Category Archives: Diversity

Diverse Books: Talking About Them Isn’t Enough

It’s not often I get to shout out to wins in diversity by talking about the movies. But those of you who have seen the latest incarnation of Beauty and the Beast will understand – the multi-racial court in the Prince’s palace is a big deal because we all know that’s *not* how it was originally conceived.

Another actor bringing an originally white character to life is Storm Reid, who plays Meg Murray in the new adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time.

It’s great news that book-to-movie adaptations are (slowly) paying attention to the passionate dialogue about the need for diversity.

And in fact, a lot of children’s fiction itself is looking more diverse than ever before. These books are heeding the call of #WeNeedDiverseBooks championed by authors, agents, librarians, teachers, and readers demanding more #ownvoices writers, more non-white main characters.

And yet, in spite of the increasing volume of the cultural conversation, the actual number of diverse books on the shelves is still confusingly small.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, collects annual statistics on the number of books published by and about persons of color. And while their statistics are only a snapshot in that they do not report gender, sexuality, or religious diversity, they are a place to start looking for a picture of where we stand today in the push for diverse books.

In 2016, out of 3200 books published by United States publishers:

  • > 12% are written by authors of color*;
  • 21% are about persons of color, regardless of author ethnicity.

*NOTE: African/African –American, Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific American, First Nation/American Indian, and Latino writers. 

Wait., what?

I know. These abysmal numbers are hard to believe. Because if so many people are asking for diverse books, why aren’t we getting them?

The schism has been explained in part by the much-discussed 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey that revealed a pathetically small percentage of industry professionals are actually people of color.

It’s been nearly two years since that data was released – but the statistics haven’t changed appreciably. We all know publishing moves at a glacial pace, so even if editors snapped up a host of diverse projects in response to that survey, those books won’t be out until this year. So, maybe the 2017 CCBC numbers will be better.

That’s me being hopeful.

Realistically? We’re nowhere near where we need to be – one year isn’t going to close the gap. Which means our mandate is clear: #Ownvoices authors need to keep writing, keep querying, keep subbing, keep banging on the door. Readers need to support books that include the spectrum of skin and hair colors, culture, religion, and places.

I believe we can do this — but we will have to persist.

I’m curious – did those numbers surprise you?

