The number of children’s books featuring racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity has not kept pace with the growing diversity of the United States population. Census data from 2008 shows that 34% of the population is minorities. In contrast, the number of children’s books reflecting diversity is about 13% of the books published each year. Since 1994, when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center started to keep statistics of children’s books published by and about people of color, I’ve watched this percentage inch up and down. But there has never been a significant improvement or decline.
There’s an interesting discussion going on over at January Magazine this week about whether we should establish a ratings system for books. The blogger over there, Tony, read an upcoming YA book billed for ages 14 and up. But some 70 pages in, Tony discovered content that he felt was a little, um, mature for the average 14-year-old reader:
“14 and up, I thought. 14 and up? 14 and up?! To me, ’14 and up’ is just another way of saying PG-13. . . . As the father of boys aged 13 and 9, who both love to read, I am now officially worried. Is this the stuff of books for Young Readers? For 14 and up?”
In the professional world of books, made up of librarians and publishers and booksellers, any complaint about the appropriateness of content tends to illicit a knee-jerk reaction and cry of censorship. And, frankly, when people are removing dictionaries from schools because they contain definitions of words that parents deem inappropriate, it’s not hard to see why. But Tony has a sensible argument: Shouldn’t there at least be some sort of rating so readers know what they are getting themselves into?
In August 2009 there was a controversy over a novel with cover art that showed a white face even though the main character of the story was black. The main argument for featuring a white face instead of a black face seems to be a belief that readers are more likely to buy a book with a white face on it. The cover was changed by the publisher because of the uproar it caused on the web, but the incident got me thinking about the images on the covers of our own books, especially since we are a publisher that focuses on diversity.
One hundred percent of the time diverse faces stare out from the covers of our books. Does this mean that only Asian American readers buy Asian books and African Americans only purchase our African or African American titles? If this were the case, we would have been out of business a long time ago. Our publishing mission is based on the idea that the universality of themes contained in our books appeal to a wide audience. A book that takes place in Southeast Asia, for example, should capture the imaginations of both a white child in Minnesota and a child of South Asian descent because of the common themes that bind us together.
You might have already seen today’s big publishing news: Kirkus Reviews is closing, according to Publishers Weekly and the ever-informative A Fuse #8. Kirkus, which has been publishing book reviews since 1933, is a print review journal mainly used by librarians and booksellers when they make their purchasing decisions. While other review journals like School Library Journal only come out monthly, Kirkus is (well, was) published every other week, so it reviewed a great many published books, and gained something of a reputation for Telling It Like It Is.
Today I am conducting a joint blog with author/illustrator, Christy Hale. We are going to talk about the nuts and bolts behind planning a book launch. A successful book launch doesn’t just happen all by itself. It takes a significant amount of planning, organization, and coordination. Over the years, we have sponsored many book launches and although they are a fun reason to get people together to celebrate a joyous occasion they are not usually very profitable for any of the parties involved. Yes, profitability is one of those subjects that people don’t like to discuss, but selling books acts as the unquestionable measuring stick to tell you if your book launch was successful or not.
Recently, Christy held a book launch for her new book The East-West House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan. It was successful in both the amount of people who turned up and the amount of books sold. The launch also led to other connections and events that Christy was able to follow up with after the book launch had ended.
JL: Christy, can you detail for us some of the initial planning you conducted to get the book launch started?
CH: I’ve received invitations to launch parties at other Books Inc. stores in the Bay Area, so I knew the stores were open to this kind of event. I did not have an existing relationship with the local store, but two of the members of my writer’s group attend a book club meeting there regularly, and knew the person I needed to contact to set up my event. I e-mailed and together we selected a date.
JL: What kind of promotion did Books Inc. do for the launch?
CH: Though my book was published Sept 1, I didn’t contact Books Inc. soon enough for a September event—unless I wanted an event without the store’s publicity. I opted to postpone my launch until October. Books Inc. ran ads in newspapers. In addition they have their own newsletter that highlighted events for the whole month. They posted the event on their website, plus my book was reviewed on their blog prior to the event.
JL: What kind of promotion did you do for the launch?
CH: I designed an e-vite and e-mailed people in my address book. I created an event on Facebook, and sent out invitations to Facebook friends. Both of these are FREE ways of contacting people. I designed simple postcard invitations and sent them snail mail to people I could not contact through e-mail or Facebook. I also gave family members and friends stacks of these postcard invitations to give to their friends.
I contacted local elementary school librarians, and asked the librarian at my daughter’s old elementary school to put an announcement in their e-mail newsletter. I sent invitations to the public librarians. Members of my writer’s group extended invitations to their friends and their children’s school communities. I enlisted lots of help! My near and dear ones were excited for me and wanted to do what they could. I felt enveloped in good will.