Truth and Solutions: Roundtable on Equity in Children’s and Young Adult Book Publishing
This roundtable is a part of PEN’s developing initiative, The PEN Equity Project
We’ve gathered together some of the most notable writers and editors working in children’s and young adult book publishing and asked them to write about the way diverse books affected their sense of identity growing up and the tangible changes they would make to bring about more diversity and equity in books. Their honesty is refreshing and their solutions are concrete, creative, and workable for all advocactes of a more inclusive literature.
Join the PEN roundtable for its second installment on equity in publishing.
INTRODUCTION TO THE ROUNDTABLE
How do we develop our sense of narrative values? Series editors Antonio Aiello and Hafizah Geter discuss the orgins of theCYAB roundtable and why it’s a neccessary starting point for larger issues of equity in publishing.
THE BOOKS THEY CARRIED: AUTHORS, EDITORS, AND PUBLISHERS REVISIT THEIR CHILDHOOD LIBRARIES
To get the conversation started, we asked our contributors how diverse books affected their sense of identity growing up, and how important it is for children to see themselves in the narratives they encounter as they develop identities and personal value as individuals in our culture and society. Click below to read their responses.
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DANIEL JOSE OLDER: A Sense of urgency is a point we often try and are rarely successful at getting across to people who don’t necessarily live with the everyday urgency of nonwhite life in America. These conversations about who gets to be a protagonist in books is very much one of life and death for us. Cheryl’s story in her opening statement of connecting to the experiences in Braced, gets at how the details of these moments, the nuances, are often the elements that bring stories to life for those of us who live them. I entered publishing very wary of what I might find. There are so many horror stories we writers of color trade, and a quick glance at any bookstore shelf confirms them—we are still in crisis when it comes to race and publishing. But I found some amazing people to work with, including Cheryl Klein (waves), and Rebecca Brewer, my editor at Penguin, and my agent Eddie Schneider. But of course, real change doesn’t mean just having an editor here or an agent there willing to go out on a limb for a few writers of color; it means I can send the young people of color I mentor into their publishing journeys confident that they’ll enter institutions that reflect them and uplift their voices while improving their craft and getting their stories out into the world in the best possible shape. Doing that, as Fatima points out, requires us to make bold moves. This I often think of as a willingness to be uncomfortable in ways we are rarely made to feel discomfort. That means changing the demographics of the industry, as Wade said. It means making sure that people of color are in the room where it happens, and it means confronting the industry’s messy history with race. My question to you and to all those reading this discussion: What does it mean to be courageous in this time of change? I don’t mean that in a rhetorical way, I mean what actual courageous, outrageous even, steps can be made to bypass the same old one-step-forward, three-steps-back cycle of race conversations and really do groundbreaking, movement-building work that will change publishing forever?
FATIMA SHAIK: I think there are two big issues that stand in the way.
First, diversity is economically challenging. On many fronts, money is necessary to create workable, sustainable programs that pipeline young people of color into the business. The pool is smaller due to historical oppression. So many creative minds are lost to inferior schools, poverty, family issues, and more. When young people rise above a discriminatory history, they still need jobs that will pay them enough to take care of their student loans and family obligations, for example. Plus, publishers need to know that the investments they make in young people of color will pay off in book sales. This is a courageous investment. Over the past decades, publishers have not been convinced, and may even believe that non-white employees mean books for only the non-white markets. (That’s not a bad idea, but it means more investment to develop those markets.) But a diverse workforce is comparable to R&D at a pharmaceutical company. It’s needed.
The second issue is that diversity is personally challenging. Someone who seeks diversity looks for the opinions of people who disagree. That’s scary. When publishers—or any organizations—need groups of people to work in teams, they may wonder whether they can afford to have people unlike them. Will everyone have the time and patience to get along? Can they be motivated toward a single goal? Sure this works in sports, music, and other organizations. But in the businesses of aesthetics, this takes confidence in one’s tastes and values plus the desire to innovate. Can we find these leaders?
We need to recognize that being intelligent and cultured means more than just knowing what we already know.
ROBIE HARRIS: I am in full agreement that changing the demographics in the industry matters big-time. But I think that the responsibility for the change we are all asking for also rests with those of us who are the writers. And to make that happen, we must make sure in every way we can that our stories are always honest—whether we tell our stories through fiction or nonfiction. In fiction, that means not holding back the legitimate strong and powerful feelings that any of our characters may have from love to anger, even hate, and from joy to sadness to jealousy and so on. In nonfiction, that means making sure our facts are authentic and carefully researched and not holding back those facts that tell the full story, no matter how difficult they may be. Yes, we also need to take into account the age range of the children we are writing for, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to be honest. One can “write honest” in an age-appropriate manner.
Curious to know what each of you thinks about the writer’s responsibility when it comes to diversity.
Like hires like. We do need to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to de-emphasize comfort and fit when it comes to hiring and acquiring.
ALVINA LING: From a publishing standpoint, I love what Cheryl wrote in her opening response:
To talk solutions here, I would love to see more publishers make diversity a stated priority of their acquisitions as Arthur does, and to have all young editors receive some “Diversity 101” training to teach them about gaps, issues, and blind spots in manuscripts, the industry, and themselves.
I’ve been somewhat spoiled/insulated at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. My manager, and now publisher, Megan Tingley has been committed to diversity in her career as well, both on the hirings side and the publishing side, and I feel lucky to have “grown up” in publishing in a very inclusive, diverse environment. I am very, very rarely the only person of color in the room during meetings, and diverse content and characters were always brought up as a positive in our acquisitions meetings rather than a challenge. From what colleagues have told me from other publishers, that’s certainly not generally the case elsewhere!
