Note: This post was originally posted in June 2013. An updated study with new statistics can be found here. The infographic below has also been updated.
Since LEE & LOW BOOKS was founded in 1991 we have monitored the number of multicultural children’s books published each year through the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s statistics. Our hope has always been that with all of our efforts and dedication to publishing multicultural books for more than twenty years, we must have made a difference. Surprisingly, the needle has not moved. Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, children’s book publishing has not kept pace. We asked academics, authors, librarians, educators, and reviewers if they could put their fingers on the reason why the number of diverse books has not increased.
Kathleen T. Horning, Director of Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: I think we saw the numbers of multicultural books flatlining when school and public libraries began to get funding cuts, so that publishers came to rely more on bookstores for sales. At around that time, we also saw the rise of Amazon, Borders, and B&N. I’ve heard many times from publishers that the “buyers at B&N” believe multicultural books don’t sell. When they are not stocked in these bookstores, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Librarians and teachers will tell you that the demand is there, at least in the institutional market. I think the answer is to work to restore funding to school and public libraries so that we return to a position of prominence in the market.
Nikki Grimes, Poet/Author: I’m not sure I know the full answer to that question, but I do think the changes in the industry have affected authors of color disproportionately. With the shift from backlist to frontlist, and from school and library markets to blockbuster-craving bookstore markets, fewer authors of color have been able to secure contracts. Wonderful poets like Janet Wong, for example, have shifted to self-publishing alternatives for precisely this reason. I, myself, am finding it exceedingly challenging to sell at the level I was even five years ago. There are still too few people of color represented in the decision-making positions in publishing, as well. But I think it’s more than that. I think authors of color who do not produce manuscripts that fit an expected demographic, who, for example, are writing books featuring characters who are middle class, instead of poor, or characters who live in two-parent households, instead of single-parent homes, are finding it difficult to place their manuscripts. That, of course, speaks to the perception that only people of color will want to purchase books by people of color, and so publishers want to play to the audience which they believe—wrongly or not—is the average, or the norm.
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University: I suspect that, at bottom, there is a concern among large publishers, in spite of the success of publishers like Lee & Low, that multicultural books will not sell as well as they would like. If my closest big chain bookstore is typical, it seems that even the books about people of color that are published are not marketed heavily or well. I have trouble finding children’s books about people of color on their shelves. If I want a specific book I have to order it. I find that my local independent bookstore is the best source, because it is owned by knowledgeable persons committed to selling high-quality literature, including books that reflect America’s diversity. And we know what’s happened to many independent bookstores nationwide.
On the other side, there may be factors that give the impression that the market for such books is small. There may be a perception among some teachers and others whose job it is to connect children and books that “multicultural books” are only for or mainly for so-called minorities, rather than for all children. Therefore, they may not be in widespread use in classrooms, which could be one potential market. In perusing journal articles on children’s literature in the classroom, one finds few mentions of so-called multicultural books as part of literature or literacy lessons, unless that is the specific focus of the piece. And in my experience, parents and others who seek books about people of color for the children in their lives have a difficult time even knowing what’s available. So they don’t ask for such books at their chain stores and the stores think there is no demand for them.
Vicky Smith, Children’s and Teen Editor, Kirkus Reviews: I have heard and participated in discussion after discussion after discussion about the lack of representation of minority voices in children’s literature, so I’m not sure I have much new to offer. One thing, though, strikes me, and that’s how much the world of children’s literature is like a family. In so many ways, that’s a wonderful thing: By and large, we all seem to like each other, and I’m not sure you can say that about many other industries. But it also means that we don’t have to work very hard to look outside our family for our resources, and since we are a largely white clan, I suspect that these warm, firm relationships are part of the problem.
It’s an environment where connections mean everything. I have heard many aspiring authors and illustrators say it’s as hard to get an agent’s attention these days as an editor’s, and with that extra gatekeeper between creators and publication, people who are not within our network are operating at a terrible disadvantage. An agent friend of mine told me that she gives a piece of slush [an unsolicited manuscript] sixty seconds, no more. That’s an awfully high barrier for an unknown to leap. My guess is that people who know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody might get ninety or even one hundred twenty seconds, which might make all the difference.
With editors working faster and faster and under greater and greater pressure to put out the next Big Thing, the temptation to rely on a known quantity, even if of a degree or two of separation, rather than a complete unknown must be very difficult to resist. (I think this is probably especially true in YA, where the commodification of the book has reached dangerous levels—I think for some people it may be all about the movie deals and not about the books.)
