How should librarians, publishers, and authors approach diversity in children’s books? According to author Sofia Quintero, “It’s not an end, it’s a means to an end.” For her and others, exposing young people to authors of colors and books involving culturally diverse characters is laudable—but not enough. Quintero and several other panelists at New York Public Library literary salon this weekend, “Diversity and the State of the Children’s Book,” delved into these issues and discussed topics ranging from awards designated for authors of color to insensitivity within the publishing industry.
With the announcement of the Youth Media Awards only weeks in the past, talk turned to those such as the Pura Belpré and Coretta Scott King Awards. Several of the panelists discussed how these awards were a way for them to see themselves represented in literature. Little, Brown book editor Connie Hsu described growing up as an Asian American child in Alabama, and how gravitating towards books that received these awards was one of the few ways she was able to see worlds outside her own, adding that, “As a young person growing up, those awards helped me identify where I could see myself on the page.”
However, author Zetta Elliott noted that simply honoring authors of color wasn’t enough, and underscored the need to examine these awards more closely. Citing a study by Kyra Hicks that found that sixty percent of the Coretta Scott King awards go to twenty percent of writers, she voiced her frustration that fewer new and lesser-known authors are being honored. She also expressed concern over the fact that so many biographical or historical titles receive this honor, as she believes that while these books are admittedly well-written, children may not connect with them.
“Black children get the Brussels sprouts and liver books,” Elliott said. “They get the books that are good for them, they get the books that aren’t necessarily fun and exciting that would perhaps attract some of the reluctant readers in the black community.”
The panel also delved into more subtle obstacles to diversity. In some cases, the panelists said, simply including culturally diverse characters isn’t enough; attitudes are the problem. Quintero brought up the racially-tinged backlash after The Hunger Games was cast. When characters that were clearly depicted as darker-skinned were cast as actors of color, she said, many white readers were perturbed. “Even when there are characters of color on the page, people don’t see them.”
Along these lines, Elliott raised a common issue in many YA novels: white-washing covers, or depicting characters of color in such a way that draws attention away from their ethnicity on the book jacket. Elliott brought up Alaya Dawn Johnson’s recent steampunk novel The Summer Prince, which is set in an African-descended community in Brazil, but whose cover features the female protagonist in profile and from behind, making her racial identity far more ambiguous.
Though many believe that the answer is to stop putting figures on covers at all, Elliott feels that this is a copout. “We can’t surrender. We cannot give up that easily,” she said. “We have to put authentic images, accurate images on the cover.”
The panelists agreed that above all, education—at all levels—was key. Elliott, who currently teaches at the Center for Ethnic Studies at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, emphasized the need to offer training and workshops to writers and editors in order to establish cultural competence. For her, it’s vital that “people can look at a piece of literature and learn how to identify bias, how to identify distortions.”
Quintero also related an experience with the publishing industry that she said displays the pressing need not just for diversity but for awareness and cultural sensitivity. Quintero, who identifies as Afro-Latina, described having a Latina editor turn down one of her manuscripts. The rationale? Because the book’s protagonist was living in foster care instead of in a large extended family, her editor didn’t find her “Latina enough.”
Ultimately, literature is important to helping young people to be culturally sensitive and aware, Elliott stressed. “The way that the world is changing, they need to be able to demonstrate cultural competence,” she advised. “They need to understand their own cultural location but be able to communicate cross culturally with others, and books are an excellent way to do that.”