We Need Diverse Books sparks children’s lit movement

Categories: Chicago Tribune


Last month, Daniel Handler, the author of the successful “A Series of Unfortunate Events” franchise, himself created an unfortunate event that got the book industry roiling.

Handler was emceeing the National Book Awards in New York City, where, after Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, he made a joke about Woodson’s allergy to watermelon. Woodson is black.

The remarks went viral, and Handler was denounced for what is lately described as “ironic racism”: demeaning comments or observations made by liberals that are viewed as OK because they are presented in the context of a joke. He subsequently apologized on Twitter and through a matching program raised more than $210,000 for a grassroots advocacy group called, appropriately enough, We Need Diverse Books.

But while most people understand Handler had no ill intent and his apology came from a sincere place, the incident brings forward a serious reality that many in the book publishing industry has lamented for years: The woeful lack of diversity among writers in children’s literature.

The data shows that, in our supposed “post-racial” society, the problem is worsening. According to a June 2014 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the total number of children’s books written by black authors was 68 in 2013, representing 1.4 percent of the 5,000 children’s books published that year and a nearly 17 percent drop from the 82 books black authors tallied in 1994, the first year of the study.

For other writers of diverse backgrounds, the numbers are just as just as alarming: Of the 5,000 children’s books published in 2013, just 90 were written by Asians, 48 by Latinos, and 18 by Native Americans, or 1.8 percent, 1 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively.

Ellen Oh, a writer of fantasy novels for the young adult market, says she started We Need Diverse Books in May after realizing that an all-star lineup of children’s writers at BookCon in New York — Handler, James Patterson and Rick Riordan, among others — was all white. Using the Twitter hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, her group created a social media campaign to raise awareness of the issue; according to Publishers Weekly, within the first 24 hours of its launch, the hashtag appeared on the timelines of 82 million Twitter users.

Oh, who is Asian, says the problem is institutional: “If you look at the publishing industry as a whole, it tends to be very white, which, of course, affects what they acquire.” She says this becomes problematic when publishers release books featuring minority characters written by white authors. Indeed, the University of Wisconsin studies show that, except for those written about Asians, children’s books written about blacks, Native Americans and Latinos slightly outnumber the writers in each of those categories.

Ernie Bond, chair of the teacher education program at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md., who has written several books about children’s literature, disagrees that the problem is in the racial or ethnic makeup within publishing houses, but says that decisions about which books are published are too often based on perceptions about what the public feels most comfortable buying.

“There is the general feeling, whether conscious or subconscious, that books with nonmainstream characters won’t make money,” he says.

Oftentimes, Bond says, if a book features characters who are both white and of a particular minority, many publishers will choose to feature the white character on the cover to appeal to mass buyers, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that multicultural books are not big sellers. Bond says that big publishing houses may only open the doors for established names such as Bryan Collier or Sharon Draper, thus making it difficult for unknown writers of color to get noticed.

At Clarion, a children’s division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, unsolicited manuscripts are accepted as well as those that are submitted by agents, which makes it easier for writers of all stripes to get read and considered. However, Clarion publisher Dinah Stevenson says that while she is eager to find new work by writers of diverse backgrounds, what matters most is the strength of the writing. “In terms of what we acquire, it always starts with the story first,” she says.

This year, for example, Clarion released “The Perfect Place” by Teresa E. Harris, a writer who is also black. Stevenson says the book spoke to her first for its unique story and lyrical prose, not the color of its creator. Clarion has also published books featuring characters of color that have been written by authors who are white.

“Nobody should own a story. All stories should be told well and be respectful of any cultures that are told within the story. But it’s hard for me to be comfortable with the idea that some stories are not for everybody,” she says.

Many writers are bypassing the traditional system and releasing books on imprints that directly serve diverse readerships. As a successful children’s author for 15 years who publishes books on Scholastic, Don Hoffman decided to launch RainbowKidz, an independent imprint that targets children who are gay or are part of an LGBT family. The first book, “Turbo and Tuxedo,” features a lonely English bulldog who searches for a friend until the day he encounters a partner who looks just like him. The story, and how it is narrated and illustrated, is universal and would appeal to young readers of any background.

Hoffman, who is gay, said he started RainbowKidz because none of the major publishing houses were serving gay families. His industry has been slow to catch up with others that have been increasingly reflective of the political and social gains gays and lesbians have made in recent years, he said.

“A kid born into a gay family, if they don’t have literature that celebrates their family, and how two moms feel or how two dads feel for each other, it becomes very detrimental for them,” he says. “While I don’t think they are teased as much as they were in the past, I do think that if their family looks completely different, and they’re not celebrated in children’s literature, they start to feel they don’t fit in.”

That point is made by others who warn about the long-term dangers in having children’s literature that does not necessarily reflect modern life.

This is especially true when considering the changing demographics in this country: According to the U.S. Census, minorities represented 37 percent of the U.S. population in 2012; that number is expected to increase to 57 percent by 2060.

“It’s harder to have kids grow up thinking about the world as a diverse place when they never encounter books from Brazil or India,” Bond says. “Diversity is lacking multiple ways.”

For children who are disabled, gay or of color, it is also problematic, he says. “If the idea is to get kids excited about stories or literature or reading, and then have 93 percent of books feature mainstream white characters without special needs, it can be damaging for kids in terms of self-esteem and their ways of envisioning the world.”

There is no single solution to narrowing the gap between the books that appear on bookstore shelves and the diverse voices that are rarely among their pages. The two places to start, most say, are in libraries and classrooms. Which is why Oh’s group started a program to send authors and illustrators of color into schools in marginalized communities in the Washington, D.C., area, with hopes to expand the program nationwide.

Says Bond: “Teachers and parents can help publishers take a chance on unknown quantities. There is a huge market for these types of books and for mainstream students who need to know how other people think.”

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