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A very good question

Lee and Low’s blog is asking a good question: “Why hasn’t the number of multicultural books increased in eighteen years?” They have assembled a good variety of responses, and I have two more, one only semi-facetious and one perhaps semi-impolitic:

Semi-facetious response: While the blog states the disparity between the non-white population in this country (37% of the whole) and the percentage of children’s books with “multicultural content” (hovering around 10% over the last eighteen years), I want to know what percentage of children’s books are in the first place about people (as opposed to talking rabbits or outer space, for example). Things may look worse than they are.

Semi-impolitic response: The Coretta Scott King Awards have been both blessing and curse. Blessing, because they have allowed some amazing books to have been published that probably would not have been otherwise; and curse, because they have straitened publishers’ ideas about what a good “multicultural book” should be: earnest, good-for-you, and preferably historical. We need more rubbish!

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. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    And more books about African American geeks, says Yolanda Hare:

  2. I have to admit, it makes me cringe that an article examining this subject so deeply neglected to use a better term in its headline than “multicultural” to mean “representing one or more cultures other than the dominant one.”

  3. AllisonGK says:

    I agree with Shoshana. And that was just one thing about that article that made me cringe. Thanks for your straightforward thoughts, Mr. Sutton. I always appreciate people who are willing to address descrimination, inequality and racism without squirming or talking around the edges with political correctness.

  4. Here, here Roger! As a 2-time CSK winner, it is hard to pitch a straightforward book (picture or YA) that is silly or different that features a character of color. Publishers tend to save the “serious” subjects for other cultures. Whistle for Willie was the perfect example of a book aimed at any child but oh yeah, Willie just happens to be black.

  5. I have a rabbit picture book coming out in March, 2014, from Harcourt. It was inspired by a Cuban folktale, but the rabbit does not have a name, so there is no way to tell that it is a Latino rabbit.

  6. Thank you, Señor Sutton, for stirring the pot!.
    I am actually thinking that should we know the number of books that are actually about people (vs those that are about rabbits, spoons, or outer space) we might still find that the publication of books that represent the experience of other cultures “other than the dominant one” (sorry, I don’t know of a better term than multicultural either, Shoshana, good point), it might still be lower in proportion than other books. I am curious to know the answer. Now, I am not sure that the “multicultural” book is one that manages to depict a prominent character in a variety of colors and ethnicity. The exploration of other cultural experiences is more than making the skin color darker or naming the main character Juan.
    It comes to right now the conversation we had at my writer’s critique group a couple of weeks ago about a certain rabbit story. We were talking about Duncan Tonatiuh’s ( Pural Belpre current winner) newest book, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. Pancho Rabbit is an animal-talking story that refers unequivocally to the Latino immigrant experience. Now, in my critique group I am the only Mexican born, Spanish speaking member (and the only one that still needs great correcting when it comes to the utilization of the English), and the discussion we were having was about the ending of the story. You see, in our group, the Revisionaries, there is a common consensus that our stories must work hard to have the main protagonist find the solution to his or her or its own problem. Many a story had been sent back home for revisions when we fail to empower the main character to find her own solution (and, man, I am talking about stories where we discuss for ever the “motivations” of the mouse, or the bee, or the rabbit, or a preschooler wearing shoes in the wrong feet, and in one case even a fly). In Pancho Rabbit and the coyote, Pancho Rabbit decides to go north in a search of his father only to end up himself at the mercy of Coyote who is ready to eat him up. If this story had been workshoped at our group meetings, everybody would have insisted that Pancho Rabbit needed to find himself a way out of his terrible predicament; but in Tonatiuh’s story, lost Papa Rabbit appears at the scene to save the main protagonist. The discussions were flying!
    At the end of our night this is what we were discussing: in the Latin-American culture, a father solving a child’s problem is part of a goof ending for a story. It makes sense, it tells children that parents are there for you (specially a father that might have gone north to work in the lettuce and carrot fields). Should i mention that among my Mexican family parents are there for you even even if you are already a grown man or woman living at home at a very adult age? That is a cultural truth, one that, like many more from many other cultures, will shape the storytelling of books told in the voices of book creators from different ethnicity.
    Having the opportunity of listening to all this voices is what i find most enriching about the United States–let it be in a serious good-for y-you book, or in one about alien rabbits.

