Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 27th, 2009

It seems to me you’d have to have enormous resiliency, not to mention a generous sense of humor and/or deep ethnic pride, to grow up black in this country. One of the many things I hope will come out of having Barack Obama as President is publishers’ embarrassed realization that, heck, there’s not a whole lot out there in the children’s book world featuring kids like Malia and Sasha. That is, books with black characters who lead 21st-century lives in a vibrant world of ethnic diversity. Books that aren’t about slavery, civil rights, and the struggles of interracial relationships. Those stories are vital and must be told—both the brutal and the inspirational—but just as 2009 American Jewish kids don’t see themselves primarily in the context of the Holocaust, neither do black children live in the past. They, like all children, deserve to be active, lively participants in the children’s literature of the present.

It’s not that race is unimportant. Race (and its equally powerful counterpart, class) are always with us in this country, and I do not think we should pretend they are not. That, too, would be a disservice to children. But in this overwhelmingly white field of publishing and bookselling, we need to get beyond an over-awareness of race and get to the real business of living in this colorful world. Somehow, the politeness of political correctness has ended up quashing a lot of what began as an authentic, hopeful, brilliant, warts-and-all exploration of cross-cultural joy and beauty that came out of the Sixties.

As a child of the mid-1960’s and 1970’s, I had the great good fortune of growing up at a time often referred to as a golden age in children’s book publishing. The likes of Ezra Jack Keats and Virginia Hamilton and Walter Dean Myers were unleashing their genius on the world, and in the heady culture of mainstream embracement of hippie ideals, racial representation in books was in some ways more inclusive, broad, low-key yet celebratory, and therefore “realer” than it feels (at least to me) today. I was a Free to Be…You and Me child, a Ms. Magazine ‘Stories for Free Children’ reader, and I wonder how we’ve gotten so far from those promising, inclusive days.

As a bookseller, it’s mortifying to have so few multiracial options to offer parents and kids—both white and black. It’s wildly frustrating to come up against, time and again, the erroneous assumption that white kids will not want to read about non-white kids. That is one of the most ridiculous pervasive myths in all of bookselling. Is Corduroy (interior illustration at right) not one of the most beloved classics of all time? Do children hesitate to pick up Looking for a Moose (left) by Phyllis Root because there are brown faces on the cover? In The Stories Julian Tells, can white children not relate to Julian and his little brother Huey “accidentally” eating up all the dessert before dinner? Do white parents eschew The Snowy Day because Peter is black? Is E.L. Konigsburg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth less appealing to kids because one of its two main characters is black? (I was extremely disappointed to see that the new cover for that marvelous Newbery Honor book, while well designed, now omits the black character.) Are children reading Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace unable to put themselves in her imaginative shoes even if they aren’t black, or a girl? (Do I need to answer these rhetorical questions?)

When I worked in publishing back in the early ’90s, I had a friend who brought me along to sort publisher book donations at a well-known author’s NYC apartment. On our way, my friend told me that the author, who had quietly and modestly started an admirable literacy foundation, had also broken the color barrier in series book covers. She had had to fight to get a black main character on the cover of a book, against marketing resistance fearing the book wouldn’t sell to the series’ great white readership. She won the battle, and that book sold more copies than any of its prior series-mates. This is anecdotal, but I have no reason to doubt its veracity.

In some ways, we’ve come so far as a country. But the powerful influence of the nation’s publishing media hasn’t caught up. Nowhere was this more obvious than the recent disturbing events concerning the choice to put a white girl on the cover of a book about a black girl (Justine Larbalestier’s YA novel, Liar. This issue has been widely covered in the trade and blogosphere; for background, check out the author’s blog.) The white girl on the cover wasn’t meant to represent a secondary character in the book; she was meant to represent the black narrator. Now, the narrator is a liar, so there has been some debate about whether or not she is who she says she is. However, if that argument holds, then the best cover choice would be to obscure or omit physical features altogether (the decision of Larbalestier’s original Australian publisher; shown at left). Like it or not, the photograph of a person on a book cover codifies the publisher’s idea of that character’s appearance.

