I was going to call this post "Promote Diversity in Publishing" but then I thought, you know we are way past talk of promotion. The 2009 Finalists for the Cybils were announced on Friday and they have sparked a fantastic discussion that is building across the web on race in children's and teen literature. As everyone who has taken part in this has made clear, it is not about the Cybils themselves but what the nomination lists and now finalists, have revealed about race (and I would add sexual orientation) in publishing. To be blunt, most of the books out there have Caucasian authors and Caucasian characters and while folks are annoyed about this, they are also spending a lot of time shaking their heads and saying "I don't really know what to do".
Fine, so, let us now do something.
First, Susan has a killer post up about her frustration over Black characters all too often being relegated to slavery and Civil Rights Movement narratives when it comes to historical fiction. Here's a bit:
What the frack! Is it any wonder why my nephews and countless other children of all colors are less than enthused about getting books with black characters because those books almost always are books about us blacks being hung, sprayed or chased by dogs? Come on. I don't want to speculate why black children's literature is routinely recognized only in historical narratives. At the moment I don't want to speculate if it's because publishers refuse to publish anything else by us or it's because non-poc readers only seem to accept us in limited roles. I know this much: we, black people for damn sure are sick of being pigeon-holed.
Or consider what an actual teen has to say about this:
If an author really likes the Civil War and wants to write about African Americans how about you write about the life of AA soldiers or spies? It's new and it's different! But ultimately, try and leave slavery alone. It doesn't make me feel all that much better, most of the time it just makes me angry, even if the protagonist triumphs in the end. The same thing applies to the Civil Rights movement; find a different, unexplored perspective! Most stories featuring an AA protagonist are told from the side of the non violent civil rights movement. That's fine, but I'd like to see more books about the Black Panthers and the Black is Beautiful movement and anything else that is relevant to that time period. But how about something more original and different? There are so many unexplored aspects of AA history. African Americans have been a part of American history since it's conception so where are the books about our role in the Revolutionary war, the war of 1812, WWI, WWII, Vietnam (any war except the Civil War!). I could name countless YA titles for each of these wars with white main characters.
Honestly, Chains might be all that and a bag of chips to you but the big exciting thing about it for many was just that it was slavery set during the American Revolution and not the Civil War! Wow! From where I'm sitting (with so many freaking slave stories to come through my door in five years that it's not even funny) this is still just about another Black child at the mercy of a White man. And we have seen it before and before and before. And as well written as all these books might be, there are just too bloody many of them and they are published at the expense of a thousand books about the Harlem Renaissance and World War II (Thank you Mare's War and Flygirl) and World War I (can you name a novel set during that war with Black characters?) and on and on. I remember Kekla Magoon (whose novel about the Black Panthers, The Rock and River is a standout exception to all this), saying in her interview with Betsy last year:
There was slavery, then Abraham Lincoln. Segregation, then Rosa Parks. Then Dr. King came along, and now we're all living happily ever after. Ummmâ€¦.simplified much?
She was speaking there about the heroic focus of Black History Lit - that's its rarely about lesser known stories and she's correct on that score as well. But the larger issue is that there is a publishing narrative when it comes to historical fiction for Blacks in this country and it starts with defenseless slaves and ends with Dr. King. Everything else is just part of that story and rarely departs from those well worn plots.
And that is just African Americans.
Tell me right now, without naming Micol Ostow's excellent So Punk Rock, the last MG or YA book you read with Jewish characters that was not about the Holocaust. Can you name five? Can you name ten? Yeah - not so easy is it? I am stunned to still be turning the pages in publishing catalogs and every single time seeing Holocaust literature. Really? We need to write about that genocide again but have nothing to say about the Armenians or Rwandans or Cambodians or the Chinese in Nanking or the Bosnians? We still need to write about children hiding from the Nazis but have nothing - NOTHING - to say about Tutsis hiding from Hutus? Are you kidding me? Could we be any deeper in a collective rut?
Moving from historical fiction, you would think that after Sherman Alexie and Gene Yang won such accolades for their books that we would be knee deep in Native American and Asian American coming-of-age stories - that trends based on those wins and decent sales would have been recognized and developed. You would think, but no dice. And what reason is there that so many SFF stories have few minority characters? Charlotte did an amazing analysis of the SFF MG noms for the Cybils and out of 98 nominated books she counted 8 - EIGHT - with Kids of Color for protagonists. When she broadened it to supporting characters she got up to 18 (and in one of those the KOC gets sacrificed for the Caucasian protagonist in the second chapter which has not gone without notice).
