Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Oversight in My Submissions Guidelines, Now Corrected

I have been following the post-Liar-cover-controversy discussions about race and children's publishing with great interest, particularly Neesha Meminger's wonderful essay on power and privilege; Elizabeth Bluemle's ShelfTalker post, "Where's Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?", its followup today, and the list of multicultural books that grew out of it; Zetta Elliott's provocative "Something Like an Open Letter to the Children's Publishing Industry"; and the comments on all of these posts. This Newsweek article, "See Baby Discriminate," is also fascinating and instructive on the prevalence of white privilege that Neesha invokes and the negative consequences of that; and Mitali Perkins's "Straight Talk on Race" offered many useful questions about multicultural publishing and writing all the way back in April.

As a result of all of these articles and conversations that grew out of them, I was ashamed to realize today that my "What I'm Looking For" on my website did not include something that I've always been looking for, and something indeed my publishing reflects -- that is, my interest in seeing projects from writers and illustrators of color. This is a hard thing to talk about because race is such a sensitive issue, and people on all sides are so quick to feel slighted by the idea that someone else is getting a preference because of it. I can only say that my interest as an editor and publisher is in working to create really good books that show the whole range of children's and YA life experiences; and that most definitely includes the experience of nonwhite characters, and the contributions of nonwhite writers and illustrators.

(And it's sort of sad, frankly, that I just wrote a pre-emptive defense of this policy for white people who may feel slighted by it. White people who feel slighted: Please read all those links and comments and remember that good fiction writing is 90 percent imagining yourself in someone else's shoes. Also, while I'm recommending links, everyone of all races should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog at the Atlantic website; he's a gorgeous writer, and very thoughtful about race (as well as Mad Men, Renaissance art, the Civil War, and the NFL), with great commenters too. One of my favorite blogs.)

The representation of people of color in children's and YA lit is a complicated question with no easy answers; or rather, the only answer is the dialogue that will continue indefinitely on blogs, and in The Horn Book and School Library Journal, and on awards committees, and through the books we choose to write and publish. Here's my contribution to the dialogue tonight: There's now a line in my submissions guidelines stating "I'm very interested in projects from writers and illustrators of color." And if you are such a writer or illustrator, and your work suits all the other guidelines prescribed there -- in short, a literary picture book or novel manuscript with richly drawn characters who do things -- I hope you'll consider sharing it with me. Thank you.


  1. This is a relatively new topic for me. I stumbled upon a great paper written by a college professor (and for the life of me, I wish I could find the link), that really clued me in to what white privilege even MEANS. I thought it was as simple as maybe opportunity? It goes so much deeper. There are advantages I've had since birth that I didn't even know existed.

    I was shocked when I looked at the numbers in publishing. I had no idea that the division was so large, or that books were segregated at book stores. (Of course, that's my view on it, many people have no problem with a separate section. But I think that only adds to the problem in the end.)

    Great post. And I'm glad to see that you revised your submission guidelines.

  2. I know I would love to read more books about what it means to not be white in the suburbs, where I live. If anyone has any book recommendations, I would really like to hear about them.

  3. Hopefully no one will feel slighted. All agents and editors stress how they're looking for original ideas and the fact is that a genre getting "old" may seem fresh if its set in an ethnic neighborhood of NY or in SF's Chinatown.

    This is sort of off topic but still relevant, I think. Particularly in light of the cover controversy.

    I read an article titled "Why Michelle Obama's Hair Matters." It discussed how much time and money black women spend to make their hair do the straight styles so popular today, and the resentment and strain many feel about that. The article said black women will skip workouts in order not to have to restyle their hair.

    And I felt for them and wished I could post at the end of the article to say, "I'm white but I have very thick frizzy hair. I have skipped jogging because i don't have the hour it would take to make my hair look the way I think it needs to in order to feel pretty. I sympathize-remember, you're not alone-this is not just a race problem. Its a female problem."

  4. The LIAR cover controvery really opened my eyes to the divisions in the bookstore as well. I realized that while I've read and enjoyed many books with non-white characters, these books rarely have a face on the cover. It's so bizarre, and definitely something we need to be working to change as a community.