This choice to use a white girl shocked, but shouldn’t have surprised, me; book marketing can be an extremely cynical operation. Larbalestier’s U.S. publisher is certainly not the only house that has found itself on similarly iffy ground, and, to their great credit, they have chosen a replacement cover image that, if still not free from controversy, is a critical good-faith effort that I think will prove to gain more in public restoration of goodwill than they will have lost financially with the expense of the late change. (Note: corporate giant Microsoft just landed itself in some serious hot water with a racial switch on its website.)

One of my all-time favorite books as a middle-grade kid was Louise Fitzhugh’s Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change. It features a wickedly smart, sarcastic, funny main character, Emma, who eats too many cream horns (I had no idea what those were, but was fascinated by them and wanted one) and wants to be a lawyer. Her little brother loves to dance. Their parents—a brusque, traditional, lawyer father and a lovely, passive mother—are not thrilled with their children’s choices, and a family dramedy is born. In the book, race is only an issue inasmuch as it is an issue in Emma’s life, if that makes sense. That is, it’s one of many consuming issues in her life, but not (in her case) the primary one. Still, one of my favorite moments in the story is when Emma messes with her white Upper East Side classmates, who stupidly assume she’s from “the ghetto” because she’s black, though her family is easily as wealthy as any of theirs. She is annoyed and amused by their assumptions; it’s a delicious moment of awareness for readers from both sides of the
ignorance spectrum. Louise Fitzhugh was white, but she opened a window into an urban, black, upper-class world for me, a white kid growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona. I never forgot the subtler lessons underneath all that humor and rebellion Emma shared with me. (By the way, on the new cover for the book, which desperately needed the re-design, it’s interesting that Emma doesn’t look overweight. She hasn’t been whitewashed, but she’s been “thin-washed.” And that’s a blog post for another day.)

The good that has arisen from the unfortunate Liar incident is that it has initiated a more open discussion of racial representation in books and on book covers. The topic is uncomfortable in a field so overwhelmingly not “of color.” Attend a book show, and you will see a sea of largely white faces; finding editors, publishers, and booksellers of color is more challenging than finding male pre-K-through-3 teachers at a school convention. This is not intentional, but it is a fact, and needs to be addressed. At the 2008 BEA, Josie and I met a dynamic duo of young African-American women getting ready to open a bookstore. They spoke about the need for grants and scholarships to attract people of color to publishing programs at universities and colleges. Sounds like an excellent idea.

In the meantime, I’d like to compile a list of 2009 books that feature characters of color in books about contemporary American children, whether or not race is part of the story. In general, there seem to be more books meeting these criteria for teen readers than their younger counterparts. Where is our black Ramona Quimby? It’s not fair to make Christopher Paul Curtis do all the work in middle grade. (Just kidding. Sort of.) I’ve noticed a couple of recent new series for young readers, like Sharon M. Draper’s Sassy books (Scholastic) and Whoopi Goldberg’s Sugar Plum Ballerinas (Jump at the Sun). That’s a great start, but there’s room for so much more. Publishers and authors are invited to email me these titles at shelftalker2 at gmail dot com, and I will publish the list here in ShelfTalker. (Unless you are a bookseller, please don’t put these titles in the comments section, since people tend to discount those recommendations as self-promotion and you may end up undermining the very good title you hope to share with a larger audience.) 

As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I remember being annoyed by the theme of a university exhibit featuring “Great Female Artists of the 20th Century.” Walking with my calm, brilliant thesis advisor, I ranted a little bit. “This makes it sound like great artists are male by default. They don’t have exhibits of ‘great male artists.’ Why not an exhibition of great artists, many of whom happen to be female?” She smiled, and said, “Ideally, it would be. It will be. But this is one of the steps we have to go through to get there.” The question of racial inclusiveness in children’s literature is a little like that. Like all things racial in this country, it’s been a process. But now I think we’ve gone through enough intermediary steps and are ready to get there.