  7. Kate Barsotti says:

    I often wonder if white authors sometimes shy away from writing stories with characters of other ethnicities because they are afraid of getting it wrong. I have several African and African-American characters in my MG draft, one Piankashaw Indian, a mixed-race Creole, and one Spaniard (so far).

    I started this story as a medieval-ish fantasy and realized, while I enjoy those novels, I cannot do it as a writer. I’d be very happy never to type the word “sword” or “milady.” I found my stride in a local setting.

    The fantasy is set in 1850 Ozarks, which meant I had to tackle freedom and slavery as part of the book. I am using words in the book I’d never use in person, racist words, because there are racist characters and it was common at that time (although I’ve tried to keep it to a minimum).

    Will people get what I am doing? Or wil they say my kickass black warrior with magical powers is a Magical Negro? ( He is not, for many reasons, but that’s the risk I am taking.

    If I use the “n-word” in dialogue by a racist character, is that appropriate? If I don’t use it, am I being dishonest and letting racists off too lightly? Do I take it out, knowing the book would be challenged if it were to be published?

    That being said, these characters are so lovely and astounding to me. I have zero regrets about going this route. I also know how long it too for me to work up the guts to write about it and the emotional stamina to do the research.

  8. Margarita engle says:

    It is not appropriate to use that word, and it is not appropriate to stereotype Native Americans as magical shamans (any more than all Europeans should be stereotyped as priests).

  9. And then there’s Gary Soto’s Chato Goes Cruisin’, featuring talking cats who are 1) clearly Latino and 2) I think probably maybe gay. It can be done!

  10. I totally agree – I’ve had more people come in the library in the past year asking for books with African American characters that “don’t preach a lesson” or have anything to do with civil rights or slavery. Le’s have ’em ALL! (What about “The Hello/Goodbye Window” by Norton Juster or “Pecan Pie Baby” by Jacqueline Woodson?)

  11. There is a common perception that non-white characters in children’s books come under extra scrutiny for authenticity. So I’m curious if that that rings true for reviewers. Do you linger over a non-white character and ask yourself if this representation is fair, correct, and helpful in a way you don’t for white characters?

    And if so is that part of the problem? I’ve heard plenty of white authors say they’d never write a non-white character because they’d be afraid to get it wrong. And given how hard it is to get attention for any book, why should an author risk their credibility to advance the cause of multicultural literacy?
    I have some thoughts on the subject over at the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors blog today but I’d love to her what you think.

  12. In the first few chapters of The Lightning Thief, Percy is described very sparingly – “brown eyes” is I think all we get. I was crossing my fingers SO HARD hoping that he’d turn out to be black. Same thing for Gregor the Overlander. It isn’t until the book is well along that his sister is described as having blond hair. You could hear my disappointed sigh from here to – I hope – Suzanne Collins’s writing desk. Kid lived in Harlem, for gosh sake! Why couldn’t he have been African American?

  13. Regina Griffin says:

    Roger, you’re so right; I especially hear you when you use the word earnest.
    Not only do we need more books that are simply fun, starring characters who reflect ourselves, our neighbors, and our country, we must also make sure that the books we publish do not focus only on two or so historical periods of a people, limiting an entire culture. These blogs remind me of a few years ago, when Walter Dean Myers grabbed me at both a BEA and an ALA to look at all the covers, which he felt were less diverse than in the late ’70s and ’80s. That was one depressing walk.

    A year or so ago, while presenting books to both Scholastic for the fairs and clubs and later to some librarians, we were astonished that two little mysteries we had published received such a welcome. The reason: the covers had kids of different backgrounds on them. Astonished because the buyers spoke of such a dearth of covers like that, for those age levels, and on books that were light genre books, not earnest historical fiction. This was true for our YA Bitter Melon, as well.

    We publishers are a big part of the problem, I regret to say, but articles and comments like these will remind us and keep us on our toes.

  14. I wonder how seriously people are looking for multicultural books which are not directed toward problem areas. I was in a school recently (as National Ambassador) and was told they had all of my books. Okay, a stretch as I’ve done over a hundred, but…the books missing were the Scholastic books about the Cruisers, a gifted and talented group of kids from Harlem, the story of a kid playing in the Negro Leagues, the story of a black cowboy, Carmen an updating of the opera, Riot, the story of the draft riots of 1863, Here in Harlem, poetry, the Blues of Flats Brown, Harlem Summer, etc. . In short, the books that find the most market acceptability are not the books that some of the correspondents say they’re looking for. Moreover, the market over the last fifteen years, for children’s books as well as for adult African American literature, has been identified as largely bookstores. That’s were the profits are (with film tie-ins, etc. It stands to reason that the poorest sector of the economy will be less of the market and, therefore, less sought out.

