Friday, November 20, 2009

Those Interested in Issues of Race and Children's Literature . . .

. . . should check out this interesting post and discussion today at Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog, as I think a lot of what he and his commenters say about the writers and characters on television could apply to our discussions of children's publishing as well. I was especially struck first by this:

But whenever I read that XX field isn't diverse enough, I don't so much doubt the truth of it, as I think the charge deeply underestimates exactly the price being exacted for white supremacy in this country, and the length of time for which it went unchecked. We're 50 years into a truly democratic, non white-supremacists America. Congratulations. But we we spent some 150 years in which the country's major institutions--its government, its business, its churches, its block associations, its military, its police force, its labor unions--in the main, aided and abetted white racism. There are certainly exceptions, but I tend to think that the long-term damage done is incalculable and has a lot to do with how we live today.
and then later by these comments, also from Ta-Nehisi:
For minorities, I think people really need to think about what kind of people go into writing, and what sort of backgrounds they generally hail from. I know in magazines, the sort of profile for writers (family, generally, pretty well-educated, sent the writer to an Ivy) doesn't match up that well with black people. People always ask "Why aren't there many minority XXX?" But there are a lot of questions that should precede that one.

. . .

Again, speaking only for magazines, it takes a particular person who can write, and then a particular person who can write in that format. This isn't simply a talent question, it takes a particular endurance, and it takes time to develop that endurance. How do you get that time? Money--or a willingness to live without it. Take color out the equation--there are very few people who can do the job. Finding good writers--of any color--is extremely difficult.

Now, just speaking for a black people, look at a group that's only 13 percent of the pop, and isn't as well educated. Then take the fact that the group's families tend to be less wealthy, thus making it hard to get the time to get good. Take into account that, often, when someone from this group "makes it" they have brothers/sisters/mothers/grandmothers/grandfathers who they have to also worry about. I think a lot of us say, "Man, I kids to feed" and go for the sure thing. The point is that you're already talking about a small pool, and for black people it's almost certainly even smaller.

Does this mean media should say, "Oh well, we tried." Nope. But it means media should get smarter. If you really are concerned about diversity then you need to start with high school kids. You can't start looking for fully formed adults. You need to set aside fellowships for people from particular economic backgrounds to help them learn the craft. You have to think broader and bigger.

I don't disagree with the core goal, I just suspect that it may require more than we think.

I've been thinking a lot about the "Why are there so few minorities in children's literature?" question since the Liar controversy -- well, before then, too, but Liar was the tipping point for me, as it was for many people -- and I think these comments get at one part of an answer (though of course not the whole answer, if such a thing were even possible). I genuinely do not receive many submissions from people of color (who can be identified as such, that is), and with those that I do, as TNC says, "It takes a particular person who can write, and a particular person who can write in that format" -- someone who wants to write the literary sort of book we publish at Arthur A. Levine Books, and can pull it off to our standards. (And I acknowledge here the problematic nature of "literary" and "standards," though I'm not going to go into that at this hour of the night.) The point is, that is not a large pool of writers altogether of any race, and as black people (to take the minority TNC is thinking of) are thirteen percent of the population, the segment submitting mss. to us, and therefore getting them published, is correspondingly rather small.

None of which excuses any publisher from a responsibility to remember the shameful history TNC alludes to in the first paragraph I quoted, and to try to represent all voices now (which we at AALB do), and even to go beyond that -- to get smarter, as he says above. And I am really, genuinely, not meaning to make excuses with this post, and I'm sorry if you're hearing it that way. I'm saying, as I understand TNC to be, that if we look at the question culturally, there are larger reasons this lack of minorities is happening in our industry, and across most media; and while we need to address the problem where we live, certainly, these reasons are worth thinking about as well.

ETA: I withdraw this post. Just read the comments on it.


