“If you look at the United States of America now, multiculturalism is the mainstream,” says Andrea Davis Pinkney (pictured), a vice president and executive editor at Scholastic and an African American author of children’s books. However, “we are not reflecting this nation.”
Phoebe Yeh agrees. “There’s work to be done,” says the vice president and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House Children’s Books.
“We all need to try harder,” also affirms Angus Killick, vice president and associate publisher of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.
These three are among a number of publishing professionals interviewed by School Library Journal who agreed that more books for young people must feature characters who represent the diversity of the U.S. population. They are also among those in the field who are addressing the gap.
Myth: ‘These books don’t sell’
“There’s a strong Mexican American middle class that buys books,” says Bobby Byrd, copublisher of Cinco Puntos Press, located on the Texas-Mexico border. “There are close to 40 million Latinos in the U.S. That’s a huge market. The book industry has been slow to respond.”
Titles that could be seen as strictly niche have deeper market reach. Christopher Johns, sales and marketing director for Tuttle Publishing, the largest English-language Asian publisher, says, “big box chains like Costco carry our books on Chinese New Year’s.” However, Tuttle’s audience—many of them second- and third-generation Asian Americans, as well as adoptive parents of Chinese kids, Johns says—purchase year round. “It’s not the first generation we sell a lot to,” Jones notes. “It’s the second and third generations.”
The track record of books with diverse characters help illuminate the sales potential. For example, the Lerner Publishing Group’s top-grossing picture book for the past five years has been Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Bad News for Outlaws (2009), a Coretta Scott King Award-winning story, says Andrew Karre, an editorial director at Lerner.
Groundwood Books has sold two million copies in its “Breadwinner” series by Deborah Ellis, about a girl in Afghanistan under the Taliban who dresses as a boy to support her family. It’s “a very universal story,” says Groundwood publisher Sheila Barry.
Saddleback Educational Publishing has sold more than a million copies in its 40-title “Urban Underground” series, about African American and Latino teens. And Cinco Puntos has sold more than 600,000 copies of Joe Hayes’s La Llorona: The Weeping Woman (1987), a retelling of a popular Mexican legend.
Successful sales aside, “When you’re dealing with under served communities, diverse consumers, there’s more of a pass-along that is not always quantifiable,” says Pinkney. “We have to really redefine what a ‘successful’ book is.”
Malinda Lo, author of the YA sci-fi thrillers Adaptation and Inheritance (both Little, Brown, 2012 and 2013), says that the imbalance in publishing reflects a society that “privileges whiteness.”
The color bias, Lo says, is “expressed in picture books that show white people much more often than children of color. It’s expressed in overt racist comments on the Internet. It’s expressed in beliefs such as the model minority myth about Asian Americans.” She adds, “The assumption that people of color might not have money to buy books is part of institutional racism.”
But diversity in the field may be more widespread than it appears, says Tim McHugh, co-owner of Saddleback, specializing in books for struggling learners. A well-circulated study from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) showed that just 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 were about African Americans. But those numbers only reflect books that trade publishers sent to CCBC, as the organization’s director, K. T. Horning, author of “Still an All-White World?” (pp. 18–21), confirmed.
“Nothing sinister here, but small and medium publishers are left out” of the CCBC study, McHugh says. “Perhaps we should be celebrated for publishing more than the large publishing houses.”
The balance is “much better than when I was a child,” says Alvina Ling, executive editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Hachette), whose award-winning titles include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), which has sold over 1.5 million copies, and Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2009). “Growing up, I was very hungry to see myself in the books I was reading,” adds Ling, also a founding member of the Children’s Book Council diversity committee, created to expand the range of voices and experiences in children’s literature. “Now there are so many great books out there for diverse children.” But, “We have far to go.”
The importance of visibility
Awards propel sales and help increase consumer awareness of diverse titles. “The books that have gotten awards are the ones that are going to get to stay in print,” says Yeh, referring to honors such as the Coretta Scott King Award, granted to African American authors and illustrators; the Pura Belpré Award, given to Latino/Latina authors and illustrators; and the Stonewall Book Award–Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, for LGBTQ titles. Books that receive Newbery or Caldecott recognition in addition to the more culturally specific awards fare the best by far, in terms of sales. Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte, 1999) which received the Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards in 2000, has sold 2.4 million copies, while Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 (Delacorte, 1995), which received a Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award in 1996, sold 2.6 million, says Dominique Cimina, a spokesperson for Random House Children’s Books.