The True Value of Sensitivity Readers

Sensitivity readers used in the publishing of multicultural books have been in the social media conversation recently.   A sensitivity reader, sometimes called a cultural consultant, reads a manuscript from a standpoint of membership in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, or spiritual community and evaluates the story for authenticity and makes revision recommendations.
It’s all very Captain Obvious that writers should be checking their cultural research and using a member of that culture to do so. But it’s easy to overlook the deeper value of a sensitivity reader when we employ them only at the end of the process, and only when we are writing outside our racial or religious culture. I have used cultural consultants to help me understand the culture of military families and maritime professions. And I have used cultural consultants to help me more fully understand characters who share my own ethnicity and religion. Membership in the race, ethnicity, or religion of your characters doesn’t automatically
make you an authority on your characters particular situation. There are a multitude of life experiences and ways to live within every racial or ethnic group. Don’t short change yourself in the research just because you are writing from a home culture.
Here are three benefits to consulting a sensitivity reader early in the process of writing a book.
  1. Gain access to research materials 
The best thing you can ask at the beginning of a book research process is “what should I read, see, hear, taste, study, and visit in order to fully understand this aspect of the culture.” A good consultant will know. For example an early consultant for The Turn of the Tide suggested, since a trip to Japan was out of my budget and my questions were ecosystem specific, that I talk to the horticulturalist at the Japanese garden about the flora in my Japanese setting. I could have just read a field guide but seeing and hearing and smelling the trees made all the difference. I’ve made valuable personal connections through research consultants and I’ve gained access to unpublished research and off-display museum materials which did much to round out my understanding of a culture. And because I used a consultant early in the process, I could efficiently make the necessary changes.
  1. Embrace the need for substantial change in your story 
Sooner or later you will come across a topic in your research that stymies you. Written resources don’t mention the information you are looking for. People you interview give vague or wildly disparate information. Suggested contacts don’t return your queries. And sometimes a sensitivity reader will recommend explicitly that you leave an entire topic alone.
Listen. Seriously. Listen.
And change your story accordingly. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about a culture, but there are things within a culture that simply do not belong in your story. And your reader is not making this suggestion to make you fail. She is actually hoping you will succeed and trying her best to help you do so. It can feel like a defeat but really it’s an opportunity to reimagine your story in a way that will make it more respectful and also more robust in its narrative structure.
  1. Open your heart to a change in your world view. 
The joy and challenge of writing fiction is the opportunity to submerge yourself in another person’s experience. If you enter into that work wholeheartedly it can change you. If you have the assistance of a good consultant it can change you for the better. I had a real gem of a consultant for The Turn of The Tide. She is a Japanese language teacher and initially I just asked her to check the Japanese words to make sure I was using them correctly. But we ended up having a much longer conversation because my main character is biracial & she is raising biracial children. And she is from an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. She had much to say about the contemporary experience of Japanese American students and the impact of the tsunami not just on the land but upon the broader Japanese culture. I was truly touched by her words and have thought differently about Japanese culture and many global issues, particularly the impact of rising oceans on indigenous peoples in the Pacific, ever since. As for the story, I went back to the beginning with my biracial character and reexamined every bit of internal and external dialogue to make it more reflective of what I’d learned about the grief particular to a tsunami survivor. I didn’t need to change any major plot points but I did uncover the soul of the character in a way I hadn’t before.
So after all that work do I have a bullet proof story?
Nope!
And if you think using a sensitivity reader will exempt you from criticism for the cultural representation in your story, you are going to be disappointed. Because there is no single correct representation of a culture. If I had consulted with a different Japanese person I would have gained a different perspective and made different edits. In my opinion a writer is better served by letting go of the goal that nobody will ever be critical or offended by your story in favor of the goal of deeper, and more specific cultural understanding in order to write your characters and story bravely and whole heartedly.

The Brown Bookshelf: An Interview with Author Kelly Starling Lyons

As Laurie Edwards promised in her February 3 post, Daring to be Different, today we welcome Kelly Starling Lyons. She is here to talk about The Brown Bookshelf, a website dedicated to highlighting African American children’s authors and illustrators..

Kelly Starling Lyons is a children’s book author whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. Her books include chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal; CCBC Choices-honored picture book, One Million Men and Me; Ellen’s Broom, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book, Junior Library Guild and Bank Street Best selection and Tea Cakes for Tosh and Hope’s Gift, Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Her latest picture book is One More Dino on the Floor.  Jada Jones, her new chapter book series, debuts in September.

How did The Brown Bookshelf come about?

The Brown Bookshelf was founded by young adult authors Paula Chase-Hyman and Varian Johnson. As they launched their kidlit careers, they noticed a disturbing reality – many people had never heard of the wonderful books by black children’s book creators that were available. Paula and Varian wanted to start an initiative that would celebrate authors of color and be a resource for children, parents, teachers and librarians. Inspired by Readergirlz, they created The Brown Bookshelf to “push awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers.”

How did you get involved?

Paula invited me and author Carla Sarratt. Varian invited author/illustrator Don Tate. I was thrilled to join a team dedicated to saluting black children’s book creators. Together, we kicked off the inaugural 28 Days Later campaign, a Black History Month celebration of under-the-radar and vanguard authors and illustrators.

Who are the current members? 

They are: Varian JohnsonPaula Chase-HymanDon TateKelly Starling LyonsTameka Fryer BrownGwendolyn HooksOlugbemisola Rhuday-PerkovichCrystal AllenTracey Baptiste, and Jerry Craft.

 How did the 28 Days Later campaign start?

Paula and Varian came up with the idea for the campaign. We invited the public and publishers to submit nominations of black authors and illustrators with new books or those that had flown under the radar. We researched those suggestions, made internal recommendations and voted on the first class of honorees. Over the years, we’ve generally followed that model as we search for outstanding authors and illustrators to feature. The goal is to give parents, librarians and teachers a month of spotlights celebrating stand-outs in the kidlit world. We want to draw attention to black children’s book authors and illustrators and get their great books into the hands of kids.

