Publishers, how ivory are thy towers? According to statistics—not to mention a quick glance around any trade show floor—pretty shockingly ivory, maybe along the lines of 98%. The number of publishing, editorial, art direction, sales and marketing professionals of color in our field is tiny, and that’s not good for anybody. This discrepancy between the real world and the publishing world limits the range of books published, the intellectual scope of discussion, and—for the bottom-liners—greatly stunts the potential market.
The truth: we in the book trade have fallen shamefully behind our own culture, and our own times. We can remedy that with open dialogue, new paradigms, and concerted effort. And—we have to remedy it. When adults shout racial epithets at our country’s elected leaders, when bullied children are hanging themselves out of despair and shame, when children’s faces in art murals on the sides of schools are criticized for being “too dark,” when racism is still alive and vicious in this country, we can’t politely avert our eyes.
It is our responsibility—as people who create, produce, and distribute the lion’s share of books that reach and teach and entertain children—it is our highest calling to provide written, illustrated worlds that embrace and prioritize all children, books that resemble the playgrounds and classrooms and homes of this country and the rest of the world. And in order to do that, we must open the gates of our publishing houses to a greater variety of voices and cast aside outdated assumptions of what people will or won’t want to read, will or won’t want to edit or publish or sell.
So how do we do it?
The good news is that there is a growing movement afoot among children’s book people—mainly authors and artists, but also editors and agents and booksellers and librarians—to address these imbalances and make real change happen. Social networking and blogs and the Internet have made it possible for like-minded people to find one another, and for people to respond quickly and vocally to unacceptable practices, like book-cover whitewashing. Having our first African-American president has also brought race into the public dialogue more openly than it has been since the 1970s.
The population of the United States is becoming more and more diverse, rapidly. Every indicator points to now as THE TIME for racial progress and equality to make its next big advance. It’s time to face up to things, the time to move forward, the time to form new models for business and commerce.
I’ve titled this blog post “The Elephant in the Room,” because discussions of race among mostly Caucasian, primarily liberal, adults are so often fraught with perceived landmines and sincere attempts not to be or seem racist that real dialogue seldom gets beyond square one.
However, just as a recent study about children’s attitudes toward race indicated that adults’ avoidance of the topic (however well-meaning) led to increased racial stereotyping and negative perceptions on the part of the children, so does our avoidance of the issue in our own field do harm rather than good.
Illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien is currently running a three-part series on race in the Society of Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Bulletin. In the May/June 2010 issue article, “White Mind (Part 1),” O’Brien notes: “Being a dominant group member is like having a free pass that members of outgroups don’t have, but with no awareness of having it.” She cites a Harvard brain research study showing “the presence of implicit bias as a universal human experience. When we think about people like ourselves, [the scientists] report, a certain part of our brains light up; when we think about people different from us, a different part lights up.
This kind of bias is completely unconscious, Banaji states, present in people who are absolutely positive they don’t have it and who are committed to treating everyone fairly (and think they do). According to Banaji’s studies, 80% of whites show bias for the white race; people of non- majority races do not show this bias for their race. These implicit biases can drive our behaviors without our awareness.” She continues, “From writing and illustrating to hiring publishing staff, editing and marketing to selling, buying and reviewing, White Mind affects children’s books today. Unless we become aware of and develop strategies to directly challenge these patterns, white norms will continue to prevail.”
Professor and author Zetta Elliott‘s article, “Something Like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry,” articulates the frustrating refusal of industry leaders to address this issue. “Their silence has been deafening. What can they say? That they collectively lack the daring, the moral clarity, the fiscal incentive to do right by our kids? Perhaps they will say, ‘The market can’t sustain more books by and about people of color. There simply isn’t enough demand.’ And so they will continue to promote their endless books about Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., knowing that educators and librarians across the country need *something* to display when Black History Month rolls around…”
Citing studies showing that Black and Hispanic kids suffer disproportionately from homophobic bullying, with higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts, she concludes: “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?” Amen.
She continues, “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?”
It’s pretty clear where we are and where we need to go. What I’d like to do is open the conversation by offering some positive, creative steps we can all take to make the world of children’s books—behind the scenes, in addition to between the covers—catch up to the amazing, diverse, infinitely rich world those books are meant to reflect and celebrate.
You’ll notice marvelous art throughout this post. When I started thinking about what I wanted to say about racial representation not just in books, but in the halls of publishing houses, I knew I didn’t want mine to be the only voice, and I knew I wanted to use art. Sending out an appeal to artist friends and colleagues brought 13 interpretations of the “elephant in the room” theme. Our grateful thanks and admiration to artists Kevan Atteberry, Addie Boswell, Jerry Craft, Katie Davis, Nancy Devard, Elizabeth O. Dulemba, Laura Freeman, Erin Eitter Kono, Grace Lin, Nicole Tadgell, and Sharon Vargo for devoting their time and energy and care on these pieces, which they have contributed to this post freely. Clicking on their artwork will take you to their websites; please visit and explore their other fine work. A special thanks to author/publisher Cheryl Hudson (Just Us Books), who not only helped me connect with several artists, but whose ongoing effort to support and uplift authors and artists of color and readers of all races is a true inspiration.
WHAT PUBLISHERS CAN DO:
Explore the DIPNET Publishing Equalities Charter.
Assess your company with clear, honest eyes and minds. Contact the AAP’s Diversity Recruit & Retain Committee for assistance with hiring, recruitment, and mentoring efforts. Consider creating an in-house group to address equality policies and practices in your house.
Believe that this issue affects the future of publishing every bit as much as emerging technologies. As someone said, the world is a salad, not a melting pot, and becomes ever more so. Want to sell more books? Market books to the real world, as it is now, and as it’s becoming.
A truly diverse, exciting publishing program cannot be achieved with a 98% Caucasian workforce. Check out www.bookjobs.com when hiring.
Be broad-minded in your view of diversity. It’s not just a black/white issue, but includes all races, colors, creeds, and religious beliefs, as well as age, gender, sexual orientation, and class.
From the UK Publishing Equalities Charter: “Provide specific training/development to staff from under-represented groups to enhance career progression into middle/senior management.”
In her article, “Demanding Diversity in Publishing,” Zetta Elliott quotes the above and adds, “Recognizing that ‘publishers, trade associations, booksellers and other organisations related to the publishing industry’ vary in size, the charter suggests that each ‘champion’ two to four actions per year, and welcomes ‘any other suggestions that promote equal opportunities.’ Most importantly, signatories to the charter agree to complete an annual survey, which will enable progress to be MONITORED.”
Re-evaluate WHY books with brown faces on the cover sometimes, even often, sell less well than books with white faces. As a bookseller who has worked in both extremely diverse and extremely homogenous environments, I am convinced that this is a result of misdirected marketing. A more diverse talent pool will help you get the message out about your books in ways that reach more people.
What do you want to accomplish with your role as publisher?
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, blogger and author of 8th Grade Superzero, notes: “…the industry is failing *everyone*, not just under-represented groups, when it continues to promote and present a largely homogenous, narrow perspective. I hope that children’s publishing in particular will recognize the opportunity here to play a role in creating a more just society in which every voice has value… Looking at the current state of things, a reader doesn’t even have to be particularly thoughtful to see that this just doesn’t make sense. (Or cents, even. It’s hard for me to believe that a more inclusive industry would not be able to reap tangible rewards.)… By each of us taking responsibility to do *something* that will increase diversity in publishing, we can demonstrate a real understanding and effect real change.”
WHAT EDITORS CAN DO:
Give books by or about people of color more than one or two “slots” per season. That leads to the inevitable predictable deluge of books about slavery and Civil Rights. These are important books, of course. But imagine if we only published books about pilgrims for white children, and you’ll quickly see that this approach is absurd. Children are HUNGRY to see themselves in books about regular kids doing everyday things. Or as fantasy heroes. Where is the black Twilight? Or the Asian Harry Potter?
Don’t assume authors and artists and editors of color only want to write and illustrate and edit books about characters of color.
In committee, describe books by authors and illustrators of color, and/or about characters of color, the same way you would books about and/or by white people. That is, use active language that compels the reader. Talk about the story, not the race of the characters.
Revisit your assumptions and biases. We all have them, and have to work to set them aside. For example, if you believe a book with a brown face on the cover isn’t “for” you or your family or friends, you will have a hard time supporting that book in a way that it will reach a broad audience.
Avoid stereotypes not only of people, but of settings and assumed experiences. Not all nonwhite kids live in urban environments, obviously, and even when they do, there’s a rich diversity of experiences and voices within those settings that aren’t yet reflected in books.
Recruit, mentor and support editorial assistants of color. Consider visiting classrooms to introduce children and teenagers to the world of publishing and the variety of jobs available.
Work harder to communicate honestly and openly with authors of color when you have questions about their work. Politeness often makes us shirk conversations that would be fruitful.
WHAT SALES & MARKETING CAN DO:
Never, ever advocate whitewashing a book cover. The moral cynicism of this action is a terrible betrayal of your authors and readers. It bankrupts your reputation and is not easily forgotten. In this age of instant social networking, it will be discovered and shared.
