It Is Even More Complicated than Most People Know...
An “It’s Complicated!” post by Debbie Reese, assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois
When Nancy Mercado invited me to submit a post for CBC’s “It’s Complicated” series, I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the audience of CBC’s Diversity Blog. In her invitation, she wrote that CBC defines diversity in terms of “cultural/ethnic/religious/class/sexual diversity.”
I’m complicating the definition by adding “nation” because while American Indians have specific cultural or religious ways of being that mark us as diverse from the mainstream, the most significant marker is our political status as sovereign nations. Within an Indigenous sovereign nation, you could find people who don’t have the hair or skin color, or other features commonly—we could say stereotypically—attributed to American Indians. I’ll complicate the discussion even further by saying that there are people who are citizens of sovereign nations, and, there are people who are descendants of someone who was/is a citizen of a sovereign nation. Going one step further in complication, there are sovereign nations that are federally recognized, some that are state recognized, and some that are not recognized at all.
Most people don’t know anything at all about tribal sovereignty and what it means. Without that knowledge, it can be difficult for outsiders to write stories that ring true to our experiences as American Indians. In fact, it can be difficult for someone of a sovereign tribal nation at one end of the country to write about a nation at the other end, but someone who knows their nation, its history, its ways of being, and the ways it has been misrepresented has a leg up on anyone else. They know that there is a lot they do not know, and they know that standard sources aren’t the place to go for the information they need to write a story that holds up to the eye of someone of that tribal nation.
An “It’s Complicated!” post by editor Cheryl Klein
One of the most common questions that comes up around diversity is the issue of “Who can write what”—whether an author of one race can create a character of another, whether that character is then authentic, who gets to decide all this. When I’ve considered these situations as an editor, my judgment almost always starts with how much that writer is willing and able to radically decenter himself and his own privileges and biases in favor of those of his fictional character and culture, rendered in all its lights and shades … which also presupposes the writer has done enough research or gained enough experience with that culture to render the lights and shades authentically.
As an example, let’s suppose I just finished reading a manuscript written by a white woman but told from a Mexican-American teenage boy’s perspective, and overall, I liked the manuscript: I found the characters involving and multi-dimensional, the plot was fresh and smart and kept me turning the pages, the themes were woven deeply into the story and thought-provoking — and all of that would incline me toward acquiring it. But as a person who thinks a lot about diversity issues, I would at that point pause a moment and ask myself: Did the voice sound believable to me as that of a Mexican-American teenager, given the character and the world the author created around him? (Here I have to acknowledge that I myself am a white woman, and keep an eye on my own privileges, biases, and knowledge/lack thereof.
Here I have to acknowledge that I myself am a white woman, and keep an eye on my own privileges, biases, and knowledge/lack thereof.
An “It’s Complicated!” post by literary agent Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel
While on faculty at the National Latino Writers Conference last Thursday, a timely
For the first time in US history, more than half of all newborn babies born last year are minorities. The entire US population is 36% minority, and this milestone shows how swiftly our nation’s youth is diversifying.
Yet a recent study by the SCBWI found that in 2010 more than 90 percent of children’s/young adult books published in the US featured white protagonists. As a literary agent, I’ve found it’s important to show publishers there is a demand, and in turn help them feel confident to publish even more diverse voices. As an author advocate, I believe it’s critical for writers of color to see their fellow writers succeed. As a mother, I know it’s urgent that we make sure young readers see themselves in the books they read.
The debut middle-grade novel by Diana Lopez, Confetti Girl (Little, Brown), is an example of a book filled with diversity that doesn’t focus on diversity but instead wraps diversity around a wonderful story. Apolina “Lina” Flores is a sock enthusiast, volleyball player and science lover looking for answers about her life. Filled with colorful Mexican-American cultural details such as dichos, confetti-filled cascarones and cumbia dances, the story struck a chord with middle-schoolers nationwide.
An “It’s Complicated!” post by author Cynthia Leitich Smith
Nobody wants to be called a bigot or a traitor.
Meanwhile, nearly every author must write characters and situations that spring from beyond her own experiences, identity markers and comfort zone. If your specialty is, say, nonfiction about creatures of the sea, perhaps not. But muse on the global environmental-industrial-health effects of overfishing or, hey, toss in a merman, and believe me, you’re right back in the thick of it.
If you live in the world, you’re in this conversation—and, yes, staying quiet is a statement, too. What that silence means may vary from writer to writer, but for far too many, it’s a product of fear.
You, the fearfully silent, I’m talking to you. Have you ever thought “I’ll mess up” or “they’ll reject me,” and then set aside a story or character or plot line?
Blog series introduction and welcome by CBC Diversity Committee Chair, Nancy Mercado
One of my favorite things about being on the CBC Diversity Committee is hearing the stories, ideas and concerns that are shared around the table at our monthly meetings. The committee is working towards concrete goals, but it also serves as a good old fashioned consciousness-raising group. By this I mean that we are able to have honest conversations about diversity in children’s publishing and elevate our own discourse by listening to everyone’s experiences, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in the process. These closed-door meetings are incredibly useful, but we wanted to open up the conversation to a much wider audience. To that end, we are introducing a new blog series called It’s Complicated!
