Can We Talk of Solutions? Regarding Diversifying Children’s Literature

Over at Horn Book, I joined the conversation over this month’s Editorial by Roger Sutton, entitled, “We’re Not Rainbow Sprinkles.” It is a heated conversation over representation and lack of fictional existence (of marginalized characters: non-white ethnicity, not-straight sexual orientation, or other non-dominant identities.) For the most part, the people who commented read the article and others’ comments carefully before they expressed their highly varied viewpoints. I wrote in one of my comments about my own emotional distress over the tumultuous debates all over the internet over such topics within the children’s and YA literary world:

It weighs on me. It makes me tear up on an hourly basis: seeing people here and elsewhere (Fuse8, Heavy Medal, Facebook — I dare not go to Twitter), in their earnest to “defend their own ways of thinking,” use hurtful words, seething comments, words that simply want to get a reaction but not advance anyone’s causes. It makes me worry about what all these negative energy will translate eventually into the literary works that are meant to reflect and uplift. That are meant to be Free and Beautiful and Cathartic (even and sometimes when they are Painful.)

The heavy burden manifests itself in many ways: I feel exhausted, my shoulders are hunched more and tense, I cannot focus on simple daily responsibilities, I can’t remember minor or even major facts, all because my mind has been so preoccupied by the many ideas presented to me and sought out by me. My desire to simply “put it down” is great.  I want to stop dealing with all of these issues and just get back to simply enjoy great books for kids and teens!!!  But, I find myself incapable to unburden my mind. I am compelled to continue thinking and learning and writing and talking about these topics.  And today, I want to talk about the Publishers and what I think as their responsibilities in redressing the balance of the industry:

Case Study One:

Twenty-one years ago, I was a lowly subsidiary rights assistant in a large children’s publishing company — Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group (a different entity from the current Macmillan publishing company).  A brand new children’s picture book was to be released by the revered Chinese American author Amy Tan.  I got a chance to look at the F&G (folded & gathered pages of a picture book proof) and noticed that Ms Tan used the concept of punctuation AND musical notes within the storyline — indeed, the use of these devices helped move the plot along.  Not one to keep my mouth shut, I raised the question of how if the tale was set in ancient China, both western musical notation and the use of punctuation would have been totally, utterly, culturally inaccurate.  But of course my views were deemed completely insignificant: I wasn’t in the editorial department and who could question Amy Tan, the author of Joy Luck Club and her knowledge of the Chinese culture?  And, even if the inclusion of such details was anachronistic and culturally inaccurate, so what?  No one was going to be hurt.  Right?  And it’s just about to be published — too late to make such major changes!  So the book, Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat, was published exactly as it was written and illustrated and has been enjoying great success for almost a quarter of a century, with a host of PBS cartoon episodes based on the characters and the setting in the book, even if it didn’t receive very positive reviews.  Oh, also, do you know that Sagwa literally means a stupid person?

Case Study Two:

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, in a casual conversation with a non-white editor, I first heard how one of the largest stumbling blocks in publishing diverse books by diverse authors is the sales force in each publishing company.  When editorial teams present in house their potential future publications to the sales reps, if their proposed titles receive the verdicts of “We don’t know how to sell this or that title…” or “I don’t think this will sell…,” then it is pretty much dead in the water.  And according to this editor acquaintance of mine, the sales reps are overwhelmingly white and the titles rejected often include many diverse titles.

Case Study Three:

Fast forward further to this past month.  While attending a publisher’s preview, a young, white editor talked about a book that is set in a major foreign city. She kept referring to the city as “New Delhai.” And I was superbly puzzled: I’ve never heard of such a city.  (Although I must admit that I’m not a geography wiz!)  I glanced at the printed description and realized that the city the editor was referring to was New Delhi, in India.  I was completely floored by this lack of cultural literacy as we sat in the room being told how so many the books published would enrich our young people’s lives and give them an expanded sense of the world.  However, no one else seemed a least bit bothered by it.  Or that no one cared?  Or were we all just too polite to point out this mistake?  Later on, I learned from another friend that there is a town in New York State called Delhi and it is pronounced DelHai.  This young editor could have just always thought that the city in India shares the exact name and pronunciation as the New York town.  (Like Houston – Hauston – Street in NYC and the City of Houston -Hueston- in Texas.) Still… I was flabbergasted. And I was surprised at how no one else seemed to find this bothersome and at how the helpful friend tried to find a reason or an excuse for the mispronunciation of one of the largests city on earth.