Resist the habit of speaking about a book featuring a character of color as a book only FOR people of color. If Shabanu, a Newbery Medal winner, had been written by an author of color, would it have been pitched differently? And possibly missed its deservedly broad, cross-cultural audience, not to mention its award?
Challenge buyers to broaden their vistas. This is tricky, because you don’t want to seem to be questioning a bookseller’s understanding of her/his market, but if you can convey your own enthusiasm for a book rather than introducing it with apology or phrases like, “This might not sell in your store, but…” you can model for booksellers better ways to talk with their customers about the books. Focus on the story, the heart, the humor. That’s universal.
See PUBLISHER notes for thoughts on marketing books with a colorful cast of characters.
WHAT ART DIRECTORS CAN DO:
(See “no cover whitewashing” above.)
Ask yourselves, does the family in this picture book have to be white? White is not the default race, and every week—if not more often— I have customers both white and of color asking me for books with diverse families. And this is in VERMONT.
Watch out for the “white kid in front” habit. It drives me nuts to see a multicultural cast of characters all grouped deliberately behind the white kid, who’s the central active figure on the cover. White people WILL buy books with diverse casts of characters; please give all readers more credit.
WHAT BOOKSELLERS AND LIBRARIANS CAN DO:
Books are books. The good ones cross universal lines; they aren’t black-interest books, white-interest books, Chinese-interest books. They are books. Believe in your own passion for stories and literature and nonfiction, and hand the best books to kids of all colors, about people of all colors.
Encourage customers to step outside their comfort zone, especially by focusing on the story, not the race of the protagonists. “This kid is given a quadrillion-dollar bill and Secret Agents are trying to get it back.” “Bobby used to have a girl best friend, but now they’re in fourth grade, and things are changing. Everything starts going wrong; he can’t even hug a tree without getting stuck to it.” “Alvin, descended from warrior farmers, is afraid of everything. Now he’s in a public school and exposed to a neighborhood full of potential disasters.” Hook ’em with the good stuff; they won’t care two hoots about race.
Become familiar with a wider array of books, especially from small presses specializing in multicultural books.
Let your customers know that you carry a strong selection of multicultural books. Even in homogenous (white) neighborhoods, you’ll often be surprised by how many people appreciate and buy the books you’ve made available to them.
Let your sales reps know you’re interested in broadening your selection. This is a fruitful conversation.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, even though this post is long. Please join in the conversation about what we can do better, where we can join forces, and how to make change that lasts. Anyone interested in joining a group of book people talking this issue, please email me, Elizabeth, at Shelftalker2@gmail.com for an invitation to an online discussion group.
LINKS OF INTEREST (special thanks to Christine Taylor-Butler for sharing several of these links, not to mention many, many conversations about this issue) [Note: updated June 13, 2010]:
A World Full of Color, the tagged, sortable library I put together of 500+ titles in print featuring kids of color where race is not the driving force of the story. Publishers, please continue to send me new titles to add to the catalog.
Zetta Elliott’s “Demanding Diversity in Publishing” and Something Like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry.
Association of American Publishers (AAP) Diversity Recruit & Retain Committee. “AAP’s Diversity/Recruit & Retain Committee works to attract talented, diverse voices to the book publishing industry with its “Book Yourself a Career” campaign. The centerpiece of the campaign is the Bookjobs.com website, which serves as a comprehensive database of internships and jobs at all levels in the industry and serves as a “one-stop-shopping” resource for information about book publishing. The campaign includes a college outreach initiative which publicizes the website on college campuses, focusing especially on schools with high academic standards and a diverse student population.”
DIPNET “The Diversity in Publishing Network has been established to promote the status and contribution of social groups traditionally underrepresented within all areas of publishing, as well as support those seeking to enter the industry. DIPNET is an initiative funded by Arts Council England and managed at Booktrust. DIPNET aims to redress the balance of equality in the UK publishing sector.” This is a British organization. We need this in the United States. Anyone?
Amy Bowllan’s School Library Journal blog, Writers Against Racism.
ColorOnline, Susan’s blog. “Our blog focuses on women writers of color for adults YA and children. Let’s talk books, culture and literacy.” (She gets extra points for creating her reading wish list at Powell’s, rather than a non-independent bookstore. Thanks, Susan!)
BrownGirlSpeaks.com has a wonderful list of blogs about “reading in color.”
Reading in Color: “Reading in Color is a book blog that reviews YA books about people of color (poc). There is a serious lack of books being reviewed by teens that are YA about people of color. I hope my blog is one step closer to filling in this void.”
Multiculturalism Rocks! “A blog on multiculturalism in children’s literature.” Run by Nathalie M. Vondo.
POC Reading Challenge Blog: “The persons of color reading challenge has been put in place to highlight and celebrate authors and characters of color.” Also on this blog is a handy round-up of Multicultural Book Awards.
Multicultural Book Awards list, compiled by ColorOnline.
Black Threads in Kid’s Lit: “Exploring African American Picture Books and other Fanciful Topics.” For a very interesting look at the Coretta Scott King Award by the numbers, click here.
RAWW (Readers Against WhiteWashing) Also started by LaTonya Baldwin, mover and shaker!
Reading in Color: “Reading in Color is a book blog that reviews YA books about people of color (poc). There is a serious lack of books being reviewed by teens that are YA about people of color; I hope my blog is one step closer to filling in this void.”
White Readers Meet Black Authors — “Your official invitation into the African American section of the bookstore! A sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted plea for EVERYBODY to give a black writer a try. Typically, I update on Tuesdays.”
Crazy Quilts: “Ramblings of an urban high-school librarian. Single. Old. Very old. On a good day, I even wear the traditional library bun.”
Coloring Between the Lines, Anne Sibley O’Brien’s blog: “This blog looks at issues of race and culture in relation to creating and using children’s literature, as seen by a white author-illustrator of multiracial, multicultural books.”
Mitali Perkins’ Fire Escape, “a safe place to think, chat and read about life between cultures.”
Natalie M. Vondo’s Multiculturalism Rocks: “A blog on multiculturalism in children’s literature.”
Assistant Professor Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Books: “Critical perspectives of indigenous peoples in children’s books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society-at-large.”
Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s website’s multi-paged Diversity section.
Black-Eyed Susan’s: “Books and other passions.” Multicultural books.
Race Bridges for Schools: “Storytelling, events, and tools to bring the races together.”
G.R.I.T.Z. Kidz Club: “[A]n online book club for kids, teens, parents and adults who work with youth, who desire to discuss and learn more about literature written for young people (with special emphasis on African American and Multicultural Literature).”
K.T. Horning’s thoughtful essay on children’s book publishing in 2009, particularly the Multicultural Mandate section (which also contains the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)’s statistics about the numbers of books by authors of Latin, Asian-Pacific, African and African-American, and American Indian descent.
The Brown Bookshelf: “The Brown Bookshelf is designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers. Our flagship initiative of is 28 Days Later, a month-long showcase of the best in Picture Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult novels written and illustrated by African Americans.”
The Happy Nappy Bookseller: A cornucopia of multicultural book reviews, news, and interviews.
Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind: “[A]bout: children’s and YA books set in Asia, children’s and YA books with Asian characters, children’s and YA books with characters of Asian descent, Asian children’s and YA book authors and illustrators, and children’s and YA book authors and illustrators of Asian descent.”
PaperTigers.org: “[A] website about books written in English for young readers. It embraces multicultural books from or about anywhere in the world, with a particular focus on the Pacific Rim and South Asia. PaperTigers offers a wealth of book-related resources for teachers, librarians, parents and all those interested in the world of children’s and young adult books.”
Just Us Books: Wade and Cheryl Hudson’s publishing company. Their mission is “to produce the kind of positive, vibrant Black-interest books that they wanted for their own two children.”
Shen’s Books: “…a publisher of multicultural children’s literature that emphasizes cultural diversity and tolerance, with a focus on introducing children to the cultures of Asia. Through books, we can share a world a stories, building greater understanding and tolerance within our increasingly diverse communities as well as throughout our continuously shrinking globe.” On this site, Renee Ting blogs about books and creates “Multicultural Minutes,” video discussions with authors.
Lee & Low: “An independent children’s book publisher focusing on diversity. It is the company’s mission to meet the need for stories that all children can identify with and enjoy.”
Children’s Book Press: “Nonprofit publisher of multicultural and bilingual literature for children.”
Kensington’s Dafina imprint publishes books by and for people of color.
For a much more complete list of publishers devoted to multicultural publishing, please visit the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Small Presses of Color listing. See also their statistics on books by and about people of color.
The Arizona Mural controversy.
Celebrate Black History All Year Long — a PBS Parents Expert column by Cheryl Hudson.
White Privilege: Opening the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. (Thanks to Neesha Meminger, whose blog led me to it. Neesha also has an excellent post on bullying.)
My youngsters don’t see race. It seems our children don’t have opinions based on cultural background. The 1960’s movements our parents stressed on the current parent population created a learning generation and now we have on the rise an educated generation. Now about those victimized animals on our dinner plates ….
