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Who will read about who?

Whom? I never get that right.

In either case, J. L. Bell has posted one of the smartest things I’ve yet read about color and reading. Much of the current blogging discussion about the “whitewashing” of covers, etc., assumes that if evil publishers and ignorant librarians would only change their ways and open their eyes they would see a world of unprejudiced young readers eager to devour books regardless of the color of skin on the cover or on the main character. But as Bell asks, do we know this to be true or do we simply want to believe it?

I’ve been working on an essay about the last ten years in children’s book publishing (note to ALA: yes, it’s coming, already) and while I can be as self-righteous as anyone about the cynicism of publishing, I can also see that the school and library forces that, in the past, informed a moral code in children’s books have an increasingly small impact upon an increasingly small piece of the business. The gatekeepers didn’t “make” Harry Potter or Twilight, they followed along.

On a related note, I laughed when I read a reader’s comment about the Times report on the Oscar nominations: “‘Urban drama’ means there are black people in it, in case anyone was wondering. Come ON, New York Times!”

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Hope Vestergaard says:

    >Ooh, ooh! A grammar knot I can untangle with confidence! Who is the subject, whom is the object. When in doubt, I reword the sentence to use "him" to double check. Who will read about him? If him works, you need that pesky 'm.'

    I am here revisiting your last post in which someone asserted Liar and the second cover controversy book would never have been published had they been written by people of color. Why the heck not?! Back to comment surfing.

  2. Rachel Stark says:

    >I think that question's spot-on; in fact, that's basically what I just finished blogging about here:

    There probably is some conservatism from publishing houses that really is affecting the whitewashing of covers. After all, with the economy looking bad and aspects of the book industry looking even worse, publishers aren't going to take risks if they're not sure what readers will buy.

    But there's also probably a reason they're not sure: because some prejudice still exists in readers, too.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Anonymous says:

    >What seems to be missing from both Bell's post and Colleen Mondor's many posts is that publishers, for forty years, have conditioned us to believe that any book with a minority on the cover is going to be about racism and it's going to be grim. No surprise that they can't sell books with minorities on the front of them! And it may not be racism. It may be there just isn't a big market for books that make you feel bad.

    I think at a rate of about 25 to 1, I prefer more cheerful stuff.

    Finally, publishers have stories like Magic Under Glass to print, but they can't produce accurate cover art for it, for fear I will look at it, think "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," and move on.

    Publishers have marketed themselves into a corner and they are going to have to figure out how to market themselves back out.

    I'm posting here because I'm wondering if I am just 180 degrees wrong about this and I can rely on you guys to set me straight.


  4. J. L. Bell says:

    >Saying that “publishers…have conditioned us to believe” suggests that publishers have acted on a plan, or at least knowingly. But what about those market forces, kiest? Perhaps book consumers have been far more willing to buy books with black faces on their covers if they’re serious stories about racism.

    I think you’ll find black children on a variety of books that aren’t about racism, such as Ezra Jack Keats’s Hi, Cat!, Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, and my own Soap Science. There are different reasons for those choices: inclusiveness in a group, an African setting, etc.

    Certainly books about racism in America (or, in some cases, about poverty arising in large part from racism) have more black characters than other fiction. Equally, almost any historical fiction about African-Americans, and a fair amount of contemporary fiction, has to tackle racism in some way to be accurate. And if that topic’s a focus of a book, its publisher will signal that on the cover in order to attract the most likely buyers.

    But does addressing racism make a book necessarily “grim”? Are Christopher Paul Curtis’s novels grim, for example? Are the Pleasant Company’s Addy books? I think different people have different interest or tolerance for serious topics, or reminders of inequalities in our society. Do such books all “make you feel bad,” or do they make you feel bad?

    I think we’re in agreement that “cheerful,” even escapist, books do tend to have a lot of white main characters. In historical fiction we readers are supposed to experience how another person would have lived. Escapist fiction aims to let us imagine ourselves in other situations. Readers seeking escapism might prefer books in which they can see themselves most easily, without having to jump over our culture’s barriers of race, gender, etc.

  5. >Roger – first I really don't think I ever said that publishers were evil or librarians ignorant. In fact I went out of my way to say all publishers were not evil and I went out of my way to obtain a quote from Tim at Dutton on the great job he did with Flygirl. I was, in fact, trying to push back against the prevailing notion in the blogosphere that pubs are to blame for anything and everything.