When it comes to diversity, I would hesitate to place a uniform responsibility over all writers. For some writers, it is solely about the art of writing. For others, it’s to tell the truth. For others, there is a mission or agenda to their writing, whatever that may be. I think we need all kinds of writers. In an ideal world, writers (and illustrators, and editors, and marketers, and readers, etc.) would make diversity a priority, because our world is diverse, and our books should reflect that.
One of the greatest obstacles to creating a diverse workforce and publishing diverse titles is the fact that publishing has historically been a passion industry. Because so few books make it through, most editors have to rely on acquiring the books they absolutely love. And, it’s only natural that editors will have their own biased tastes. And because publishing, especially editorial, is an apprenticeship, we are often hiring assistants with the right “fit” and looking for assistants who share our literary tastes, which only furthers the homogeneity of the industry. Like hires like. We do need to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to de-emphasize comfort and fit when it comes to hiring and acquiring.
WADE HUDSON: A 2013 headline of an article posted on Washington Post asserted emphatically that “Public Schools are more segregated now than 40 years ago.” Written by Valerie Strauss, the article stated, “Today, African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause.”
The truth is that for far too many of us, where we live, our institutions, the places where we play and worship, are segregated. And, in addition to that, there is this cry among many conservatives for America to go back to its “old traditions and old ways.” Of course, we know what those “old traditions and old ways” mean to people of color, women, and others who have been marginalized or left out.
The book publishing industry mirrors society. So many of us grew up in segregated schools, communities, and institutions. And as some of us have already shared how books offered a window through which we could see a different world.
Just as so many people fought valiantly to make this country—this world for that matter—a better place for all people, that same valiant effort must be mustered to address the diversity issue. Fortunately, there are many in children’s book publishing—editors, marketing professionals, etc., as well as writers and illustrators—who know the industry must change. Some have been carrying on the struggle for years. Others have joined. So, there is movement.
But this diversity issue is complex in many ways. It is about people of color being in the room where decisions are made. It’s about editors and marketing people taking risks. I am going to include Cheryl Klein’s statement here because it is so crucial. She wrote, “To talk solutions here, I would love to see more publishers make diversity a stated priority of their acquisitions as Arthur does, and to have all young editors receive some “Diversity 101” training to teach them about gaps, issues, and blind spots in manuscripts, the industry, and themselves.”
It is also about marketing and selling the diverse books that are already being published. It’s about teachers and educators being receptive to broadening their offerings of books to their students to include more diversity. It is also about booksellers taking risks to include more diverse books on their shelves even though their marketing model may say something different.
It’s about cultivating new readers, many of whom will reflect our diverse population. There are millions of non-readers and people who read very little to be nurtured so that they can become readers and or better readers and, of course, book buyers. I am sure there are many authors who can share stories about individuals who were not reading until they made a personal connection either with the author or with the author’s book.
To me, this is an all-hands-on-deck challenge. There is a role for all of us who understand that even if the industry was meant to not be diverse in all of its representations, it cannot stay that way.
All hands on deck! Teachers. Parents. Editors, Writers. Reviewers. Distributors. Bookstores. Literacy organizations. Youth organizations. All hands on deck!
To the question about the responsibility of writers when it comes to diversity, I think it should be the writer’s choice. I have written books because I felt a sense of mission or a desire to meet a need. I have also written because I was profoundly moved by a particular subject or an idea that grew and grew and grew to become a viable story.
There is a role for all of us who understand that even if the industry was meant to not be diverse in all of its representations, it cannot stay that way.
CHERYL KLEIN: I’ve been struggling with what to write here because there are so many nuances to this conversation and so many directions it can go—and then as I was putting the below together, Wade posted his great piece, which touches on a number of the same points. (I’ll also specify these are my personal opinions and do not represent Scholastic.) So, here we go:
Courageous or Outrageous Choices: Fatima is right that diversity is often economically challenging. Let’s brainstorm like it isn’t. If this group had won Powerball a couple of weeks ago—if we had $1.6 billion to throw around—where would we spend it? What courageous or outrageous choices would we make? Some ideas:
- Create creative writing curriculum specifically for students of color (much like Daniel already teaches in his workshops) that’s empowering and encouraging, to get more writers in the pipeline long-term.
- Set up classroom libraries of existing books featuring diverse protagonists to excite young readers of color and let them know these books exist . . .
- And roving bookmobile-bookstores, to be a destination at community events or on the streets on the weekend, providing affordable mirror books for all ages, and meeting readers where they live.
- Approach universities with populations that are majority people of color (HBCUs, etc.), and ask the professors, “Who are your real book lovers? Your best creative writers?” Sponsor editorial internships for those students, or offer special classes in writing for children/YA to point them in our direction.
- Give editors block grants of money or time to seek out and work with authors of color who may not be conventional children’s/YA authors, but who can craft really rich, fresh new books with children’s and YA protagonists and their particular worldview. This would help us move outside traditional submissions channels, which tend to be dominated by majority writers and narratives. (I put a link to a New York Times magazine article about Chris Jackson—Ta-Nehisi Coates’s editor—up in the “Resources” section here, as he does this, and I found the article wonderfully inspiring.)