Fantastic post, Elizabeth. The art is fabulous, as are your suggestions, links, and the urgent nature of your message. As an organization bringing authors and illustrators into under-served classrooms, many of which are 100% kids of color, we are absolutely on board with your call to bring more diversity to children’s books, their creators, and their publishers!
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Wonderful, eloquent call to action, Elizabeth.
The elephant was in the room when I entered children’s publishing more than 20 years ago, and it’s still there now. Not surprising, but there is a lot of work to be done…
Bravo! Bravo! Suggestions for concrete steps are so helpful, and it took a LOT of work to put all this together. MUCH appreciated, we’ll be discussing it at our first summer staff meeting to see what we can do here on very pale but definitely tanning Cape Cod.
This is an excellent, excellent article. I really hope people in publishing start paying attention.
Just one thing: Color Online is actually run by Susan. 🙂
Since we’re being open and honest here, we have to admit there just aren’t enough minority readers. Publishing is a business. Publishers are looking to make money, so they target an audience that places higher value on literacy.
I say that as someone with a degree in English education. I’ve been in schools and I very much want success for kids of every stripe. But so many of my black and Hispanic students wanted nothing to do with books. They hadn’t had good results—or fun—with reading in the past, so they were convinced it was for someone else. It’s anecdotal research, yes, but it turns out many educators have come up against the same problem.
It’s a problem with deep roots. Blame publishers if you want, but there’s a lot more to it.
Thank you for this insightful post!
I wouldn’t want to read either if:
1. *All* the heroes were white, and people of other races were either non-existent, supporting characters only, or served as comic relief or token diversity characters. Yuck. Can I be the hero instead of the sidekick for once, please?! And if I am the hero, can I actually be heroic instead of being constantly bailed out by white people? Thanks!
2. When a character happened to be of my race, they were stereotyped or fell into the same roles again and again. Not only are they stuck in the roles, but they have the same outcomes over and over again. For example, can black people please stop dying for some worthy cause?
3. I couldn’t identify with the characters at all because they’re rooted in my history (as mentioned with the endless Civil War, MLK books, etc.) and have nothing to do with my life today, or my hopes, or dreams, or the future.
BRAVO! Growing up in the 1970s, I remember my mom having to work really, really hard to find “representative” literature for me to read–that is, anything at all that featured people of color or for that matter girls in more empowered roles. We’ve made a lot of progress, as evidenced in your statement that we need to move beyond a pattern of marketing stories based on the race of the characters (i.e., “black interest” books) and focus on inclusive universality. But this post really points out how far yet we have to go, and that’s so important. I am blessed to be able to send my son to a school where the student body is anything BUT homogenous. It’s global by its very charter, and my son can take “differences” of race, religion, culture, language almost for granted as he grows up. Still, he sees other demarcations (economic, for example). It’s true that every one of us in the industry should be thinking not just of how the iPad will impact us (chew on the socio-economic implications of that for a while, given who’s currently able to afford the technology), but how to stay relevant to our diverse world and educate current and future generations. I rarely comment on blogs, but feel strongly about this issue, as I’m sure many do. Thanks so much for the way you’ve “introduced” the elephant, and given us all ideas and links to pursue.
TL, couldn’t the kids you know who hate to read have something to do with those “bad experiences” you refer to? And what are those bad experiences? Perhaps they don’t feel welcome in books because of all the issues that Elizabeth just pointed out. And if publishers work to include people of color from our employees to the content of our books, I think kids of color will see that in the books they *do* pick up–books that reflect them in more than just one aspect of their history (slavery and Black History Month).
It’s a chicken-or-egg situation, and whether you fix it at the chicken or at the egg, what we all want is to make sure that all kids–especially reluctant readers–feel welcome in the pages of a book.
Thank you for your thoughtful and eloquent post, Elizabeth. I would like to point out a couple of things that I feel are misconceptions mentioned here and in other places I’ve seen discussions on race and publishing, though. The first is that in my experience and in the experiences of friends I’ve spoken with from many other publishing companies, the situation is not that we do not want to hire people of color–in fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. The reality is that there are very few non-caucasian applicants for jobs in our industry, particularly on the editorial side. In my 15+ years in the industry I’ve seen or known about only a handful of people of color who have applied for positions at my company or at others where I know people. We can and should ask ourselves why, and what we can do to change this, but that’s the reality of the situation as I’ve seen it. The other thing I’d like to point out is how very, very few manuscripts we see by or about people of color, much less really good ones, whether from agents, established authors, or straight from the slush piles. Perhaps there are publishers who have quotas and will only publish one or two books about people of color per season, but I’ve never experienced this and don’t know any editors who have, so for us, at least, it’s not a situation of intentionally limiting what we put out into the world. It’s that we cannot publish more books about people of color if we don’t get good manuscripts in the first place.
Thanks for writing this.
Maybe once the behind-the-scenes situation changes (if it ever does) publishers will stop segregating authors by race and ethnicity rather than genre.
When lunch counters segregate by race, it’s illegal; when publishers do it, it’s marketing.
That has to change.
Also wanted to say, I know you mean well when you suggest finding “the Asian Harry Potter,” etc, but this is also a racist approach to things. I’ve often been called “the Latina Terry McMillan,” just as she is called “the black Jane Austen”. Terry McMillan and I are not “minority” versions of some “legitimate” white enterprise; we are ourselves, every bit as capable, interesting, UNIVERSAL and original as any “white” writer.
The big problem, ultimately, is that publishers have ignorantly mistaken melanin for genre and assume that “minority” writers are only suitable for a “minority” audience. Imagine if professional sports or music took this same approach. No Beyonce. No Michael Jordan.
Where are the publishing equivalents of Beyonce and Michael Jordan? Oh, that’s right; they either can’t get their books bought, or their published books are languishing in the Colored Only section at your local bookseller.
Hi, Reka. Thanks for your note. I have heard many times from editors that there aren’t enough manuscripts / applicants of color coming in the doors, and I’m sure that’s true. I don’t think the exclusion is intentional, but it is encouraged by the books we publish and the processes in place to recruit new artists, authors, and editors. To me, it seems that a lack of applicants is the outcome of all the other missed steps along the way: having a rich variety of books featuring protagonists, heroes and heroines of color; showing young people the publishing, writing, illustrating, designing, editorial worlds that are open to them; mentoring interns; looking for new talent beyond writing programs and connections already established; creating a charter like the one the U.K. came up with, to start with two or four steps a year that will bring those minds and talents into the field. We need to create an industry that includes, that shares, that truly validates and appreciates a variety of voices. If we build it….
Alisa, please forgive the glib examples. What I meant is, where are the fantasy stories starring kids of color? I was speaking genre, not substitute spin-off titles. Of *course* I don’t mean some kind of regurgitation of what already exists, a plug-the-character-of-color-into-the-formula approach. There’s an entire genre of young people’s literature that is strangely lacking in brown-skinned progagonists, books like A Wizard of Earthsea (whose covers had a long history of whitewashing, despite the authors protests), that are meant for all readers to fall in love with. I hope that’s clearer.
I think the problem will only be solves once all of us stop thinking of “children of color” as “children of color” and start seeing the simply as “children,” the way they see themselves…?
jeez, “solved” and “they”…darn wireless keyboard! batteries pls!
Anyway, I really like this piece and I’m glad you wrote it. Thanks again.
I am in the process of launching my own small publishing company, Aviar Books, next year. Our motto: The New American Mainstream. We are a commercial fiction house devoted to NOT segregating ANY author by race or ethnicity, regardless of background or the skin tone of their characters. I am talking to several well-known writers about publishing with me. One of the big things we’ll be doing is seeking guarantees from booksellers that our books will NEVER end up on the “black” or “brown” shelves. In fact, we are speaking to civil rights lawyers about the legality of booksellers even continuing to shelve books this way at all.
Thank you for articulating the troubling and lingering racism in the world of youth publishing so very clearly. This is very serious business folks!
One of the first books I remember being read to me was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats; it was during my second-grade story time, which was in the mid-70s. What stuck with me was not so much that it was probably the first time that I’d seen a black character in a picture book, but more that it was a universal story–a kid enjoying a snowy day.
Recently I read a quote by Keats, which can be found on the official Ezra Jack Keats website; it explains how Peter (the main character in The Snowy Day) came to be: “None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids — except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.” I think that last line says it all. Stories endure because of the universality of the experience depicted in them, but what we all need to remember as we’re writing, acquiring, and buying books is that the universe is made up of people from various races, religions, and lifestyles. So it’s up to all of us to make sure that the characters who should have been there all along get where they need to be, whether that be in the pages of a book, on a publisher’s list, on a shelf in a store, or in the hands of a reader.
And for TL – the problem is not melanin, and never has been. It is socioeconomic status and education level. When you factor for these things, race and ethnicity are irrelevant. Poor whites don’t read either.
The problem, then, is not one of skin tone, national origin or (perceived) culture, but rather of equal access to a decent life.
In a nation where a Hispanic woman is still paid 50 cents to every dollar earned by a white man in the same position and with the same educational level, we are nowhere near achieving that.
When you say “black and Hispanic kids don’t read” rather than “poor kids don’t read” you contribute to the mythology that says melanin dictates intellect. It does not. Never has, never will.