*** UPDATE: Check out our LibraryThing collection of more than 2000 books featuring main characters of color whose stories are not primarily driven by racial issues: **** Also, for another article on this topic, with book ideas, check out Shelftalker’s “A World Full of Color”, a follow-up to this Ramona Quimby post.

86 thoughts on “Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?

  1. Julianne Daggett

    I thought I’d add an interesting twist to this conversation, where are all the smart black males in literature. One of my best friends in high school was Ryan Bickem O’Neill and he was black and super intelligent, he was in national honor society and graduated valedictorian and I couldn’t help but notice that very, very few books featured smart black males. That’s why I put up Harry Potter, but I’d also like to add Pendragon and Artemis Fowl. Smart black males are rare in literature, they seem to be an endangered species, because in high school (4 years ago) he complained that the only black males in books were 97% gangster or downtown types when he was an Uptown, middle class black male who got good grades and went to a private Catholic school. Only the Artemis Fowl books (that he loved) measured up to him, plus the smart aleck Dean Thomas, which he nick-named himself came close to who he was. I am a mix blood with 1/4 Japanese blood, 1/6 Native American blood, 1/10 black blood, 1/5 Pacific Islander and the rest European. I’m mostly white so I claim white, but my skin is kaki colored and I have tilted eyes. As I had basically the same conversation 4 years ago with Ryan Bickem O’Neill, there are black books, there are asian books but there are near nil mix blood books. I don’t expect there to be books with people of my same mix (that’d be insane) but it’d be nice to have mix blood books that don’t deal with the civil rights movement, but are of normal kids doing normal stuff. My dad works on cotracts for NASA, my mom’s a community college professor and I graduated from a private high school, went to public college and graduated magna cum laude in political science with a minor in English (although I had enough hours to be an English major and not a minor, grrrr!).

  2. Katura Hudson

    Thank you for addressing such an important issue in your post. As an editor and marketer of multicultural children’s books, I know there are some exciting, quality stories featuring contemporary characters of various ethnic backgrounds. Independent publishers like Just Us Books (in business for 22 years), Lee & Low (in business for 18 years), and Marimba Books (a new multicultural imprint) dedicate their ENTIRE publishing lists to children’s books that reflect the diversity of our society. For parents, teachers, librarians and book sellers who say multicultural children’s books are hard to find, please try these publishers first. http://www.justusbooks.com http://www.leeandlow.com http://www.marimbabooks.com

  3. Dianne de Las Casas

    Elizabeth, I have been light to medium brown-skinned all my life, the daughter of a Filipina immigrant and a Caucasian Navy father. My stepdad is Cajun. My husband is half Cuban and half Honduran. My 9 year old daughter, who is such a racial blend, is what Hispanic people call “Morena,” meaning “brown-skinned.” We have a hard time finding books with characters that, in my daughter’s words, “look like me.” I would love to see publishers open up to creating books that reflect true racial diversity. Lee & Low is a publisher that strives to represent people of “color” – Black, Asian and Hispanic, with a list of quality books that address these populations. President Obama himself is not just Black. He is mixed. Collective voices create change. If we utter loud enough, perhaps the publisher will hear and heed us.

  4. M. LaVora Perry

    Elizabeth, I appreciate your “fat-washed” comment regarding the book “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change.” We need lots of books that thoughtfully explore body-size/physical health issues. We need more books that feature characters that, like real people, come in all sizes. And we need more books with “fat” characters that deal with conundrums that have nothing to do with their body size–which is hard for real live people to do because ours is a size-fixated society in which fat prejudice is totally acceptable in the mainstream. Not to overlook the main point of your article, though. As an author of color, it made me breath a sigh of relief.