- Give block grants to great small publishers like Just Us or Month 9 Books or Cinco Puntos or Lee and Low, so they can pay outrageous (to use Daniel’s word) advances to their authors and give them time to concentrate on their work. They could also give their books all the marketing of lead titles from the Big Five, and hire specialists to coordinate those efforts and get books into the mirror communities. (At the “A is for Anansi” conference some years ago, a few illustrators talked about doing an African-American church tour with their books, and I’ve always loved that idea…)
I would hire people to coordinate all of this, because everyone is overworked already, frankly (which is maybe even more of a barrier than the money). And I would get Hamilton tickets for all of us as inspiration. 🙂 What would you do? And how could we scale our dreams to make them happen without Powerball?
Moving Outside our Comfort Zones: Riffing off what Robie said, responsibility for the change we want to see also rests on readers, whose purchases create incentives for publishers to move in a certain direction. And honestly, white readers need to read cross-culturally, outside their comfort zones, more often. According to statistics in the SIMBA study of the children’s/YA book buyers’ market, something like 70 percent of all children’s and YA books are bought by white people. If a group makes up 70 percent of the market—well, you should figure out how to diversify your market, but you also need that group to buy your product in order to get lasting traction for it within that market, and make long-term change of the kind we’re pointing to here. So we need more white people to buy published books featuring people of color. That reading is often not comfortable for white people—partly because of internalized racism, certainly; also because, I think, if you’re reading for pleasure or relaxation, you often want something easy to slip into, something that doesn’t make you work a lot, and facing racial guilt, privilege, etc. is hard work. Parul Sehgal wrote beautifully about this in The New York Times:
To engage with the lives of others, white audiences would have to encounter something far more frightening: their irrelevance. They would have to reckon with the fact that the work will not always speak to them, orient them, flatter them with tales of their munificence or infamy, or comfort them with stereotypes. If there is an opposite of erasure, it is allowing for full personhood in all its idiosyncrasies. It is affording artists the freedom not to pander or advocate.
The fact that it’s hard work is not an excuse not to do it. I’m only saying that feeling of “work” among the mass of white readers is something people fighting for this cause have to overcome, and calling on my fellow white people to overcome it. (And it’s a FUN kind of overcoming, friends! You can start with Daniel’s Shadowshaper.)
OLDER: I love Robie’s point about honesty, because for me the diversity conversation really does come down to that. Taken as a whole, the literary world today paints a very untrue picture of the world we live in, and that seems to be fundamentally in opposition to what literature’s role is. In my head, I often replace the word “diverse” with “honest” to see how it changes the conversation, because that is what I see as the role of the writer: to say something true, to tell an honest story, even if it’s in the fictionalized sense of honesty. A Brooklyn or New York City that is represented as entirely white in a book feels deeply dishonest to me, even if yes, there are people who go through life in New York City without acknowledging the presence of people of color. It then becomes the author’s job to contextualize what that means properly to create a more true narrative. Or, to take it even deeper, exploring the emotional honesty around understanding privilege and erasure on a personal level, which is a tricky and wildly complex journey and very under-addressed in literature, especially kid lit. Ten years of working the New York streets as a paramedic taught me a lot about squeezing gigantic, unthinkable tragedies into a single, simple paragraph with a few boxes checked off. And while the medic’s goal is very different than a novelist’s—a medic’s paperwork is a medical and legal document—the narrative challenge of condensing and capturing the whole of something with just a few lines speaks to this question of [the necessity of] writing diversely [and honestly].
I just add that the combination of Fatima’s point about economic and personal challenges and Cheryl’s brainstorming beyond those challenges is exactly where this conversation needs to be—we have to be practical dreamers, constantly negotiating between what can be done, what people never thought could be done, and what will get done in spite of it all, all the while making sure we don’t burn out/become unemployed/stop selling books. Epic.
HARRIS: My head is spinning. So much food for thought from each of you, which leads me to think, “What about the kids?” Riffing off of what Cheryl wrote, my question is: How can we engage kids in helping us make Courageous or Outrageous Choices? And I would add the words and Changes—those very changes that we have all been talking about over the last two days. Riffing off of what Daniel just wrote, “I often replace the word ‘diverse’ with ‘honest’…” and “I see as the role of the writer: to say something true, tell an honest story…” I would add that when we write “truth,” that is what engages kids. The kids instinctively know “truth.” The kids know what is missing from the canon of books that they can access. They know that there are stories that are not being told and need to be told. They have stories they want to tell and need to tell. And many know that there are not enough books in which they can find themselves or in which someone grabs them who may not be like them at all. So what role can kids play in helping move along the change in the publishing world that we are all talking about? What can the kids tell us? Teach us? How can kids be mobilized around the issue of diversity, honesty, and publishing? As authors, we go into schools a lot and learn so much from what the kids tell us. But what if editors and publishers (and perhaps you do) went into schools and had conversations with kids that ask them the kinds of questions that PEN is asking us?:
How diverse are the characters in the stories and narratives you have access to?
How important is it for you to see yourselves in the narratives you encounter as individuals in our culture and society?
What books are we not writing or publishing that you would like to read?
Or what about a digital campaign that poses such questions and more to kids of all ages, not just to older kids, but to younger kids, too? If we listen to and hear what kids have to say about the books we create and publish for them, and the books they wish we would create for them, we might learn something important. We might hear a small gem of an idea—or many—that would move us forward, so that all of us can be part of an industry that understands that our kids cannot wait for the changes that they deserve—changes that truly reflect the diverse nation in which we all live.