When you say “poor kids don’t read” and then realize how disproportionally impacted dark-skinned people are by poverty, then you can begin to ask the questions that will lead to solutions. Why are darker people still locked out of the American Dream by the ruling classes? The answer is ugly, and we lie to pretend it doesn’t happen here.
There is a huge difference between RACISM being the problem, and RACE being the problem — and that difference determines where you place the blame, and how you solve the problem.
Thank you for this thoughtful, important post.
I’m a regular reader of Anne Sibley O’Brien’s “Coloring Between the Lines.” I appreciate her abilty to speak frankly and honestly about race. As a caucasian person, I find having such conversations can be difficult, yet so important. Inspired by Anne, I’ve recently ventured into sharing my own experiences more publicly on my blog. I’m constantly evaluating my experience of race and white privilege and trying to grow as a member of a diverse world.
I don’t accept statements that there’s no market for books with diverse main characters. As an educator, parent, and writer, I’m always on the lookout for great books with characters from all different races, religions, etc. My (caucasian) children and students will read any book that has well drawn characters and an interesting plot, regardless of the race of the characters. One recent example is my 4 1/2 year old daughter’s response to the book “Cora Cooks Pancit.” Even though the main character is a Filipina-American, my daughter related to Cora because they share the same interests and desires. Every child should be able to see themselves in a book. Sure, children of color will read well-written books about caucasian children, but shouldn’t all children be able to see kids who look like them in at least some of the books they read?
Thank you for contributing to this important conversation. I hope more people join in.
There are currently two very popular kids’ shows on Disney Channel with Hispanic leading girls – The Wizards of Waverly Place, starring Selena Gomez, and Sonny with a Chance, starring Demi Lovato. There is another such show that just started on Nickelodeon, called Victorious, starring Latina newcomer, Victoria Justice. Another show on Nick, Big Time Rush, features a boy band from Minnesota, one of whom is played by Carlos Pena, a Latino. Every kid in America is watching and loving these shows. Selena Gomez has more followers on Twitter than Miley Cirus. Kids don’t CARE about race or ethnicity; they’re drawn to good stories written (or performed) well. Publishing would be VERY wise to realize that for my nine-year-old son’s generation there is no majority in America anymore. There are only Americans.
You make a good point, Stacy. I agree that it’s, as you say, a “chicken-or-egg situation.” As adults you and I probably read authors of all types, from all over the world; kids, however, tend to look for characters whose situations are more like their own. If they don’t find those characters, they’re less likely to be interested. When they have good stories—not patronizing or pedantic ones—they’re more apt to read.
Alisa, when you say the root of the problem is socioeconomic, you are correct. It’s not skin color, and I hope you didn’t think I was saying that. As a writer and a publisher, you should be more careful with your quotation marks. I never wrote “black and Hispanic kids don’t read.” I wrote “[S]o many of my black and Hispanic students wanted nothing to do with books.” It wasn’t a condemnation. I’m on their side. I don’t care what books they choose as long as they’re reading.
My point was that publishers make business decisions. I don’t agree with some of them, but they’re out to make money.
I am definitely not on the side of the haves, or the racists, or those who want to keep minorities from the American dream. I’m married to a minority, for God’s sake. We both do a lot of work to improve the situations of those in need, whatever their race, culture, or belief.
“Contribute to the mythology”? Not even close, my friend.
YES!! The future of America is multicultural, yet publishing is a very “white” business. It has to change. Many editors are concerned. I’ve helped my company interview and recruit college students, hoping to find minority candidates. In 1997 Marianne Martens (formerly of North-South Books, now a librarian) and I established and co-taught the publishing for children course at the Certificate in Publishing program Walter Mosley helped to set up at City College. We hoped to to find students of color who’d want to work in our field. We had some terrific students, and one young woman found a great job at Scholastic. This April I spoke about children’s editorial and library jobs as a career choice at the Children’s Studies progam at Brooklyn College. I am hoping to find future editors –always!
The main problem seems to be that the pay scale is so low–entry level pay has always been below what a year of college truly costs. Many families sacrifice to send kids to college, and it’s hard to encourage a graduate to take a low-paying job, especially in the face of college loans. For those who are interested in children’s books, becoming a librarian makes more sense –a professional degree with broad applications, more portable, and, in easier economic times, such jobs used to be pretty stable.
And yes, publishing is a business, and the market for multicultural books isn’t always robust. I have published a few books by Hispanic authors on my imprint, and, if sales are lower than our usual formula (when we would consider not reprinting) I have been able to keep the books in print because my colleagues at Random House support these titles.
I will keep reading these entries. Thank you for the wonderful art.
Excellent and thorough post. Just a few things to add. In addition to recruiting for traineeships and entry-level positions, shifting the balance in high-level managerial positions is crucial. They are the people who dictate large-scale publishing initiatives. And as someone who worked in editorial departments at both Children’s Book Press and Lee & Low, we didn’t sit back and wait for manuscripts by people of color to come across our desks. We made active efforts to find new writers and artists, making it very clear that we were open to submissions. Publishing is such a difficult world to get into, this needs to be an active effort rather than a passive one.
Finally, and as you say, publishing people need to speak about these issues openly. In my experience, people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and in such a homogenious world, the rare person who isn’t white/female/middle class is not necessarily going to want to be the outspoken rabble rouser. Top level people in publishing need to lead by initiative, and a children’s book organization should take the lead by creating a Publishing Equalities Charter as DIPNet is doing in the UK. What about the Children’s Book Council?
Wonderful article (and I love the elephants.)
My book, The Peril of the Sinister Scientist has multiracial characters because that’s what I was used to. Unfortunately the cover picture doesn’t look like the main character, but that didn’t happen because of prejudice.
You are absolutely wrong. I work with thousands of school children across the country each year – primarily in urban areas. There are a lot of closet “ethnic” readers out there. But what publishers don’t pick up is that those children are hungering for more literature that features them. So are their parents.
And ALL are frustrated by the continued insistence of presenting only white faces on covers, and/or making them protagonists of novels that are mainstream.
I call it the “NOT YOU” syndrome. You can read about someone else’s adventures but you can’t dream of having any of your own. So we mire them in some books about oppression, civil rights, slavery or discrimination based on race as if that is the totality of their ancestor’s existence.
Or we have editor’s questioning “authentic” voice when the students are healthy, well-adjusted, middle class and having a command of the English language. They aren’t allowed to be fairies, or kings, or wizards or . . . .
Richard Pryor once joked that sci-fi movies didn’t feature people of color because the majority didn’t plan for people of color to be around that long. — A bad joke, but it could easily be applied to literature as well.
Our kids are sick of the mind numbing sameness of the books that are marketed about them. How many Martin Luther King books can I buy? How about we have a moratorium on those books for one year and make room for adventures and contemporary stories that are informed by race but aren’t ABOUT being oppressed by it?
If you want to see kids turning on to reading, then perhaps publishers should stop insisting on publishing the very books that turn them off.
The problem with the market is we create books that appeal to adult buyers People in decision making positions spend next to no time getting to know the target audience.
And the tendency of publishers to go back to the same “safe” stable of authors is concerning. Take a look at the link from Kyra Hick’s blog (above) that does statistics about the CSK awards since 1970. The lionshare of awards continue to go to the same narrow subset of players. And newly awarded authors and illustrators say they can’t get a second book acquired despite the award. No wonder since their publishers do little to market them as an alternative.
So let’s stop kidding ourselves. Minorities are a growing segment of the population. This is a matter of economic survival for publishers. The “target” is shifting. If publishers don’t agree to acquire books with more diversity, the market will learn not to look for them when you do. Leaving a great opportunity for publishers with a bit more saavy.
Hmmm. And from that comes a kernel of an idea……
I’m so glad these conversations are now taking place in forums where decision-makers might take heed.
Most authors of colour (my experience is with YA fiction) struggle not only to get their first book published, but to sell that second book (unless they sold a series or book two their first go-round). In addition to everything else, we must prove more folks than those who look like us want to read what we write. I wrote a YA romance with South Asian characters and couldn’t sell it to save my life. Apparently, it had already been done. It was predictable. Obviously, vampires haven’t yet been “done”. And all other romances on the shelves are not predictable. But as soon as I wrote a romance (with characters of colour) under a pen name, it sold in about two minutes. As did the second and third.
Often, our “race” book is the first to get published. After that, it’s like we have nothing more to contribute. Mitali Perkins once said that it took her over ten years to get her second book published. I’m sure if you dig around, you’ll find many similar stories by other authors of colour. The deeply entrenched belief that our books don’t and won’t sell, particularly when they’re never lead titles and often don’t have the same resources thrown behind them as those of our white contemporaries, allows publishers and booksellers to continue perpetuating old and outdated systems which exclude authors of colour (and, by extension, children of colour) at best, and completely erase us at worst.
While the discussion has moved beyond “racism exists” in other arenas, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of it in this industry. Thanks for a thoughtful and engaging post, Elizabeth.