Debbie Reese, Tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo; graduate student in Library/Information Science, San Jose State; formerly Assistant Professor in American Indian Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: I think that if we were to do a count of books by not-Native people that are marketed as being about American Indians (like Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk), or that feature Native people in some way (like Meyer’s Twilight or Mickaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear and its sequel), we’d find quite a lot of books.
For my own area of knowledge . . . America/Americans love “Indians” of a certain kind. For some, it’s like a fetish. Because they adhere to the bogus images in books like those above, they find books about real Native people boring. If we don’t walk on water, they’re not interested in us. They don’t care to know what sovereignty is or means. They want vision quests and the like.
So books that you and I want to promote—those that accurately reflect Native peoples—especially of today, are at risk! I hate, hate, hate to even write those words, but I think they are true.
As I write, I’m at the Association of Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums conference in New Mexico. As I flew to Santa Fe, the two white women in the seat in front of me were talking about missionaries and “squaws.” I was so irate. I wondered whether or not I ought to speak up. During the trip, the pilot said he was from Albuquerque and would be narrating our flight. Rather than confront the women, I wrote him a brief letter, telling him what I’d heard and how he could interrupt misinformation in the passengers he brings into NM by casually adding information about present-day American Indians to his narrative. I also told him what is wrong with the terms “squaw” and “papoose.”
Part of the point of telling you about this incident is that Santa Fe is a popular tourist town, and people flock there to see Indians, buy jewelry and art, etc. They carry such massive misinformation, much of it planted in their minds when they were kids by stereotypes in the books they read. Cooper, Meyer, Mikaelson . . . they uphold that misinformation. They keep that circle of misinformation intact, unbroken.
In a book chapter I wrote, I included something Simon Ortiz said about how people want Indian legends, but not the Indians of today who fight for our sovereignty, for our rights, for our intellectual property, for our rights of representation (UN declaration), and so on.
Betsy Bird, School Library Journal blogger at A Fuse #8 Production: It would be nice if there were a single solitary answer that we could point our fingers at with a collective “J’ACCUSE!!” Unfortunately, I think what we’re dealing with here is a multi-pronged problem. The public outcry for more multicultural books has so far been more of a public whimper. My hope is that with the rise of the Common Core Standards Curriculum we’re going to see more and more people asking for materials starring and written by diverse people. Then there’s the creation standpoint. How many authors or illustrators are people of color? How many editors? How many folks in marketing and sales? Finally, we need to officially address how we feel about white authors and illustrators writing books about people of other races. Is it never okay? Sometimes okay? Always okay?
Like I said, it’s a many headed Hydra of difficulties. It can be overcome. There just needs to be a concentrated effort.
Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor, St Catherine University: I don’t have evidence for this, but I think that most publishers have not diversified their staff enough, have not trained their staff enough in cultural competency, and are still hesitant to take a chance on new authors. Although they know that diversity continues to be an issue, they maintain that all they’re looking for is a “good story,” but perhaps their criteria are still determined by what they already know and are comfortable with.
Next, marketing continues to be an issue. I recently attended a Booklist webinar where some big publishers promoted their new spring books. If a book cover had any people on it, they were white people, except one: Gabby Douglas’ biography. It appears that for a nonwhite person to make the cover of a book that will be promoted through a Booklist webinar, you have to be an exceptional character—an Olympic gold medalist. So if diverse books aren’t being strongly marketed, how will they be purchased? If they’re not purchased, then publishers can say, “diverse books don’t sell.”
Language in marketing also matters. I’ve received letters from editors promoting their Asian/Asian American books that contained problematic language. For example, one editor used the word “exotic” in his letter. While this word itself is relatively neutral, as an Asian American woman I found it distasteful because I know the history of white males exoticizing Asian women, goods, etc., and that’s immediately what comes to mind whenever I hear or read that word. Someone with more knowledge about Asian American issues would know this and probably not use that word in his or her promotional materials. I wonder how many other Asian Americans are turned off from books that are marketed using words such as “exotic” “foreign,” etc?
At the heart of the issue I think is the question of authorship. I hope that people would want to read more works about certain cultures or experiences that are written by people who are from that culture or who have experienced that particular experience. Although not uniformly, I’m wary of non-Asian Americans who have written Asian American stories because I’ve read so many patronizing, Othering texts. I worry that publishers look for established white authors whose books they know will sell, rather than take a chance on a new author whose engagement with a particular culture may be more nuanced, more real. But how will editors know that if they don’t know much about the culture? What if something doesn’t seem “real” to them, but it really is real to the culture? A friend of mine is trying to get her transracial adoption YA novel published, and one editor questioned “Why does the protagonist struggle so much with her race?” or something like that. If editors could trust authors a little more, or perhaps enlist the help of a consultant, then perhaps we could move beyond these kinds of questions.
