Librarians anticipate information and literature needs instinctively. Four years ago, when I changed from being an elementary school librarian to a high school librarian, I had a steep learning curve to know the literature that would best suit the needs of my population. I was surprised by the ways teens are particular about what they read and rushed to anticipate what they would like to check out. It didn’t surprise me that the Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel paperbacks that I found on the shelves were outdated in a school that was largely free-and-reduced lunch and African-American.
In my search for more appropriate literature, I became acutely aware of the lack of young adult literature available that echos my students’ lives. Because these students are not necessarily the population that buys books, it was hard to find voices in literature that celebrated them. The publishing world has come a long way in offering a variety of voices to fill out the American teen experience, but we still have a long way to go.
You have no idea how many, MANY times I have tried to reduce my thoughts on this very large topic to 600 words. You have no idea how many, MANY times I have cried thinking I needed to write 600 WORDS. And all of this while trying to make sure they are the right 600 words. What I have left are some observations from ten years of trying to do this work and do it respectfully. Please forgive me in advance if I have not managed to identify the correct words.
I approach the issue of diversity from the perspective of someone raised as a religious minority in the United States. A religious minority with very strong views (some of which it continues to hold today) about those who do not fit its paradigm. So I have a bit of experience being both outside and inside a dominant power structure. If you prefer a less political analogy, I spent of a lot of my early years negotiating my path between competing worldviews with their own claims to priority and attention.
The book I go back to over and over again when wrestling with these issues is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. The book opens with the author confronting the great, massive, mustachioed, history of British Learning. It continues as a consideration of the writer’s struggle to assert the right to a reading and writing identity that is uniquely her own. Reading this book in my early teens was revelatory, giving me the permission to choose my own reading identity and communities. I did not have to be bound by the lists my school gave me, or the interpretation of books my teacher endorsed. I could begin to build my own reading room.
We all know when you want proficiency in a foreign language, the best way for mastery is immersion – visit the country and live with the people, right? You are less likely to judge someone when you’ve walked in their shoes, read their books, and eaten their foods. This is why novelist Chimamanda Adichie in her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story , is a must see.
The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. — Chimamanda Adichie
Ironically, there are still teachers in this country who find it perfectly ok to ask a black child to act out a slave auction – the danger of a single story. There still are teachers who do not read books by authors of color because they feel those books do not coincide with their curriculum; again, the danger of a single story. Not too long ago, I hosted a forum at my school for librarians, publishers, and diversity directors. The guest speaker was a multiracial Canadian woman who basically got up and told her story. One of the librarians came to me afterwards and said, “Her presentation was geared more for kids.” My response? “If we are not willing to hear the stories of adults who are different from us, how will we be able to assess what is good for our young people.” You fill in the blanks.
I have little patience for: “brown people on covers don’t sell books.” My library’s community is hungry for brown people on the covers of their books.
Picture a Saturday afternoon at a library in Oakland CA. An 11-year-old and parent come in together to choose some reading. The librarian tries to find out what the child’s interests are, and what the parent’s secret agenda is, and provide a selection to choose from with a few books that speak to each. Often, if the family is not white, the parent’s very good secret agenda is for their child to read a book with a protagonist like them. If you are the 11-year-old, and your selection ends up looking like this:
Take Three! A New "It's Complicated!" Conversation
Here we go again! As part of CBC Diversity’s ongoing effort, we’re pleased to present the third dialogue in the “It’s Complicated!” blog series starting later today, this time addressing the sales and marketing of multicultural books.
The following voices inside and outside the publishing industry will each contribute one blog post to the series over the week, addressing how to market multicultural books to teachers, librarians and, ultimately, kids. The guest bloggers will also be participating in the open dialogue in the comments section of the site:
Nina Lindsay, Supervising Librarian for Children’s Services at the Oakland Public Library in CA
Victoria Stapleton, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers School & Library Marketing Director
Shelley Diaz, Assistant Editor at School Library Journal’s Book Reviews
Corinne Hatcher, Librarian/Media Specialist at Champaign Central High School
Amy Bowllan, Coordinator of Media Resources and Research at the Hewitt School in New York City
Our first “It’s Complicated!” blog dialogue in May 2012 addressed a topic that has arisen frequently at the Diversity table — the concept of responsibility and authenticity when writing about diverse characters and how authors, editors, and agents can choose/write stories that reflect the diverse nature of our society.
