Diversity 101: An Introduction

I grew up reading books by diverse authors and thinking about the characters who lived in them and the questions they raised. I went to a “good” college where we often discussed issues of race, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality. Yet here are a few of the things I wasn’t aware of when I started working as an editorial assistant in 2000:
  • The Clark Doll Experiment
  • The Indian burial ground trope
  • The term “white privilege”
  • That skin tone is a major source of sensitivity in many non-white communities
  • The strong dislike or discomfort many cultures feel toward anthropologists
  • The white savior cliche, in which a white person discovers the wonders of a native group, eventually becomes part of the group, is acclaimed as the best of them all, then leads them into battle against the white culture, which is trying to dominate the natives (see especially Dances with Wolves and Avatar)
  • That for all its charms, The Story of Babar ultimately reproduces a colonialist narrative about the superiority of European life to African life

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Book Spotlight: The Savage Fortress

imageOne of my favorite quotations about children’s literature ever comes from the marvelous R. L. Stine:  “I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value.” This doesn’t mean that the books in question aren’t good on an aesthetic level, of course. It just means some books don’t have to be anything more than FUN, delivering the big emotions readers crave at every stage of life, but especially as children and YAs:  the adrenaline of the fight scene, the thrill of the kiss, the shiver of terror that Mr. Stine renders so expertly. Quite often they’re genre books—fantasies or romances or horror or mysteries—or published in series, like my long-ago-beloved Babysitters Club books. They don’t teach anything, they don’t require too much work from the reader, they’re all about the pleasure of the experience … and the experience is awesome.

Historically, kids of color who wanted to see themselves in these kinds of books have had a hard time finding such stories. And on the flip side, books about people of color have often been presented under an aura of nothing but socially redeeming value, for the history they teach, the cultural information they impart, or the cross-cultural reader’s virtue in picking them up at all. But all of that has been changing, slowly but steadily, and I am now immensely proud to introduce you to a book with a hero of color, in a world drenched with color, and no socially redeeming value at all: The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda. 

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Writing Outside Your Perspective

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.

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It’s Complicated!

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.

School Visit: Bushwick Leaders High School

imageOne 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.

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Cheryl Klein: How I Got Into Publishing

Executive Editor at Scholastic

imageMy 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.

imageFrom 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, imageafter my college graduation in 2000, I attended the Denver Publishing Institute, a four-week course at the University of Denver that teaches Publishing Business 101. Industry professionals lead the classes, so there were lots of opportunities to make great contacts; and one of them was Susan Hirschman, the founder of Greenwillow Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), who was so clearly in love with her books and her authors and her job that I thought, “That’s who I want to be when I grow up.” Moreover, while I’d gone to Denver knowing that I wanted to be an editor, her speech reminded me of how much I loved children’s and YA books in particular, so children’s editorial really was the perfect fit. I talked a lot with Susan during her visit – in particular, and without knowing it, I said the best possible thing one can say to an editor:  that she edited one of my favorite books ever (in this case, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley – and I meant it too!). She was kind enough to tell me to keep in touch.

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