When I was in the sixth grade I decided to write a novel. I’d been writing stories since I was seven. My mother called them “The Miss Flouncy Stories.” In this book my main character was a girl—my age—who suddenly had to move from the city to the country. I’d only lived in the city so it was difficult to create a setting for something I’d never experienced. But I labored on.
Soon I found I had a more pressing problem: what to do about the race of my main character? I was a big reader and lover of books yet I’d never seen a black character in any of the books I’d read—except The Story of Little Black Sambo. To the publishing world I didn’t exist. I had no story or life worth reflecting in books. White was the norm—the standard.
I decided to make my character colored (the accepted term for African Americans at that time) but I gave her blond hair and blue eyes. A girl at my school, who was a year behind me, happened to have long blond hair and green eyes—and she was colored. Problem solved.
Though much has changed, white is still the norm. Everyone else is “other.” Youth of color can now find themselves in books, but they’re still under-represented or often misrepresented.
Check out PW’s detailed account of the CBC Diversity Sales panel, which was moderated by Angus Killick, VP and Associate Publisher at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group (far left) on November 12, 2014 during the lunchtime event. The thoughtful and forthcoming panelists were (left to right):
Max Rodriguez, Founder of the Harlem Book Fair
Nikki Mutch, New England District Sales Manager at Scholastic Inc.
Ray Paszkiewicz, Senior Buyer, Baker & Taylor Inc.
Some of the questions included:
How would your customers define an inclusive book?
What are ways we can promote diverse authors and stories that aren’t necessarily award winners or extremely literary?
How does the lack of diversity among the sales staff affect the placement and sales of diverse books?
Are there certain subject matters that are seen as more viable than others in selling titles that star diverse characters?
What’s a successful inclusive book look like from a sales perspective?
What kind of demand is there for inclusive stories?
What are strategies publishers can implement to sell more inclusive stories?
A lot of people are against the idea of touching on mental illness at all in children’s books, with the idea that we need to protect children from such adult topics. I have some shocking news.
Mentally ill children exist, and they notice the way characters that are “crazy” are treated. They notice their absence, and they notice when the narrative supports locking mentally ill people away for their own good. They notice the lack of role models.
Like many editors I have a predilection for order, efficiency, and systems. That’s the polite way of putting it. Significant others and family members have at times used descriptors such as anal retentive or obsessive. Point taken. Whatever your word choice, these qualities have served me well in my profession. But beneath these types of endearing quirks (again, the polite label) often lurks a root cause: anxiety.
I come by my anxiety in the most honest way possible—genetics. Go up the family tree a branch or two and you’ll find hospitalizations, shock therapy, alcoholism, panic attacks, and lots of list-making in really tiny handwriting. Fortunately, all that got watered down by the time my X chromosomes paired up, but I would still say that I was an anxious child. I clearly remember standing in my grandmother’s yard at the age of maybe four, pensively noting that life used to be so much easier. Ah, to be a world-weary preschooler.
Over time I learned effective coping techniques, and now my anxiety is simply a part of me that minimally affects my quality of life. But as a young child, I had no words for what I felt, and I had no basis for comparison. I had the sense that other people didn’t feel like I did, and that made me wonder whether something was wrong with me. Mostly I just had no idea what to do with my feelings and lived with a degree of discomfort on a daily basis. I compensated in other ways—I liked routine, I avoided risks and changes, and I became an overachiever and people-pleaser.
While I was at Scholastic, I had the great pleasure of editing Edwidge Danticat’s first picture book, Eight Days: A Story of Haiti. It explored a young Haitian boy’s experience in the eight days following the devastating earthquake.
I also published the Jewel Society series, which features four best friends of varying backgrounds and academic interests. By working together and using their individual strengths, the girls solve a series of jewel heists in and around the Washington, DC area. A smart and sassy series for girls!
And here at FSG, I’ve just acquired a young middle-grade series starring two best friends, one of which is Latina. They live in a quirky neighborhood, inspired by The Mission District of San Francisco, where the townspeople are as diverse as the girls’ adventures, and where Spanish is spoken widely.
What is one factor holding you back from publishing more diverse books OR what’s the biggest challenge for publishing companies who want to feature more diverse titles?
There is nothing at Macmillan holding me back from publishing diverse books. As an editor committed to publishing more authors and illustrators of color, I’m always on the look-out for new talent. The Brown Bookshelf is a great place to go to learn about diversity in children’s literature and to get ideas about people I’d like to work with! In fact I wish there were more resources like it (websites or associations) that collected and featured diverse children’s book creators, especially those who are not yet published. And of course I rely on agents who are representing new talent with an eye toward diversity.
The U.S. is typically viewed as a melting pot of races and cultures, but recent maps showing the ethnic distribution of the U.S. seem to hint that the U.S. isn’t as well-mixed as we all thought.
Randal Olson utilized 2010 US Census numbers to create this map of racial/ethnic diversity and breaks down by county the least and most diverse areas of America. He also provides the raw data for others to put to use.