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 for the additions! I also added the terrific Lionboy trilogy, because it fits all the criteria except an American setting. It’s got a biracial protagonist and was written by a mom-daughter team from an interracial family. The Ann Cameron chapter books have been on the LibraryThing list from the beginning, but people have mentioned them more than once as if they aren’t seeing them there. Please let me know if they aren’t showing up in your searches. I’ve found that the Search tab works for searching, but the Search box within the library will often return no results, so I don’t use that anymore. Keep the recommendations coming, but remember – we’re starting out with a list of books featuring contemporary kids of color where race is not the driving issue. That’s why historical fiction isn’t included for now; there are so many online resources to find those titles, but harder to find sites dedicated to contemporary books where race is (while always a factor in a person’s life) not “the” issue of the book.

  2. SARAH DILLARD

    This is such a fascinating list– It would be so interesting to compare against books published even 10 years ago– There’s a long way to go but great strides are being made. If I’m not mistaken each of the kids in Blue Balliett’s books (Chasing Vermeer etc.) come from multi-cultural families.

  3. Ari Reading in Color

    Thank you so, so much for the list! Especially the 2009 and 2010 titles. I hadn’t heard of many of them, but the ones I have heard of that you do include are awesome. This list will help me with my blog, Reading in Color review more books about people of color for teens and possibly kids. I recommend you add the enitre DramaHigh series by L.Divine (YA), the DIVAS series by Victoria Christopher Murray (YA), A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott (YA), Good Enough by Paula Yoo (YA), She’s so Money by Cherry Cheva (YA), Naming Maya (MG), Bud, Not Buddy (MG) by Christopher Paul Curtis and Yankee Girl by Ann Rodman (MG)

  4. varda

    thanks for the list, elizabeth. i have forwarded a link to your post to the jewish multiracial network listserv that i am a member of. i’m sure it will be greatly appreciated.

  5. Jo Ann Hernandez

    Thank you Elizabeth so very much for several reasons. 1. This list is great! Thank you for the hard work in putting it together. 2. Thank you for standing up for what needs to be said. POC need more people like you to be counted. 3. Most Important: Thank you so much for including my book, “The Throwaway Piece.” I am so grateful to be included. I was ill when the book came out and I have been playing catch up since then. Adding me to your list will give my book a much needed boost. Thank you so much. You have no idea how much it means to me to be included on your list. Thank you. BronzeWord1 AT yahoo com

  6. Susan

    I have had a number of parents, where one is black and one is white, tell me they are annoyed that there are so few books where that show integrated households as just regular and “no big deal”. The always reliable and gorgeous A Child’s Calendar (by the late greats John Updike and Trina Schart Hyman is usually a big hit. For older kids, the recent The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is another good choice. It is getting much easier to find great choices to offer lately…and this list is certainly going to be really helpful, thanks!

  7. shelftalker elizabeth

    Debbie — Sherman Alexie (love that man’s books) is on the list, but no, I didn’t get suggestions from anyone for books featuring contemporary American Indians where race/ethnicity/culture is not the driving force behind the story. Would love to add some! Please send a list. In the meantime, will check my Bruchac and store inventory for possibilities. ETA: Just tried to import titles from Oyate, but they aren’t found in the Library of Congress database or the Amazon database. If you are willing to add them to LibraryThing (accounts are free), I’ll happily import them from there.

  8. Debbie Reese

    I looked over the list (perhaps too quickly) and did not see a single American Indian author, or, a story about American Indians. Did I overlook either one? Did nobody who wrote to you suggest a Native writer? Or story? If not, what does that tell us?

  9. Elizabeth Dulemba

    Wow – fantastic!! I also missed the initial conversation, but am so glad you created this! I see you have one of my titles on the list already, READY FOR THE DAY, but I wanted to let you know about a few more. READY FOR BED features an Hispanic mother and child without mentioning race. Also, my two recent picture books feature Hispanic main characters. And while the bilingual versions of each do focus on learning Spanish, the all-English versions would easily qualify for this list. They are PACO AND THE GIANT CHILE PLANT and my newest (as author/illustrator), SOAP, SOAP, SOAP. Again, thanks so much for creating this list – I look forward to exploring! 🙂 e Elizabeth O. Dulemba