    I included a lot of quotes from authors to show the many ways in which the issue of diversity in kidlit is perceived and I tried to let them speak for themselves as much as possible. But I think I was pretty balanced. I'll say it here though to be perfectly clear – I don't think any publisher is evil and I sure don't think librarians are ignorant.

    I personally think however there is a disconnect in terms of race that occurs at some point after picture book phase – multicultural pbs are not uncommon or unpopular and yet when you move into MG there are fewer Kids of Color and then into YA there are fewer still. Alot of authors think this is the publishers or librarians/booksellers faults. I don't know whose fault it is – I'd love it to be somebody's fault so we could change their mind and move on. I just know how it is because of the many many books i receive. And if indeed Caucasian teenagers just flat won't read books with Afr American protagonists then that is something that needs to be changed.

    Because it is wrong.

    So no, I'm not blaming anyone. I didn't blame anyone in my article. I don't think millions of White kids are waiting for a book with Black hero and being prevented from that moment by pubs or librarians. However – I do have to note that for all the years of guarding against change, Disney learned that millions of girls of every race were perfectly happy with a new Black princess.

    And if that's not escapist fiction, I don't know what is.

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    >Colleen, I wasn't referring in particular to anything you wrote, instead commenting on the general feeling among the bloggers (it seems to me) that the reason covers get whitewashed and people of color marginalized is prejudiced or obtuse adults–if adults didn't get in the way, young readers in large numbers would welcome books and covers of all covers. I hear Rousseau talking! (And not the one from Lost)

    The bone I have to pick with you is your call for reviewers to constantly seek out and announce what used to be called "racism by omission," that ism pointing out where a character could just as well have been a POC as a white girl (like Meyer's Bella). I don't think it's a reviewer's job to knock a book for not being about something else.

    I think Anon above has a point, J.L.'s hairsplitting notwithstanding. Whether consciously or not, book covers with black characters DO tend more often than not to be on stories about the difficulties of surviving as a POC in a world dominated by whites (for fiction; picture books work very differently, with black people on the cover most often signalling racial pride and harmony). Yes, it is completely racist that most readers are going to think that Liar, with its newly more accurate cover, is going to more-than-incidently be about "being" a POC, but it's publishing history as much as the reader's own institutionalized racism that causes that to be so.

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >that should be, in the first paragraph, " . . .covers of all COLORS." I'll drink my coffee first next time.

  8. >You know, as a reader, I care less about "whitewashed" covers and more about the range of published authors — most American authors and publishing people and librarians are Very White. I'd love to learn more about what's happening in other countries where the racial balance is different.

    As for bloggers: they love to be self-righteous and make mountains out of molehills. They need hits and material and it's a lot easier to get outraged and blog than actually do something in the real world. And please note how few of them are published authors and how many of them want to be.

    Sorry for the screed, but I am sick and tired of blogging outrage.

  9. >Roger – I certainly don't think that Bella should have been anything other than what she is. (Well, other than SLIGHTLY LESS PASSIVE!! ha) I'm not demanding we write Meyer nastygrams demanding to know why Bella isn't Af American or Asian, etc. My point in that post is that the default, in a book completely not about race, is White. Bella could have been Black and the story would have been same. She could have been Native Americ and it would have been the same, etc.

    I'm not picking a race fight with Meyer at all. I just used Bella to make that point because everybody knows who Bella is. (Same reason I used Percy Jackson in that comparison.) Is it wrong that they are White? Please. No. I just think it's wrong that characters like them (meaning characters in general titles) are White 99% of the time. And based on all those conversations with authors I had during putting that Bookslut piece together, I really think it is because there is an outdated notion that Kids of Color can not sell a general readership book.

    Can you see what I mean?

    So it's not about Bella or the other White characters that are out there. It's about all the Kids of Color in books that aren't getting published.

    (And please note my columns – I've never gone after an author for not including Kids of Color in a book – I've just tried to include great books that do.)

  10. J. L. Bell says:

    >I don’t think it’s “hair-splitting” to question a blanket statement like, “any book with a minority on the cover is going to be about racism and it's going to be grim.” That seems like the sort of prejudicial statement we should avoid.

    We’re on more solid ground starting with your observation that ”book covers with black characters DO tend more often than not to be on stories about the difficulties of surviving as a POC in a world dominated by whites (for fiction; picture books work very differently, with black people on the cover most often signalling racial pride and harmony).”

    I still question the linkage between “stories about the difficulties of surviving as a POC in a world dominated by whites” and books that are “grim.” Some books on that topic offer humor and adventure as well. And if the protagonist succeeds in surviving or better, why can’t all readers enjoy that success the same way we enjoy the success of protagonists in other environments?