  5. Doret

    Elizabeth, thank you for writing this entry. The more people talk about this topic, the sooner things will improve One thing that bothered me, all the book covers featured are by White authors. This wouldn’t be an issue if authors of color got as much exposure as white authors. I think it would be nice that an article about the need for more diversity would feature one book cover by a Black authors. I always hear there aren’t children’s and YA books out there featuring people of color but its really not that simple anymore. These books are out there, I find them on a regular basis to review on my blog. Though I usually have to hunt them down. Yesterday I added The Smell of Old Lady Perfume by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez to by library queue. The book came out in 08 but didn’t hear anything about it last year or this year. I am constantly finding great children’s and YA books with people of color that have been out for months, yet have been featured no where. There are children’s and YA books with characters of color, but no one knows about them or how to find them. If no one knows about the books that are out no one can buy them. If no one buys what is available, publishers are less likely to publish more books featuring characters of color. Is there there enough diversity in children’s literature? Noooo, publishers seem to pigeonhole authors of color limiting the stories that are told. But, I think along with wondering where are all the books (with various storylines) featuring poc, people should also be asking how can books featuring poc that are out be found. These books are out waiting to be read and loved. Once that happens more books will follow. (hopefully) I am off to make a list of titles to email to you. Its going to be long because I love making list, so I hope your ready. Again, thanks for this

  6. Kristin

    So where would CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS fit into the discussion? In all of the ones I own, the first one begins as follows: “Meet George Beard and Harold Hutchins. George is the kid on the left with the tie and the flat-top. Harold is the one on the right with the T-shirt and the bad haircut. Remember that now. And I have to say that I never do remember which one is George and which one is Harold unless I flip back to the beginning and check. They’re two very bad boys who are very good friends. My son started reading independently because of these books.

  7. Joanne Fritz

    Well, you seem to have hit a nerve with this one, Elizabeth. Good for you! Anything that gets a healthy discussion going in this country today is a good thing. We sell a lot of Walter Dean Myers, Mildred Taylor, Patricia McKissack, Sharon Draper, and Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace. And has everyone forgotten The Golden Hour and The Hour of the Cobra by Maiya Williams? But we also have had the problem some of these other posters have had — where we present a potential book to a customer and they look at the cover and say no thanks. Whereas I’m sure their kids wouldn’t care one way or the other. I agree that we need more Young Reader books with multi-ethnic characters. I’ve had customers request them and books like that are few and far between. As for picture books, publishers are still producing hundreds of books with animal characters, who can certainly be loved by children of all races, colors and backgrounds.

  8. Cynthea Liu

    Speaking as an author (of color), you’ve practically taken the words out of my mouth. Based on comments I’ve heard, the LIAR thing, things even said about my own books, there are individuals in our industry from the teacher to librarian, to the reviewer, and yes, even the bookseller, who look at books of color with some sort of expectation. They expect them to be a certain way. They want them to BE a certain way. And if they don’t fit those expectations, they don’t know what to make of it. It is so frustrating. Because every time I hear it, see it, “feel” it, I go back to what it was like for me when I was a kid. I didn’t live during the Qing Dynasty. I didn’t fly kites. Nope, I didn’t dragon dance for fun. So I ate up books about animals. I could relate to animals more than I could relate to book with Asians in them. Wow. Now that is saying something. We still have the same problem. It’s better than it was before for sure, but it’s STILL a problem. I can only imagine how many kids have given up on books (of color) because they have some expectation of what they’re going to get, based upon book after book after book that continues to reflect the same flavor of experiences over and over again. We’ve made it harder for ourselves for today’s kids to pick up a book (of color) because we often make it about color, color, color! Mary’s example was really interesting. The parents of young children today. Parents who are probably just around my age. I think it’s possible that a lot of people don’t consciously decide to pick a book of color for a child. I don’t think it’s because they just prefer white books, necessarily. But I do believe there is some sort of perception out there about what books of color are about. Racism. Kite-flying. What-have-you. How could their child possibly relate? And that’s a problem people need to be aware of. We’ve kinda created all these stereotypes about Black books, Asian books, Latino books. And now we’re trying to climb out of it. Don’t get me wrong, we still need the awesome books that are out there about race, history, and cultural heritage, etc. But we’ve still got a looooonng way to go to creating a more balanced view of the world and changing all those perceptions about what a multicultural book HAS to be about.