This is not a call for writers to write to the market or publishers to publish to the market, which I don’t believe in doing. I agree that writers have the right to write whatever they choose. Yet in some way, and not necessarily through what one writes, as writers for children, I feel that all of us who can, including those of us who are white, have a responsibility to speak out about equity in the world of children’s book publishing.
We have to be practical dreamers, constantly negotiating between what can be done, what people never thought could be done, and what will get done in spite of it all…
ANTONIO AIELLO: What planted the seed for this particular roundtable discussion over a year ago is a ritual I have with my children, ages 10 and 12. Every time their school hands out a promotional book catalog for school fundraising—something I imagine many schools do by default—we flip through the pages, scanning the dozens and dozens of books and merchandising, and count the writers and illustrators of color and the stories about people of color. My children are Korean and adopted, and we don’t by any means expect to see stories about children like them in the pages of these catalogs, a fact we long ago reconciled and remedied ourselves by packing our own bookshelves with those books—and gifting books we love widely. But the total number of all people of color listed in any one catalog has never surpassed five, and the one time it reached five was when there were four catalogs bundled together for the holidays. Jacqueline Woodson is featured regularly, but under the Newbery winners rubric. And Walter Dean Myers is featured, too, but in a section titled something along the lines of “Troubled Teens.” This cuts to Cheryl’s point of who purchases 70 percent of CYAB books and how they’re taught through marketing to expect narratives by and about people of color to fit into the very confining rubrics. How many of the books by and about people of color are about race, historical figures, slavery, civil rights, or topics that to kids often seem like work? There are, of course, books that celebrate the vibrant stories, histories, cultures, and everyday lives of people of color, but we’ve found that it takes work to find them.
Here’s a great list: 28 Black Picture Books That Aren’t About Boycotts, Buses or Basketball
To explore this diversity gap on a more personal level, and to coincide with the roundtable discussion, I sent my daughter to school with a survey to inventory the books available in her classroom and to classify them using the Cooperative Children’s Book Center annual research categories. We figured this could be a test survey that may evolve into a model to help educators initiate real discussions about book diversity in classrooms, about how readers of all ages learn to appreciate some narratives or perspectives over others through the books made available to them. It’s also a way to get educators thinking more about the important role they play in helping shape diverse reading habits. Addressing this is paramount to training the next generation of readers and inspiring the next generation of writers, editors, marketers, and publishers.
A question I’d like to pose now: Is there an outrageous or courageous accountability pact or charter we can encourage publishers to sign onto to show publicly that they will take significant steps to address how they develop, purchase, edit, and market more diverse books for children and young adults?
This is what the UK came up with: The Publishers Association: Diversity and Equality
KLEIN: I think that UK charter sounds reasonable, and I’d even suggest a US version incorporate an educational component — having publishers set up spaces or events to educate new hires on diversity questions and share resources on editing, marketing, and selling diverse books. (Alvina and I were both founding members of the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee, which has sponsored many educational and recruitment activities like these.)
But I’d say again that publishers can’t make this change alone, and every member of the publishing ecosystem could set an accountability standard for their corner of the industry.
Booksellers can follow Elizabeth Bluemle’s tips about eliminating apartheid, and vow that every second or third book they recommend will be diverse. Librarians can decide that a similar percentage of books in every display will focus on diverse people or be by diverse authors. Readers can take a diversity challenge to push themselves outside their comfort zones, or look carefully at the books they buy vs. which ones they leave on the shelves. White writers can look at their manuscripts and see how they might be diversified thoughtfully (Daniel’s “12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other” would be useful here). Writers of color could check the “diversity” tag on the #MSWL website and find new agents/editors to connect with. And individual editors could set a goal for buying at least one more diverse manuscript than they did last year. Just small changes like these, taken in total, could make a big difference.
LING: I echo Cheryl’s statement that publishers can’t make this change alone. But, I do think that it’s been heartening that publishing organizations have made great efforts to address this issue: the CBC Diversity Committee, the AAP has a Diversity Committee as well, and I know many individual publishers, including Hachette, have diversity task forces and committees that are trying to come up with ways to both improve the diversity of the staff, as well as increase the publication and raise the profile of books featuring diverse characters, as well as authors of color and of other diverse backgrounds.
One thing I’d love to see in the future, and I know there are many legal obstacles to this, but I’d love an honest accounting of the staff make-ups at each publisher. The Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey is a good start, but it is not, and can never be, complete. I wish that the publishing industry, like some of the tech community has done, would release honest numbers so we really know where things stand. I’ve often joked to the various diversity committees I’ve been on that sometimes the best impetus to change is shame. Just look at #Oscarssowhite! (although, granted, Hollywood will take forever to change.) If we could quantify which publishers are doing the best (and worst!) job in terms of hiring and recruiting, as well as publishing diverse books, perhaps this competition could help further the hiring of diverse staff and publishing of more diverse authors, illustrators, and books.
Another crucial component to all of this is keeping the issue top-of-mind of all people, not just those of us in the minority, which is why one of the components of CBC Diversity’s mission statement is to “keep the conversation going.” If people of all backgrounds are always thinking about equity and inclusivity, then diversity of hiring and acquisition will continue to improve. And, as several people have mentioned above, everyone should be encouraged to read outside the box.
