This weekend, The NYU Institute of African American Affairs hosted the A is for Anansi Conference on Literature for Children of African Descent. It was a great conference and I was thrilled to be a part of it – it’s always exciting to be in a room full of people who care about books, kids, and social justice issues. A few of the highlights I caught:
Author and publisher Andrea Davis Pinkney started things off with a good news/bad news keynote, sharing a few reasons why some say we are in a “Golden Age of African American Children’s Literature” – a new generation of talented authors and illustrators, more award recognition, etc. – but also shared these dismal numbers that tell us that the number of books by/about people of color has not increased at all since 1994. 1994! In other words, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
I spoke next on a panel about publishing/selling literature about children of African descent. Just Us Books owner Cheryl Willis Hudson moderated, and agent and former bookseller Joe Monti started off with some anecdotes about the resistance big book buyers have to selling covers with people of color. Ultimately, he said, he doesn’t believe race really makes a difference in sales. “A good cover will sell books, and a bad one won’t,” he said.
KT Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, asked an important question: “Why do people only pay attention to these issues when white people start talking about them?”
For my part, I talked about how Lee & Low Books is different from most mainstream publishers because we have to promote both our books and the idea that multicultural books are valuable. That means spending marketing time just talking about race and diversity issues, trying to help people understand 1.) the kinds of disparities and injustices that exist within the publishing industry and in society as a whole, and 2.) how supporting and reading multicultural books can help address those injustices long-term.
A few different authors and illustrators throughout the conference, including Colin Bootman and Nicole Tadgell, talked about how painful it is to work on a book for many months (or sometimes even years) only to see it relegated to the back of the shelves and only taken out for Black History Month.