  9. A. Bitterman

    Again, I think your heart is in the right place but you’re being a bit blind to your own perspective. Many of your observations are presumptive whether you realize it or not. Like that story David Foster Wallace told about the old fish swimming past the two young fish and the old fish says, “How’s the water?” and the young fish swim on until finally one says to the other, “What the hell is water?”

  10. ChristineTB

    I agree. I didn’t read any of that stuff into the blog. For the record, I’ve been bending Elizabeth’s ear about this for years. I want to see books for my daughters that are based on problems girls like them have that don’t have ANYTHING to do with race, poverty or civil rights and slavery. They want diversity in their adventures not race based angst. They want to laugh. They want to fall in love vicariously. And frankly, what is wrong with a AA Ramona? Is her experience a distinctly white one? If not – then the point is made. Kids are kids – color is just one dimension and not always the most important one in a story. But if the stories are always presented using a white face, and any ethnic characters are just backdrops for the drama with no real role to play – then a more insidious message creeps through. Diversity means just that – regardless of color. POC are not a homogenous blob. Time publishing caught up with the rest of us in that realization.

  11. Jane

    May I add Habibi by Nye, Shabanu by Staples, Partot in the Oven by Martinez, and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Fuller Boy by Schmidt? Looking forward to a list. bookseller Jane

  12. Susan Thomsen

    I’m pretty sure that The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County (from the ’07 picture book of the same name) could give Ramona a run for the money, if only she’d star in a middle-grade novel! I’m not a bookseller, just a mom who reads (and blogs).

  13. Edi

    While there are nearly as many books for children of color as there should be, they are out there if you’re willing to look. It’s interesting that as our country becomes more brown, books for children of color become more difficult to find! I enjoyed reading this article and your resolve to make the effort! Do check out the HappyNappyBookseller Blog for children’s and middle grade books! From there you can also find numerous other blogs to link.

  14. shelftalker elizabeth

    Hmm. I’m confused about how you seem to be interpreting my point. Inclusion does not mean equivalence to me; separate but equal is not what I’m talking about. The use of Ramona was a convenient symbol, meant to introduce people to the topic of this large discussion (it’s no easy task to come up with a lively, descriptive, brief title), and was not meant to be taken as the only example of what I hope to see in children’s literature. This is an important conversation, and I trust that we are all speaking from the limitations of our own experiences and with the best intentions.

  15. Mary Ann Rodman

    Chiming in fairly late in the day here on an issue that seems to have rattled more than a few folks on this blog. As the author of a picture book that features the kind of kids Elizabeth mentions (African American, middle class, and the book is about friendship, not race) I HAVE run across reluctance by the buying public. The book has won awards, been included on school reading lists. Yet, I have had people tell me with a straight face, “My that’s a lovely book, but I just can’t imagine who I could buy it for.” These same people invariably were accompanied by a small white child of precisely the right age. I was left without an answer for these people…or at least not one an author should utter at her own book signing if she ever wants to be invited back by the bookstore. Depressing.

  16. LaTonya

    Bitterman wrote: ‘Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?’ – may be rhetorical in nature but it reveals the bias that corrupts the entire piece: that if only there were more black equivalents to white books, justice would be served. This leads to the subsequent misconception that publishers are purposely suppressing diversity in order to over-serve a market dominated by white people. Your observation wasn’t lost on me. I wondered as much. In fact, the opening tripped me up at first. We do not need equivalents in the sense they mirror the dominant culture and we don’t need more of the same limited representations that are allowed in mainstream: historical, oppression, poverty, slave narratives. Children of color want diversity in themes, genres and treatment. Race can inform a book without being the central theme. We need real, contemporary representation on covers. Children of color read and want fantasy, adventure, sci-fi, graphic novels and pop culture. No group is monolithic. Part of the problem with misconceptions about POC is the perpetuation of stereotypes in literature. Every child of color is not poor or traumatized. We sorely need more books that represent all classes across race and ethnicity. Children and YA readers want stories that reflect their experiences and interests. In multicultural lit there is a tendency to push historical and cultural lessons that often appeal more to a gatekeeper: teacher, mentor and librarian than the child. Let’s not forget the other real need for fantasy and escapism. Lastly, speaking to the point OF conspiracy and the absence of color in the industry, has anyone else thought about how from the Liar controversy to this current article how all these conversations are published in dominant spaces and written by non-poc writers? POC writers, parents, educators and librarians are clearly engaged in these debates but the fact that we are not represented in the mainstream spaces initiating these conversations says something about the imbalance of power, access and opportunity to impact change.