What has been the response?

Every year, the response inspires us to keep going. Many people share our posts and use them as a resource for making sure their school, library and home children’s book collections match our diverse world. We hear from parents who longed to buy books that reflected their kids but had no idea how many existed until they found our site. We’ve received notes from students who have used our profiles for research for school projects. Sometimes our spotlights are the main source for information about a black children’s book creator outside of that person’s website. It’s heartwarming and affirming to know we’re making a difference. It’s also a challenge to keep pushing and giving back.

This is the tenth year for 28 Days. How will it be different this year?

In celebration of our tenth campaign, we’re doing a different format. In past years, we’ve honored eight picture book authors, eight middle-grade authors, eight young adult authors and four illustrators. This year, we’ve arranged our spotlights around themed weeks. The campaign opened with books for younger readers, featuring debut and under-the-radar picture book creators. The second week, we focused on books for older readers – middle-grade and YA authors. The third week, our theme was social justice. The last week of our campaign is inspiration week where we interview or pay tribute to children’s book creators who have paved the way for us.

How have the careers of your featured authors progressed?

One of the beautiful parts of being a member of The Brown Bookshelf is seeing the careers of black children’s book creators flourish and bloom. We featured Kwame Alexander before the Newbery, Jacqueline Woodson before the National Book Award, Javaka Steptoe before the Caldecott, Jason Reynolds back when Kirkus called him “an author worth watching.” It fills us with pride to see authors like these and others soar. Every award they win, every starred review, every accolade, is a lift for all and reminder that our books matter.

On the other side though, there are amazing black authors and illustrators whose stories are still not receiving the audience they deserve. There are veteran black children’s book creators who struggle to land deals, whose books lack the marketing support to grow a large audience, whose important books are overlooked and eventually go out of print. Our mission is to raise awareness of their work and make sure they’re honored too. We need equity in the children’s book publishing world. We have a long way to go.

What prompted the Declaration in Support of Children?

We had been trying to find a way to collectively express our outrage at the systemic racism and brutality that was devastating our kids and affirm our commitment to standing with them and for them. One of the ideas we brainstormed was an open letter. Team member Tameka Fryer Brown did an amazing job with the draft. We revised and added our thoughts. The election gave our letter even more urgency. It became an open declaration  letting kids know we have their backs.

“ . . . The stakes are too high for us to be silent. The stakes are too high for us to wait for someone else to take the lead. The stakes are too high for us to just hope things will get better. Each day, we see attempts to disenfranchise and dehumanize marginalized people and to dismiss the violence that we face. As children’s book creators, we feel a special connection and responsibility to amplify the young voices that too often go unheard . . .”

We invited others to join us in our mission to “to promote understanding and justice through our art; to bolster every child’s visceral belief that his or her life shall always be infinitely valuable.”

Illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

What has been the response?

The outpouring of support we received was incredible. Nearly 700 people signed the initial declaration with hundreds more signing the living document on our Facebook page. Our declaration was covered by School Library Journal, The Guardian and more. We’re inspired and thrilled at the hundreds of people who pledged to stand again hate and stand up for kids.

Brown Bookshelf member Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich has been leading important roundtable discussions called Where Do We Go From Here? about how to put our declaration into action. You can see them here  and here. Stay tuned for more.

 

What does the future hold for the Brown Bookshelf?

The future is limitless. We are always thinking of ways to amplify the work of black children’s book creators, support and honor the voices of children and be of service to parents librarians and teachers.

Our 28 Days Later spotlights are always available on our website. But our most recent project was working with TeachingBooks.net to showcase our features and their additional resources for our 28 Days Later honorees (Links here and here).

Another new project was expanding our social media presence. You can find us on FacebookTwitter, Instagram,  and YouTube.

We’ll have more news to share in coming months. We’re honored to be featured here. Thank you for spreading the word about what we do. That we’ve been around for a decade is a testament to the support of great people like you.

 

 

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).