Case Study Four:

During the translators panel at the recent USBBY Conference, the Chinese translator of John Muth’s Stone Soup (a story that’s NOT originally Chinese, made to be against an ancient Chinese setting, translated into Chinese from English) pointed out that one of the ingredients that went into the soup had to be changed when he translated the text into Chinese because it wouldn’t have been readily available in the setting and the Chinese seldom use that ingredient in making soup.  Also the fact that there are architecturally inaccuracies in the paintings as well.

Case Study Five:

Yesterday, I visited Baker & Taylor’s book ordering site where I purchase most of the books for my Middle School Library.  I wanted to buy about 20 copies of Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village which has garnered lots of praise and is my pick of the month for the faculty book club.  I was totally surprised that B&T does not carry this title.  Then I went to another wholesaler, and the book is listed as Print on Demand, with a 2% discount (as opposed to the usual 40%).  Amazon carries some new copies but not enough for all my teachers in the club.   It is available in eBook form and that’s how I got my own copy. The publisher’s site only offers eBook format.  So, even though this book has received 3 stars by now, is penned by a Newbery honor author (Carver,) and totally fits the #weneeddiversebooks movement bill, it must be deemed too difficult to sell by Baker & Taylor.  I wonder if Ingram & Follett carry the title and how many copies are ready for purchase?

So, what conclusions I drew from reflecting on all of the above experiences?

  • Whether the author or illustrator of a book is of a particular culture matters less than if they do their homework and work diligently to produce authentic and culturally sensitive books.  I am hopeful that many authors and illustrators will become more and more culturally aware and do not find such demand unreasonable or burdensome — or, perhaps it is burdensome but not something that can be shirked!
  • Wouldn’t it be great if publishers encourage or even create professional development opportunities for their sales, marketing, and editorial teams to enrich everyone’s understanding of the importance of diversity, respect, and inclusion?
  • Wouldn’t it be great if publishers hire more diverse employees to allow for better understanding of varied cultural contents in the manuscripts or illustrations?
  • Wouldn’t it be easier to verify authenticity and spot questionable treatments if there are enough pairs of culturally sensitive eyes to review and evaluate the books in-house, prior to publication, and not wait to put out fires after the book lands in the hands of the readers?
  • As consumers, we hold much power in our hands as well.  If we keep buying the same-old same-old, and do not seek out or demand availability of the much needed diverse books, there will be no incentives for the publishing industry to heed such need: since it needs to survive and meet the bottom line, after all.

It is late.  I need to sleep.  Please talk to me and share ideas and solutions!

20 Comments

Filed under Views, WIWWAK

20 responses to “Can We Talk of Solutions? Regarding Diversifying Children’s Literature

  1. Thank you for this, Roxanne. I’ve nudged up against a few of these discussions and felt overwhelmed and not a little ill at the tone. I love your suggestions.

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  2. lwcallaghan2013

    Well said, Roxanne. It is frustrating to encounter these inaccuracies and, even more, depressing to realize how cavalier people can be about not correcting them.

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  3. TK

    Ingram does carry My Seneca Village in both hc and pb, but none of the books published by Namelos (publisher of My Seneca Village) receive any percentage discount. Not knowing the ins and outs of publisher and distributor discount decisions, I don’t know which made that choice.

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  4. Nina Lindsay

    Wow, I had no idea about the distribution issues with MY SENECA VILLAGE. Thanks, Roxanne, for putting some energy into moving forward.

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  5. Michael Santangelo

    Hi Roxanne. Namelos is not a traditional publisher and does not necessarily print or warehouse large quantities of copies–which could be why My Seneca Village is not as easy to get as it should be. Ingram’s Lightning Source service is one of their print on demand partners (in addition to Amazon), which is why Ingram has copies (quite a few when I looked this morning). Here’s an older PW article on Namelos and their business model: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/3399-namelos-editions-to-publish-electronic-and-pod-books.html. Print on demand tends to have smaller discounts as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Vicky Smith

    The Namelos business model is fundamentally different from old-school traditional publishing. One of the ways they compete is by not doing standard print runs but instead using POD technology to allow their supply to meet demand. While this allows them to do the kind of passion publishing they want to do, it also affects their ability to grant volume discounts. Here is an old blog post that summarizes the conversation I had with the publisher when Namelos first launched: http://www.namelos.com/reasonable-questions/ . If I’m wrong (my information is several years old), I hope that someone from Namelos will correct me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. fairrosa

    Thanks for the responses re Namelos. I knew that must have been the case — but this illustrates how a small or specialized press needs even more support from those who promote good books: they do not have the kind of marketing power that larger houses have. I have a wholesaler that can POD for me so that’s what I’m going to do now.

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  8. Great post, Roxanne! I don’t have any ideas and solutions to share, but I value your thoughtfulness, passion and commitment. Your students are lucky!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Margaret Stawowy

    These are meaningful insights. Thank you for posting.

