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 among us—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And in order to do that, we must open the gates of our publishing houses to a greater variety of voices and cast aside outdated assumptions of what people will or won’t want to read, will or won’t want to edit or publish or sell.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:
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.
Need a book/novel tag! *watches bookworms gasp/keel over in shock at the lack of such a tag*