Our second “It’s Complicated!” blog dialogue in September 2012 addressed a topic that had been bubbling up for quite some time — book covers and the faces and aesthetic choices we see and/or do not see on the front of picture, middle grade, and YA books.
As always, we urge everyone to participate in what we hope will be an informative and insightful conversation. We really appreciate hearing from you, our readers, through the comments section of the posts about the parts of the discussion that you feel are most important and want to talk further about.
CBC Diversity Opens Goodreads Bookshelf to Nonmembers
After much deliberation from within the CBC Diversity Committee, the CBC Diversity Goodreads Bookshelf will now be open to publishing houses who are not members of the Children’s Book Council. For the past year, the CBC Diversity Goodreads Bookshelf has only listed books from the member publishing houses of the CBC. Now, the list will be open to publishers not a part of the Children’s Book Council in order to continue to highlight the range of culturally diverse books in existence.
The CBC realizes that if this list is to operate in much the same way as our other lists, then the opportunity for publishers who are not members of the CBC must be there as well. Like the other lists, there will be a fee associated with including nonmember books on the Bookshelf. A nominal fee of $100 per year will allow a non CBC member publishing house to submit as many books as they please to the CBC Diversity Bookshelf.
There are some things CBC Diversity cannot control when it comes to Goodreads.
The publisher is responsible for contacting Goodreads to make sure their books can be found within the Goodreads database so that CBC Diversity can then find and add the books to our list.
The publisher is responsible for tagging their books so that they will end up on the correct bookshelf within the overall CBC Diversity list.
If you are a non CBC member publisher and interested in adding your books to the CBC Diversity Goodreads Bookshelf, please contact Ayanna Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
My fourth grade teacher wasn’t surprised that I wound up reading for a living, because I gave 250 book reports that year. All I wanted to do was read. I had a terrific fake cough and would use that to stay home from school with a pile of books.
I grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut and my family was close to the family of Maxwell Perkins, the great editor at Scribner’s. Max had died before I was born, but I grew up knowing what an editor was. Max’s daughter, Bertha Perkins Frothingham, shared my passion for books and encouraged my reading in every way. One of my favorite books was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, which led me to take physics in college. I struggled with that course, but when I botched a lab my professor let me write a story related to physics, which became my first published story. As a creative writing major, a job in publishing seemed like the right path.
In 2011, my friend and fellow YA author Cindy Pon and I put together a national book tour called Diversity in YA. Our goal was to showcase middle grade and young adult novels that featured diverse characters; specifically, characters of color and/or LGBT characters. For this tour, Cindy and I traveled to five U.S. cities and invited local authors who had written diverse books to join us at bookstores and libraries to talk about diversity and what it meant to us as writers and readers. As part of our tour, we also launched a website, Diversity in YA, where we featured guest posts by authors and book lists of diverse titles.
In the two years since Diversity in YA, Cindy and I have continued to get feedback from readers and librarians and book people about how much they valued DiYA. This is so rewarding to us to hear! This is also why I was excited to hear about the launch of the CBC Diversity Committee. I think it’s wonderful that the publishing industry is now directly involved, through CBC Diversity, in making sure this discussion about diversity continues — and hopefully in ways that will make a real difference in children’s literature.
The Diversity in YA website, like the tour, was only meant to be live for one year, so we shuttered it at the end of 2011. When CBC Diversity asked Cindy and me if they could repost some of our DiYA posts, we thought this was a great way to give those posts a second life. That’s why I and some of the other authors who wrote for diversityinya.com have given permission to CBC Diversity to reprint our posts on the CBC Diversity blog over the next several months.