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  10. Hi, Roxanne,
    The details of your stories are so useful in mapping how the problem plays out – and maybe giving some clues to how we can get to a better place.

    Here’s a post in the same vein, collected by librarian Edi Campbell from responses to her inquiry about “how we can move forward to attain greater diversity in children’s literature, both collectively and individually”: https://campbele.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/questions-and-answers

    Thank you.

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  11. fairrosa

    Anne, thank you for the link to all Edi’s compilation. Yes. So many ways we can change the faces of children’s books! Another one is librarian education — no one should ever (but some still do) say, “I do not serve ______ (insert ethnic group) population so there is no need for books with those characters in my library.”

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  12. Denis Markell

    I hope this is seen by many, many, people. As someone who is directly affected by this (MG author) I have tried to stay out of this, but this is so well said that I had to comment. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Your case studies remind me that diversity in publishing happens long before the book appears, and at every stage, from author’s research through marketing. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. fairrosa

    I’m posting this, with permission, anonymously, an emailed comment from one of the current members of the Notable Children’s Books Committee (ALSC):

    This Notables member stated:

    — QUOTE —
    I really can’t reply to your blog post, of which I totally agree. I am in my second year of Notables Children’s Books for ALSC. We aren’t supposed to put our opinions out there. I don’t want to add to your sadness, but when you get as many books from so many publishers, it is hard not to notice the failure of publishers to diversify their collections. I have been shocked by the lack of diverse titles, characters, settings, etc. The ones that are good will probably go on our list; and most people won’t realize how little we had to choose from. I have been so discouraged this year. I actually think last year had more titles, but I never added that category to my spread sheet. I wish I had done that. Last year I looked at, read, or checked reviews of 1500 books. This year will be the same or more.

    (Paragraph omitted due to identifying details — but the gist is that people are talking about this aspect of children’s books more and more and attention is paid to it more readily than before. — Roxanne)

    Great, great blog post, Roxanne! Don’t lose hope and keep pushing the publishers and their editorial staffs.

    — END QUOTE —

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  15. Excellent piece, Roxanne! And I appreciate your comment on why we need to support small presses and how we can do it. I’ve been hearing a lot of stories recently about small presses that have fallen on hard times because they couldn’t get traction with gatekeepers, including one that, years ago, broke ground publishing Muslim-American authors writing realistic YA fiction set within Muslim families and communities in the U.S.

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  16. And this: “Whether the author or illustrator of a book is of a particular culture matters less than if they do their homework and work diligently to produce authentic and culturally sensitive books.”

    That may well be the case, but we are enriched, and a more equitable society, when we give fair opportunities to people in underrepresented communities who write their own stories. I have a disability and frequently see people who do not have this disability speaking on my behalf when I can write and speak for myself. More than eighty percent of people diagnosed with my disability (Asperger’s/high-functioning autism) are unemployed although a far higher percentage of us can work and contribute with minimal accommodation. A lot of talent goes to waste when ignorance and discrimination persist.

    Liked by 2 people

    • fairrosa

      Thanks for the reminder, Lyn. I guess what I really wanted to say that sometimes a person of a particular culture or identity does not know the whole of diverse experiences within their own identity group. I cannot write a novel about Chinese Cultural Revolution without doing a lot of research and work diligently on presenting varied viewpoints and should not be given a pass simply because of my ethnicity. I imagine that is true to other groups/cultures. Would you agree with this point?

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  17. CJ

    As a librarian and a minority, I see both sides of this issue. It would be great to have more diversity in books. It would be greater if when minorities are depicted it wasn’t in such a stereotypical context. On the other hand, there are good diverse books being published but we can’t get patrons at the library to even pick them up let alone check them out and read them. To me that’s the larger, more important issue.

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    • fairrosa

      I hear you completely. I am a school librarian who is Chinese. I do think this situation has a lot to do with what the readers’ past experiences with Diverse books are. If, say, in school, Diverse books are only or mostly experienced as a didactic teaching tool: to highlight and celebrate differences or to preach about acceptance, etc. Then when it comes to pleasure reading choices, they are not going to be the top picks by kids themselves. This is why we need Diverse books in all areas and genres. This is also part of the reason why I would have loved if the Mongolian/Mixed Race character (in Legend,) Day, is not blond with blue eyes. Or that he’s from a different part of Asia. Given the author’s ability to pen an amazing tale that really speaks to many young readers, and the setting of a future society originated from a diverse state of the current U.S. And the author’s own Asian ethnicity. Of course, I am not dictating what Marie Lu would write about but do lament a missed opportunity there.

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  18. Pingback: Is Staff Diversity Training Worth It? | Lee & Low Blog

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