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July 4, 2015

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How to Build a Bestseller with Non-White Characters

Cheryl_Klein headshotIn 2007, a writer named Varian Johnson went to see the film Ocean’s 13. He walked out of the theatre, went home to his computer, opened up a new document file, and typed two words:  Jackson Greene. He knew he wanted to create a fun and funny heist story like the movie he’d just seen—to write the sort of book he would have loved himself as a kid, with an African American guy like himself as its hero. But the twists and turns of heist stories are often hard work, and the novel took a long time to come together. Varian’s agent, Sara Crowe, encouraged him through the years of writing that followed.

In 2011, Varian and I met at a writers’ conference in Vermont. Diversity has long been a priority at the imprint I work for, Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic; indeed, the first two books I ever edited focused on girls of Asian descent. But beyond that mandate from my publisher, I love reading stories about people who don’t share my demographics (white, middle-class, Protestant), for the opportunity to learn about lives sometimes vastly unlike mine, and to discover the things those characters and I have in common. I was familiar with Varian’s novels My Life as a Rhombus (Flux, 2007) and Saving Maddie (Delacorte, 2010); I loved chatting with him at this conference; and I hoped very much I might have the chance to see his next manuscript.

In 2012, Sara sent me that manuscript, by then called Jackson Greene Steals the Election. It was funny and smart, twisty and sweet, just like the Ocean’s movies (which I too had loved), but with the heist at its center run by a very diverse group of middle school schemers. The manuscript was a perfect fit for Scholastic, which has a direct line to young readers through its School Book Clubs and Book Fairs, and which thus constantly seeks to serve all segments of the U.S. school population—which next year will include more than 50 percent children of color, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. I shared Jackson Greene with the publishing team here, and we committed to it enthusiastically. Over the next year, Varian and I worked together to refine the story structure and plot twists, and our designer created a cover for the book—now retitled The Great Greene Heist—that was as colorful and cool as the characters themselves.

By early 2014, a whole lot of great things happened for the novel, though it was not yet published. Scholastic sponsored Varian’s attendance at the American Booksellers’ Association Children’s Institute, where he connected with many wonderful independent booksellers. Varian’s fellow authors Kate Messner, Shannon Hale, and John Green decided to give The Great Greene Heist an extra push, and encouraged readers to purchase enough copies to have it hit the bestseller list. That would create a win for a diverse book that might pave the way for similar titles—an effort now named the “Great Greene Challenge.” The novel has received enthusiastic notices, including starred reviews in Kirkus Reviews and The Horn Book Magazine, and many “Where has a funny diverse book like this been all my life?” blog comments. On May 27, Arthur A. Levine Books  published The Great Greene Heist, and great things continue to happen for the book.

I tell this story to say that if we want to increase diversity, it requires buy-in from every segment of the publishing community. We need authors of diverse backgrounds to write the stories they have in their hearts—whether they are deeply personal and thoughtful, like Francisco X. Stork’s Irises (Scholastic, 2012), or they just radiate fun, like The Great Greene Heist. Literary agents must support and encourage these writers and submit their writing widely. Editors have to make diversity a priority in their acquisitions. Publishers need to commit themselves to producing and marketing these books with the same energy (and expenditures) they bring to literature by and about the “mainstream.” Booksellers must carry diverse books in their stores—keeping faith with the fast-changing demographics of our country—and librarians need to purchase and display them, in order to serve those same increasingly diverse constituencies. Bloggers and industry “Big Mouths” have to request the galleys and talk about the books, creating promotional energy that can carry over to the cash register.

Most of all, once these books are out in the world, readers of all backgrounds have to buy them. We need “mirror” readers (in educator Rudine Simms Bishop’s excellent terminology) to claim these stories as their own, as they have done and continue to do. But we also need “window” readers to go outside their learned behaviors about what is and isn’t for them, to be willing to imagine themselves into other characters and experiences, to be open to new stories. Diverse books do not fail in the marketplace by any measure. But the more prominently they can succeed in that market, the easier it will be for everything in the preceding paragraph to happen, and the more diverse titles will become available to readers.

Cheryl Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (arthuralevinebooks.com), an imprint of Scholastic Inc. You can find her on the web at cherylklein.com, chavelaque.blogspot.com, and @chavelaque.

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Comments

  1. Dina C. Tate says:

    Hi Cheryl
    I really enjoyed reading this article. I am a newly minted African-American author and it has been eye opening learning about the lack of diversity. There are a myriad of reasons but hopefully it can change overtime. My question to you regarding submissions was do you accept submissions for Chapter Book Series?
    Dina C. Tate
    Global Girls Squad LLC

  2. Hello Cheryl,
    So glad to see someone stating how every segment of the reading and publishing needs to participate in getting diverse books supported. Too often, for example, a book about blacks by blacks gets marketed only to an African American audience. While a book about blacks by a white writer gets mainstream attention – and more money and more recognition and more opportunities to publish