The last piece I wrote for DiYA was called “A Year of Thinking About Diversity,” in which I described what I’d learned during the DiYA experience. Although some of the piece is focused on the specific issues Cindy and I dealt with while managing DiYA, my thoughts about diversity and publishing remain largely the same. I’m happy to repost it on CBC Diversity today.
It was May 1993, and I was a senior at Columbia College. Like many of my friends, I had nothing concrete planned for post-graduation. I knew that I wanted to work in children’s publishing, only because I still loved reading “children’s books” at age 22 (everything from Jon Scieszka’s recently published Stinky Cheese Man to S.E. Hinton and Lois Duncan) and I also knew that I’d like to write a book for kids someday. But I hadn’t interned at a children’s publisher; I hadn’t reached out to potential mentors; there weren’t even any children’s bookstores on the Upper West Side.
Three days before graduation, I panicked. This was pre-Internet. There were no listservs or search engines; my only choice was to go where all the uninformed and desperate went…The Columbia Job Board. (I’ve since written about The Columbia Job Board in a novel because it still seems too strange to have truly existed: A giant length of cork smothered in alphabetized post-its.) The only listing under PUBLISHING, CHILDREN’S read: Write cover copy for Sweet Valley High novels! There was more—involving the actual nature of the job—but to this day, that’s all I remember.
I was honored when I was asked to write a Diversity 101 post about transgender identity. Honored and a little daunted. Because while I’ve written two books on the topic, I’m not transgender—and speaking about always ends up becoming speaking for. Which is part of the problem with gender representations in general: who gets to speak for whom? Especially in children’s literature where gender variance is, well, not so variant yet, I know I’m walking into hot water. The scarcity of GLBT (accent on the T) depictions yields strong opinions as to how we should talk—and write—about the few transgender characters we have.
People used to say that transgender was an umbrella term to encompass all kinds of gender variance—from drag king to transsexual to the little boy who wears tutus to play with his trucks. While the umbrella concept’s fallen out of favor somewhat, the core idea is useful: there are a myriad of ways to express one’s sense of self. Transgender is fundamentally an internal identity wherein one’s understanding of self is different from the body one was born with. The expression part is separate, and can range from wearing different clothing to undergoing medical procedures to doing nothing at all. The bottom line is, only transgender people can decide that they’re trans, and it’s up to the rest of us to support and celebrate that.
While at Boston College and trying to decide what I wanted to do with my English major degree, my parents asked me, pre-Avenue Q, “What do you do with a BA in English? Because you are not moving home.” (Well, this is how my 20-year-old brain interpreted a very loving conversation about the importance of being able to support yourself and not needing to depend on anyone else to live the life you want to live.)
And I realized that I wanted to get paid to read. Actually, I wanted to get paid to read books for kids because the books I read growing up shaped me and touched me in ways that nothing else could. Diana Wynne Jones, Lloyd Alexander, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume – these were authors who didn’t know me but somehow understood me. They made me feel connected to people, places, and ideas that were new, different, and bigger than my own world. To be part of the process of bringing a book to life for someone else to connect with, well, that was my dream job.
So how did I get that dream job? First I was lucky enough to get an internship in the children’s department at Little, Brown while still in college. (Alvina, thanks for interviewing me!) The talented group there was so excited and passionate about all books for kids – not just the ones they were publishing. They introduced me to Toot and Puddle, Speak, Harry Potter, and Holes, and that sealed it for me.
After graduating, I took the Columbia Publishing Course, which was amazing and introduced me to the world of New York City publishing. I was able to interview at Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Group, the imprint that published Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, a book I loved and was featured on my all-time-favorite show, Reading Rainbow. I’m lucky to have been at the same house for over 11 years, working my way up from editorial assistant to executive editor. I work with the most intelligent, generous, kind, thoughtful, and creative group of people who are all so dedicated to making books that kids will love. We want our books to reach every kid, so they know there is someone out there who understands them too.