@ Alisa: Brava! I’ve been thinking the same thing – we need more than *one* multicultural press. White authors get to send their manuscripts to dozens of imprints in the hopes that they’ll connect with the right editor. This is such a subjective business, it would only make sense to have editors with different tastes reading and acquiring “multicultural” books as well.
Elizabeth. Your article is extremely interesting and relevant. Several months ago I found myself participating in spirited discussions between my publishers editor and the (Hispanic) publicity/marketing director over whether to mention the skin color of Santa in my middle grade fantasy novel, Catching Santa. Even though there is no mention of Santa’s color on the jacket flap, the marketing director felt sales would be affected once word spread that Santa was indeed black. She felt the changes I made to the traditional Christmas were enough without mentioning color. See, my story is Santa reinvented. In keeping this short I’ll just say that Jacob, my white eleven-year-old protagonist is a Pole—a descendant of the only race in history that can actually see Santa. After introducing the reader to reindeer-cloaked commandos, elf spies, secret websites and magical belts of power, I reveal a black Santa who is also a Pole. You can read the overview at http://www.pantsonfirepress.com/book.asp?bookid=1 or at my website, http://www.marcfranco.com
Understand that Santa’s skin color is the period in: Forget everything you know about Santa because it’s just not true. And what better time than now to focus on a subject never explored in fantasy fiction for children: Inner color. Anyway, in the end my editor stuck to her guns and championed a black Santa, organized focus groups with teachers, over one-hundred fifth graders, and many parents(mostly moms) and the result was unanimous: The color of Santa did not matter. The story is what mattered. Then she took it one step further and engaged several African-American community leaders in the Central Florida area and the result there was, well in a word: Encouragement.
Look for it this Christmas. Peace.
First I’d like to thank Elizabeth for including my art in her wonderful essay.
Now in response to “TL”– my sons love toys, BUT if the only toys that were available were Barbie dolls, it is quite possible that instead of forcing themselved to play with them, maybe they would just NOT like toys. If the only music available was Rap, I wonder how many Jay-Z CDs you’d have?
My point is that it’s very easy to say that Black kids don’t read, but is it possible that the reason they don’t is because there is very little out there for them to identify with. And there was even less for their parents. And even less for their grandparents. We have to start the line somewhere and start introducing them to books that they actually like!
I wonder if the shoe were on the other foot how many White children would be avid readers? Or even how many White adults would ever venture into a Black bookstore to buy something for themselves? But what if that was all there was? And 90% of all books for White readers were about Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin? How many of you would be curling up with a good book about Woodrow Wilson? Hard to resist, huh?
My cartoon above is based on dozens of book fairs that I have done that have put me in front of thousands of White customers only to have them avert their eyes as they get to my table as if I was shaking a cup in hopes of getting their loose change. Or maybe they’ll decide to check their watches, only to suddenly look up as they get to the table on the other side of me where it’s safe. I was lucky to sell a dozen books at the Miami Book Fair over a three-day period, compared to selling 60 books in one day at the Harlem Book Fair. It’s one thing if you look at my books and decide that you don’t like them, BUT if you don’t even give me the courtesy of a glance, there’s nothing I can do about that. And strangely enough, book fairs charge me the same rate for my table as they do for other authors.
But guess what, it’s not the kids. I had plenty of kids from all races point to my books and ask for them, only to have their arms practically tugged out of the socket to get away before I pounced.
One of the children’s books that I’ve done is called “Looking to the Clouds For Daddy,” and is about three sisters coping with the lose of their Dad. A theme as universal if ever their was one, but I still get asked if I would consider doing ANOTHER version with the same story, but using White characters. Sigh.
When I do my Mama’s Boyz books, based on my syndicated comic strip, I try to fill them with lots of life-lessons and teachable moments for kids and teens, but because it stars an African-American family, the adults who buy my books are 95% Black. But when a book club or library buys my books and gives them to kids directly, thus by-passing the parent, the kids LOVE them! In the same way that many people from my generation grew up watching Fat Albert or the Cosby Show, without lumping them in with the other Black shows.
What many of you don’t realize is the inability for mainstream society to often see people of color in leadership roles, and yes, I know we have a Black president. By the way, thanks! But we also have Tom Cruise as “The Last Samarai,” White characters placed in starring roles in movies like “The Last Airbender.” Even fictional characters added into movies like “The Last King of Scotland,” to keep it from being labeled as a “Black movie.” Then, as you know, only Black folks would see it. And don’t get me started on David Carradine as the star of King Fu. Okay, that’s a joke… sort of.
As an author / illustrator, I should be able to produce a book featuring a Black kid as just a regular kid, not young Frederick Douglass, and have readers take the time to consider purchasing it just as if it were any other book. Even a lot of my White friends won’t purchase my books for THEIR kids. Because as we all know, it would only be a matter of time before they’re lining up to get little Billy his first Snoop Dogg CD.
There’s a series of children’s books, that I won’t mention, but when they star a kid of color, their skin is colored gray, but when they released one starring a White kid, all of a sudden, they decided to color him in. It’s a miracle!!!
Just my two cents.
First – I would love to add to your list of blogs The Happy Nappy Bookseller. http://thehappynappybookseller.blogspot.com/ . I was steered there by one of the participants of Color Online. I take a look over there frequently to find quality books to add to my wishlist for the school library. She focuses on good reading, and there are many books that are diverse. I love checking out her site.
Second – I myself am very frustrated with bookstores and now even my own school library or rather my boss. I put in writing to my principal that we needed more – way more – diverse books in our library and asked to be allocated some money for a shopping spree. She answered that our version of PTA had offered to pay for some library books, and she would let me know when this would happen, so they could get my input. The year went by, and although I asked a few times about this, I was told it’s in the works.
At the END of the school year, I’m told books are ordered. WHAT? NO one even asked for any input from me (I’m the library tech, by the way). I asked her what books, and she said the head library (a guy the comes once a week) gave her a list from me. Sorry? she sees me every day, and never mentioned this until it’s all done. I told her I don’t know what list he used, because he never mentioned anything to me.
The ironic thing is she is a person of color herself (or rather bi-racial). I am too ( though I take physically after the caucasion side of my family) I find myself very irritated about this. I kept trying to get her aside to talk to her about it, but she kept avoiding it – or it seemed so. At any rate, I’m going to push further next year. Maybe post a wish list on the library wall, hoping parents will see and decided to donate some books. I can try at least. It’s obvious my suggestions have no merit with the principal, so I have to take matters in my own hand.
So my comment, this was down at the more personal level, for us and trying to diversify the library didn’t work – yet. If it’s this hard on the personal level, it’s going to take a lot of squeaky wheels to get the point across to the publishers. You’ve done a great start here, Reading In Color bloggist also made a huge start with a book cover change – she got a lot of us to write letters to Bloomsbury Publishing. I would be happy to keep it up on the letter writing front. I just need some direction.
I am all fired up again to work hard to promote multicultural children’s and YA books. Thank you, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth. Your article is extremely interesting and relevant. Several months ago I found myself participating in spirited discussions between my publishers editor and the (Hispanic) publicity/marketing director over whether to mention the skin color of Santa in my middle grade fantasy novel, Catching Santa. Even though there is no mention of Santa’s color on the jacket flap, the marketing director felt sales would be affected once word spread that Santa was indeed black. She felt the changes I made to the traditional Christmas were enough without mentioning color. See, my story is Santa reinvented. In keeping this short I’ll just say that Jacob, my white eleven-year-old protagonist is a Pole—a descendant of the only race in history that can actually see Santa. After introducing the reader to reindeer-cloaked commandos, elf spies, secret websites and magical belts of power, I reveal a black Santa who is also a Pole.
Understand that I mean for Santa’s skin color to be the period in: Forget everything you know about Santa because it’s just not true. And what better time than now to focus on a subject never explored in fantasy fiction for children: Inner color. Notice I don’t mention race. That’s because Santa and Jacob are of the same race—Poles. The color of their skin is meaningless. Anyway, in the end my editor stuck to her guns and championed a black Santa, organized focus groups with teachers, over one-hundred fifth graders, and many parents(mostly moms) and the result was unanimous: The color of Santa did not matter. The story is what mattered. Then she took it one step further and engaged several African-American community leaders in the Central Florida area and the result there was, well in a word: Encouragement.
Look for it this Christmas. Peace.
I second the recommendation of TheHappyNappyBookseller as a great blog wherein many books with kids of color are reviewed!
Thanks – great piece. Thought you might be interested to support the LA Black Book Expo too.
For info, visit http://labbx.com/
Great article, Elizabeth. I appreciate your raising this issue, providing the valuable links (and please do include TheHappyNappyBookseller), and calling for the implementation of the Publishing Equalities Charter in the United States.
I have to take issue with the statement that mainstream publishers aren’t seeing publishable manuscripts by authors of color. As editor of MultiCultural Review, I’ve seen many of those books coming from smaller multiculturally-oriented presses such as Lee & Low, Children’s Book Press, Just Us Books, Shen’s Books, Arte Publico/Pinata Books, and many others, as well as publishers in Canada. Some outstanding authors of color have self-published, either because they couldn’t get a foot in the door in the first place or (more common, in my experience) their first book wasn’t frontlist and failed to meet sales expectations, so they were dropped. (And it seems as though many of those books were set up to fail due to lack of marketing support, thus reinforcing justifications for the way things have always been done.)
