Approximately 50 librarians and educators joined the Children’s Book Council’s (CBC) Diversity group in a lively discussion about the need for diversity in children’s books in a program that took place on January 25 during the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter meeting. In a panel moderated by Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein, three children’s book editors and one librarian shared the CBC Diversity’s goals to promote diversity in the content of books for young people; their latest initiative, “Diversity 101” blog series; and to promote ALSC’s (Association for Library Services to Children) Día de los niños/Día de los libros literacy event on April 30.
Klein opened up the program with an introduction to the CBC Diversity and its initiatives, emphasizing the group’s latest blog series, “Diversity 101,” which aims to dispel the common misconceptions and missteps of writers trying to create books with diverse characters. Among the acclaimed authors contributing their thoughts were Andrea Davis Pinkney, who addressed the trend of relegating a character of color to sidekick roles; Joseph Bruchac, who touched upon common stereotypes for American Indian characters; and Kayla Whaley, who pointed to the The Disabled Saint pitfall of characterization, in which characters with disabilities are often portrayed as perfect beings and not multidimensional. The series revealed a variety of ways that readers, educators, publishing professionals, and aspiring authors could become aware of their own microaggressions—interactions between those of different races, cultures, or genders that can be interpreted as small acts of mostly non-physical aggression—when it comes to differences in others.
Wendy Lamb, publisher and editor of Penguin Random House shared that in the course of working with the committee, and in her professional career, she has learned that diversity encompasses not only people of color, but also members of other marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities, mental illness, and weight issues. The editor of books such as Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy, (1999), she often works with authors writing from an outsider’s perspective. “Graham Salisbury who writes about Japanese Americans in Hawaii in Under the Blood Red Sun (1994, both Delacorte), grew up in that community and always has his books vetted by members of that community,” she said.
Dan Ehrenhaft, editorial director at Soho Teen spoke about the importance of authenticity in teen books with diverse characters. When working with an author who is writing about an underrepresented group, he feels the responsibility as an editor to familiarize himself with the community. Ehrenhaft has found that in his research, there are usually more universalities than differences. He says, “There is no normal. Let’s embrace it and not be afraid to have that conversation.”
Panelist and Little, Brown editor Connie Hsu considered herself “White” for most of her childhood and began to confront issues of race and ethnicity when she went to college. Hsu encourages aspiring authors to hone their craft and apply for agent Barry Goldblatt’s scholarship for writers of color. She pointed out different successful fantasy series, such as Malinda Lo’s “Inheritance” books (Little, Brown), Marie Lu’s “Legend” trilogy (Putnam), and Marissa Moss’s “Lunar Chronicles”(Macmillan), that feature diverse characters and settings, but have become universally popular.
Klein, who is an executive editor at Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine imprint, mentioned that often writers of color don’t even send submissions to her, even though she’s been looking for manuscripts with diverse points of view for years. Last year, she received only two submissions from people of color and ended up acquiring one of them.
Ana-Elba Pavon, children’s librarian at the Oakland Public Library and a leader REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) tries to incorporate diversity in a variety of ways in her urban community. She uses social media, book displays, and book lists to increase awareness about books that celebrate diversity. Pavon also relies on publishers, authors, and illustrators who traditionally create books for the Latino and Spanish-speaking community to incorporate in her library, especially in preparation for Día. Now rebranded as “Diversity in Action,” Día is an opportunity for librarians to celebrate children of all backgrounds, Pavon emphasized. At her library, a bilingual musician will be singing in English and Spanish and all of the children will receive a book from the library.
The panel also presented practical ways that librarians can raise awareness about diverse books and promote and use them in their programming. Attendees were encouraged to write letters to publishers about successful diverse books, promote state book lists that feature multicultural titles, continue to curate lists and be active on social media and blogs, incorporate titles by people of color in book clubs and book fairs, and get involved with ALA’s five ethnic caucuses.
During the question and answer period Oralia Garza de Cortés, a leading member of REFORMA and cofounder of the Pura Belpré Award, passionately spoke about the need for transparency between publishers and librarians. “I know a lot of you are doing good things, but if you want to make a difference you have to talk to us. A lot more conversation needs to be had: How are publishers being held accountable?”
Garza de Cortés called for more substantial changes and goals. She added, “Show us the statistics. Put a target: ‘This year we’re going to publish two books and start from there.’ Let’s have a meeting with REFORMA. What are you doing to promote the Belpré [Award], if they’re all out of print? We know the Latino community. We know the writers that are getting the door shot on them and they are now turning to self-publishing.”
In response, Hsu acknowledged that in the future, panels about diversity should be arranged in a more conversational format, instead of having an invisible wall between attendees and speakers. In the coming weeks, a full recording of the event will be posted on CBC Diversity’s website.