Unlike awards such as the Coretta Scott King and the Pure Belpré, the Newbery and Caldecott criteria do not require committee members to consider the cultural background of the authors and illustrators, or the inclusion of multicultural themes. Still, books featuring nonwhite or differently abled characters occasionally receive recognition. Kiera Parrott, SLJ reviews editor, surveyed the last 10 years of Newbery and Caldecott medal and honor books. She found that roughly 31 percent of Newbery award or honor books and 22.5 percent of Caldecott award or honor books center on diverse characters or themes. Still, these stats are far from being wholly representative of an increasingly multicultural country, Parrott says.
Another part of the visibility picture is that retailers tend to devote shelf space primarily to the “big five” trade publishers—Penguin Random, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster—or they create special sections. Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books, specializing in stories that children of color can identify with, says, “bookstores that do stock diverse titles tend to segregate ethnic-themed books from other books.” He adds, “this makes discoverability difficult.”
Some unique avenues can lead to sales. For example, Abrams initially printed 15,000 copies of Boni Ashburn’s I Had a Favorite Dress (2011), picturing the African American girl protagonist on the cover. It sold nearly 40,000 copies, in part because the Anthropologie clothing store chain carried the book.
In another approach, reps from Free Spirit Publishing attend the African American Children’s Book Fair to raise awareness of their titles with characters of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and abilities/special needs, and participate in walks supporting autism causes.
Authors and authenticity
What makes for an authentic story? While some publishers want their authors to have firsthand experience of their subject matter, others maintain that this isn’t important. “Our authors live the lives they write about, or they witness them firsthand,” says McHugh. For example, Saddleback author Shannon Freeman, who is African American, teaches English in a Texas school with African American, Latino, and Vietnamese teens. Free Spirit, which has a diverse 44-member teen advisory board, recently published How to Talk to an Autistic Kid (2011) by Daniel Stefanski, himself a young man with autism.
Cinco Puntos tries to ensure that an author, illustrator, or both are of color, says Byrd. Tim Tingle and Jeanne Rorex Bridges, the author and illustrator of Crossing Bok Chitto (2006), an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book, are both Native American. “We’re interested in writers who speak of what they know,” says Byrd.
Many say that if a book feels true, it doesn’t matter who wrote it. “You don’t have to be a person of color to edit a book by or about a person of color,” says Yeh. “You need to get it.”
“Authenticity comes from the author’s pen,” says Pinkney.
“It’s important for people to be able to write books about whatever group they want,” says Calista Brill, senior editor at Macmillan’s First Second Books, which published Gene Luen Yang’s Printz Award-winning American Born Chinese (2006) and Boxers & Saints (2013). However, authors should “do a lot of careful research if it’s not their own personal experience.”
“Research is essential,” concurs Low. “It is also a must to find one or more outside readers or experts in the culture or topic being written about.”
Kelly Cunnane’s book Deep in the Sahara (Random, 2013), about a girl who wants to wear a head scarf, was written by a white woman who traveled to Mauritania. “We thought it was just a beautifully written story,” says Lee Wade, vice president and codirector of the Random House imprint Schwartz & Wade. Anne Schwartz, also vice president and codirector, asked an Iranian illustrator who wears a head scarf to create the art for the story.
The “Max Axiom” series (Capstone), starring a science superhero of color, has been produced over the years by authors and illustrators of different ethnicities, says Ashley Andersen Zantop, Capstone group publisher and general manager. Author Fran Manushkin, who is white, writes Capstone’s “Katie Woo” books, about an Asian American character inspired by her great-niece, whose father is of Chinese descent.
Regarding authors, “it isn’t enough to sit in your office and wait for what people send you,” says Groundwood’s Barry. “You have to make it a priority to go find them.”
Pigeonholing can also be an issue. “There’s the frustration of being an African American author and finding your pub dates are always going to be in February,” African American History Month, says literary agent Barry Goldblatt, whose client Angela Johnson is a three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner. “What I’m trying to do is to make [the field] feel welcoming for everyone.”
How do the decision-makers define “diversity?” Stories that go “beyond the white heterosexual middle class,” says Barry.
For Killick, “It centers on community. It could be ethnic, it could be religious, LGBTQ.”
Schwartz says, “We don’t try to define it. We just publish what we love.”