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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. Ummm….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.

comments

I'm with you, Colleen. This year I vow to blog about more (many many more) children's and young adult books featuring diverse characters!

Thanks for this motivating post. :)

On a related note, how about more *humor* in books about non-white, non-straight characters? Hooray for Christopher Paul Curtis!

Thank you for this post, Colleen. It's so easy to become complacent about this, and I'm as guilty as anybody I know (and guiltier than many). I just submitted an application for a stipend to attend the YALSA Symposium which has diversity as its theme this year, and thinking about it, I became very aware how ignorant I am on the subject of diversity in publishing.

Love that you linked to Chameleon there, I would never have heard about it if it wasn't for you and would I have missed out.

Great post and it is so easy to become complacent about this issue (and to wish for money and space to be able to buy all the books in the world). I'm going to make a serious effort to present major, rather than minor diversity in my reviews this year.

I think non-Holocaust books about Jews are simply not getting publicity, or not getting publicity that points out they have Jewish characters. Of course, I've tried to list such books in the past and been nit-picked and told the books I suggest aren't enough. Not Jewish enough, or they add "or holidays or bar/bat mitzvahs" to the list of things that are "done".

Strawberry Hill, The Importance of Wings, Any Which Wall, Brooklyn Bridge, and A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life all come to mind immediately.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be more of these books, but hoping to point out that it isn't enough just to read them or review them; I think we have to make them visible, be careful not to bury identities in our reviews.

Yep - I remember "Brief Chapter" which I thought was well done (although overall I didn't love it as much as other folks did - but I was burned out on dead parents).

I just reviewed "Any Which Wall" and while I missed the fact that the kids were Jewish. What did Laurel include that pointed to there religion? Do you remember because I'm completely blanking out on that.

And yes you are dead on about not burying the identities in the reviews. One of the things I brought up in "Heart of a Shepherd" was the very deft hand the author used with religion - making Catholicism and Quakerism part of the story but not overburdening it. This was a much a story about a Catholic kid as it was about a military kid...which is an amazing balancing act when you think about it.

Reading your post bubbled up a question I posed myself and couldn't answer: Why do I feel qualified, as a white woman, to write about people older and younger than I, male and female, historical, contemporary and extra-planetary, but not of another ethnicity? Why am I afraid of getting it wrong if I write about the experience of other races of humans, but feel perfectly confident with elves and vampires? Is it a lack of imagination on my part? Timidity? An appropriate respect?

I think it is fear, Skyler and I completely understand it. I think it is fear of getting it wrong, fear of looking like tokenism, just fear of what you think you don't know. But I'd counter all that by saying, for me personally, I don't think I could write an effective honest novel about teens (for example) growing up on a farm regardless of their skin color. I don't know beans about farming. However, ask me about middle class teens growing up in Central FL and I can go on forever about the close proximity to Disney, the beach, seeing the space shots, eating hush puppies, drinking sweet tea etc. It wouldn't matter what color those kids were as the rest of their lives is so much in my comfort zone.

So we should write what we know, to a certain extent, but not be completely paralyzed by that.

As to why vamps and elves are so easy, I have no idea but you're right!! Ha!

Thanks so much for continuing this conversation. I agree with pretty much all of it, and I am always learning from bloggers like you and LaTonya and authors like Cynthia Leitich Smith. I just wanted to mention that the small press I'm starting will be focused on diverse fantasy and science fiction for young readers, so I hope that we can be part of this change you're calling for. We're just one little guy, of course, but hopefully we can be part of the solution.


Our part of it won't start until we publish our first season of books, of course, and for that to happen, we need manuscripts. So if you know any writers with good MG/YA SFF manuscripts featuring diverse characters, please point them to our website and submission guidelines (http://www.tupublishing.com).


Also, to address Skyler's fears of writing from a cultural/ethnic point of view that's not her own, author Nisi Shawl has a great post on writing transracially at the SFWA site here: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/12/transracial-writing-for-the-sincere/. She has some really great advice on doing your research, talking to people in the group you want to write about, etc.

The protagonists in my books have been Asian-American, Jewish, white and mixed-race. However, race is always just part of the fabric of my novels and never at the center of them.

I write realistic contemporary fiction and I get lots of letters from kids. Very few comment on the race of the MCs, but rather they relate to their situations, their feelings, their fears. Kids identify with a character first, then once they do, an understanding of their race can follow.

Do we need more books with main character if different races, religions, sexual orientations? Well, duh, yes!

Hi Colleen! Trying to leave a message again. Testing!

Amen! I couldn't have said it better.

"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."

Talk means little without action. I don't want white readers feeling guilty and wringing their hands. I want you reading, buying, blogging brown. I want rountable talks and Open letters to publishers and editors. I want a coalition of diversity advocates at BEA, ALA and other major conferences.

In 2010, there's going to be more than reviews. Lots more.

Kudos, Colleen.

Amen.

I'm a librarian just starting a YA lit review blog, and I'm going to incorporate your suggestions into my future reviews. Thank you for your call to action--I'm heeding it.

The talking is what we have all been doing forever - expect more "Demand Diversity from XXX" posts from me in the future. Yep, I'm going to name names when I see a catalog, etc. from certain pubs. And while I have no desire to beat up on authors (especially when they have written great books) I do plan to call it out when I note that a perfectly fine book where ethnicity is not a factor in the story is still filled solely with Caucasian characters.

As a reader, that drives me nuts and I'm tired of saying nothing about it.

Fantastic (as always), Colleen. I look forward to more ranty posts about diversity. =) I definitely see the white bias in the editor/publishing field as being more the factor here than the authors not writing about characters of color (or LBGT or disabled or etc.).

This reminds me of the blog posts I was reading earlier this month around fat acceptance and YA novels about being fat -- the covers are not actually showing fat characters (http://stackedbooks.blogspot.com/2009/12/where-have-all-fat-girls-gone.html). So that's all marketing. This can be about marketing, too. The Liar controversy definitely showed that bloggers and kidlit writers have power in the industry, but we need to stand up and say what we think with one voice.

I appreciate the shout-out as always, Colleen, and have been really thrilled to hear teachers and librarians tell me that SPR is a book that fills a niche in the contemporary/realistic fiction market. I can tell you that when I was working on it, I did read just about every other comparable (in genre) title out there--which didn't take long.
(Though, props to NEVER MIND THE GOLDBERGS, GOY CRAZY, and HOW TO RUIN A SUMMER VACATION.)

But I'd point out that the problem seems to be coming from editors/publishers. When we were shopping Punk Rock, we were consistently told that our audience was "too niche." I'm glad to take us one step past this chicken/egg conundrum, but do wish it weren't quite as necessary or dire to do so.

Great post, Colleen! And, of course, I owe you a huge debt because your review of my self-published book granted it a certain kind of legitimacy in the world of books. I definitely think that naming names will have an impact...readers are often surprised to know that out of 5000 books published for kids annually, less than 100 are written by black authors (and the stats are as bad or worse for other people of color). We have to work against the perception that everything's ok in the publishing world, that editors are well-intending people who try their best to be inclusive, and that the Liar cover controversy was a one-time event instead of a consistent and deliberate practice of marketing/manipulating race. So yes, let's expose publishers who put out one or two titles a year or recycle the same old stories about people of color. Once we know their names, will we write to the publisher and demand change? How do we find an actual person to hold accountable? In some ways, publishing reminds me of the police force/blue wall of silence. How do we penetrate that "wall" if no one in the industry's willing to admit wrongdoing?

It is always the specifics that makes this kind of thing tough, Zetta, and I'm thinking about it in a major way. I do think that first we can say "ABC Publishing has 1 Book with a POC on the cover vs 25 with Caucasian kids". Now, do we all send the marketing folks there an email about that? I don't think it would hurt - they do this for marketing and we are saying the marketing did not work. (Which is why Deb in Marketing got all the emails on the Liar cover last fall.) But we have to go one step past that for content - we have to get to editorial. What I would like to do is commend authors who edit great books on KOC (Like Micol's book or Chameleon, etc.). Let them know we appreciate their efforts. I think we could get those names by emailing the authors and asking and even if we don't get the editor's emails we could send them open emails on our own blogs.

We need to positive as well as negative.

Still working on it, but it's coming together.

Argh my first comment didn't go through!

*Testing*

Fantastic post, Colleen and I will do my part by posting more reviews, author interviews and giveaways of books aobut poc. No more excuses about not knowing any books about poc. People need to look and we should call out publishing companies.

Ok it works

Thank you for using a bit from my post :) I completely agree that we need more books not only about poc but about Jewish teens. Yes the Holocaust was important, but it's also important to have stories about everyday teens and Jewish teens who are magical, or who live in another time period, etc. All the books suggested in the comments are good and I also suggest I Wanna Be Your Shoebox. The main character,Yumi is Jewish, Cuban and Japanese. She spends most of her time with her grandfather.