And finally, anecdotally, and to end my own thoughts on a positive note, I do feel there has been great improvement over the years. I know the data doesn’t support this in terms of authors published and main characters, and of course we still have far to go, but as I mentioned earlier, when I was kid, I was hard-pressed to find non-white characters even as supporting characters, and now I feel that it’s more unusual (if there is a large cast of characters) that all of the characters are white. Even this improvement is huge, and would have helped me feel less of an outsider as a child. And, I do feel that the quality of the books being published with diverse characters has also improved. I have seen an increase in books with “diverse content” getting more of a marketing and publicity push at major publishing houses, and this, too, is an improvement. In terms of submissions and acquisitions, I’ve seen books by writers of color featuring main characters of color go for huge advances at auction. This, too, is an improvement on where things were even five years ago. All of these wonderful books published each year also have a cumulative effect. An Asian-American girl today could probably read hundreds of quality books featuring Asian main characters. And Marley Diaz, the 11-year-old who started the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign to find 1000 books featuring black girl main characters, was successful! (Although, it would be nice to have many thousands more.)
SHAIK: I’ve often wondered why we think we have to work so hard to accept a book with a non-white American protagonist when we find a protagonist from abroad intriguing. Cheryl hit on a really important point. It’s because readers expect to find a distasteful or painful subject in a book by a person of color. “Irrelevance,” is the word she used. Thank you for that clarification. Following those ideas, I concur that readers of all colors come to books with a lot of racial baggage. (Academics call this bringing themselves to the text, right?) But wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could approach every text with the expectation that they were going to read something refreshing and new? That’s what we all want in the end. The beauty of children’s books is their readers do approach the work with this attitude. So children’s writers can make a difference. Our stories can include farmers, funny kids, adventurers, roller-skaters, and girls with dogs, for example—and the protagonists can be non-white, relate the truth of their circumstances, and everyone can enjoy the books.
I think book people must understand—as journalists came to realize during the Obama election—that they cannot just talk about the Black or Hispanic audience. (Others are rarely mentioned.) Book people too must consider that there are conservatives, radicals, middle-class people, and poor people. There are non-white people in cities, mostly, but also in small towns and communities of ideas. I think you get my point. All groups are not the same even within the group. So they may fall into existing categories for the publisher, except the characters should be diversified for everyone’s good.
On another note, I have not won Powerball (yet), so I think that a volunteer mentoring program could be a possibility, at least for PEN members. (A long time ago, I worked with the Association for Education in Journalism, Howard University, and NYU to place paid summer interns at magazines and give them a single editor/friend.) PEN and publishers could do something similar with volunteers. Perhaps people in all parts of the business could take responsibility for one high schooler, college student, a writer early in his or her career or even later—not just through financial support. Perhaps they can form a friendship, orchestrated initially, but hopefully later, an organic one.
The children’s committee discussed this a bit at our last holiday party. But right now, we’re starting to work with Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, and we’re continuing to send authors to New Orleans Martin Luther King Jr. School, where many friendships are being made. So hopefully PEN/NYC mentoring will also get on the list.
Lastly, diversity is the word we’re using now, just the way integration was the word in the past. Perhaps we should call it future thinking because American demographics will change. The world will be more connected and we will all need to be broad-minded—not just altruistic—in order to keep up.
Inequality still exists in our nation. And inequality still exists in the world of children’s books. And whom does inequality affect most of all? The children.
HARRIS: Bravo, Antonio, to you and your daughter! And the survey she is conducting! Hooray! A child engaged and taking some action. Maybe this child’s survey and other kids’ words and actions could speed along the change we have been talking about this week. Let’s think about what kids have done about the environment. They have spoken out tons about that issue, and are being heard by many—but not all—lawmakers and change-makers. When an issue affects kids directly and when they have a voice, some way to voice their feelings and thoughts and ideas, adults may just move more quickly. So when thinking further about what each of you has written this week about the kids for whom we create our books, the words that popped into my head early this morning were, “Hey, our kids can’t wait!” Then later this morning, the powerful and famous call to action of Martin Luther King, Jr. came to mind. Here are his eloquent words, which I am sure you all know:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
These words—“the fierce urgency of now”—are a call to action for all of us. So yes, why not create something like The Publishers Association Diversity and Equality Initiative in the UK and ask publishers to sign on just like The Publishers Association has done? And add to that Cheryl’s additions, so that there are concrete ways for publishers to move forward. And what about organizing a kids’ petition about what narratives are missing that kids—all kids, kids of different ages, city kids, suburban, rural kids, kids of color, white kids, LGBT kids, kids with disabilities—from around the nation could put together and sign? And then they could deliver that to the community of children’s book creators, including publishers, booksellers, librarians, and authors.
I too want to acknowledge as Alvina has that there are publishers, librarians, booksellers, and authors who also want the very changes that we have discussed. And they are working to create the kinds of books and more books that reflect who our nation really is and to build workplaces that are more equitable. And I just bet that they would sign on to an initiative such as the UK initiative. No, we’re not there yet. But kids’ voices about equity in children’s books, about being left out, might just push the change faster.
Wade, Cheryl, Alvina, Daniel, Fatima, and Antonio—what you have written has made me think hard and in new ways and will keep me thinking hard about my responsibility when it comes to diversity and equity in the world of children’s books, even when I am just having casual conversations or when I’m speaking at events and on panels about children’s books. Thank you all!
And even though I completely agree with Fatima’s astute assessment of why the world of children’s book publishers is the key to change, the publishers are not the only ones responsible when it comes to change. To harken back to Wade’s comment, “All hands on deck!” every segment of the children’s book community needs to take action in one way or another, in big or small ways, and in our own ways. We need to push hard so that the books that are created for children do not just primarily validate white children, but also validate children of color, and in doing so reflect the real demographics of our nation. The demographics are clear. So yes, Daniel, as you posited, diversity means truth/honesty and children’s books must reflect the true demographics of our nation. I know that many might respond that these books have been created and are being created. But important questions remain:
Are there enough books being written and published that speak to children of color?
