A few weeks ago Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers wrote columns about diversity in children’s literature for the New York Times. If you haven’t read these articles yet, you can find them here and here. I read these articles with great interest and agreed with the points that were being made. There are serious issues surrounding diversity in publishing and, of primary interest to me, children’s publishing. I’ll admit that I read the articles with a bit of melancholy. They generated a lot of immediate interest, reposting, and conversation, but I wondered if it would last. Were these articles going to epitomize another moment when people in the publishing industry cry out, “Yes, we need more diversity!” and then go back to business as usual? A few weeks later however, I am staggered and very excited that the conversation is not only continuing, but also growing.
There was a round-table discussion of booksellers at ABA’s recent Children’s Institute in San Antonio. Booksellers addressed many of the problems, but also discussed what positive steps we could make. These proposals were taken back to ABA headquarters and I look forward to seeing some of these initiatives being addressed throughout the country. I also see articles every day by authors, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, parents, librarians, children’s lit scholars, people from ACROSS the industry continuing to talk about diversity in publishing. The problem I have however, is that we often get stuck at identifying the problems. We all know that publishing does not adequately reflect the diversity of our country. Just look at this graphic from 2012; the discrepancy is undeniable.
Identifying the problem isn’t enough. But then we start to talk about who is to blame. I don’t want to reiterate these conversations here, because they are too much of a trap. If you can put blame off onto the nameless, faceless market, or publishing industry, then you don’t have to actually deal with it. But the publishing industry is neither nameless nor faceless. It is made up of booksellers whom I consider to be my friends, absolutely lovely people at publishing houses I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting over the past couple of years including editors, art directors, sales directors and representatives, not to mention authors and illustrators who are often just as amazing in person as you think they should be based on reading or seeing their books. Publishing isn’t a machine; it is a community populated by individuals. And from where I stand most of these individuals do care. We care about diversity. We care about kids. We care about books. We care about making the world a better place; we think that books are fantastically fun vehicles to engage with the world and that, yes, books have the power to change the world.
Hearing the problems is depressing. Blaming the industry or the market fails to help anyone. Like the drug campaign in the 80s these conversations quite possibly do more damage than good. They undermine all the people who are actively working to make changes. They foster further isolation and convince people that no one else really cares. They don’t empower people to step up and try to do something, because people are left feeling like they’ll be alone, that their efforts will be futile, or that the problem is just too big. Nevertheless, I’ve seen a lot of people being proactive lately and I am excited. For example check out Diversify – A New Blog Series, Elizabeth Bluemle’s post for booksellers, True or False? Multicultural Books Don’t Sell, Daniel José Older’s recent post Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing, and Kelly Jensen’s We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kid Lit, all of which contain a strong call to action for everyone.
We need to change the narrative. Let’s start telling the positive stories, because they are there. Authors of color write books. Characters of color — who are amazing role models — exist in everything from board books to YA. Publishers choose to publish and promote books that celebrate diversity. Booksellers hand sell great books that have it all — identifiable characters, great writing, engaging stories, and are inclusive. All people purchase books that include a wide range of diversity. Teachers and librarians are contentious about putting inclusive books in their classrooms and libraries. Parents actively encourage their children to be knowledgeable citizens and seek out books that will help support the messages they are trying to convey. Kids of all backgrounds happily read books about kids of all backgrounds.
Ultimately talking about diversity in publishing demands self-reflexivity and action. My concerns are about what I can do. What choices I am making. What I am doing to maintain the status quo, whether or not I realize it. What I am doing to encourage and support diversity, whether or not I realize it. So I want to hear from you. You, the individual, whether you are a reader, author, publisher, bookseller, librarian, teacher, parent, concerned citizen, any combination of the above who identifies as a book lover. I work in a primarily children’s bookstore on Cape Cod in MA. I handle the digital media, the store events, and I work schools and other organizations in town. I volunteer on committees in the publishing industry and in my community. I believe our store strives to support diversity and inclusion, but I know we can do more. I know I can do more. I’ve been thinking about these conversations a lot lately. I have some ideas and I know it’s time to start experimenting and implementing concrete actions. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have suggestions or advice, please tell me. What do you think a bookseller can do? What can I do next?