  1. Whoa, Cheryl. I can't even begin to unravel this conundrum...
    All I know is what I see from my kid, and how he and his friends see the world.
    In grade school everyone was the same, then in junior high there suddenly seemed this need to sort everyone into categories, pink, brown, Jew, Christian, gay, straight... (keep in mind he is one of three blue-eyed kids at his school.) My guess is that most people get stuck in this twelve-year-old mindset. It’s just so easy to sort people into piles. It takes thought to see people as complex. It’s easier to see things, and people, as black and white, rich, poor, us and them.
    You live in NYC. You‘re surrounded by people that think the same way that you do, people are people, shades of grey. Try living in behind the Orange Curtain here in the OC, or Mississippi, or Alabama. The rest of the country has to swim up stream to think a free thought. It’s hard to think, it’s easy to sort.
    I could blather on about this for hours, but it is late here and even later there. Get some sleep, will ya?

  2. Great post! The other thing that surprises me about children's literature is how many books for children STILL feature an entirely white cast of characters. Students, teachers, neighbors, everyone. I page through some picture books where every child in the classroom illustrations is white. I am white, but I have two Asian daughters and our neighborhood school is a wonderful mix of diversity. I often wonder when the last time was that some authors and illustrators went into a classroom and actually looked around. If minority students don't see themselves in books it may be hard for them to imagine writing one later on.

    Pat Zietlow Miller

  3. As a black writer (more like a writer who is black), I completely agree with idea that it's a bigger problem than just the writing field, which I suppose is pretty obvious.

    But this statement struck me:

    If you really are concerned about diversity then you need to start with high school kids. You can't start looking for fully formed adults.

    I agree, but I don't think it goes far enough. I worked with underprivileged kids at the high school level as a summer camp college while in college and my wife and I are currently involved in the Big Brother/Big Sister program. I can tell you that even by high school the damage is done.

    You don't know how much it hurts to hear an 8-year old tell you that any black person who goes to college is trying to be white. But I've heard it, and more than once. I saw a CNN statistic that said that 70% of blacks born today are born in out of wedlock situations. That figure is staggering!!!! But my personal belief is that this is at the heart of the problem. All the other things we discuss, lack or black writers, engineers, lawyers, etc... are the symptoms of that reality.

    Unfortunately, we've been trying to solve symptoms rather than the actual problem for years...

    Kudos Ms. Klein for dealing with such a difficult topic.

  4. Fascinating discussion, and I believe dead on. The damage done to our country from the institution of slavery, subjugation of native cultures, and white supremacy does indeed linger.

  5. I was on another blog where the author's book cover is a white girl when the main character is suppose to be Latina.

    It reminded me of the whole Liar book cover issue. I wonder how often that happens?

  6. Wow...this is a HUGE topic to take on in one short blog post, most of which is quoting someone else. But it is an important conversation, and I think it's great you're willing to take it on. The trouble with Mr. Coates' argument is that it gives a pass to those institutional racists who aren't at all interested in diversifying their workplace (or booklist). And I whole-heartedly disagree with his assertion that "fully formed adult writers" don't exist already--there ARE black, middle-class families who send their kids to Ivy League schools, and there are working class families whose kids ALSO get into excellent schools (I fall into that category); at this moment in US history, there are MORE educated black professionals than at any other time. Yet the publishing industry itself remains 98% white--isn't it likely that THAT institutional racism has something to do with the seeming inability of white editors to locate talented black writers? We have ALWAYS existed--against all odds. But we can't often find an agent and get through the many gates opened and closed by a white hand. I think white editors can't find talented black writers because they aren't willing to get out from behind their desks and LOOK. They sit and wait for a manuscript to cross their desk--do YOU query authors? Do you read and query talented black playwrights, poets, novelists to see if they've considered writing for children? And when a black author sends you a story about children frolicking in the snow, do you evaluate it the same way you might a story about gang violence or Harriet Tubman? There are SO many obstacles put in the path of black writers, but there IS a large pool of us out there, waiting to be asked to the dance...

  7. Would it be possible for publishers to create paid internships for poor and working class college students, particularly African American students? I wonder if maybe having more African Americans working in editorial positions might lead to more writers of color being recognized and published . . .

  8. to 'Anonymous'- all of the assumptions you have made about what the solution is to getting more works by Black authors published is at the heart of this problem. White editors and publishers see a story written by a talented Black author not just as a great story but as a Black story. Many White people do not identify with Black people on the basis of common humanity. Stories by White authors define and norm and those by Black authors are considered to be diverse or different. Who is making these rules? Why should it be the case that giving young Black people publishing industry internships (who you assume are for the most part poor and underprivileged) would solve the crisis of Black authors not being published? Can stories written by Black authors only be appreciated by other Black people? That is so extremely narrow minded and short sighted! Talented authors of color continue to be passed over because the stories they tell are not a priority for publishers. White supremacy is still alive and well and it doesn't have to be displayed with a burning cross or someone wearing a white hood. Just by continuing to pass over talented authors of color just because of color by using the argument that their books aren't marketable is a transparent game. I would love for a Black author just for an experiment to resubmit under a disguise as a white author in a story with white characters to see if the outcome would be different. Authors of color are being shut out, is time to stop knocking at doors and getting ignored and forge into creating publishing networks where our excellent stories are valued!

  9. Hi Anonymii and Hope -- thank you for your comments. I'd like to respond to them, but I'm afraid I'm under a time crunch, as I have to catch a bus in the city in two hours and then I won't have Internet access for most of the rest of the weekend. So please know you're not being ignored -- there's just time/space issues going on for the moment.

  10. Thank you, Cheryl, for giving the impetus and the space for this discussion...certainly a topic that bears a great deal of thought, and hopefully, productive conversation.

    One thing that struck me in the passage you cited was the assumption that published authors of any race write from a position of some financial security. Granted he didn't define what level of security he was referring to, but he did so in the same context as those writers/publishers who attend Ivy League schools.

    This characterization seems to be a giant stereotype....many, if not most, of the writers I have been privileged to know personally or simply to meet in their work, have not come from any source of real monetary comfort. On the contrary, they write because they can't stop themselves, and happily for us, their readers...they (or some of them, at least) get published! I could list ad nauseam, but your readers have their own lists, I'm sure. Writers write, and have always written, because of the gut level need to communicate in a particular art form. Money helps, but an artist it ain't gonna make.

  11. Hola. I'm a Cuban American teen author and it caught my attention that an editor is thinking about the challenges Latino/authors of color face in the industry. Thanks for your post. We need more editors like you to express their true sentiments/opinions.

  12. All things being equal (which we know, they aren't), 13% of the mss received should be by black authors, and 13% of the mss purchased and published should be by black authors, and 13% of all the characters in the books published should be black as well. Right? If those percentages aren't accurate, it's because someone isn't acting to improve the situation. Someone, maybe many someones, is perpetuating racism through laziness. Centuries of discrimination are not overcome without effort.

  13. (I was the Jimmy McVideo who posted earlier; the odd name came up because I was posting quickly from my boyfriend's computer, and I hadn't realized he hadn't logged out of his Google account. Apologies for any confusion.)

    After talking with a friend off-blog about this, I realized that what I was trying to say with this post isn't really useful to this overall conversation about race and publishing, and I'm withdrawing it. I'm not deleting the post, because I have a general policy not to do that and it would be unfair to all the people who have commented here, many of whom make valid points; but neither am I going to try to defend what I said. Just read what the commenters said, and I'm shutting up and going away now.

  14. Argh, that "shutting up and going away" now sounds like a fit of pique, which was not what I intended. I'm not meaning to be "you criticized me so I'm going away now," which is not how I feel, since I deserved the criticism. I just don't think I can say any more without saying more wrong things, and so the most useful thing is for me to be quiet. Anyone who would like to use this comment thread to continue the discussion is welcome to do so.

  15. What a subject and thanks for broaching it so late in the evening. I believe that we are still a very white centric culture. We like to think most of our racial problems are solved because we whites have exonerated ourselves by finally admitting our past mistakes and accepting those whose lives were ruined into the fold. But the damage has been done and the wallpapering over has been completed, so let's move on. It's going to take more than a couple of generations to get past what has been done. Let's also realize that the color problem is not a white only issue. Kowtowing is not solving anything, so stop it! Saying I'm sorry only scrapes the scab off the wound over and over again. As the old adage goes, "Actions speak louder than words," and I'm still seeing lots of words and not much action. Let's take Africa for instance. If Africa were Europe. . . need I say more?