  10. Zetta

    Thanks for this impressive list, Elizabeth, and for joining the chorus of so many people of color who have been asking for change for so long. We need all the allies we can get, especially since we’re so woefully underrepresented within the publishing industry itself. Thanks also for linking to my open letter to the children’s publishing industry. I don’t think many people realize that white authors and illustrators currently own 95% of the publishing pie. I’d like to second Laura’s remarks about editors being more proactive in seeking out stories by writers of color; my first picture book won a number of awards, and yet I can’t get an agent and I haven’t heard from any editors interested in looking at my twenty other manuscripts (thanks for urging agents to step to the plate!). Lastly, I’d like to suggest a two-year moratorium on tribute books to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. I’m not saying stop putting out such books altogether, but there’s something not quite right about white editors’ predilection for books about noble black folks who are deceased…

  11. Jo Beth Dempsey

    Thanks for your list on LibraryThing! I was pleased to see that I have a number of those books on my library shelves, and our school is in NW Minnesota, which isn’t very multiculturally diverse. However, one of the books I always read to my kids is The Stories Julian Tells–they absolutely love it! Jacqueline Woodson is one of my favorite authors, and my high school kids love the Bluford High series and anything written by Walter Dean Myers. So at least they have some exposure to characters of color. I would add Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. It is about Kek, a refugee from Africa who moves to Minneapolis, MN in the dead of winter to live with his aunt and cousin while the relief organization that sponsored him searches for his mother in other refugee camps (they were separated when an attack on their refugee camp forced them to flee). A great book that is a Maud Hart Lovelace nominee (MN state book award).

  12. shelftalker elizabeth

    Zetta’s website also includes a great list of links to other sites focusing on children’s books by and about people of color. Through it, I found my way to a wonderful blog called, Black Threads in Kid’s Lit, bit.ly/BvYoI. Its author, Kyra, recapped the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s statistics on authors and illustrators of color in 2008, bit.ly/6whBd. Though there was an increase of 7.8%, the actual numbers are still shocking and shameful: 83 African American, 48 Latino, 77 Asian, and 9 (!) American Indian authors/illustrators.

  13. shelftalker elizabeth

    Just came across a fantastic article by Zetta Elliott, called “Something like an open letter to publishers,” bit.ly/KyY4L, which says everything I’ve wanted to say and more. One small section: “We do persist, though most of us languish in the shadows, obscured by the blinding spotlight focused on a handful of celebrated authors. It seems that if a publisher has one or two award-winning authors of color, they no longer feel obligated to actively seek out new talent, emerging voices that might extend the limited range of realities we find in children’s literature today. And, of course, there is a desperate need for “slice of life” stories that don’t (only) focus on racial or cultural conflict; I’m partial to wild geese and willow trees, but those aren’t the books editors and agents seem to champion. 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–OUR urgencies?”

  14. hallojen

    They were published several years ago, but Pat McKissack’s Miami Jackson Gets It Straight, Miami Jackson Makes the Play, and Miami Jackson Sees it Through are wonderful early chapter books.

  15. Ruth McNally Barshaw

    Elizabeth writes: Let’s not make lazy assumptions about what kids will and won’t read, and what adults will and won’t consider buying. ————- If kids were in charge, maybe they’d only eat carbohydrates and read mass market. Maybe it’s not just a smart idea, but the adults’ *obligation* to expose them to something healthy from the very start. We, as grownups who work with books, are in a position to influence children everywhere: Eat your vegetables and read good literature about people who at first seem different from you. It could undo a lot of damage, sell a lot of diverse books (thereby encouraging more) and improve the generation that follows. Elizabeth: Brilliant discussion, impressive list; thank you for this great resource.

  16. Karen Johnson

    I agree about the front cover of “Jennifer, Hecate…” Did you know the illustrator is E.L. Konisburg? My 5th grade teacher read this book, then I read it as a teacher. My students referred to it as, “Read Jennifer.” I had forgotten that Jennifer was black, and it’s subtle in the illustrations and text.

  17. Laura Atkins

    Wow, Elizabeth, you’ve really followed through from your original post. Amazing. I just wanted to follow-up on your comment about editors who would love to have more books by writers of color come across their desks. While it would help if agents did more on this front, I also think those editors need to do something more active to find these books. When working at Children’s Book Press and Lee & Low, I did an enormous amount of outreach, including: contacting editors of anthologies for adults to see if they could suggest promising authors, writing to bookgroups and listservs focusing on authors of color and inviting them to submit, contacting authors for adults who I thought had promise writing for children, and just generally putting the word out far and wide that we were looking for new authors. I think these editors need to do what you have done here, which is to make an active and overt effort to invite and be open to new authors. Getting published is such a difficult task, and often it takes having connections to have your work looked at seriously. These barriers need to be actively considered and taken down or things just won’t change. Of course, having more people of color and people from different classes working in publishing would help enormously. Thanks again for all your work here!

