) There are some really great titles out there. From my own research and the many helpful resources people have shared with me since the post, we’ve got a very promising list of new and recent titles featuring contemporary kids and families of color where race is not the main issue. The 2009 list is growing, there are some 2010 titles on their way, and I’ve added a large pre-2009 section. More on this in a moment.

c) The world is changing. As the U.S. population continues to diversify, so will books. (If there are any actual books left, that is. Ha ha. Ouch.) Soon, soon, I hope, publishers and illustrators won’t think twice about including kids of color as a matter of course in their illustrations and book covers, avoiding the “one Asian, one Caucasian (usually placed centrally, and/or larger than, the other characters), and one black kid” triumvirate that doesn’t really do anything except trumpet the fact that the book is trying to be politically correct via a cliché image.

A corollary to this is that some day soon, marketing departments will need to stop doing an end-run around the cover-art question. By this I mean the attempt to overcome the (lamentably very real) challenge of selling book covers to white audiences by obscuring or omitting race from book covers. They may show characters from the back, or blur them, or use such extreme facial closeups it’s hard to work out race, or use only the white character on the front cover of a book that equally features a character of color. The new cover of E.L. Konigsburg’s Newbery Honor book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (shown at left) goes this route, and the image has a lively quality, but it ignores the heart of the book: the friendship between Jennifer and Elizabeth. I’m not sure my nine- or ten-year-old self would have picked up the new cover, but the original image (shown at right) drew me in immediately. As an adult, it made me sad to see that Jennifer, the dominant figure in the friendship, had disappeared from the 2007 edition, and to think about the probable reasons for that decision.

I understand the impulse, and often, it works—not only because of latent (or blatant) racism, but because book covers have shaped reader expectations. As Carol Chittenden astutely pointed out in her comment on the Ramona Quimby blog post, perhaps part of the problem lies in what readers have grown accustomed to expect from books with kids of color on the cover: “I would have to voice some sympathy with publishers who soft-pedal skin color in cover designs. I often see older customers’ faces cloud over when I present such great books as Elijah of Buxton, and they dismiss it with, ‘I don’t think he’d relate to that one. What else can you show me?’ Kids seem to have far less of a problem with that, and when the cover figures are a group, a mix doesn’t seem to be an issue. There’s such a strong assumption that if the character on the cover is dark-skinned, the book is about race.”

I think we have a chance here to continue changing public perception. We need to keep talking, and back up our words with actions. Let’s not make lazy assumptions about what kids will and won’t read, and what adults will and won’t consider buying. This goes all the way from authors and illustrators to agents and editors, publishers and marketing departments, then booksellers, teachers, and librarians. If we all shift a little, a lot can happen.

d) Editors tell me they are looking for great books featuring kids of color, and not just for historical fiction. Some have told me they aren’t getting many good manuscripts fitting this description. To me, this means that agents need to step up to the plate and rep those authors and illustrators of color whose work they love but haven’t represented for fear the market won’t buy. The market is already here; we just have to reach it.

And now for the books that DO exist: TA-DAH!! Our WORLD FULL OF COLOR list.

There are lots of great books, I’m happy to say. Not enough, by a long shot, but this discussion has brought to light dozens of 2009 titles and scores of pre-2009 titles, not to mention a nice starting handful of 2010 titles.

I’ve spent a ridiculous number of hours on this list, tracking down books, adding titles and tags and trying to find the best way to catalog and list them. Grateful thanks to all of you who wrote in with title suggestions, publishing links, and book-review sites specializing in books by and about people of color.

After trying several different options, I finally chose LibraryThing.com to host our book list. You can use it without having to register, it’s incredibly flexible, it provides book covers even in the printable version of the lists, and it allows users to add their own comments, tags, and book information to the book records. It acts like a Wiki without the learning curve. You can sort and organize the books in a myriad of ways. Josie tells me I’d bore you to sobs trying to explain all the cool things LibraryThing can do, so I’ll just provide the link and let you guys check it out. It’s very intuitive. You’re welcome to ask me questions in the comments section here.

Please keep in mind that this is a work-in-progress, and that I’m sure I’ve made some tagging whoopsies along the way, particularly with the categorization of 48+-page books that don’t quite fit our usual definitions of picture books, early readers, or chapter books. Feel free to email me with corrections — or, better yet, make them yourselves in the Common Knowledge section of each book. I think I also went a little nuts and included some titles that are more about race and ethnic heritage than the original intent of this list. But better to err on the side of inclusivity, I think.

Finally, please let me know when you come across more books that fit the bill, and I’ll add them to LibraryThing.

In the meantime, for two extremely thoughtful, lively articles about race, check out Mitali Perkins’s blog post about race and class in The Hunger Games, and Newsweek‘s article about how well-intentioned parents who never mention race to their children are actually contributing to racism. The article is called “See Baby Discriminate: Kids as young as 6 months judge others based on skin color. What’s a parent to do?” and it’s an eye-opener.

Thanks for continuing the conversation. You can also link to the library here:

56 thoughts on “A World Full of Color

  1. shelftalker elizabeth

    Thanks, everyone, for continuing to add recommendations. The list is becoming so rich. Joanne, I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of whether or not to tag books by race/ethnicity/culture. I’m still flip-flopping on that, because part of the whole point of the list is to get past the race of the protagonists, to present stories that are terrific for all kids whatever their race. For instance, in addition to wanting Caucasian kids to read diversely, I’m hoping that African American kids will pick up books about Latino kids, and vice versa, etc. and so on. Since the entire list is populated by kids of color, I have been thinking that that is enough ‘segregation.’ However, I did add tags for books featuring American Indians, because finding those books is akin to finding needles in haystacks; ditto for interracial families in picture books. What does everyone think about this? Do the practical benefits of tagging by race outweigh the philosophical reasons for not tagging?

  2. Joanne Fritz

    Fantastic list, Elizabeth. What an amazing amount of work you’ve put into this. My suggestion (which I didn’t see in the LibraryThing list, but maybe I’m just missing them): The Golden Hour, Hour of the Cobra, and Hour of the Outlaw by Maiya Williams. I certainly hope they’re not out of print. My customers often ask for books specifically written by African-American authors. I know Jacqueline Woodson, Sharon Flake, Patricia McKissack, Walter Dean Myers, but I’m sure there are many others. Is there a list within the list that would show this? Thanks.

  3. Stefanie Von Borstel

    I’d love to recommend a new middle grade release from Little Brown, CONFETTI GIRL by Diana Lopez. The story is about a Mexican American girl whose culture is there for her, but the book is not about a conflict with her culture. Her culture supports her and helps see her through a difficult time. Apolonia Flores (or Lina), is a sock-loving, volleyball player with a major crush on a boy named Luís—read more about the book in recent interviews in San Antonio Express News and LaBloga! http://www.labloga.blogspot.com http://www.mysanantonio.com

  4. Beth Saltzman

    Please add The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill. My son is reading it to me and we are both enjoying it. One of my (white) tutoring students saw the cover and asked about it (“The book with the African American boy on the cover.”) I will read it to him. Two friends and a terrific story. Beth

  5. Olugbemisola

    i hate to keep clogging up the comments, but i think my very first comment didn’t show up…a few more would be Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman, Blue Mountain Trouble by Martin Mordecai, Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Pena, Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos, and the Aya series by Marguerite Abouet. Thank you so much for putting this together!

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