  17. Robin

    Thanks Elizabeth. The only thing more discouraging is the dearth of kids of color in books for brand new readers. (think the Geisel Award-type books) When I try to find books for my newest readers, the most fragile readers…there is very very little for them. Thanks again.

  18. A. Bitterman

    Very puzzling, this article. While it seems to go to the heart of the matter regarding issues of race and dominant culture it does so while maintaining a dominant culture stance. Which seems to have gone unnoticed. The title of her article – “Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?” – may be rhetorical in nature but it reveals the bias that corrupts the entire piece: that if only there were more black equivalents to white books, justice would be served. This leads to the subsequent misconception that publishers are purposely suppressing diversity in order to over-serve a market dominated by white people. I appreciate the kindness and sincerity behind Bluemle’s lament, but what she is really wishing for is a fantastical publishing world that is insulated from the grim realities of everyday American culture. How can race not matter in books when it matters so very much in our everyday lives? We live in a deeply divided society in which a disproportionate number of black children (33%) live in poverty and this is something that can not and will never be remedied by the publishing industry. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be more books of a contemporary nature featuring black children (or hispanic children, or native american children, or asian children), but what’s with Ramona? Unfortunately, many black authors are succumbing to the equivalence theory with boiler-plate efforts like Mr. Chickee, Sassy, and Ruby and the Booker Boys – books that shed no light whatsoever on the advancement of race relations or literature. Representation is not achieved through equivalence. Equivalence is the ideology of the master (“someday you can be just like me”), not the advocate. Consider the Coretta Scott King awards – are they the equivalent of the Caldecott and the Newbery awards? Or are they an alternative? Are they inclusive or exclusive? Say yes or no to any of these questions and you’re in deep shit. In the end and at best, these awards are a conundrum, born from the best intentions of the dominant culture. I don’t think any of us (dominant folk) really know or understand what a truly integrated, representative, and just world looks like. How can we? I just hope it doesn’t look too much like it does now, right?

  19. Laura Atkins

    Elizabeth, this is so well-articulated and absolutely needed. I wish it was on the cover of PW to be sure everyone read it. It is key that these issues are discussed, and even more important that people who work in publishing are willing to look at the status quo and discuss how the publishing culture dictates much of what is produced. What if PW did a series of interviews with editors on this topic, getting them to reflect on their own experiences acquiring and editing children’s book written by authors of color? What we need is openness, honesty and a willingness to discuss uncomfortable topics for things to begin to move forward. Thanks for adding a voice here.

  20. Crystal Roget

    Thank you for this wonderful post! In light of the Bloomsbury controversy, this is definitely an issue that also needs to be illuminated. Growing up, I read & loved the Ramona series, and from time to time often wondered if there would ever be an African-American equivalent heroine such as Ramona. In recent years there have been a few similar protagonists such as Ruby and the Booker Boys and the Keena Ford series, but I still think there is ample room for many more.

  21. Mary Quattlebaum

    Thanks for such a well-articulated blog on an extremely important issue. Just wanted to give a shout out to a backlist title, Eloise Greenfield’s “Honey I Love”–a book of poems that inspires kids to write as well as read poetry. Through the poems, an African American child speaks playfully and movingly of things she loves.