    Updating your guidelines to call out that you want to see writing and art from non-white people is probably a great first step :). Whites shouldn't be offended--we should be excited that things are starting to turn around.

  5. Good job in covering your oversight! Folks who are interested in getting a real earful can check out the RaceFail topic on LiveJournal -- just Google it.

    I have to call your marketing department out on one small detail, though. Now, I've seen the BRILLIANT AWESOME cover your folks put together for Elizabeth Bunce's book, and I can't wait to see what they come up with for Starcrossed, hint hint.

    But: the covers of your newest multiracial books both feature silhouettes instead of featuring pictures of brown-skinned heroes.

    Now I'm thinking you've probably already talked to these folks about it. But you might pass on a word from me, a voracious reader surrounded by conservatives in a red state, that I want to see POC on a book and not just a silhouette. If we're going to strike against racism, marketing and design needs to step up to the plate and do their parts.

  6. Hi Melinda,

    Your comment illustrates how complicated these cover discussions are, because . . . well, let me tell you how those two Spring 2010 covers came about. In both cases, I gave the ms. to one of our resident genius designers, who brought me samples from artists whom he thought might be right for the book. For MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD & then LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS, the artist was Dan McCarthy:

    When we were looking at Dan's work for MARCELO, we found it not only gorgeous, but metaphorically perfect for Marcelo's Asperger's perspective in its combination of blank space and very specific detail -- much as people with Asperger's syndrome might completely miss some social subtleties but then know every nuance of one subject. I loved his style, Arthur loved it, our designer loved it, and we commissioned Dan to do the cover. He submitted a sketch of the tree and the treehouse, and that eventually evolved into the cover we have now, which has also been universally acclaimed as gorgeous. And then we wanted to build a "line look" for Francisco, so people who read and loved MARCELO might recognize the style and pick up DEATH WARRIORS, so we commissioned Dan again for that book.

    For SUPERZERO, we went with a French design team called LaFrench: If you look through the print ads on that website, they often combine photos with strong graphics, incorporating lots of multicultural elements or people; so LaFrench felt perfect for conveying the cityness and richness of this book. When this sketch for the cover came in, we loved its freshness, the way it highlighted Gbemi's clever title, its evocation of both superheroes and dawning hope (both major motifs in the text) without going too explicitly comic-booky or cheesy, and its incorporation of the NYC skyline. At no point did we tell the artist "Don't put a picture of a black kid on the cover" (and you can see they've used lots of POC in their past work); this was their interpretation of the material, and it worked great, and so we went with it. (And anyone who has ever worked with artists knows that the ideas they come up with and develop are better than ideas other people give them, and that you can only offer so many suggestions before you reach a point of diminishing returns.)

    So -- to give credit or blame where each are due -- it wasn't marketing driving these covers, but me and my designer. Did we make the right decisions? From an aesthetic standpoint, I say yes, absolutely: I love these covers and I think they'll attract a lot of readers. (And every book bought featuring a protagonist of color makes it easier for me to acquire the next ms. with one.) From a political standpoint -- well, I don't know. That's weighing the value of having POC on a cover vs. all the other factors that go into cover design, including things like other elements of a book's content (cf. Marcelo & Asperger's), the artist's style, the book's cover design budget and schedule (which may make it impossible to hire a model of color in the right time frame), etc., etc. I am not AT ALL saying that value is negligible, for the record, nor that we wouldn't put a person of color on the front of a book if it was right for the book -- see KENDRA, TYRELL, MILLICENT MIN, STANFORD WONG, ELIJAH OF BUXTON, DIZZY, Ebony Wilkins's forthcoming WHITEOUT (which I think addresses Fleur's interest in stories of POC in the suburbs), and many other Scholastic titles. Just that it's complicated, like most things related to issues of race, and individual to each book.

    If there is any blessing that has emerged from the LIAR controversy, it's the discussion happening around all these questions now, and the fact that there's a whole lot more sensitivity to it on the part of both publishers and readers, which should hopefully result in more confidence and success all around in publishing these books. Thank you all for your interest.