  18. Charlotte

    I’d like to add my thanks. What a great list! Here’s another contribution, a fantasy graphic novel series from Lerner: The Elsewhere Chronicles: Book One: The Shadow Door, Book Two: The Shadow Spies, Book Three: The Master of Shadows. Story by Nykko, translation from the French by Carol Klio Burrell, art by Bannister.

  19. Erin Murphy

    Elizabeth….I am speechless. It takes someone giving such a gift of their time to help us all make great leaps forward. Thank you, thank you, thank you! (I am one of those who participated in the original discussion when the comments were being wonky and it got deleted–but I never re-posted. Such a rich conversation!)

  20. shelftalker elizabeth

    Thanks, everyone, for the great suggestions. If you don’t see a title show up, it’s because the books are, sadly, out of print — and in some cases, because they don’t meet the contemporary story criteria. Doesn’t mean they aren’t fantastic books, and perhaps at some point I’ll be able to add them all, but I want this list to be a current resource for people to use in bookstores, libraries, and schools. Gbemi, only one of the Jamela books is still in print, and that adorable Boy on the Beach is OP, too. Heidi, your list was wonderful; thanks so much for all the titles. Sadly, several are OP, but I’m happy to say that all of the Jamaica stories are still available, along with many of the rest you suggested.

  21. shelftalker elizabeth

    Kelly, there is a tagged section on the LibraryThing site called xMulticultural Resource, and you’ll find books like Black Books Galore! and others there. I think Cheryl Hudson or Doret pointed me in their direction. Please send any others, too. Thanks so much.

  22. Mary McKenna Siddals

    Wow! What an ambitious undertaking… and what an impressive list! May I suggest some of my own picture books for inclusion? Millions of Snowflakes (illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles) features an Asian child, while I’ll Play With You (illustrated by David Wisniewski) features a multi-ethnic cast of characters, as does Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth (illustrated by Ashley Wolff), which is forthcoming in March 2010. What an invaluable resource! Thanks for doing this, Elizabeth!

  23. ChristineTB

    Got your back, darlin’ I could pretty much tell that the blog would subsequently open up the floodgates. And what a wonderful floodgate to open! As usual – you rock and I owe you a hug for making this call to arms on a national forum! And ditto what Barbara Lile’s said above. I do a lot of school visits and I can tell you we turn off a lot of kids because we keep shoving the same ancient icons at them. They have a hard time finding heros of their own because we keep shoving ours at them. Heck – even I am sick of them, and I’m a book buying consumer with the checkbook in hand. You rock too, Barbara!

  24. Barbara Liles

    Thanks so much for calling us all out on this subject and for pulling this list together. I am a librarian in a school with a large immigrant population and have been searching for years for good books with non-white characters. I have found it particularly frustrating that what is available really isn’t what my students want to read. I have been given lists of “multi-cultural” books that usually have such high reading levels my ESL students can’t read them or the stories are all about the old country or the immigrant experience. My students want books about themselves: young Americans of color who think Martin Luther King Jr. is as ancient history as George Washington. Let’s prove them right!

  25. Kelly Starling Lyons

    Thank you for creating this lovely list, Elizabeth. I really appreciate your hard work. A great resource for children’s books that feature African-American characters is Black Books Galore’s series of guides such as Black Book Galore! Guide to Great African American Children’s Books. There are guides dedicated to books about African-American boys and African-American girls. The last guide was published in 2001.