  22. Mayra Lazara Dole

    Thank you for your important post and for caring about our plight. I can never find Afro-Cuban books or Afro Latino books of any kind and keept telling myself, “I can’t possibly be the ONLY Latina author who speaks Spanish and writes books with diversity in a market of 50 million Hispanics.” Excellent post. Will recommend to everyone!

  23. Heather Doss

    Fantastic post! My brain is currently knee deep in Spring 2010 but these two fall titles jumped to mind: Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle & Nerds by Michael Buckley both feature a multicultural cast.

  24. Ben

    I’m a teen librarian, not the author, and wanted to recommended Jim Fusilli’s “Marley Z and the Bloodstained Violin.” It’s a middle grade mystery about a 14 year old black girl who, along with a multicultural cast (including Asian, Hispanic, European, and white friends) investigate the case of a stolen rare violin from Juilliard. SLJ recommends it for grades 5-9 and Booklist recommends it for grades 5-8, so I’m not sure whether it’s the right age for what you’re looking for in your bibliography or if you’re moreso looking for books for elementary students.

  25. Seattle Librarian

    Hear, hear! I WANT to share books that feature kids of color who get into typical kid scrapes and adventures. “A Wild Cowboy” by Dana Smith and the Calvin Coconut series by Graham Salisbury are a couple of perfect examples of such books. If only more publishers had had the luxury I enjoyed, growing up in an ethnically diverse community, maybe we’d see more books like these.

  26. shelftalker elizabeth

    Zetta, thanks for your comment. I absolutely didn’t mean that the race inequity in publishing is “natural” or “inevitable.” I don’t believe that there’s a conspiracy of white publishers not to hire editors and assistants of color, though there certainly may be complacency and habit involved. Salaries need to be a liveable wage and career outreach needs to happen in high schools, too.

  27. laura

    Thank you for writing this! Although I am not a publisher or a bookseller, i am a lover of children and young adult literature. my husband and i are in the process of trying to adopt and will most likely adopt a child of color. One of my first realizations as we started this journey was that 90% of all of my most beloved books feature white heroes and heroines and I wondered how I would share my great love of books in a way that related more to my child’s experience…and for lack of a better phrase..just wasn’t so white. I have found a few books, and been reminded of a few here but, as you say – there is room for so many more! I look forward to your list.

  28. shelftalker elizabeth

    Folks, there’s a little technical glitch going on with the comments. They’re showing up, and then disappearing minutes later. It’s happened to other publications in the Reed universe, and they’re trying to fix it. So please keep a copy of your comments in case they disappear. If ever there were a post with comments I want to read and share, this is it!

  29. Zetta

    This is a great article, and I, too, am glad that the conversation around race and representation in the kidlit community is continuing…I’d urge you to read Laura Atkins’ provocative essay on white privilege in the children’s publishing industry (which you can find at her blog, lauraatkins.com/blog/tockla.html). I also grew up in the ’70s and Ezra Jack Keats’ wonderful books were the ONLY ones I had that featured children who looked like me. They were fun, “slice of life” books and I do wish we had more like them. I take issue, however, with your suggestion that the homogeneity of the publishing industry isn’t “intentional.” It’s no accident that 99% of editors are white and middle-class; it’s not “natural” or “inevitable,” any more than all our previous presidents being white and male. I’d urge everyone to check out the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which keeps statistics on children’s publishing: last year, less than 3% of all books published for kids were written by black people. That is NOT because black people don’t know how to write, or write uninteresting stories…it’s no “accident.” And lastly, I would encourage everyone to realize that markets are shaped, they aren’t organic, and at the end of the day WE are the market–so if publishers are tracking trends, check your own shopping habits and make sure you’re buying books by and about people of color.

  30. Jennifer J.

    Brava, Elizabeth! Care to tackle the trope that a boy won’t read that because there’s a girl on the cover? While girls will read omnivorously (that might not be the right word for it)? There are a lot of things that are taken for granted, that may not deserve to be.