The internet can often be a rough-and-tumble kind of place when it comes to complex and layered discussions, but we think it’s possible and necessary to have a respectful and open forum where we are able to chat about some of the challenges that we face, as well as the opportunities that exist when we come together as a community. So what are some of the challenges we face? Well, I’ll give you a glimpse into some of the things we’ve discussed around our table:
There aren’t enough diverse people working in the industry
There’s a perception that diverse books are too niche or that they don’t sell
Diverse books or authors can get pigeon-holed, both in house and in the marketplace
Authors avoid the portrayal of diverse characters for fear that they may perhaps not “get it right”
Editors worry that reviewers will heavily scrutinize books that feature diverse characters
To begin diving into some of these questions, we’ve asked an author, an agent, an editor, and a children’s literature advocate/reviewer to weigh in on an aspect of diversity in publishing that is meaningful to them. I’m pleased to say that we have terrific posts to come this week from author Cynthia Leitich Smith, agent Stefanie Von Borstel, editor Cheryl Klein, and advocate/reviewer Debbie Reese.
Please tune in this week and participate in what we hope will be an informative and insightful conversation! We really want to hear from you, our readers, about your experiences and concerns, and how you think authors/reviewers/publishing professionals/teachers & librarians/parents can work towards some of our shared goals.
Like many who work in publishing, books have always played a vital role in my life. No matter what stage of my life I’m in— I’ve always been drawn to books.
My publishing journey began at the age of 14. I was hired on as a page for the Dallas Public Library. Every weekday afterschool from 4 to 10 at night I shelved oversize reference books, aerial photographs, yellowing newspaper clippings, old-timey magazines, journals, small-town phone books, and even micro-fiche (!!). This was the dawning of the internet era; in between shelving, I’d teach patrons how to “surf the internet,” how to send email, and how to download Netscape Navigator and AOL.
During my breaks, however, I’d sneak away to the most secluded niches of the building to read my favorite books like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I learned about the book industry. Up until then all I’d ever wanted was to be a magazine editor like Graydon Carter, David Granger, and Jann Wenner. I dreamt up my own magazines–usually spin-offs and amalgams of the myriad periodicals I devoured as a teen.
But how could I get a job at Esquire or Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone? I didn’t have connections and I didn’t have a journalism degree. (You don’t need one BTW). Online I started to “research” on various magazine blogs like Ed2010, and discussion forums on a then burgeoning mediabistro.com.
One of the goals of the CBC Diversity Committee is to recruit a wider, more diverse range of people to work in the children’s publishing industry. In service of this goal, committee members visit schools in the New York area to talk about how we got into the industry and how students of today might find their way into it in future.
This past Tuesday, in honor of Children’s Book Week, my fellow committee member Antonio Gonzalez, author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, and I visited Bushwick Leaders High School for Academic Excellence in Brooklyn. Gbemi is the author of the wonderful Eighth Grade Superzero, which I edited, while Antonio handles school and library visits for Scholastic as part of our marketing department. Thus together we covered almost the entire publishing process, from the author’s initial inspiration to putting books into kids’ hands.
We spoke to two classrooms of seniors on the verge of graduation. Gbemi kicked the presentation off by talking about her path to becoming an author – her years as a new kid in many different schools around the world, and the various kinds of writing she did for magazines and nonprofits, all growing out of her own passion for the subjects she wrote about. I talked about the three roles involved in being an editor – that I’m simultaneously a talent scout, a responsive reader, and a producer – and showed some sketches of various draft covers for Gbemi’s book, including this lovely final image to the right.
My how-I-got-into-publishing story is the oldest and most commonplace of them all: Girl falls in love with books, decides to devote life to reading and making them. The only distinction I bring to this story is that I truly started making authorial connections very, very young … at about six months of age, in fact. My grandfather, Philip Sadler, was a professor of children’s literature at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, Missouri, not far from where I grew up. He founded and organized one of the nation’s very first children’s literature festivals, where dozens of authors would come and meet hundreds of children for a few days every spring. In March of 1979, when I was about six months old, my mother went to pick up Barbara Robinson (author of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever), Gertrude Bell (Where Runs the River), and Clyde Robert Bulla (The Ghost of Windy Hill) at the Kansas City Airport, and as Mom tells it, I cried and cried as long as I was in my car seat. Thus Barbara held me for the next two hours – and my career collaborating with children’s authors began.
From such a beginning, I grew up surrounded by books and book people – constantly read to, and, once I learned myself, constantly reading. When I was in high school, my mother brought home a book from the library called Careers for Bookworms and Other Literary Types by Marjorie Eberts and Margaret Gisler, and I read about life as a book editor. A job where you lived in New York, read all day, and worked with authors to make books sounded absolutely awesome to me, so I began consciously shaping my life to achieve that end: I went to a college that had a good English program; I majored in English and took classes in bookmaking and economics (though the latter didn’t turn out to be all that useful); I read Publishers Weekly in the college library… . And all the time, I kept reading for pleasure – or more accurately, I couldn’t stop reading for pleasure, especially kids’ books, alongside all the reading I had to do for classes.
I wanted to do a publishing internship, but I also needed to work in the summers to pay for my college expenses, so I couldn’t afford the cost of spending three months in New York. To make up for this,