Are there enough different genres and stories being written and published that speak to and/or just happen to include the experiences of children of color, including books that are not about race or diversity, but are just about day-to-day life or whatever all kids, regardless of race, experience?
Are there enough books that have a character/characters who just happen to be a person of color that are not about race or diversity or civil rights?
I suspect I could go on and on with these questions, but enough is enough.
The answer to each question is a resounding “NO!” Inequality still exists in our nation. And inequality still exists in the world of children’s books. And whom does inequality affect most of all? The children. We still have a lot of hard work to do.
OLDER: In the process of looking ahead, I also want to make sure we’re historical with our future focus, because I think where we’ve come from matters and our acknowledgement of it determines where we’ll go. It’s deeply saddening to be having this conversation in 2016. It’s also exciting to see where we are and what can happen next. I’m wary of the celebratory, self-congratulatory nature of the publishing industry’s use of the word “diversity” nowadays, (not in this conversation at all), because as Fatima alluded to, it’s the word of the moment, it is an easy word, one that rolls off the tongue without making many people uncomfortable or paying much mind to power and history. I say that not to dwell so much as to make sure we keep in our thoughts and organizing the fact that it took a lot of sacrifice and risk-taking, primarily from women writers of color who raised their voices publicly and organized, to get us to this current groundbreaking moment in publishing history. That’s not to devalue the work that folks have been doing behind the scenes all along the way—that’s tremendously important too, but we’ve been at a status quo for too many decades now and the current shift has a lot to do with the culmination of those raised voices and interconnected historical moments (Black Lives Matter, citizen journalism, and social media, among others). There’s a lot of distrust. Many, if not most, writers of color I know, including myself up until I started publishing, have no faith that the literary world will embrace the full breadth and depth of their voices, and we have every reason not to have faith. There is a lot of healing that has to happen in the process of moving forward, and not the easy kumbaya kind.
Quotas—the “We already have an Asian/Black/Native/Trans book” attitudes—are still a thing. Smiling slavery books are still a thing. And there’s very little sense or evidence that publishing (or anti-censorship movements for that matter) are really committed to making meaningful change to the very dire crisis of white supremacy in publishing. The voices and ideas in this forum give me a lot of hope, and I’m glad we’re ending with thoughts of how to move beyond the forum/panel/think piece format, because that’s what time it is. One excellent example of action is Walter Mosley’s CUNY program that’s focused on getting folks of color into publishing. A lot of work is focused on writers, but we need agents, editors, and executives of color, too. And that requires mentorship and training. The agent piece is huge; I suspect if they’d been included in the Lee & Low survey, the whiteness percentage would’ve gone up pretty seriously, and they are often the very first gatekeeper a writer encounters.
What Robie said is crucial: We have to ask and truly listen to young people. And we have to be very wide-ranging and inclusive in which young people we talk to. Last year, I interviewed Clifton Kinney, a young Ferguson activist, for a piece on the Black Lives Matter movement and children’s literature. He said this me, and I still think about it: “We need everyone to get free; we need everyone to play their roles so we can get free. So authors, please tell our stories.” What does it mean to get free? What does it mean for each one of us to get free and play our role in getting free? How do we tell the stories of young people getting free today, in 2016, even if we’re doing it in books about the past or future? How do we write directly to this moment, this crisis, that we’re living right now?
I imagine more programs dedicated to bringing folks of color and other people marginalized by the industry into publishing. I imagine an industry dedicated to revolutionary upheaval, not just face-lifts and Band-Aids. I imagine difficult conversations leading to more difficult conversations leading to ongoing healing. I imagine a bookshelf that looks radically different from the one we have now. I imagine young people learning about both the history of publishing and the history of storytelling, and the meaning and intersections of those histories. Imagine if Howard Zinn had done a “People’s History of Literature/Storytelling”!. I imagine something beyond diversity trainings—I’m thinking more along the lines of what the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond does: very in-depth and intensive power analysis workshops toward undoing racism. Beyond multicultural covers, truly multicultural covers (not just silhouettes and turned backs), I imagine a literature that embraces multicultural rhythms, forms of storytelling, narrative structures and voices, conflicts, complexities, and ways of knowing. I know we will get there; the question is what part we each play along the way, what role do we each play so we can get free?
KLEIN: For any writers of color who might be reading this, I hope you’ll consider attending the Kweli Journal Conference for Children’s and YA Writers on April 9 in Manhattan. Laura Pegram is assembling a terrific line-up of writers (including Daniel and Edwidge Danticat, who will give the keynote), editors (including Alvina and me), and other publishing professionals to talk about the craft of writing and the work of getting into the industry. It should be a great day! You can find more information here.
For my fellow editors—particularly younger ones—who are interested in working on diverse books, but unsure how to find or advocate for them or are afraid of screwing up in editing them: Please proclaim your interest when you meet with agents or speak at writers’ conferences—anytime you have an opportunity to request diverse manuscripts or encourage diverse writers, do. And please reach out to me (or, I’d venture, any of the former members of the CBC Diversity Committee) if you’d like to discuss anything related to acquiring or editing diverse titles.
And for everyone, I’d just add: Please, buy and talk about the diverse books that already exist! To use the old metaphor of the donkey, the carrot, and the stick, Alvina was totally right about the effectiveness of shame as a stick here. But buying the books creates a carrot that benefits everyone: the author, the publisher, and future authors and publishing projects. We need more books, for sure; we’ll get there partly by supporting the books already on the market.