Uma Krishnaswami, Author: It seems to me that as long as so-called “multicultural” books, even award-winning ones, are placed in a separate category and not judged and read and recommended as good books on their own merit, this will continue to be the case.
There’s another factor that may have something to do with this kind of categorization. The world of literary publishing (for grownups, that is to say) has been affected by social movements that made their way into theory (feminism, post colonialism). Such trends made it possible for writers (Alice Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and so many more) to be considered as writers first. We in children’s literature, however, have pretty much allowed those enriching, transformative “isms” to pass us by. We like to think we’re above and beyond that sort of theorizing. Story comes first for us, we writers like to insist, and yes, it should. At the same time, there’s a phenomenon in children’s books that the adult literary market doesn’t have to contend with. Many of those who buy books for children still cling sentimentally to the books they remember with nostalgia from their own childhoods. Some of those books—not all, but some—are terribly dated in terms of the social and political norms they represent. If we questioned the canon more, if we used the tools of theory to do so, maybe we’d be more open to new work from writers of color or about characters of color.
Dr. Jane M. Gangi, Associate Professor, Division of Education, Mount Saint Mary College: One theory is that editors are quite often white, and quite often supported by husbands who make more money than they do. We tend to choose books that “mirror” us.
Jonda McNair of Clemson University has written that mainstream white publishers underestimate the amount of money people of color spend on books.
We grow up in the myth that whiteness is and should be the default; we don’t question it. Not even my students of color question it. One student from Puerto Rico asked me, “Why did I have to wait until college to realize there was something wrong with this picture?” She did not know Puerto Ricans wrote books until eighth grade.
Dr. Katie Cunningham, Assistant Professor, Manhattanville College: There is no easy answer to the perpetuation of a plateau in the number of multicultural children’s books being published. As someone who approaches these topics with a critical literacy lens, I am brought back to questions of power, positioning, and perspective.
Children’s literature is driven by what schools, families, and libraries purchase. Schools continue to purchase books that align with curriculum that is oftentimes created by outside agencies. In my thirteen years in teaching, I’ve seen the deterioration of teachers as curriculum creators with increasingly limited power to determine what they’re teaching and the resources they can draw from. When texts are predetermined, those in positions of power to purchase books for classrooms tend to stick to traditional children’s literature. The exemplars suggested by the Common Core State Standards Committee maintain this status quo. Many teachers also have limited knowledge of the field of children’s literature and have few opportunities to engage in professional development that could increase their knowledge of what is available and which texts could tap into the identities and interests of their students. Families often turn to educators for suggestions about what to purchase to support their children as readers at home. When teachers have limited knowledge of multicultural literature they are unable to support families in multicultural selections.
From my experiences as an urban and a suburban resident, libraries have the greatest number of multicultural texts. It is librarians who are the scholars of children’s literature and should be seen as tremendous resources within school and local communities. Librarians should continue to purchase the ALA winners each year beyond the Caldecott and Newbery-winning titles. They have great opportunities to educate communities about the power of mirror and window books for all children of all ages. It’s time for teachers, parents, and librarians to take stock of the books they are reading aloud and putting in children’s hands and critically question whether the books they read represent our increasingly diverse society.
The act of publishing multicultural books is a political statement. LEE & LOW BOOKS has chosen to address an existing problem in a concrete way—and nothing is more concrete than books. If readers feel the same, they must also address the problem in a concrete way: by buying them. True activism that entails supporting diverse books in both words AND buying power is crucial. If this does not occur, our diversity mission, although well intentioned, will remain a niche market when it should be a mainstream one.
The main problem is that the many efforts for equality are separate. Women petition for women’s rights. African Americans care about the well being of other African Americans. Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans work to gain equality and acceptance for those of similar backgrounds. But do Latino/Hispanic people worry about the affairs of Asians? Are Asians concerned about the plight of Native Americans? The lack of unity keeps progress from gaining any significant momentum. A shift toward “human rights” is long overdue.
This is not an isolated incident, but a wide reaching societal problem.
Read more Diversity Gap studies on:
Further resources on how to teach content and visual literacy using Lee & Low Books’ infographics series on the Diversity Gap: