The CBC Diversity initiative was founded in 2012, as part of the Children’s Book Council’s commitment to promoting diverse voices in literature for young people. We believe that all children deserve to see their world reflected in the books they read. We recognize that diversity takes on many forms, including differences in race, religion, gender, geography, sexual orientation, class, and ability.
In addition to championing diverse authors and illustrators, CBC Diversity strives to open up the publishing industry to a wider range of employees. We’ve taken an active role in recruiting diverse candidates, participating in school career fairs and partnering with We Need Diverse Books on its summer internship program.
My mission as an author is to mine the past for family
stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles. Add to that unsung heroes.
When my friend and frequent collaborator Eric Velasquez pitched the idea of a
Schomburg biography to me, I was intrigued. Like Schomburg, Eric has roots in
Africa and Puerto Rico. I detected Eric’s passion for the project and I could
not refuse. I believe this is the book that Eric was born to create. Even
though the book had a ten year gestation, I am honored that Eric asked me to
collaborate. This is our fifth book together.
When did you first learn about Schomburg?
I knew of the Schomburg Center before I knew about the
man behind it. I did picture research there in the early 1980s. That was long
before there were digital archives online. Back then, I had to wear white
gloves to handle vintage photographs. I recall being in awe of the Center’s
vast holdings. What I did not know is that Schomburg the man was a bibliophile
and a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, a period I first wrote about in Sugar
Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood. That picture book isillustrated
by Gregory Christie.
When I visit schools, it’s the question I am asked most often: where do you get your ideas? I jokingly answer “on sale at Target” before revealing the truth: ideas come from everywhere all the time.
The idea for my book, Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama (Candlewick Press, illustrated by E.B. Lewis) came from two historical markers I noticed in that city where I lived for ten years, noting that the first instance of both an integrated public school and a “reverse-integrated” private school occurred there during the same week in September 1963. I went straight to the public library, expecting to find a children’s book about these events, but none existed. It seemed the idea had chosen me.
I became committed to celebrating this peaceful chapter in civil rights history, spending six years researching in the library’s historical collections and interviewing local people. I was also transported to my own experiences as a first grader in 1962.
2014 African-American Middle Grade & Young Adult Fiction Book List
Author, blogger, and diversity advocate Zetta Elliott (‘The Deep’) sought to find out how many of the year’s young adult novels (estimated at 3,000 in the U.S.) were published by African American authors.
I wanted to interview Tanya McKinnon for this blog for a number of reasons– she’s such an inspiring and generous member of the publishing community; she’s an agent, and the co-author of the acclaimed middle grade novel Zora and Me; she’s both eloquent and realistic on the topic of diversity; and and I wanted to hear more about her course at CCNY where she teaches Writing for Children within the publishing program.
Wendy Lamb: Tanya, you’re an agent, an author, a college instructor, and you have a masters in cultural anthropology. There so much we could talk about. Let’s start with agenting–what kind of books are you looking to represent?
Tanya McKinnon: As an African-American agent with a diverse client list in both children’s and adult books, I am always on the lookout for books that push the envelope of human understanding. Books that honor our multicultural world, regardless of who writes them, are my passion.
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.
When I was ten years old, my mom and dad made me my very own art studio. Actually, the “studio” was a walk-in closet that my parents converted so that I could have a place to call my own. It was the perfect spot for expressing my creativity without interruptions. (As one of four children, finding time to myself wasn’t always easy.)
As a budding artist, I wanted to grow up to become a children’s book creator, just like my father, illustrator Jerry Pinkney. Watching Dad, I was very fortunate to see books in which black children were front-and-center. Seeing Dad’s characters showed me, me. And it established a simple truth ― black kids in books were beautiful and could be rendered abundantly.
Following in Dad’s footsteps, I spent hours in my little workspace drawing all kinds of pictures. I also read lots of books, and dreamed big. Looking back, I realize now that my junior studio was a kind of retreat where I could pore over the pages of picture books. These books and their illustrations had an impact on how I perceived myself as an African American kid.