The truth is, children’s book publishing faces the same challenges that society faces when it comes to ethnic, racial, and gender fairness, equity, and justice. But, just as in society, we all must play a role if we are to make change that is transformative.
HUDSON: The past week has been quite busy. Cheryl and I received a citation from the Philadelphia City Council, honoring our contributions to book publishing and literacy. We did radio and television interviews all week that culminated with our participation in the African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia. The book fair was a tremendous success!
All these activities gave me an opportunity to further develop what I want to share in this final post. I am an author, but I am also a publisher; I have published my own manuscripts, as well as manuscripts written by others, and I have had some of my manuscripts acquired by other publishers. Because of the success of our company’s marketing efforts, I have been hired as a marketing consultant by major publishers, and Just Us Books has partnered with other commercial publishers to package children’s book products. I share this information because these various roles have enabled me to see the issue of diversity from various perspectives or vantage points.
In an earlier post, I stressed the need for an “all hands-on-deck approach.” Certainly, those who create the books for children and young adults have a role to play and a responsibility to make change. Editors and those who acquire manuscripts and help to nurture and develop them have a role to play and a responsibility.
But often overlooked when searching for solutions is the importance of the sale of books in the market place. This was made more evident to me this past week. The importance of an all-hands-on-deck approach was more evident, too.
Last Thursday, Cheryl and I, along with literary promoter Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, were interviewed on Fox29’s Good Day Philadelphia as part of the promotional push for the African American Children’s Book Fair that was to be held on Saturday, February 6, in Philadelphia. The segment in which we were featured led off with a videotape of Marley Dias, the 11-year-old activist who has launched a drive to collect 1,000 books about Black girls. She said she wanted her school reading assignments to reflect more of her own culture instead of stories “about white boys and dogs.” Good Day Philadelphia , and much of the nation for that matter, has been following the story. Marley was presented a check for $10,000 on the Ellen Degeneres Show to help her with her book drive, and she has been receiving support from around the nation. This young girl has brought much attention to the importance of having diversity in children’s and young adult literature in the classroom. She is not an author or a publishing professional. But she has made an impact. All hands on deck.
On Saturday in Philadelphia, over two thousand mostly Black Americans, young and old, attended the 24th Annual African American Children’s Book Fair. Twenty-four Black authors and illustrators, along with hundreds of their books, were present to greet excited parents and children. Organized by Ms. Lloyd-Sgambati, the corporate sector, the media, community and grass roots organizations as well as the educational community were brought together to support the book fair. All hands on deck!
The African American Children’s Book Fair is a model of what can be done to have a major impact on book sales of diverse titles. This model proves quite conclusively that when diverse books are made available and accessible, people will buy them. Getting these books to that potential market is the challenge.
At the African American Children’s Book Fair, there were so many wonderful books written and or illustrated by Black Americans. Most of the people who came to the book fair had not seen a majority of these books, even though a significant number of them had been published 10 to 15 years ago. Many people left with bags full of books that they had purchased.
One lady who attended the fair complained, “Where have all these books been?”
One of the major concerns, and certainly my concern as a publisher of diverse books, is how to increase the sale of these books. There are substantial numbers of Black authors and illustrators who have produced a vibrant body of work that feature Black characters and focus on the experiences, history, and culture of Black people. Many of them have been producing published works for years. Yet, a vast majority of these quality books are not found on the shelves of bookstores, in public libraries, school libraries, or in classrooms. Many of them are missing from offerings of literacy initiatives aimed at young people in Black communities or people of color. If more diverse titles are visible and available in the marketplace, I believe people will buy them.
Just Us Books is currently in the process of finalizing a list of children’s and young adult books written and/or illustrated by people of color that were published in 2015. We were joined in this important effort by Dr. Debbie Reese, American Indians in Children’s Literature; Kelly Starling Lyons, The Brown Bookshelf; Dr. Claudette McLinn, Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature; Dr. Nancy Tolson, Assistant Professor of Assistant Director of African American Studies at University of South Carolina; and Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor, Library and Information Science, St. Catherine University. Our goal is get this list into the hands of as many people as possible.
The truth is, children’s book publishing faces the same challenges that society faces when it comes to ethnic, racial, and gender fairness, equity, and justice. But, just as in society, we all must play a role if we are to make change that is transformative.
This Diverse Books Pledge, which I initiated some months ago, offers steps anyone can take to help ensure that literature for our young people is truly representative of who we are as a diverse world:
DIVERSE BOOKS PLEDGE: To help increase the number of quality children’s books that celebrate diversity, and to support the diverse books already available
I Pledge To:
- Each year, personally introduce ten different children’s books that reflect our nation’s diversity to educators, librarians, bookstore managers, and parents—anyone who has the influence and/or power to help increase the number of these books within our body of children’s literature.
- Gift at least five of these books to children other than my own—whether they’re neighbors’, friends’, or co-workers’ children; children at my place of worship or local youth organizations; or as donations to other organizations in my community.
- Try to give at least two or three of these books to children who might not normally have diverse books in their homes.
- Make a special effort to buy some of these books from independent publishers, independent bookstores and vendors, including those operated by people of color.
- Lift up the importance of having books that reflect our nation’s diversity at every opportunity—not just within my circle of friends, but among others with whom I don’t normally interact.
