Celebrating Diversity in Jewish Books for Children
By learning about other cultures through literature, we celebrate our differences as well as our commonalities. Books about different cultures offer young readers access to people whose backgrounds and religious beliefs may be unfamiliar, but through their stories readers establish emotional connections that foster understanding and compassion. Book awards that celebrate diversity help librarians, teachers, and parents identify excellent works that offer meaningful experiences to readers.
The Sydney Taylor Book Award
The Sydney Taylor Book Award, established by the Association of Jewish Libraries in 1968, honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series about a Jewish family with five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City in the early 1900’s. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded Silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category.
It was tough choosing which of my Tu Books fall titles to share with you this week, as they’re both awesome, and they’re both diverse titles that I want all the world to know about. I had to draw straws, in the end, and Summer of the Mariposas won. This time.
Guadalupe Garcia McCall is known best for her debut novel in verse, Under the Mesquite, which was a finalist for a Morris Award—given for a debut novel—and which won the Pura Belpre Award. McCall carries that same poetic voice to prose in her second novel, a retelling of The Odyssey starring five sisters. I sometimes like to call it a Mexican American Weekend at Bernie’s meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants via The Odyssey. Let me tell you why.
When Odilia and her four sisters discover a dead man floating in their swimming hole on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, their first instinct is to report the dead body to the authorities. But when one of the sisters, Juanita, finds a family photo in the dead man’s wallet, their path is clinched—he was a father with two small children at home. They decide they will return the dead man to his family in Mexico, despite Odilia’s opposition to this plan. Eventually Odilia is overruled and she joins them on the urging of the ghostly legend La Llorona, who tells Odilia that this quest is something the five sisters must undertake. La Llorona will be their guide. They pile into their father’s old car and set off on an adventure to Mexico.
While returning the dead man to his family doesn’t come without its disappointments, the most challenging portion of their trip comes on their attempt to return home to their mother, when they must defeat a witch, a nagual (warlock), a chupacabras, and a coven of lechuzas while navigating the desert of northern Mexico on foot. Can the Cinco Hermanitas truly stay “together forever, no matter what” through these challenges? Can they face the ultimate real-world challenge once they make it home, where La Llorona and other magical means can no longer assist them?
Coe BoothLike most writers I’m always a little — okay, a lot! — nervous about what my book covers will look like. After spending so much time writing the books, the fact that the cover image is out of my control leads to a great deal of anxiety. However, I was pleasantly surprised and happy when I saw the cover of my first novel Tyrell.
I really thought the photo of a teenage boy looking out onto his neighborhood would attract the attention of the audience I had in mind when I was writing the book — teenagers, especially boys, who don’t usually find a book that speaks to them. And I’ve since heard from lots of teens who tell me that it was the cover that initially drew them to the book.
The thing I never imagined was that the cover (and the covers of my subsequent books) might create an automatic ghettoization of my work.
I can’t tell you how many libraries I’ve been to where my books are not even shelved in the mainstream YA section. They are relegated to the shelf labeled “Street Lit” where the books about black people live. The same is true in some bookstores where a black person on a book cover means it’s no longer YA; it’s “Urban Fiction”.
I’m here to tell you, when it comes to books, segregation is alive and well in America.
For sixteen years, I’ve been a bookseller in small-town, semi-rural Vermont, in a region that is progressive but fairly homogenous. I spend a lot of time introducing people to new books I think they might love, and over the years, I’ve encountered the usual range of responses from white customers to books with brown faces on the covers. Many of these responses are positive; some are reluctant or downright resistant, and represent mistaken assumptions about these books, that they are limited in focus and applicable only to a narrow, nonwhite audience.
I’ve got a toolbox full of tactics I use with hesitant customers, from subtle to overt, depending on how the situation reads. By emphasizing plot and character, by getting them to “forget” about race, I can get the adult excited about the story. I say adult deliberately, because out of the thousands of kids I’ve recommended books to, only a handful have ever shown even an awareness of the race of the cover character, much less a resistance to difference.
But the resistance is not entirely the reader’s fault. The extreme lack of diversity in children’s books (if it were hunger, it would count as starvation) — both featuring people of color as main characters and books published by writers of color — has led readers to some justified perceptions. For a long time, brown faces on covers by and large signaled certain kinds of stories: slavery, Civil Rights, gritty urban plight, outsiderness. The problem wasn’t with the stories themselves, of course; these were powerful, enriching, worthy books. But they were funneling nonwhite experience into particular tubes, and if readers were in the mood for something else—adventure or fantasy or mysteries, say—they looked elsewhere. They had to; there were few other choices. And that is still largely the case, with a few noteworthy, marvelous exceptions.
I’m writing today, discussing middle grade and young adult book covers, as a former children’s fiction buyer at Barnes and Noble, Inc., and thus this is not wholly my opinion, but also fact based upon sales numbers at the largest bookstore chain in the world. That said, I am not speaking for the company in any capacity, just my personal experience.
The simplified truth to the quandary about book covers is that good covers sell books, and bad covers hurt book sales. A good book with a bad cover may overcome it, but it will not reach the sales potential it could have had with a good cover. A mediocre book with a good cover will increase sales. The marriage of a good cover and a good book is what I am going to showcase.
Changing the Conversation Around Diverse Publishing
I would like to begin my post with a point of clarification that my opinions regarding diversity in publishing are based on my opinion and experience that may not be the perspective of my publisher. As a 20 year publishing veteran I have held many positions including Event/Exhibit Planning, Marketing, and Brand Management but my greatest and longest tenure has been as a sales strategist. I currently lead the best sales team in publishing. It is a position of strategic planning and challenging assumptions with the goal of reaching our consumers.
A side lesson…
The Role of a Sales Team
A great sales team has the ability to position a book for optimal sales and builds a strategic plan around longevity of an author. A great sales team is a consultant, an educator, and a partner internally and externally. A great sales team identifies trends and/or creates them; a great sales team can make a book. A great sales team is focused on reaching the end user.
On the matter of selling content that reflects diversity…well there are as many questions as there are answers. But as in all selling, it begins and ends with the consumer, and the question, “Is what I have ‘in my bag’ as a sales strategist relevant to the consumer?”
An It’s Complicated! — Book Covers guest post by Laurent Linn, Art Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Laurent LinnIt’s simply a fact. We judge books—like people—by their appearance.
When looking for books, we like covers that have attractive/intriguing images and type, suggest genres we like, resemble books we’ve already enjoyed (but don’t resemble them too much as to feel derivative), and look new/current. Also extremely important is, for young readers, “Is this book about someone like me?” One little cover must carry a lot of weight.
With so many wonderful books published about kids of all types, it’s very possible for diverse kids to discover characters that resemble them. For this connection to happen, the cover design becomes incredibly important. But a cover doesn’t only need to appeal to kids (whose tastes and visual language are as diverse and evolving as they are), it has to meet the approval of art directors, editors, authors, agents, publishers, sales and marketing departments, book buyers and sellers, librarians, reviewers, parents, etc.—all of whom are adults, with their own ideas about what works. An interesting challenge, yes?