Thank you for making this commitment and helping to spread awareness!

Was linked here by Ari. =D

Awesome post. I'm behind you all the way. I'll do my best in keeping with my part on reviewing and blogging POC books and will start pointing out white-as-default narratives. (I do point it out for Canadian lit stuff because I notice that more, but I'll keep my eyes peeled for the non-Canadian titles too. ^^;) And yes, argh, everything you said is true about SFF. I love speculative fiction and fantasy especially but nowadays I feel like I can't even make myself pick up a medieval setting fantasy because they don't even try to create worlds that have humans who aren't white.

Also, a bit off tangent but Chameleon sounds cool. I haven't even heard of it until now, but I'm putting it on my to-read list for sure. =D

Yes on the medieval setting - never understood why, even when strictly historical fantasy, it is so so so Caucasian. (At least Morgan Freeman was in the "Robin Hood"!)

"Chameleon" is just a great coming-of-age story with some truly good characters. It is realistic, funny as all get out, and quite endearing, while still be very much a book about teenage boys. One of my all time favorite teen titles.

Nicola

I am so glad to see this. I just finished a 3 book YA paranormal romance series. I've got two AA MC's,along with Asian, Native American, Hispanic, White,and Biracial characters. It's set in a upper middle class environment and I feared that I would catch hell coming and going getting it agented.

Guess what? I'm over that fear. There is a market for YA romance with kids of color represented in a positive way. If not,I will damned sure make one. Something has got to give. I am tired of seeing teens of color portrayed so horribly and the terrible assumption that they don't like to read must end.

I am about to start querying it and I'm going to go hard for it. Thanks so much for posting this and the responses are awesome.

Good luck Nicola - and do stop back and let me know when you get a sale!

Well said Colleen

Susan is ready to call people out. I hope that means we'll be seeing Mama Lockdown again.

I will gladly give thanks to publishers who recongize color. They need to know this is what we want and what we deserve.

I really thought after the Liar cover controversy there would reviews of books with poc. (everyone was so outraged)

Everyone is screaming and writing letters about how wrong the initial Liar cover was, then afterwards there was a limited increase of reviews with characters of color.

If things are going to change everyone is going to have show the publishers that we want it.

Be it buying, reviewing, selling, or suggesting books with characters of color

I can actually think of quite a few historical novels with African American characters not set around the Civil War era, or with Jewish characters not set around the Holocaust/WW2 however, I am probably a bit of an unusual reader - I've been *really* into historical fiction since I was around 8 years old (I'm now almost 25) and was a fast reader as a child that devoured a book a day - so I've read a lot of really obscure MG & YA historical novels over the years that probably didn't get a ton of marketing or attention. If anyone is interested I can provide some titles/authors to look for.

Sorry to join this conversation late - I just found out about it via author Jacqueline Davies' interview on Biblio File, a stop on the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour. Jackie wrote LOST, a YA novel with a Jewish MC, Lower East Side turn of the century setting - not an unusual setting for Jewish characters but at least not Holocaust!

I'm a synagogue librarian/Jewishlit podcaster and I've been involved with the Sydney Taylor Book Awards for many years (annual prize for best Jewish YA/kidlit), so I'm much more aware of non-Holocaust Jewish titles than the average reader. I agree with the comment about it being a rich source of conflict that makes a moving story, as does the Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, etc. Some of these are excellent books, but it's definitely true that we need a better balance, we need more books with Jewish, POC, LGBTQ and other diverse characters that don't focus on the hardships of being part of those groups.

We also have to remember to be fluid in our depictions of these groups. Most books with Jewish characters feature white European ("Ashkenazi") Jews, but there are plenty of Sephardic Jews and Jews of color too. We're just beginning to see them depicted in kidlit, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Kar-Ben Publishing.

Wendy makes the good point that the Jewish books, at least, are out there but they need more publicity. I'm happy to say that some of those she names have gotten recognition that may help them: Brooklyn Bridge and The Importance of Wings were both Sydney Taylor gold medalists, and A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life and Strawberry Hill were Sydney Taylor Notables. (She also mentioned Any Which Wall, which is GREAT, but the Jewish content was too subtle for it to fit the criteria of this award).

I think it's important to point out the error of publishers' ways, but I also really like the idea of using positive reinforcement. That's basically what the Sydney Taylor Book Award does, it rewards "good behavior" by authors and publishers. It'd be great if we can find a way to celebrate the good stuff while still demanding more of it.

I'm excited to tune back in on the 15th and see what everyone's buzzing about!

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