  26. Heidi Estrin

    Elizabeth, I missed the initial conversation but I am so glad to see the booklist that is the result. This is a terrific resource! I’d like to suggest some other “colorblind” titles I have in my library – they are older books so I don’t know if this falls outside your criteria, but I’ll list them just in case. I also want to bring up a related issue: ethnic identity that is not necessarily visible. I work in a synagogue library, so of course I collect books with Jewish characters. But in a picture book, how do you know if a character is Jewish, unless they are dressed in Orthodox clothing (kippah, prayer shawl, etc.)? Sometimes there are clues such as character names, activities they engage in, etc., but these clues may be too subtle for young kids. It’s especially hard to portray characters who are identifiably Jewish but not engaging in Jewish activities (like lighting Hanukkah candles, etc.), for the sort of general storylines you’re talking about. Anyway, here’s my booklist, for whatever it’s worth. — Heidi Estrin, Congregation B’nai Israel of Boca Raton, FL I Only Like What I Like by Julie Baer (Jewish) Love Me Later by Julie Baer (Jewish) A Nickel, A Trolley, A Treasure House by Sharon Reiss Baker (Jewish) One Hot Summer Day by Nina Crews (black) Feast for 10 by Cathryn Falwell (black) A-Tisket, A-Tasket by Ella Fitzgerald (black) Greetings, Sun by Phillis & David Gershator (black) Jamaica & Brianna (series) by Juanita Havill (black, Asian-American) Chicken Soup by Heart by Esther Hershenhorn (Jewish) Fancy Aunt Jess by Amy Hest (Jewish) Splash! by Ann Jonas (black) Marven of the Great North Woods by Kathryn Lasky (Jewish) Pearl Moscowitz’s Last Stand by Arthur A. Levine (Jewish protagonist, multicultural neighborhood) Octopus Hug by Laurence Pringle (black) How Mama Brought the Spring by Fran Manushkin (Jewish) Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback My Nose, Your Nose by Melanie Walsh (white/black) Baby Babka, the Gorgeous Genius by Jane Zalben (Jewish) The Bravest Fireman by Leah Zytman (Jewish)

  27. Jennifer J.

    I remember that cover of E.L. Konigsburg’s book. I was convinced she had written it for me, because it had my name first in the incredibly long title. I’m sorry to see that cover changed to something rather bland and boring. Thanks for compiling the list, Elizabeth!

  28. shelftalker elizabeth

    I’ve been working on this list from home, since I can rarely get this kind of thing done at the bookstore, but I’m at the Flying Pig now, raiding our shelves and adding more books! Whee! And I just found what I think might be the very first instance of ducks “of color.” See DUCK TENTS in the list to check it out. Also — please use the little tool bar in LibraryThing.com to sort the books by date, or by collection, or by tags. There’s a wealth of possibility there to take advantage of.

  29. Linda C.

    Please add Molly Bang’s “Ten, Nine, Eight” to your list. It’s a “Baby/Toddler” book about a father putting his daughter down for the night. I volunteer at my local public school, working with kindergarten children. One recent year, at my first meeting with a five year old African American boy , I brought this book along with some others in my collection, and spread them on our table. He picked this book up, turned it over and around, opened it, and turned to me with the biggest smile you ever saw and said, “He’s black!” I’m not sure he had ever seen a book with a black child that looked like him. We had several discussions during the year as to whether the child in the book is a girl or boy. It’s pretty clear to me that it’s a girl, but I think my fellow saw what he wanted to see: someone like him in a normal, everyday situation. I didn’t really argue the point. We have a long way to go, but your list is a great start. I have many of the books on your list and look forward to reading the list and discovering others. Thanks so much for this very important work.

  30. shelftalker elizabeth

    Jessica, Ellen, and Joan — thanks for your comments! I’ll definitely add these. This started off as a list of books published in 2009 with a contemporary U.S. setting that don’t focus on race as the primary issue. As you can see, the list has grown way beyond that. It takes time to gather the books and tag them, so anything that doesn’t meet those initial criteria (2010 titles also have priority), may take me a little longer to get to. Please keep sending the titles. (And Joel, I’m contacting the tech dept. with your email issue. Thanks for the heads-up.) ETA: It’s definitely not self-promotional in the wrong way to point us toward a new resource for multicultural books! Thanks. *off to add more titles, giddy* Edited again to add: Renee, the books look gorgeous, and I’m so glad to know about your publishing house. In this particular list, we’re trying to find books about contemporary American kids of color where race and ethnic heritage aren’t the primary driving force of the story. I added Cora Cooks Pancit. : )

  31. Renee Ting

    Wow, what a list! This represents a LOT of time and effort, thank you! Forgive me for being self-promotional, but I would like to recommend the books published by Shen’s Books for your list. We specialize entirely on books with multicultural characters and themes, especially focusing on Asian cultures. Thanks for taking a look! http://www.shens.com

  32. Joel Crockett

    Hi…while not relevant to the content, I tried to email the blog to a colleague and received the following message, “The email address you typed as yours is invalid.”. I then tried emailing it to myself (joel@foureyedfrog.com) and got the same message.

  33. Ellen Richmond

    Karen Katz has a pair of board books (Best-Ever Big Sister and Best-Ever Big Brother)for older siblings of new babies that show the gamut of “colors.” One cover shows Hispanic and the other has Afro-American sibs.

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