By the way, I’d like to add another call, since this is a PW blog. And that is for reviewers to consider small press published books on an equal footing with those of large publishers, and to consider self-published titles as well.
Thank you for such a thoughtful and detailed post, especially the concrete suggestions for action and the links to blogs and organizations. Bravo to Elizabeth for contributing to and stimulating the conversation about such an important topic.
The only thing missing is a section called “What Authors Can Do.” As a white author who has written about people of color, I’ve had to confront a lot of my own biases. Changing our assumptions about race and identity is hard work, and doing so can be both enlightening and disconcerting. But it’s necessary if we want kids to develop tolerance, empathy, and understanding.
As Chair of the Children’s and Young Adult Authors Committee of PEN American Center, I wanted to add that diversity in publishing is one of PEN’s missions, and I hope to expand our committee’s focus on this issue in the coming years.
Thank you, thank you, Elizabeth. You’ve gathered a huge box of tools with which we all can begin to build a world of children’s book that looks like the children of our world.
@FeelingFiction, I wanted to respond to your comment,”My youngsters don’t see race. It seems our children don’t have opinions based on cultural background.” We may wish it weren’t true, but study after study (last month’s CNN report being only the latest) has shown that whether they talk about it or not, kids of all colors absolutely *do* see race. Yet 75% of white families don’t talk about race with their kids because 1. as the racial majority, their race is the norm, so they don’t think about it much; and/or 2. they think that race shouldn’t matter, that it’s better to be “colorblind.” Therefore, white children often have no language or conceptual basis for expressing what they do see, nor awareness of the unconscious attitudes they are absorbing.
Whether it should or not, in 21st century America, race *does* matter. Raising kids to overlook something so definitive as race and racism doesn’t equip them to function in a highly racialized society. All our children need the knowledge and skills to create and maintain deep human connections across race and culture, to understand the inequities created by racial divisions, and to participate in meaningful change to create a more just community, a consciously multiracial nation.
In the end, a field of children’s books reinforcing whiteness as the norm doesn’t serve white children either.
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, thanks for this clarity, an arrow to the very center of the target:
“There is a huge difference between RACISM being the problem, and RACE being the problem — and that difference determines where you place the blame, and how you solve the problem.”
“More, more, more” says the librarian!!!! I’ve been talking to publishers and author friends about this for years. Please write/publish more!
Elizabeth, you have done real important work in your blog, I am so impressed with what you have pulled together as well as the ongoing work by so many who are mentioned and who have commented. As someone who receives review books, I can’t tell you disheartening it can be to open a big box and not see one or more than one book featuring a child or young person of color. It has to get better.
This is a great post, Elizabeth–so thoughtful and yet passionate. Thank you!
Once again, Elizabeth, you hit it dead on.
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I love The Happy Nappy Bookseller; don’t know how I left it off the list. The same goes for Tu Publishing and Arte Publico, as well as others. I’ll add them (and correct the ColorOnline attribution) when I get back to my laptop. If I could sum up this blog post in one line, one “take-away,” as business people have started calling central ideas, it would be: White is not the default color. If we all keep that in the forefront of our minds when we hire and write and revise and acquire and design and market and buy and handsell, we’ll be on our way. Thanks so much for continuing the discussion, everyone.
One more note: at BEA, I was lucky enough to attend a panel discussion on one of the town stages, titled “Is America Post-Racial?” There was a standing-room only crowd gathered to hear several prominent authors and the moderator (all of color) talk powerfuly about issues of race and racism in this country. The crowd was the biggest I saw at any BEA stage, and the listeners were of all races. This is clearly a topic the majority of us in the field find vital. It’s time, babies!
Thank you, Elizabeth. This is an amazing and thoughtful post. I love the way you brought artists together to help illustrate this vital issue. I also love the way you mentioned that diversity is more than skin color. It should include economic, social, and religious diversity, too.
Thanks for the resources. “A World Full of Color” resonated, as did your suggestion for booksellers and librarians. We’d all love to live in a colorblind, bully-free world. Let’s continue to do our best to encourage and lift up all children.
Let’s recognize, too, that the “racial epithets” you refer to were never proven to actually have been uttered and were rightfully denounced by the vast majority of participants and organizers; and that the President of the United States himself either mocked American citizens using a sexual slang term, or “just” mocked them…
Diversity, respect and truth telling apply to everyone. If we’re going to pass these concepts on to children, we need to live them ourselves.
As a librarian at an inner city school and a book buyer in an affluent, mostly white suburb I see this problem everyday. Any book, and I truly mean any book I bring to school that features a non white face on it’s cover is scooped up immediately while that same book will sit face out at the bookstore for weeks without being purchased. How do we remedy this? I’m not sure but you have suggested some terrific ideas. I also want to say, as an Arab- American woman there are very very few books that feature the Arab American experience. As a child, no character was even remotely similar to me, and as an adult I feel the same. I think we forget that there are other races sometimes, other experiences. Especially in this day and age, we need positive portraits of Arab American families and children.
This is a poignant article with information that is relevant and much needed. Although I am speaking from a Canadian perspective, I think it would relate to the experiences of many kids that feel under represented in Children’s books. I was recently invited to present my book to a school with a large South-Asian population (in celebration of South-Asian Heritage Month, no less:) The groups were quite large and it was a really hot day with no air-conditioning in the Library BUT these students (ranging from Grade 1-4) were such a captive audience and truly displayed their love for literacy and critical thought in their amazing questions and comments. I was told that the school arranges many author visits but because the authors and characters of those books did not reflect the student population, the students did not often connect with the message of Literacy and how meaningful it can be to each one of them. Many students came up to me after the reading and shared the stories that they are creating. My response was simple – keep creating your beautiful stories, keep sharing your beautiful stories and you WILL become great authors and artists some day soon! The power of representation is huge.
This is one reason I love the artist Norman Rockwell. It doesn’t matter who you are, his art will bring a smile of recognition to your face. Another artist who I have encountered where publishers meet is George E. Miller II. His work is a beautiful representation of our diversity. As I look through my own huge library, some of my favorite titles are those where elephants quite literally exist. Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Sam Mc Bratner with Anita Jeram are one of my favorite “teams” of all time. Sesame Street and Richard Brown are truly genius with their one little “I can do it myself with Bert and Ernie,” which I have shared hundreds of times with little ones and adults, alike. Whenever I read Mary Engelbreit, as in her “Symphony”, I always want more, as with her little dolls, nothing could make me smile more. Debbie’s Frasier’s “On the day you were born” is sheer genius and should be read and shared with every ever born. I was lucky enough to meet the beautiful Faith Ringold and have shared her “My dream of Martin Luther King” over and over as it is truly genius in illustration and story. If you have never read and then “sang to oneself”, “What a wonderful world” illustrated by Ashley Brown by Weis and Thiele, you have missed a lovely, lovely book. And just this month, I have come across four wonderful new treats,” Come on Rain” Gorgeous! Gorgeous! by Karen Hesse, pictures by John Muth that you have to see!, “God’s Dream” by Desmond Tutu & Abrams illustrated by LeUyen Pham. “Bats in the Library” where if you don’t come away feeling sentimental for bats, it’s amazing (and I hated bats before!) by Brian Lies… and an adorable little book from my sister called “The Island Light” 1992 by Rosemary Wells, featuring animals with the best story line. While I am finishing a Madeline compendium and loving, loving, loving Ludwig Bemelmans and so wishing he had a line of “multicultural” Madelines, although a case could be made for the fact that, in fact… Madeline was quite multicultural. After all… the more I research my ancestry, the more I am quite sure I am not at all as “freckled-light” as my photo would appear. I am more than pleased to discover my multi-cultured ancestry. I love small ears and large ears and freckles on all cheeks. I am a Norman Rockwell painting in one person and feel like one of Bemelmans or Englebreit’s smiling yellow suns. It is a wonderful world, life is a symphony and I have known, since the day I was born, every morning of my life, when my mother said, “Good morning sunshine, “ that, (as Debbie Frasier says, in “On the day you were born”) “We are so glad you have come!” We owe no less than to communicate this to the children in our world. In the world.
I am so enjoying the conversation, the testimonies and the thoughtful suggestions; the barriers of the “politically correct” finally down, that for so long discouraged many to openly discuss issues such as “race,” (politic of the ostrich).
Elizabeth, a heartfelt thanks for writing about this topic and for all the research you did. I used to be a bookseller as well. The majority of our customers were Caucasians and Asians, but I NEVER had any problems selling multicultural books, whether it be PB, MG or YA. Our children’s book buyer could attest of that fact regarding our stores. I applaud my bookstore for taking down their “African American” section, as shocking as it will sound. They kept all the books, but shelved them by genre as opposed to ethnicity. We still had a list of African American authors to address specific requests, and in any case being big readers, my colleagues and I could point the customer to specific authors if a request by ethnicity was made. That was an independent bookstore. After I stopped working for them, I started realizing that the diversity we had in our bookstore was not common in the United States.