  7. Ah! That makes sense. I could see how you and the designers making a look for Starks' books. What threw me was seeing two such books listed one after the other, both using silhouettes and both having POC leads. And you're right -- you guys have done plenty of other books with non-white leads.

    (I am stymied by not being able to find a good word for "non-white" since that indicates that the almighty whites are the default mode. POC sounds like a political action committee, and "brown-skinned characters" ... !?! Damn you, language!)

    I do like your showing us how the covers came to be -- that helped me understand what goes into the process. I always imagined marketing people shooting unmarketable material on sight, and being trigger-happy about it.

  8. Wow! Thanks. Its so intersting to see how the covers are chosen. And I have to say I think the Marcelo cover is beautiful.

  9. Great, this is exactly what we need, more editors from mainstream publishers (well, from all publishers, really) saying they want more books written by people of color. It's a start, though I still think this takes a more active effort to do outreach and find authors. Hopefully the word will spread, but finding groups such as Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color (ACAIC) who responded to Zetta's post, and making sure they know you are looking, will help a lot. And while all of your descriptions for the motivations behind the cover designs are great and make perfect sense, I think it can help to keep in mind the larger implications of the cover image. You don't want decisions to be totally politically-motivated, but underlying assumptions and unrecognized beliefs will affect how these decisions are made. The most important thing, I think, is that there is open discussion and people talk about how decisions are made and why. I'd appreciate your (and anyone else's) comments and thoughts on my essay on white privilege in the children's publishing industry that I posted on the web:

    Thanks again for putting this out there and addressing this issue from within.
    Laura Atkins (Tockla)

  10. Few years back I read a manuscript by a sometime-friend, a story about blacks that, to me, rang very true, and lots of dialog. Writer is Jewish, with a name like "Jule". I recommended that she submit it as from "Jewel" because if editors know she's "white," they'll discard it, believing she can't possibly do it right. That's like discarding a mss from a female writer because she has a male main character.

  11. Cheryl, I'm glad to see you have both the consciousness and integrity to open a debate on this subject. As a writer of color, it is certainly one of great concern to me.

    I wrote an MG novel a few years ago with what I was told contained a strong voice and original plot. Despite this, I was only able to elicit slight interest in the book. Most agents sent me a form rejection. The ones who did offer feedback cited the above strengths but ultimately passed.

    It was a very seasoned and well-respected African-American agent who surprised me by writing a rather long personal letter. Yet it wasn't her taking the time to address me at length that amazed me. It was her reason for declining.

    According to her, she has had to stop signing new clients because publishing (especially the children's market) has become too resistant to stories depicting African-Americans in a morally positive light. She suggested I take a look at the MG books currently being published by black writers and note the lack of diversity in their stories.

    I really had no reason to doubt her claim. Back in the 1990's, she provided me (pro bono) with contractual advice after I secured a deal for my narrative nonfiction book. This is a woman of the upmost integrity and professionalism, and I accept her word as the absolute truth.

    Still, it was my responsibility to see just what I was dealing with. After doing the suggested research, I sadly discovered that she was indeed correct. The books that do find their way into print are, in some way or another, a depiction of the plight and struggle of today's black youth.

    It seems that editors refuse to believe that black children can have an experience other than those dealing with the stigma of race, or the shame of drug-addicted parents, or the longing for missing fathers, or the self-loathing that comes from living in a society that constantly labels them as inferior to all others.

    And therein lies part of the problem. Editors who say they are looking for multicultural books seem only interested in books whose conflicts inherently stem from their characters' race. And that's just wrong and shortsighted.

    I'm convinced that a work of fiction can accurately depict a minority culture by its use of language, spirituality and moral perspective, all of which often are quite different than mainstream America. So the ultimate focus shouldn't be simply the acquistion of books by writers of color but instead the the acquisition of such books that offer a different perspective than what is already on the market.

    For now, after knocking on too many unanswered doors, I've taken a hiatus from the children's market and returned to publishing editorials and narrative essays. Maybe one day the industry will come to appreciate something broader and new. One can only hope.

  12. ObiDonWan,

    Unfortunately, I have writer friends on both sides of the "fence."

