At the beginning of 2016, Lee & Low Books released the Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS), which surveyed publishing and review journal staffs to establish hard numbers that measured diversity in the publishing/review industry. Overall, the industry is 79 percent white*, 78 percent female*, 88 percent straight*, and 92 percent nondisabled*.
After the DBS numbers were made public in January 2016, publishers announced many new initiatives. In February 2016, Simon & Schuster launched a new imprint, Salaam Reads, to focus on Muslim stories for children. In March 2016, Penguin partnered with We Need Diverse Books and introduced the Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry Writing Contest for debut authors of color. In July 2016, Christopher Myers joined with Random House to launch the Make Me a World Imprint, which will focus on diversity. In September 2016, First Book and the National Education Association (NEA) partnered with Lee & Low Books to expand the publisher’s New Visions Award for debut middle grade and young adult authors of color. And review journals such as School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and the Horn Book have been making concerted efforts to diversify their reviewer pools.
All of these separate initiatives are positive steps toward creating a more inclusive industry, but inevitably, some mistakes will be made along the way. Recently several titles have stirred up controversy: A Fine Dessert, for illustrations that showed happy enslaved people; A Birthday Cake for George Washington, for illustrations that also showed happy enslaved people (the book was eventually pulled from circulation by publisher); When We Was Fierce, for using a fictional vernacular and for other problematic depictions that were offensive to the African American community (that book was withheld from release by the publisher); and There Is a Tribe of Kids, for illustrations coupled with the word tribe that created problematic associations of playing Indian that were offensive to Native and First Nations people. Almost all these titles earned significant praise from major reviewer journals before they encountered protests from academics and readers of color for being culturally inaccurate and/or racially offensive. By the time this article prints, more books may be challenged.
Why does this keep happening? Well, two things are occurring at once. Publishers are still making books that showcase talented authors and illustrators, whose writing garners critical acclaim. This is their expertise. At the same time, both publishers and reviewers are inadvertently showing their blind spots.
If you dedicate a number of years to a chosen field, you eventually become good at it. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, states that true mastery can be achieved with 10,000 hours of practice, which is the equivalent of 10 years. Since many people working in publishing have been at their jobs for more than a decade, we could safely consider them experts at many things: crafting beautiful books, crafting books that win awards, crafting books that garner starred reviews. Likewise, many reviewers have spent years training themselves to pick out exceptional books from a literary point of view.
However, few people in publishing would consider themselves experts in diversity issues. I have been working in publishing for nineteen years, but I do not consider myself an authority. When it comes to diversity, most of us are still rookies. Not even people of color are automatic experts.
Here is an example. Let’s say Lee & Low Books was going to publish a book with an Asian theme. I am of Asian descent, so it makes sense that I would have an authentic perspective on the themes in this book. And I do. I know firsthand what the minority experience is like in this country. There are some cultural issues on which I would be able to offer sensitive feedback. But if for argument’s sake, the story delves deeply into Asian history of any kind, for that particular part of the story, I am not your guy. The editor of the book would have to seek out a person with expert credentials to vet this part for historical accuracy. The same kind of vetting is necessary for, but not limited to, parts of stories relating to vernacular, dialect, religion, locale, foods, sexual orientation, fashion/appearance, and politics.
Over the years, editors and reviewers develop strong instincts about what makes a great story from literary and sales perspectives. But they are still in the early stages of developing these instincts when it comes to evaluating diverse content. At the very least, they must develop reliable instincts that notice red flags, alerting them to potential problems in a text or an illustration and the need to consult with someone more knowledgeable. They must be able to see their own blind spots and admit how much they don’t know.
While this solution sounds logical and somewhat obvious, it is not easy. It is difficult for people who consider themselves experts in their fields to admit that they do not know stuff. There is also the lingering problem that if your staff lacks diversity, who are you going to ask for initial feedback? And do not even think of handing all the diverse books to the one person of color you have on staff to do sensitivity reads. One person cannot possibly be expected to speak for his or her entire cultural/racial/ethnic group, let alone for others outside that person’s experience. This is outside the scope of anyone’s realistic expertise.
