Diversity

The Diversity Question

Recently there has been an interesting ongoing conversation about diversity in children’s books. It was sparked by the following study: Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about African American people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. What is dramatic about this study is that the CCBC has been counting children’s books featuring people of color since 1985 and, counter-intuitively, the number has decreased. Still, the current numbers or percentages seem fairly dramatic on the surface, but those numbers only reflect books that major trade publishers sent to CCBC, as the organization’s director, K. T. Horning, confirmed. Small and medium-sized publishers were left out, which includes our team at Little Pickle Press. We are a small but growing press and our percentage of characters of color is very high, 8 out of 15 titles portray diversity. But even that percentage is not indicative of what we are doing in this area because a few of those titles have animal characters, which obviously aren’t “diverse” in the usual sense of that word.

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As I have followed this story and read multiple blog posts and articles, the consensus is that publishers are not doing enough to bring people of color into the publishing equation. No doubt that seems to be true. The discussion revolved around myths about ethnic groups and what they bought, the inability of the major Children’s book divisions to sell into different markets, the racism that seems to still operate in major corporate publishing houses, and various other issues. But from my perspective, that “gracious blame” as I would call it, misses the larger point that is not being discussed.

Some writers have hinted at the larger cultural factors, but most have wanted to motivate the publishing industry to do more. I think this discussion needs to be contextualized in the larger container of institutionalized societal racism and, even more importantly, in a discussion of the racism that exists in the public educational systems. With that statement I have undoubtedly called fire and brimstone down upon my own head. But publishers do not a culture make, no matter how often or arrogantly they call themselves the “gatekeepers” of culture. Not only has that not been true historically, in spite of the claim, but now in the era of the digital revolution and high quality DIY and hybrid publishing that gatekeeper nomenclature is patently untrue. If you want to know more about how publishers and editors make decisions about what to publish then you can read one of my articles on the subject. The article will provide a perspective on how culture and its various forms of media makes publishing decisions, not editors and publishers.

What can be demonstrated to be historically important is that the public school system really does have a profound effect on the society and culture that they serve, and that they mold.

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I think the real issues around diversity are subject to what is being taught in schools and what kind of literature our children will read and absorb (I am a new grandfather of twin girls so this subject is now hovering on the horizon for me). The relationship between society, education, and publishing is a very complex one that is affected by federal mandates, historical precedents, library priorities, and state machinations. Those complexities can and do impede any kind of rapid culture change and also mean that what I want won’t happen easily or quickly. I want school boards and school districts to confront racism in new ways. Of course, they will say they are, but if you talk to actual teachers in specific classrooms you hear a different line. I want publishers to create bold children’s books, which they often do, but which are not honored or understood by parents and teachers.

Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the top ten most frequently challenged books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. The ALA condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information. In 2013 the number one most banned book in America was the Captain Underpants series of books by Dav Pilkey. This humorous and outrageous set of books for children ages 7 to 9, by an award winning writer and illustrator, is provoking the ire of thousands of teachers and parents. Why? Because it is aimed at children and not at adults, which is often the problem in this area of publishing. In the 1980s I had the privilege of editing and publishing a book by Maurice Sendak, and he used to tell me outrageous stories about what parents and teachers would say to him about his much banned book, In the Night KitchenBut, I ask, why did they really do that? Those stories were funny, but very sad to me. Weren’t teachers and parents kids once themselves? Do they not remember how much wonder and creativity was coursing through their veins during their school years? Maybe not, but I wish they could and that we all could remember what kinds of books stimulated our minds and imaginations. If we parents and teachers were that free then, we would not hesitate to buy and appreciate books with outrageous characters, and diverse kinds of races and ethnicities. I do believe that we as children’s book publishers, and certainly at Little Pickle Press, will keep including all cultures and races in our books in spite of censorship and myths about limited markets and book banning campaigns.

9 thoughts on “The Diversity Question

  1. Thank you for this evocative thought piece on a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I am proud that Little Pickle Press is on the vanguard of change in the publishing industry. I am committed to publishing thought-provoking children’s literature in which children can see themselves and ask and have answered the questions that will shape them into conscious and responsible adults. I am excited to partner with other like-minded content creators and distribution partners. And I am also ever-so-grateful to have you on our team.