    Your friend should remain Julie because the CCBC statistics clearly show that a white author is more likely to be acquired when writing about a black character, than a black author.

    The conversations going on within ACAIC clearly show a disconnect between what publishers claim they are doing and what is actually happening with submissions.

    It gives one pause and several black authors are finding more success when they hide their identities. Even with 45 book credits for younger readers, I've been advised to do the same by credible sources. How pathetic is that?

    Note to Kevin Luttery - giving up is giving in.

  13. Hey Christine -- do you have a link for the Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color (ACAIC) for Kevin?

    Also, Kevin, I just ran across this website this morning -- The Brown Bookshelf, United in Story.

    Hi Don Tate!

  14. Christine, I hear what you're saying, but I haven't given up. My plan is to take a more circuitous route to the finish line. I'm currently working on a collection of narrative essays, which is a genre I've publsihed in many times in the past. One of the essays is actually the true account that my MG novel is loosely based on. It is my hope that once I get the book published, I then may be able to bring something more to the bargaining table. And who knows--maybe taking a break and working on something else will allow me to come back to it with fresh eyes.

  15. Christine, I hear what you're saying, but I haven't given up. My plan is to take a more circuitous route to the finish line. I'm currently working on a collection of narrative essays, which is a genre I've published many times before. One of the essays actually is the true account that my MG novel is based on. What I'm hoping is that once the collection of essays is published, I may be able to bring something more to the bargaining table. Besides, taking a break and working on something different may allow me to return to the novel with fresh eyes.

  16. Melinda, thanks for the link. I'll check it out. And sorry for the double post.

  17. Must second Cheryl's recommendation to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog at the Atlantic - he's a fabulous analyst and writer, and usually brings a perspective that I haven't seen in the mainstream media.

  18. I just wanted to thank you for MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD. I read it recently and was quietly blown away. I am a teen librarian, and before that I was an avid YA library and bookstore patron, so I have read a lot of YA in my life. And this one now ranks up very, very highly among my favorites. I have been telling everybody I know that they need to read this amazing book and I wrote about it briefly at my blog:

  19. Thanks so much for posting that Cheryl. I've always thought that blacks and other minorities were underrepresented in the publishing industry, particularly as writers.

    But as a "writer of color," I've been shocked at the number of minorities (especially blacks) who are published in areas that have nothing whatsoever to do with race. You know?

    It's not like most of us sit around all day thinking/talking about our race (I'd imagine it's the same for other people of color). There's more to being black than being black. But you'd never guess that from the few books that are published by black writers.

    I don't know if any of that makes sense, I'm just kinda venting. But it would be nice (inspiring) to see a black person who is known as a great author rather than a great black author.

  20. Hey Jason, you're right -- why can't folks be authors instead of black authors? I never hear anybody say, "E.B. White, a white author, wrote about the experiences of rural white children on the farm, their natural habitat," or, "John Green, a white author, writes about the struggle of a white boy to find the white girl he loves through the poetry of Walt Whitman, a white poet who happened to sire continents."

    Nobody ever says, "Robin McKinley, who happens to be white, wrote many books detailing the white female experience in fantasy worlds." Shotgun please!

    I like your picture. My daughter liked to unroll the toilet paper into the toilet and then flush repeatedly to try and get rid of the evidence. Those were the days!

  21. Melinda...thanks for the comments.

    Re: the wife found my daughter Sofie in this position and just had to take a picture of it. She has all kinds of interest in the bathroom (toilet paper, tub, etc...) but no interest whatsoever in being potty trained. Go figure. :)

  22. Hi Cheryl! (I met you very briefly in the elevator at LeakyCon)
    Just an fyi that I linked to your blog in a comment on my own- let me know if it's not okay and I'll delete it.

    Aimee- Is this article the one you're thinking of? I read this for an education class in college, and the "Dally Effects of White Privilege" list (beginning on page 2) really threw me for a loop the first time I read it.

    Especially relevant right now, too, given the ugly racism coming out of the woodwork in politics. Ugh.

    Oh, and I read this yesterday-a good peptalk for aspiring authors .