Books honoring cultural diversity, i.e. not necessarily ABOUT cultural diversity but with original, sassy, etc… culturally diverse characters do sell. I can attest of that. The selling point, I observed, is the personal recommendation of the bookseller, who READ the book. Stating the obvious, for that to happen:
-the book buyer must request the book, knowing (for having read the ARC, or reviews => my colleagues and I would make suggestions based on ARC we liked) that the story is solid good.
-the bookseller must read the book, so he can recommend it to customers eager for thrilling story.
-For all the above to happen, publishers must sent ARCs to book reviewers and to the bookstore, and not closet these books as seasonal, as if relevant only for heritage months. Some, especially the independent and diversity conscious already do it. For many others, maybe it’s getting there but if it were the case, wouldn’t more reviews appear on book reviewers blogs?
Your post is a stepping stone. The elephants have a point. 🙂
I wholeheartedly agree. I love illustrating different ethnicities. It’s much more interesting to me as an artist. Variety is what makes living in California so fun.
Important article, Elizabeth! Thanks so much for spotlighting these issues. It’s way past time for change. I appreciate how you offered action steps concerned industry leaders can take.
I say we need more multicultural children’s books of all kinds — contemporary stories that allow children to soar, heal and dream and historical stories that speak to the struggles and successes of the past. Sadly, it seems that few books of either kind make their way into classrooms around the country.
I’ve done many school visits where I’m saddened to learn that kids have no idea what the Civil Rights Movement is beyond Dr. King and Rosa Parks. Many kids know little about slavery too. So I say we also need more books in those areas, books that offer stories of resistance and resilience, of overcoming incredible odds and finding ways to carry on.
I agree that we need many more slice-of-life stories about kids of color. We need fantasy tales. We need books that explore race and those that salute the universal experiences that bring kids together. Sometimes people suggest limiting a certain kind of children’s book to make way for another. That concerns me. I think we need more of everything. And we need to support the treasures we have.
As part of The Brown Bookshelf, I help spotlight African-American children’s book creators in our annual 28 Days Later campaign. Each year, we have people who are surprised to find out that these authors and books exist.
Along with calling for new multicultural books of all kinds, let’s celebrate the ones that are already out there. Your library, A World Full of Color, is a great start. So are blogs like Color Online, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, Black Threads in Kid’s Lit, Multiculturalism Rocks!, Crazy Quilts, The Brown Bookshelf and others. Also, please check out resource books like the Black Books Galore! series.
Thank you for saluting trailblazing independent presses like Just Us Books, Children’s Book Press, Lee & Low and many others. They continue to create beautiful books that celebrate the experiences of children of color and give many authors and illustrators their start.
Along with calling on industry folks to help turn things around. We need parents and every-day folks to help too. If you like a book, please tell your friends or post a review on Amazon.com. You might just help keep a good book in print.
If you’re searching for multicultural children’s book that speak to a particular subject or experience and can’t find it, don’t give up. Ask a librarian, bookseller, multicultural kidlit blogger to suggest a title. You can even send me a note at email(at)kellystarlinglyons(dot)com. I’ll do my best to help.
I’m inspired every day by the incredibly talented authors and illustrators of color around me. I know many emerging writers and artists too just waiting for their break. So I would ask publishers to please find ways to open the doors. Our children will thank you.
Thanks again, Elizabeth, for your important work!
Your article is inspiring and informative. I have put my writing dreams on hold for years while having front seat tickets to various topics that impact our global society, i.e., former NFL wife, diversity trainer in white rural schools, youth church director, and mother, oops, forgot preacher’s wife. I have stories for every age and gender. I am currently learning how to promote the self-published boook, “Can Anthing Good Come from the Hood?”, an inspirational book written to impact African American males and families. I will reference your websites. Thank you Kelly Starling Lyons (children’s book author) for sharing this article on Facebook. Margo Dawson
GREAT INFO FOR A START BUT MUCH IS MISSING ETC. AUTHORS OF WRITTEN /PUBLISHED WORKS ALREADY ON THE MARKET.. A GREAT DEAL OF DIVERSITY ARE AVAILABLE . IT IS CLEAR THAT LIMITATIONS BY THE AUTHOR OF THIS PEICE ARE EVIDENT
Is there any chance that that 98% figure has something to do with economic inequality and the, for lack of a better word, classism of the publishing industry? There are still huge economic inequalities against people of color in the US, and the publishing industry is stacked in favor of those who are already well-off.
To be one of the people in the ivory tower, you almost have to have money. Want to be an editor in a publishing house or a literary agent? You have to be an intern first. An unpaid intern. Even I, as a relatively well-off college-educated white girl, couldn’t afford to do that. Want to be a bookseller? You’re going to start at $7 an hour, and quite possibly part-time. Try living on that as your sole source of income…I did it for a year, but I lived in a cheap apartment in a cheap city with no kids.
Being a writer or illustrator is also much, much easier if you can be supported by spouse, parents, or another source of wealth. It’s also easier if you can write at night after your office job or college professor job instead of after a 10-hour shift in retail, health care, or food service.
I do think publishers have a responsibility to seek out, promote, and not ghettoize the wonderful multicultural works that are already out there. But if the publishing industry is really serious about diversifying, they might consider making the barriers to entry a little less stacked in favor of the wealthy.
Thank you for this thought-provoking article, Elizabeth. One sign of what I hope is a continuing trend is the cover of L.K. Madigan’s debut YA novel FLASH BURNOUT (Houghton Mifflin, 2009). Winner of the 2010 YALSA William C. Morris Award, FLASH BURNOUT’s cover depicts the main character, Blake, as an Asian teen. Madigan loves the cover, and says that “Blake’s ethnicity is incidental.” This appears to be a case of the art director asking whether the main character needs to be portrayed as Caucasian and determining that the answer in this case is ‘no’.
Here’s an interview where L.K. Madigan addresses the cover:
Thank you for writing a powerful and informative article. My hope is that it will make it’s way around the publishing world and into the hands of those with power to make changes. I like your action plans. No one can say they want to help, but don’t know how. You did a great job with the how.
A few years ago, when my daughter taught fourth grade in a Texas school district, she was amazed that some kids had never heard of slavery in the USA. So, excellent teacher that she is, she designed an African American History project (after testing of course). The way some districts are cleansing the curriculum, I think we’ll need even more books that reflect African American history as well as the history of other cultures. Then we’ll have to focus on how to get them into the hands of kids, parents, and teachers.
Thanks again for researching and writing such a thought provoking article.
Fabulous. And these generous artists add so much to this conversation.
Another Elephant in the Room: Who’s doing/did the “cleansing?”
The Texas Standards, which it seems quite a few are misinformed about, have PUT BACK the African-American patriots and pillars of our American society, patriots and pillars who were eliminated (cleansed) from textbooks by folks who didn’t want Americans (especially children) to know about African-Americans’ incalculable roles in the founding and development of this great country of ours.
Rather than cultivate a victim mentality, we need to write and publish children’s books showing that despite a group’s collective mistreatment (and who hasn’t been part of one?), this country has fostered and continues to foster an environment unlike any other where people can pursue (not be guaranteed) happiness.
The people on the Texas Standards committee are deserving of thanks instead of misinformed and sheep-like condemnation.
In response to J.H.R., you’re clearly coming into this conversation a little late.
I refer you to two earlier posts by Elizabeth where she addresses authors of color. Here are the links to these posts: http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=409
There’s also the librarything.com/catalog/shelftalker where more than 500 books by people of color are listed.
As an author and the mother of three African American children, I am so very grateful that Elizabeth Bluemle took the time to call a spade a spade: We absolutely DO have a problem in the publishing industry when the need for diversity of people, workplaces and experiences in books go ignored. I especially loved Bluemie’s suggestions on how the industry can address the disparities and put more books featuring children of color in more hands.
I question, though, how we go about reaching the readers—what we do to dig into the minds of the mothers who buy children’s books and convince them that there is great value in diversifying their bookshelves. I wrote a piece about this at Parenting.com (I am a featured blogger there), and really, you would have thought I suggested white people fillet their children and grill them for dinner. The very idea of letting white children read books featuring African American, Latino, Asian, and Indian characters sent folks into a virtual tizzy. Check it out here:
Why does this happen? Just as Bluemie suggested, it does a huge disservice to authors and readers when books written by or featuring people of color are called out as such. Saying “this is a black book” gives reviewers, buyers, and yes, audiences, the signal that these books aren’t for them—that it’s just some black stuff for black kids. Commission and buy books from people of color that feature those slice-of-life stories, and then trumpet the heart of those stories—the universal truths—and people WILL pay attention to them. Do most people think of Ezra Jack Keats’ work as “black” books? Or are they considered universally held stories about a child who teaches himself how to whistle (Whistle For Willie) and enjoys the wonders of a big snowstorm (The Snowy Day)? Keats’ books are what they are: Wonderful stories. Not black stories. Not stories for African Americans only. They are simply beautifully told stories. And the main character happens to be be black.
Venture to say that if this was kept in mind as editors commission works by and featuring people of color, and marketing and sales departments pitch to their buyers, and publicity departments approach reviewers, and reviewers consider their coverage, maybe—just maybe—the audience might be convinced that these books are worthy a look, too.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting, for sure.