At Lee & Low, one attempt to increase people’s knowledge and sensitivity has been ongoing staff training. Last year, the majority of our staff underwent diversity training. Initially, when Allie Jane Bruce, children’s librarian at Bank Street College of Education, suggested we invest in diversity training, I was not open to it. Lee & Low has been at the forefront of publishing diverse children’s books for more than two decades. We talk about diversity issues all the time. In my mind, we had paid our dues and had invested the time and money to acquire diversity training on the job. I thought we were already experts, but one thought kept coming back to me. Since I personally push myself to read and learn about racism and discrimination issues anyway, was there really such a thing as too much knowledge? So I changed my mind and we underwent the training. We listened and we learned. It was worth it. Today we reinforce our past training by conducting our own in-house diversity meetings every couple of months to stay sharp on the issues. Our staff is becoming more comfortable discussing what society deems too taboo to be brought up at the dinner table. The learning continues.
Publishing is a super detail-oriented profession. We strive for near-perfection and collectively get bent out of shape when a typo makes it all the way to print without someone catching it. Imagine the horror, not to mention loss of revenue, when an incident of cultural appropriation, a whitewashed cover, or an unintended incident of overt racism makes it to print and readers call you on it. Now imagine that you are a review journal that has just given a star to the offending book. We do not have to imagine these things because they are happening right now. Such incidents make our industry lose credibility. The books that are challenged are questioned about their quality as works of literature and the impact they will have on young readers. But these books have also sparked questions in the minds of some readers about whether or not reviewers are in a position to judge accurately what constitutes good literature, especially when it comes to diverse titles.
There are no shortcuts for the kind of vetting that needs to take place when publishing and reviewing the authenticity of diverse books. As with publishing in general, becoming an expert in diverse publishing and reviewing requires time and effort—perhaps even 10,000 hours.
While many publishers know how to make great books and reviewers are adept at spotting good stories, diversity is still outside most of our industry’s wheelhouse. Given that the majority of publishing staff is 79 percent white and reviewer staff is 89 percent white, we must ask ourselves whether the current workforce can ever treat the subject matter of diverse books with the same amount of deep understanding, compassion, and respect that books with white protagonists receive.
The data from the DBS revealed the lack of diversity in publishing and reviewing and acted as one of the catalysts that prompted some in the industry to start the long process for change. An increase in diverse staff at all levels will bring more cultural insight and make for better books. Hopefully, public controversies will not deter publishers from tackling diverse books, but will instead have the opposite effect of galvanizing people to rise to the challenge. Controversies should help us see our blind spots better, and inspire us to take the time to become experts in areas where we fall short. We have a long way to go before we achieve any kind of parity of representation. Diversity work is not easy, but worthwhile goals rarely are.
On a macro level, publishing does not operate in a vacuum. Other industries, such as film, television, and theater struggle with their own sets of diversity gaps**. Society at large is at a crossroads when it comes to race and diversity. The issues are constantly and vehemently debated in the news and online. Our future relative to how we relate to one another as human beings is uncertain now that new leadership has been chosen, which will influence the trajectory of progress or retreat for years to come. When we conduct the Diversity Baseline Survey v.2.0, what will the numbers say? Will the current political dysfunction dictate our industry’s lack of diversity, or will we forge our own path? Whatever the survey results tell us, it will be clear where we stand, since the numbers do not lie.
* The data is from the Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS), located at: http://wp.me/p5BWS6-35T
** Lee & Low posted the Diversity Gap series on blog.leeandlow.com, which shows statistics and interviews related to diversity problems in other industries.
Jason Low is the publisher and a co-owner of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Founded in 1991, Lee & Low celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2016. Lee & Low was named the 2014 Indie Publisher of the Year by Foreword Magazine. The Eric Carle Museum also selected Lee & Low as the recipient of its 2016 Angel Award for the company’s dedication to diverse books and to a new generation of artists and authors who offer children both mirrors and windows to the world.