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.
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.
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 Kitchen. But, 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.