  16. Cheryl, I'm fascinated by this post--the points being made, and then your withdrawal. I'm writing this on a too-long layover in Singapore on my way to India, both places with incredible cultural diversity, and certainly both places that have dealt with that diversity in interesting ways through history. So my question is, why close a conversation like this prematurely? I'd urge you not to do that simply because it feels uncomfortable or you're afraid of saying the wrong thing. It was a bold conversation to open in the first place. In the imperfect world of publishing, those of us who are writers of color are lucky to be writing now, when we can look back at the doors opened for all of us by people like Virginia Hamilton. And Laurence Yep. And my own personal now nearly forgotten role-model who won the Newbery in 1929 (I think, or 28?) Dhan Gopal Mukerji. I don't think numbers give us the whole picture, and yes, it's as complicated a picture as the society it reflects.

  17. The conversation is very much still open, Uma, and I hope people will continue to engage in it. But I realized after the fact that the argument I was making here was betraying the values I actually hold, which for me was a sign that I'm pretty compromised on all this, and I should think further and listen more and be sure of exactly where I am and what I want to say before I write any more on this myself. It's less about race than about my own internal consistency, which is really important to me, and being able to stand by what I write, which I ultimately felt I couldn't do here.

  18. Cheryl, thanks for adding your voice here. It is so important for people in publishing to talk about these issues, and to listen (as you said) and hear what others are saying. I know that working in publishing leaves little time for outreach, but from experience I found many new writers and illustrators by actively seeking and putting out the word. I found editors of anthologies, journalists, writers of non-fiction, authors for adults. I posted on listserves and bulletin boards, contacted writers groups. One of the biggest things was opening the door and showing interest. I know this adds to the already enormous slush pile - but it also led to some amazing books, as well as new authors and illustrators. Thanks for adding your voice on this issue, and I'll look forward to seeing what new talent you spot and develop.
    Laura Atkins

  19. Laura's right, Cheryl, it's the opening of the door (and maybe also all of us learning to define what that means) that counts. And I do at some level understand what you say about values and recognizing one's own--that's true whichever part of the spectrum you're on. I have times when I react from instinct and only later catch glimpses of where that comes from. But there are some of us now who are trying to write beyond the boxes, beyond the simple classifications or the books that are *about* culture or race. In this time of economic stress it's even more important to make sure we don't slide back to old insularities!

  20. To continue this discussion, Zetta Elliott just did an interview with me on her blog ( and she includes a question about finding new and diverse authors/illustrators. I've written in detail about some of the techniques I used as an editor of "multicultural" picture books to find people. I'd appreciate any thoughts from others in publishing about successes they have had.
    Laura Atkins

  21. People following this discussion might also be interested in this Galleycat post and especially the comments on "Seg-Book-Gation" in adult publishing:

  22. "But there are some of us now who are trying to write beyond the boxes, beyond the simple classifications or the books that are *about* culture or race. In this time of economic stress it's even more important to make sure we don't slide back to old insularities!"

    Thank you, Uma. I think this is a very important point. Whenever the economy takes a dip, those on the margins are the first to feel its effects. "Diverse" voices are quickly sacrificed for what sells because one eye is always on the profit margin. And while I heartily agree that survival is important for publishers, I do wonder how much of "what sells" is based on perceived notions of market and readership.

    And, as you said, Uma, those of us who are writing multicultural books that are not *about* race and culture are finding it harder and harder to place those books (particularly in this tough economy) because of the perceived lack of demand/market.

    The link to the article you posted above, Cheryl, proves that books featuring multicultural casts *do* sell. Though the article seems to argue that if books about PoC are written by White authors they tend to get more attention, wider exposure, and better placement in bookstores, while books written by Black authors (in this case) are considered "Black" books.

    Great discussion. Also want to second Laura's interview (above comment by "Tockla"). She makes some terrific points about publishing and diversity.