Questions and Answers

In a recent blog post, I asked how we can move forward to attain greater diversity in children’s literature, both collectively and individually. Several responses were generated on FB, via email and as comments to the original post. They appear below. Each of these thoughtful responses provides avenues we all might consider as ways to personally get involved in the diversity movement.

Anne Sibley O’Brien; children’s book creator, performance artist

My focus, including in the books I create, is on diverse races and cultures, so that’s what my ideas are related to, but most here apply also to other forms of diversity.

One of the biggest problems I’ve noticed is that people often don’t know about so many of the books that *have* been published that feature diverse kids. This lack of visibility leads to lower sales which leads to fewer diverse books being published. And round and round the vicious cycle goes. We need to take action to reverse that cycle by increasing visibility, usage and demand.

I’m a co-founder of two projects that promote racially- and culturally-diverse books, to increase visibility and usage and to inform the conversations about diversity in books: I’m Your Neighbor (www.imyourneighborbooks.org), a searchable database of books about recent immigrants; and the Picture Book Project: A Bates College Collection Portraying People of Color.
Of course the majority of the titles in both collections are still by white writers and illustrators.

Other things I’m thinking about/working on that individuals, especially established white writers and illustrators, can do to increase the visibility of books about and especially BY writers of color and Native people:
– When promoting your own new titles – on blogposts and social media, in interviews, during school and conference presentations, etc – develop and share a companion list of related (by topic, group, setting, genre, etc) titles *by diverse authors*: “And if you enjoyed my book, here are some other titles I think you’d like…”
This is a particularly useful resource for teachers and librarians who are building their collections, and particularly effective coming from those authors who have a wide following and successful sales.
– After your own author appearance, recommend several writers of color for future appearances. Or help sponsor a diverse author at your local school.
– In your own community, pay attention to recommended reading lists – school summer reading, book clubs, etc – and add suggestions of diverse books.
– Choose diverse books as gifts for baby showers, birthdays, and friends.

Finally, I believe one of the most important steps is to unpack and increase awareness of patterns of privilege, dominance and entitlement in the white community. So much of the attitudes and behaviors that have resulted in a lack of diverse books is unconscious. Unless we become aware of these patterns, even the best-intentioned white people – and sometimes even POC – will continue to perpetuate them. Read challenging material about race and DISCUSS. The blog, “Reading While White,” is a good place to start.

Cheryl and Wade Hudson; publishers, co-founders Just Us Books

Previously marginalized characters need to be integrated and centralized in stories for all children. This is one of the primary reasons we established Just Us Books–we wanted our own African American children to see themselves positively reflected in the books and stories that we read to them. Some responses to the #LargeFears review shows just how deeply embedded white privilege is in contemporary children’s literature. So the struggle continues.

Just Us Books and Marimba Books will continue to publish books for children and young adults that reflect our nation’s, our world’s diversity. That commitment which motivated us to establish our own publishing company is still just as important, just as crucial, in 2015 as it was in 1988 when Just Us Books brought its first book to the marketplace. We will not only continue to advocate for more diversity in books that are published for children and young adults, but will also encourage and promote the inclusion of people of color on staffs of publishers producing these books. As publishing professions who are also authors of children’s books, we will also continue to take advantage of every opportunity we can to share our stories and educate others–whether librarians, reviewers, booksellers, parents or simply book lovers everywhere about the role each can play to help address inclusion and equity in all areas of publishing.

Debbie Reese; Blogger, librarian, activist.

I understand the impetus to move forward, and I’m doing all I can at American Indians in Children’s Literature to promote children’s books that present Native peoples–“warts and all”–to readers.
I don’t think it is enough, however, to promote the good. There’s far too much misrepresentation out there. The ugly truth is that misrepresentations of Native peoples are the norm. They’re so embedded in what people think they know about us, that when our truths are given to them, they are rejected as “not real” because what they see as “real” is stereotypes.

Moving forward, then, means calling out the problems again and again and again until real Native peoples are the norm and stereotypes of us are the exception. It means calling out the problems in much loved books so that kids are not assigned to read LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS.
We have work to do. At​ ALA​ Midwinter 2015, I said that we need more voices calling out problematic representations​. We can’t​ just promote the good and ​add the good to what is already on the shelves. ​There’s a lot of unlearning required. That is important work, and that is a key piece, for me, in moving forward.

debraj11; YA, paranormal and science fiction writer, avid reader, human rights advocate

The way forward is, I believe, in your post: “The Whiteness of literature will continue until the economics of a brown marketplace demand otherwise.”

I am far more intentional today in the utilization of my purchasing power and time to support books written by POC. And it has been a wonderful experience to look inside new windows, see mirror images, and encounter new stories.

As more librarians, teachers, book reviewers, and bookstore clerks make the works of POC visible, kids and adults will lead the way to changes in the publishing industry.

Maya Gonzalez; award winning artist, author, educator, activist, peacemaker, publisher, equality lover, obsessive recycler, traveler, river lover, tree talker, sky kisser

**i believe the only way to take the diversity conversation to the next level with dignity and respect and effectiveness is to get the kids involved. if we want to create real change, we have to do it different. i’m actively teaching kids of color, disabled and lgbtqi2s kids every aspect of coming into VOICE and bookmaking AND telling them why. awareness coupled with tools of action. this is where i’m going. i deeply appreciate all the beautiful efforts so many amazing folks are putting toward equity right now. we are hitting critical mass! slowly but surely.