    For a number of reasons, of course. One is that Serious Issues are, well, serious. Another is that a lot of historical fiction about Serious Issues avoids broad humor to avoid making light of said issues. And I also wonder if some white readers feel that books about racism are accusing them, if not for past racism than for benefiting from the effects of past racism today.

  11. Roger Sutton says:

    >Colleen, I was referring to these comments from a January 4 post of yours:
    "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."

    To "lament" a problem you and I agree is real at the expense of a book in hand is unfair. I also think it is over-blithe to suggest that you can easily change the color of character–it's disrespectful of both the author's work and of the ethnicity you might have preferred to see. I'm reminded of a board book edition of Blanche Fisher Wright's old Mother Goose, wherein roughly one out of six of the children's faces in the illustrations had been overlaid with medium-brown to make the book look "diverse." To review, for example, a Sammy Keyes book, and say "this is great but it would have been better if Sammy had been Latina" is to dismiss the integrity of the author's work and to assume it's both easy and good for an author to write from the point of view of a cultural identity about which she may know nothing.

  12. >"I also think it is over-blithe to suggest that you can easily change the color of character–it's disrespectful of both the author's work and of the ethnicity you might have preferred to see."

    I don't think that was what *I* read into her comments. I could be wrong, but I very much read it as: We see the 'default character' in children's lit as white. There is no reason why a different character (in similar stories) as the protagonist can't be a POC, and have it still be a good story.

    There would be nothing lost is Nancy Drew was not a blue eyed, blonde girl, and instead African American, Asian, or Hispanic.I don't know that there's always a case of needing to change things based on ethnicity- It's been a while since I've read Nancy drew, but I don't remember her being specifically sweedish, or italian, or german, and so on; I don't remember anything with specific cultural siginifcance beyond Christmas. So I don't think everyone has to have cultural traditions written into the story- and if it doesn't, I don't see why some characters, characters we consider the default, can't be pocs. We don't have to replace the white characters, we could just stand to have more not-white ones too.

    "and to assume it's both easy and good for an author to write from the point of view of a cultural identity about which she may know nothing."

    It may not always be easy, but since when has writing been easy? It's quite possible to research the culture you plan to write about, and not doing it is worse than doing it. It ends up smacking of Stephenie Meyer's research laziness. But doing the research? That's great.

    And to assume author's can't write from different perspectives is to tell me that J.K. Rowling didn't write a young boy named Harry Potter, or that all numbers of men didn't write little girls, or that every Royal Diaries book was written by a person in which the princess was from (France for Marie Antoinette, Korea for Sondok, and so on, and so forth.)

    It's entirely possible. You just have to put forth effort.

  13. Roger Sutton says:

    >Turtle, can you write a mystery story similar to the Nancy Drew series and have the heroine be black? Absolutely, and what a great idea. But it wouldn't-couldn't-shouldn't be the same story. I would suggest that Nancy Drew has more cultural markers of white middle-classdom than most of us even notice because we are so in the thick of them ourselves.

    The choice of a protagonist's ethnicity is more than hard work, and if that work begins with a goal of social progress–"the world NEEDS a book with a black girl detective, and, by golly, I'm gonna write it"–you've started the wrong way. For me, this is not a question of who-can-write-about who, it's instead about characters and story growing organically from each other, and both born from the writer's imagination, not his or her good intentions.

  14. >Turtle, I am not sure Roger conveyed how offensive the book produced by your philosophy can be. An African-American Nancy Drew would be wonderful. A white Nancy Drew described as having brown skin, but without real racial characterization, is just about the worst thing ever. When we read something that feels forced, we don't just think it's bad writing, we feel manipulated, cheated and lied to. So when you write a book with a character of color in it, you don't get any credit for "trying." You are taking on a huge responsibility to not let your good intentions wound a vulnerable reader, especially when you know your reader is a child.

    Which is why, when we have real stories, with real characters of color, it is so important to support them. That is why I pointed out the high correlation between POC on the cover and very serious stories, J.L.'s exceptions notwithstanding. I think that publishers, if they are going to sell books with POC on the covers, have to break our habit of assumptions about the contents of those books. On a personal level, I think we could make a promise to pick up and read the jacket copy of every book we see with a minority character on the cover whether we think we'll be interested in it or not. Just to break any unconscious habits we might have.


  15. >Turtle, I got a little preachy there, sorry. I try not to do that.


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