- When visiting a bookstore, encourage the manager to include a more diverse offering of children’s books. Take the initiative to purchase at least one multicultural title to show my commitment to supporting these books.
- Encourage educators and school administrators to include multicultural books among their classroom resources.
- Encourage book reviewers and bloggers to include more multicultural books among the books they review.
- Publicly celebrate positive multicultural children’s literature, including by posting multicultural books and reviews of those books on my personal Facebook page and other social media platforms.
- Encourage others to take this pledge.
HAFIZAH GETER: Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful contributions. When we talk about equity its crucial that it be more than just an intellectual exercise so I am extremely grateful to see all the solutions offered over the course of this conversation. To recap, here are a few I found especially compelling:
- Publishers should make diversity a stated priority of acquisitions, invest in research and development about how to diversify their markets, and provide all editors with Diversity 101 training to teach about gaps, issues, and blind spots in manuscripts, the industry and themselves.
- Publishing professionals should personally invest in diversity by seeking the opinions of people who come from backgrounds different from their own.
- Ensure that the stories that are told are honest (i.e. smiling slaves) and reframe conversations around diversity in such away that is is discussed in a positive light rather than as a challenge.
- De-emphasize comfort and fit when it comes to hiring and acquiring.
- Market and sell the diverse books already being published and encourage white readers to read cross-culturally and outside of their comfort zones.
- Ensure universities with populations that are majority people of color (HBCUs, etc.), are aware of internship and employment opportunities.
- Engage kids in conversations of diversity and the kinds of stories they would like to see.
- Publishers should share resources on editing, marketing, and selling diverse books.
- Booksellers can vow that every second or third book they recommend be diverse.
- Librarians can decide that a certain percentage of books in every display will focus on diverse people or be by diverse authors.
- Readers can push themselves out of their comfort zone by question the books they buy vs. leave on shelves. (Harris)
- White writers can take a look at their manuscripts and see how they might be diversified thoughtfully.
- Individual editors can set a goal for buying at least one more diverse manuscript than the previous year.
- Publishers can encourage transparency by doing an honest accounting of their staff make-ups and authors so we can know where things stand and encourage competition.
- Commit to and share the Diverse Books Pledge.
Taking into accounts constraints of budget and current infrastructures, the list above represents what every publisher, bookseller, librarian and reader can do today to embrace “the fierce urgency of now.”
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Fatima Shaik is co-chair of the Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee of PEN and assistant professor at Saint Peter’s University in the Dept of Communication and Media Culture. Critics have described her fiction as “lush and evocative” (PW), “a terrific, charging solo” (NPR), “heart-rending” (The Horn Book) and “accessible and affecting” (School Library Journal). What Went Missing and What Got Found is her most recent book, a collection of short stories for adults. You can find her online at www.fatimashaik.com.
Cheryl Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. The many titles she has edited across multiple age ranges and genres include Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older; I am Princess X by Cherie Priest; Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel by Megan Morrison; The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton; Marcelo in the Real World and The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork; and The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg. In 2011, Cheryl self-published Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults. Her new book, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, will be published in September by W. W. Norton. You can find her online at www.cherylklein.com and @chavelaque.
Wade Hudson serves as President and CEO of Just Us Books, which is recognized as a pioneer in children’s as well as multicultural publishing. Also an accomplished and award-winning writer, Wade Hudson has dedicated his publishing company to introducing young readers to uplifting portraits of African-American family life and to the personal stories of inspirational black figures from history.
Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (
Robie H. Harris has written award-winning and internationally acclaimed picture books and nonfiction books and is known for writing about serious issues with honesty and humor. Her newest picture books include Who We Are! All About Being The Same and Different to be published in March and Turtle and Me. Her nonfiction books for preschoolers to teens—It’s Perfectly Normal, It’s So Amazing!, It’s Not the Stork!, Who Has What, Who’s In My Family?, What’s In There? and What’s So Yummy?—have been translated into numerous languages. Jill Lepore’s New Yorker essay, “Books About The Birds and Bees,” cites these books as “the best of the latest batch” and says, “they have an endearing and companionable matter-of-factness.”
Alvina Ling is VP and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers where she’s worked since 1999. She edits children’s books for all ages, from picture books to young adult, and has worked with such authors and illustrators as Peter Brown, Bryan Collier, Ed Young, Grace Lin, Wendy Mass, Justina Chen, Chris Colfer, Laini Taylor, Libba Bray, Barry Lyga, Holly Black, Sherman Alexie, and Matthew Quick. She is the co-founder and former chair of the CBC Diversity Committee. She is on Twitter as @planetalvina and lives in Brooklyn.
Antonio Aiello is the Content Director and Web Editor at PEN American Center, where he develops written and multimedia content at the intersection of freedom of expression advocacy and the literary arts. During his time at PEN, Aiello founded and continues to direct the PEN America Blog, the PEN Poetry Series, the PEN/Guernica Flash Series, the PEN Ten Interview Series, the Illustrated PEN, and most recently Passages, a quarterly translation chapbook. As previous Associate Director of the Prison Writing program, he co-wrote and edited PEN’s Handbook for Writers In Prison, distributed free each year to thousands of incarcerated writers. His interviews, essays, and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in/on the Literary Hub, The Carolina Quarterly, PEN America, Alimentum, Anderbo.
Hafizah Geter is a 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship finalist. Her writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Narrative Magazine, among others. She is on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, a poetry editor for Phantom Books and co-curates the reading series EMPIRE with Ryann Stevenson. You can find her at www.hafizahgeter.com and @RhetoricAndThis.