But aren’t we all worth it?
Yes you have many good points-stories about animals, of course, are universal and diverse and if there are no people than the story line, plot, structure, and characters also should reach everyone. IN Canada there alot of beautiful stories re. first nations people, heroes, native mythology and I have been told publishers in canada definitely are seeking first nations stories, adventures, history, art related images, etc.
There’s a great competition going on right now, called NerdsHeartYA.
http://nerdsheartya.wordpress.com/. This is only the second year. It features 32 great YA titles that didn’t get much press in 2009.
If anyone is searching for some wonderfully written diverse YA titles, they should checkout the NerdsHeartYa shortlist.
Booksellers should always remember the mutlicultural titles they love when choosing store favorites. Sometimes a good blurb makes all the difference.
Wow, what a gorgeously illustrated post! With all the hundreds of wonderful books already being published featuring children of color, how can we get them into children’s hands? It seems like having them in school libraries is *key.*
My kids go to schools that have high populations of first and second generation immigrants. My children who attend mostly Asian-immigrant schools are in high-achieving schools; my child who attends a mostly Hispanic-immigrant (and African American) school is in a low-achieving school. My son tells me stories about his classmates who consider failure and getting in trouble to be a badge of honor. I have no idea what books are in their elementary school libraries, but maybe they could use an infusion of books that would encourage them to achieve.
While it is heartening to see the dialog continue, like the elephant said: peanuts is not enough! Elizabeth, I hope you will come bring this back to the table to share comments or perhaps strategies that developed from here.
Thank you so much for writing and publishing this important article. I will pass this around and spread the word.
I just wanted to share the impressive host and panel of the BEA discussion, “Is America Post-Racial?” Host: Randall R. Pinkston, CBS News National Correspondent; Authors: Tom Burrell, BRAINWASHED: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority; Harold Ford, Jr., MORE DAVIDS THAN GOLIATHS: A Political Education; Michele Norris, THE GRACE OF SILENCE: A Memoir; Professor Charles Ogletree, THE PRESUMPTION OF GUILT: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America; and Stephanie Robinson, POST-RACIAL: The Paradox of Color in 21st-Century America. It was a powerful and passionate discussion, and I’d love to see more conversations along these lines at trade shows, especially focusing on children’s and YA books.
Thanks again, Elizabeth, for compiling a fantastic list of resources. Just saw on Bowllan’s Blog that Amy Bodden Bowllan is working on a summer reading list of diverse titles. Here’s the link:
“Propaganda is propaganda even when it purports to rally us against iniquity.”
And the propaganda is?
Something that drives me absolutely nuts is how so many educational publishers say they want you to make certain characters “ethnic, but not TOO ethnic” (yes, I have had those specific words said to me). Don’t make Hispanic characters TOO brown, don’t make black characters TOO black etc. Ignoring the fact that every race comes in an enormous range of hues. For an artist, the variety of human beings and cultures is a huge part of the fun.
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Great article, Elizabeth. Thanks for including the piece on the mural in Prescott, AZ.
Wow, thanks for such a fantastic article. I’ve already re-read twice. Thanks for sharing.
Bravo, Elizabeth! This is the beginning of an important conversation. Can you involve The Man and get him on board? I would love to know what sorts of discussions you’ve provoked at publishing houses. I hope the contributing artists also see benefit from participating in this project; their work adds immeasurably to this fantastic piece.
I often feel, when having conversations about race, most commonly with white people, that there is a common misunderstanding that one should be colorblind in order not to be ‘racist.’ Many people are not actually colorblind, leading to a weird liberal doublespeak. The “white power” mistress of Jesse James said she wasn’t a racist or anything, she had only been into “white pride,” nothing “racist.” Seeing that interview, in which her assertions that the white pride movement was not racist were not questioned or corrected, made clear in my mind how useless a term racism has become.
Frankly, I view myself as a recovering racist (in what must be, in my opinion, growing up white in a racist society, a lifelong process demanding constant anti-racist awareness).
I recommend an Alternet article, White Liberals Have White Privilege Too.
I read this and realized I totally forgot to comment.
First, thank you for linking to me!
Second, preach!! This is a fantastic post, I like that not only did you discuss the problem and explain why it’s wrong, but you gave each of us (readers, publishers, editors) things to do that will help.
I LOVE the drawings too, my personal fav is tied between Jerry Craft and Erin Eitter Kono. Laura Freeman’s made me sad becuase it is so painstakingly true.
I will leave a better comment tomorrow after I finish reading the rest of the comments!
But thank you, thank you , thank you.
Thank you for the article and for the marvellous set of links at the end! I remember coming to America (no pun intended) as an immigrant girl from Canada (an immigrant there, as well), and thinking that this issue of “race” hung so heavily in the air here. Hope that your words get a lot of folks thinking and changing…
Elizabeth, perhaps your post influenced this: A group of authors who have books coming out in 2011 have put together a FREE online conference, which will take place August 10 to 12 and features industry pros. Registration opens July 1. I am attending my local SCBWI live conference in September as always and am grateful that I can do that. However, so often, there have been very few writers of color at our local events. I see the free online conference as a way to attract writers of color who can then go on to participate in local kidlit events, like those put on by the SCBWI, to extend their learning.
I think for many aspiring writers, especially those who are financially strapped, the free event offers an entry point into the world of kidlit–a way to break down barriers that needn’t exist in an already difficult-to-enter field. The website is http://writeoncon.com/
I know writers know this, but for those who may not know what SCBWI is (http://www.scbwi.org), it’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Joining this group helped me learn much about kidlit and make new connections to individuals and other kidlit organizations, such as the Highlights Foundation, which sponsors several workshops throughout the year and a week-long summer retreat that has helped many writers get started (http://www.highlightsfoundation.org). I sold my middle grade novel soon after attending one of their summer conferences and receiving advice on it from presenters there.
Our N. Ohio SCBWI chapter holds a conference each year in September in Cleveland (http://www.nohscbwi.org). Attending such events, and joining formal or informal off or online critique groups, are ways to develop as a writer which can help us writers break down barriers ourselves.
Thank you for this great post. I enjoyed the art as well as the text. I completely agree that opening up to more books with people of color would be a good thing for the world, as well as more books which fairly depict GLTBQ characters. More diversity is definitely a good thing.
What a wonderful post and an exciting way to open the discussion as well. Ten years ago Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Tony Crunk’s Big Mama and it was the first time I saw a picture book that included children of many ethnicities and races and abilities and NONE of those were the subject of the book. I LOVE it still.
Bravo, Elizabeth! Thanks for offering such a spot-on and constructive criticism of the publishing industry’s shortcomings in terms of publishing books that reflect our diverse world, and for your suggestions of what those in the field can do to start addressing the issue. The elephant illustrations are wonderful and really add to the impact of your words. Thanks also for including PaperTigers on the list of blogs and websites that promote diversity in children’s books.
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Fortunately, there are editors and publishers out there doing their bit. After a number of editors (one of whom was a woman of color) told me that “you can’t DO a picture book on Jimi Hendrix,” Lynne Polvino of Clarion made the commitment without a second thought. That book–due out in October of this year–will be followed by a middle-grade illustrated (with original art) book on John Coltrane. Both books deal with substance use as well as race, and will hopefully contribute to the overall discussion. Your post is comprehensive and much-needed, since so much of what we see we miss or take for granted.
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Thank you, Elizabeth for this insightful post! I hope it continues to stir the pot and keep us all thinking. I was honored to participate and do a piece of art for this project, as well.
I learned from the article, the illustrations, the links and the extensive comments.
This should be passed around, discussed, utilized.
I’m personally sending it to several friends in publishing.
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Bernice McFadden takes on adult publishing and the segregation of African-American authors and their books in The Washington Post (June 26, 2010): http://ow.ly/248nr
A great short article, and these lines (among others) nail the problem dead-on: “This suggests that our literature is singular and anomalous, not universal. It is as if we American authors who happen to be of African descent are not a people but a genre much like mystery, romance or thriller.”
I just came across an infuriating term, “whitelist,” which refers to the list of domain names and messages you specify to your email server as approved/safe/not spam. Whitelist? Seriously? I know it’s meant as the opposite of “blacklist,” a term so ingrained it would be tough to eradicate from the language at this point, but to introduce a new term reinforcing white as right is just absurd. How about “greenlist” or “greenlight” or “approvedlist” or SOMETHING, anything? It would be preferable to the tainted “whitelist.” Grr. Thanks for letting me vent.
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I’ve heard comments about the covers of books featuring mainly white faces—it would be wise to go back to covers that do not show actual photos or art of people but perhaps just an abstract and the title.
Susanna Reich alerted us to the video coverage of a conference we very much would have liked to attend! She writes:
C-Span has posted video coverage of an interesting panel on diversity in children’s publishing that took place on 7/17 at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture as part of the Harlem Book Fair. Participants were Cheryl Willis Hudson, Zetta Elliott, Jerry Craft, Nick Burd, and Vanessa Lloyd Sgambati, moderated by Wade Hudson. http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/294543-5
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