So where am I going with all this? It has been mentioned in the comments at Susan's that books on slavery and the Holocaust are important. I get that. I'm a former history teacher so yeah, I get that. My point is that you would have to wade through thousands of those books before you would come up screaming that you have read all the historical fiction on slavery and the Holocaust (and the Civil Rights Movement) and HAVE NOTHING ELSE TO READ. It is out there. It is everywhere. It is bloody well covered, thank you very much. Can you publish more books on these subjects? Sure. But don't do it thinking that checks off the diversity box for that season's releases and don't read one thinking you've fulfilled the requirements of a diversity reading challenge.
Don't let us all be that lazy anymore.
All we are doing with those books is all too often rehashing what we learned in school and would it kill us to want something more than that? To want different historical fiction or - can you image - contemporary stories with KOC or Jewish or GBLTQ characters? More mysteries, more SFF, more thrillers, more adventures, more PICTURE BOOKS ABOUT LITTLE HAPPY CHILDREN WHO COULD BE ANY COLOR AND IT WOULDN'T AFFECT THE STORY ONE BIT!!!!!!!!!!!!
The other thing to come out of this discussion is that while lots of folks are very concerned and supportive at Susan's and elsewhere, there is also a lot being said about how publishing must change and we need to do something about that which also means that society must change and we really need to work towards doing something about that and, well, what on earth can a bunch of bloggers do about promoting diversity in publishing?
Get ready, because this is where the work starts.
We have to make this a big deal. No more holding a diversity challenge and thinking that is enough. No more having an event where we look at books by POC or with diverse protagonists. No more making diversity something we look at on special days or for special reasons. And no more letting publishers off easy for releasing predictable titles on predictable subjects. No more accepting the constant and continuous pigeonholing by race. We have to get angry and we have to get loud and we have to get demanding. We have to review books with GBLTQ characters or Kids of Color or different religions all the freaking time. And when we don't see enough of them in a genre (hello Science Fiction and Fantasy, I'm looking at you) then we yell about it and we ask other people to yell about it. When we read a book about a Black teen that is great then we not only review it but we tell our friends - we suggest they read it as well. So, for example, Doret reads Zetta Elliott's A Wish After Midnight and she knows I'm looking for KOC in SF so tells Zetta to email me and she does and I read and review the book for Bookslut and then I spread the word to some of my friends and it just keeps going. That's a little thing but it's a ripples in the pond kind of thing. We do the little thing that is easy by recommending and we do the big thing that is hard by screaming.
Those of you witnessed the Liar cover controversy know how this works.
It's going to take some time. It's going to take some calling out (as in "XXX does not have a single book with a non-Caucasian protagonist due out in the Spring"). It's going to take some continuous and thoughtful pounding of an industry that is all too often willfully ignorant, outright lazy and damnably slow when it comes to change. You want to know what to do? Do this:
The next time you review a coming-of-age story with all Caucasian characters make a point of writing what you think of that and if it could have worked just well with a more diverse cast.
The next time you review a mystery with a Caucasian protagonist lament the fact that just because Nancy Drew was White why does it seem that nearly every girl who has followed in her footsteps has to be as well.
And do the same thing for thrillers and adventure and books about vampires and fairies and ghosts and the girl whose mother just died and is very depressed. Do it for all of them.
Think about balance in your reviewing - think about books for kids with black skin or brown, kids who attend a Mosque or Synagogue, kids who go to school on a reservation or Native village in AK or that had grandparents from Asia or the Middle East or India or Kenya or Haiti or Cuba.
Think about everyone else as much as you think about yourself.
The next time you sit down and decide what to read, reach for the book about a group of African American boys coming of age in Compton that is funny and wise and smart and cool instead of yet another rich White kids book.
And maybe we plan to meet across the lit blogosphere every month and lay it on the table. We say who we think is doing it right or who we think is doing it wrong. Every one of us, regardless of the age group or genre you typically review, on like the 15th of the month or something, talks about this. And we take names and take notes and we make a point of being specific.
And we just don't talk about doing something anymore. Instead, for once, we just do something. And let publishing pay attention to us. Let them see how loud the lit blogosphere can be. It will be Demand Diversity in Publishing Day and we will have it over and over and over again. And maybe, just maybe, it could be something great. And then we wouldn't have to talk about this same damn subject ever again.
Just think of that.