  31. Melissa Posten

    Excellently done, as always. Nikki Grimes’ Dyamonde Daniel books are good for early readers, and RUBY AND THE BOOKER BOYS is good for elementary. And ROOM WITH A ZOO by Jules Feiffer (I wish it had a sequel).

  32. Former editor

    Great article. I have one small quibble- most kids and YA literature featuring Jewish characters is in fact Holocaust or historical lower East Side NYC immigrants. Outside of old Judy Blume books, it’s pretty rare to find a normal everyday character who just happens to be Jewish.

  33. Julianne Daggett

    Some books that have multi-cultural characters are also big sellers: the Twilight series features the Native American wolfpack and also a black american vampire. Also in Harry Potter there are the Indian twins that Harry and Ron take to the dance in book 4, there’s the chinese girl that Harry falls in love with in books 3,4 & 5 and then there’s Dean who are the Weseley twins best friend who is the announcer for the Quidditch tournaments. So its not that multi-cultural books don’t sell, its that people THINK the books won’t sell.

  34. Stephanie Light

    In a Children’s Literature class for future librarians, we had a similar discussion regarding images in children’s books. In small groups, we studied one image and tried to read as many titles as possible containing that particular image and determine whether or not it was positively portrayed, full of stereotypes, etc. My group chose Muslims, and even though we found books, the majority were so didactic that no kid would enjoy reading them. It was quite infuriating. It was even harder to listen to the presentations about all of the other images that were either full of stereotypes or almost nonexistent in children’s literature (everything from Hispanics to old women). I sincerely hope others in the industry will take notice of the problem if enough of us speak up.

  35. Liz in Ink

    Elizabeth — This post is just spot on. I have to say that I’m feeling a sense of hope at the surge of like-minded voices out there right now. The Liar cover is helping to drive that so, ironically, we may have B.bury to thank. The thing about a market-driven culture is that we’re just supposed to shrug and accept it that publisher’s say they’re sorry but nobody’s buying the books with people of color on the cover. I’m thinking we’re supposed to be a little upright than that and make sure that the market doesn’t hold total sway over our morals, our evolution or our integrity…

  36. jessica wilson

    you have wonderfully articulated what i have been ranting about for more than a decade. i searched and searched and searched for books with characters of color without the story being about them being Black, Mexican, Korean, Pakistani, Homosexual etc. children are children regardless of their skin color and all children experience similar development and emotion. thank you again for your words and fierce commitment. it is so nice to feel that i am in good company.

  37. Kenny Brechner

    Your point about “the erroneous assumption that white kids will not want to read about non-white kids” stirred an old and a vivid memory. I, at age 10 or so, had picked out a book at a scholastic book fair with a 10-12 year old African American girl as the protagonist, brought it him and read it with pleasure. My parents called me in to see them and had the book in their hands, looking very pained and concerned. “Was I all right? Why had I chosen that book?” Prejudice really does run deep. What a fine essay you’ve crafted here.

  38. Carol Chittenden

    Sunny Holiday, by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, is a breath of fresh air: a lively, charming character who deals with issues of class, but for whom race largely breezes on past. However, 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 Elija 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. NOBODY ever wrote about it better than Mildred Taylor.

  39. Christine

    Those of us who grew up without them are trying to change the climate. Internal dialogue among authors of color has revealed that those books are often actively blocked. And some are being told there 1. is no market for them, 2. children of color don’t buy books, or 3. the publisher already has it’s “quota” of ethnic authors (often 1 or 2). The trend and the stories being told are pretty consistent across the board. If you aren’t writing a “Black stereotype” book, you can’t make the sale. If if you are black, the odds are against you when writing a mainstream title. As a mom I ask, how many books about civil rights, slavery, or urban ghetto poverty am I supposed to buy in a lifetime? We ALL hope publishers will change – but the recent controversy involving Bloomsbury’s decision to put (and then retract under the threat of boycott) a white cover on a book about a black protagonist shows why it isn’t going to happen in the near future. But your editorial is right on time. I thank you and so do my daughters.

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