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!