  2. Lots of great thoughts here! The reason why so many excellent small publishers exist is because they saw a need that big publishing wasn’t filling–like the need for books that reflect all of our kids. I’m so glad that the discussion is taking a turn from wondering why the books that are published aren’t more diverse, to creating action to make change happen now, not someday!

  3. The diversity shown in Little Pickle Press books, especially the What Does It Mean To Be… series, was one of the things that first drew me to the company. As a parent of mixed race Muslim children (African/Beninese, Native American, Bohemian, Irish) this is a very important issue for me. It’s not that the children can’t enjoy books about children of any race, though is is nice when they see characters that have similar backgrounds. Rather, it is something that can bring us together, and help to create an understanding and acceptance of people of different races and cultures as we see and celebrate the things we have in common as well as the things that make us different.

  4. Thank you Roy for such a thought provoking piece. It is wonderful to see the variety of characters in Little Pickle Press’ titles and so valuable for our children to have access to content of this quality.

  5. According to 2010 Census data, just 12.3% of the US population reports as African American. You state that the study reflects that just 3% of the children’s books were published for that ethnic population. This fact may be found in the newly-released “Black Stats” (New Press, Jan 28, 2014) African Americans bought $296 million worth of books in 1996 (Target Market News) and we’re 8 years past that time. Is this market worth isolating if it is purely an economic decision for a small, emerging press? I’m not sure this is an “If you build it, they will come” sort of proposition. If more books are published that target the Latino or African American population, will those books be sold primarily to those ethnic groups, which are admittedly smaller, or will they sell to other ethnic groups as well? A US publisher who publishes a book featuring “white kids” knows that – by default or force – everyone will buy the book. Can the same be said for a publisher who chooses to niche in “diversity books”? Remains to be seen. Just as Christian books sometimes achieve crossover and sometimes do not, I think more market research has to take place before any publisher seeking profits and longevity makes an executive decision to increase market share in this category.

  6. I wrote a three-part series on this at http://atalantasapple.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/race-privilege-and-a-kid-on-a-porch-with-a-good-book-part-1/. This was before the timely article in the __Atlantic__. Every Friday, I read to my granddaughter. I purposely choose books that are about diverse characters. We have read about sherpas, saris, Peruvian wool, Puerto Rican vacations out of the city, rooftop sanctuaries, aboriginal art, and so much more. It is incumbent upon librarians to provide books by diverse authors regardless of the particular demographics of their populations. My experience as a teacher and parent is that libraries don’t always try hard enough to find works by authors of color. I recently wrote a fantasy with a bi-racial girl as the main character. It is based on my own experience and childhood growing up in a primarily black neighborhood during the 50’s and 60’s. No one has shown any interest in this book. I am also a poet with a published book that was published by a famous black author, and I will attest to the mountains writers of color seem to face. I am glad this discussion is taking place. I hope such a dialogue brings about change.

  7. The Diversity Question is one I have, personally, pondered for a long time, Roy, and I couldn’t be happier to see this post. I think you hit every single important point in this sentence:

    “What can be demonstrated to be historically important is that the public school system really does have a profound effect on the society and culture that they serve, and that they mold.”

    We, who went through the public system, know how profoundly affected we have been molded by what our teachers thought we should know. Recently, a history teacher friend of mine told me about the amount of weeks spent on each continent and even that spoke volumes to me about what has been VALUED.

    Diversity seems to finally be getting some traction with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on Twitter and I am utterly grateful for that. Thank you for this piece.

  8. The thing that I most appreciate about this post is the indication that there is much more to life than the limited offerings of mainstream media. “The best shows you’re not watching!” and so forth. The idea that I must be told what to like, or how the world should be viewed, has always been repugnant to me, and true diversity in literature and other media is a perfect way to counteract that. Thank you for promoting awareness of such an important subject.

  9. After reading Roy’s post, I felt disheartened and sadden that the books available for kids today are not more reflective of our societal values derived from a “melting pot” heritage that embraces all nationalities, decades of affirmative action programs and a culture that is being shaped by some of the most talented and influential people in the United States including Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama and Bill Cosby. The mainstream publishers are missing the mark on this one and thankfully the independent publishers will fill the void.

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