Mike Jung; middle grade fiction author and founding member of We Need Diverse Books

I think it’s easy to conceive of “diverse books” as something limited to the books themselves, separate from any of the creative and business forces that permeate them, but after the past two years I find it impossible to do that anymore. Books only fulfill their ultimate purpose (which is to be read) after they’ve gone through a publishing pipeline involving a whole lot of people. Agents, editors, designers and art directors, publicists and event planners, sales representatives, booksellers, librarians, and teachers are just some of those people, and they all influence how and if a given book is found by the readers who want and need it. I do believe the most important people are at either end of that pipeline; authors and illustrators at the start, and readers at the finish. We and they are at the heart of the endeavor. But I also believe that a truly diverse body of literature can only emerge from a truly diverse ecosystem of creation and distribution, which involves people in all of the roles I mentioned, and more. I’ll write my own books, because that’s the most valuable way I personally can contribute, and I’ll continue to engage in public dialogue, because we can’t change our unconscious biases without becoming more fully conscious of them. I’ll also try to openly and publicly confront my own history of inaction and ignorance. I’ve been inactive and ignorant for too long.

Laura Atkins; independent children’s book editor

Such a tough but important question. First, my main thought from what I’ve seen in the Meg Rosoff controversy. I’m struck by how people see things in such different ways. How can Meg and I have read your Facebook post linking to Large Fears and had such profoundly different reactions? I have this feeling that some of us are speaking not just different languages, but from different universes. I’ve tried to get my head around what she said/meant, as she clearly felt misunderstood. But to me, it seemed like a mean-spirited reaction to your post celebrating a book about a queer brown boy. And we both know there aren’t many of those. I’d love to quote an entire post my colleague Jonah Heller from VCFA wrote – based on his research about picture books featuring gender creative children. He said he could count two such books – published in 1987 and 2004. How could this, along with the statistics that the CCBC release each year, not convince ANYONE and EVERYONE that there is a big problem with a lack of diversity and equity in children’s books?

That’s a long answer to what stumped me with what happened. It’s like we live in these parallel realities and just don’t see the world in the same way. Which depresses me. I also realize that I can walk away from this discussion as a white lady and take a break. A break many people of color can’t take, unable to walk away from a society that is often racist and white supremacist. And I know that language would turn off many people right there. But as I get older (the ripe old age of 45), I’m getting less worried about modifying my language. Because that’s what it looks like to me, and to many others.

What will I do to move us closer to greater representation of marginalized people in children’s literature? I will speak out when I see things that feel wrong to me, as I did in responding to Meg Rosoff’s post. Which was hard for me as I’ve been a huge fan of her writing, and it’s scary to stand up to someone famous. But also not so hard since what she said seemed to clearly wrong to me. And it helped that I could draw on personal experience having a lesbian mother (and quick correction, I found out today that she and her partner have been together for 35 years!). So first, speaking out.

I will work to highlight and spread the word about books written by authors of color, and work done by people, especially of color, who are doing equity and social justice work in the children’s book field.

And I am especially interested in following and being involved in non-traditional publishing efforts. I know we are both huge fans of Zetta Elliott’s publishing work at Rosetta Press. Maya Gonzalez/Matthew Smith with Reflection Press, Janine Macbeth with Blood Orange Press, people like Innosanto Nagara who wrote A is for Activist, and Robert Trujillo who illustrated I am Sausal Creek… The list could go on. I’m so excited by these grass roots publishing efforts. Because I also have very little faith in the mainstream publishing industry which functions as a profit-driven behemoth – trying to make money rather than publishing the books which should be out there. Which we can see from the stats – fewer than 10% of books published by/or about people of color while more than 50% of the children born in the United States today are children of color. That’s been a stuck statistic for a long time – publishers clearly don’t feel a sense of responsibility to serve the children in this country.

Things WILL change as demographics shift. And I’d rather be on the side of change. There’s no question I’m radical, and I want to be surrounded by other radical people working in this area. I love reading the Reading While White blog, and seeing people deeply interrogate the status quo. That’s where I want to be too. And following the work of important people like you! And Debbie Reese, and Sarah Park Dahlin, and others who keep all of us on our toes, calling things out when they need calling out.

I am an activist, and want to be involved with, and support the work of, other activists. I’d rather believe and work for the change that I and others want to see than give up hope. So maybe I’m an optimist too. Time will tell…

Sheila Ruth; publisher, author, webdesigner, KidLitCon organizer

I don’t know what the answer is, but I think the best thing we can do is to continue the conversation, continue to talk about and push forward. While it’s true that there’s been some horrible and disheartening backlash, I think a backlash usually means that there’s something to lash back against, and I think it indicates that the problems have reached the level of awareness for many Americans that hasn’t been there before. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, I’m an optimistic person by nature, but it seems to me that the last year or two especially, much progress has been made in creating awareness. Whether that can lead to real change? I don’t know, but I hope so.

 

Zetta Elliott; award winning children’s author, educator

I decided a year or two ago that I can no longer afford to devote so much time and energy to the diversity debate. Since 2009 I’ve spent countless hours writing open letters, and giving talks at conferences, and posting essays all over the blogosphere. But attitudes like Rosoff’s are woven into the fabric of the kid lit community and they contribute to the continued marginalization of writers of color. In 2013 I self-published one book; in 2014 I self-published nine. So far this year I have self-published 3 books, and 2 more should come out later this month. Only 2% of children’s book authors published annually in the US are African American, and only 1% of publishing professionals self-identify as Black. I have dozens of stories that never would have seen the light of day without print-on-demand technology, and I have at last a dozen stories still on my hard drive. Rosoff and her more discreet peers live in a parallel universe; they don’t know anything about the kids in my community, and they know nothing about my culture’s storytelling traditions. I don’t want to waste time responding to their ridiculous claims, but I know they collectively they hold almost all the power. My job is to seize what power I can and get my stories to the kids who need them. Perhaps this controversy will make the kid lit community think twice about the ways self-published books are stigmatized and marginalized by those who claim to love children and the books they read/need.

Advertisements