  15. I don’t think writers need to purposefully advance any agenda. In Mountain Dog, the boy is Cuban-American simply because I am Cuban-American, but the story is about wilderness search and rescue dogs, not specifically a culturally themed book (because any lost hiker from any background hopes to be rescued!). It’s the same in my picture book, When You Wander, a Search and Rescue Dog Story—I specifically requested illustrations showing a culturally and sexually ambiguous child, so that anyone could identify with the need to be found.

  16. What word would you use to replace “multicultural”? I think we still don’t really have ideal language to discuss race issues, but I’m wondering what word you think would work best.

  17. As a reviewer I appreciate this conversation. I can never be an ‘expert’ on every character or topic that appears in a book I am requested to review. I want the writing to make the character of whatever color or enthicity come alive. A geek, a unicorn, magician or studious shy child. All need to be their own unique selves. I struggle when — as Yuyi so vividly describes– there is a preception that one character has to represent everyone from his group. It’s just not possible. And so, yeah, Dad can come to the rescue, or a girl can need help from her friends, and a short American Indian can be a basketball star.

  18. Good question, Hannah. I think it depends on the context, and there are times when “multicultural” is still an appropriate term. If a particular book depicts more than one culture, then I think it’s fine to call that book multicultural (or diverse); same goes for a body of literature containing books that represent different cultures. A reading list containing, say, Anna Hibiscus, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and Ramona the Pest might be described that way. But individually, the first two books on that list aren’t any more multicultural than the third one; each of the three is set pretty much within one culture. I might describe the first two as depicting underrepresented cultures, or as depicting cultures that are less familiar to me or to a particular set of readers. Their existence, though, does help to make children’s literature overall a bit more multicultural.

  19. Kate Barsotti says:

    I’ve explored the topic more here as it applies to my current work (for what that’s worth).

    Some of my best writing has been done from the POV of my characters of color. They have unique identities and complex problems/conflicts. I think white writers may fail to make characters of color well-rounded (often too good to be true) out of a feeling of guilt for racism, or worry that character’s human faults will be misconstrued. It’s a way, perhaps, of trying to balance the scales, but a character of color who is too good to be true is, for me, another type of dehumanization, similar to the portrayal of women as self-sacrificing “angels” or mothers who never have a single bad day.

    I am wondering if we are in a loop of self-fulfilling prophesy. Readers may be quite open to books about all ethnicities of characters, but publishers may be leery to take the risk, so the books are not offered up or marketed prominently. They “don’t sell” because they are not there.

    I ordered a used book recently from the 1970’s, a compilation, and I was struck by the effort to show various types of kids. The photos were very balanced. The illustrations, however, tended toward white characters, but I don’t know if that was a conscious editorial choice or if they were fewer illustrations of non-white children to choose from. Perhaps we lost some momentum along the way.

  20. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:
  21. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    We recently received ARCs of two different books about Jewish Indian twelve-year-old girls

  22. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    You know, Yuyi, what you describe is not so far from the formula of those very popular picture books about (implicitly) how much parents love their kids (Mama, Do You Love Me?, etc.). I always thought they spoke more to parents’ own need for approval than to what kids actually care about, but perhaps these books play differently to different cultural groups as well.

    Children’s book reviewers, by and large, are white people, mostly female, and trace their methods and criteria back to a handful of early-to-mid 20th century children’s librarians and book editors. It’s in my professional DNA to resist didacticism, whereas it’s in the CSK criteria to embrace it (“The Award is given to an African American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.”) Where to find common ground?

  23. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Will the book say something like “based on/inspired by a Cuban folktale?” Then you will be all set. 😉

  24. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    One thing I look for in reviewing a book about “another culture” is unlikely information-giving or exoticism, where a character supposedly in that culture (or time period; this is an equal problem with historical fiction) notices and makes much of something that he or she would actually take for granted: “Among My People, an after-school snack is a way of sharing food with a friend after learning is done. Here, friend, have one of these delicious small round cake with a whipped and sweet concoction upon its top. We call it ‘cupcake.’ My mother purchased it in the market-place.” etc. Drives me crazy.

  25. Roger, as an author who has been honored by the CSK award committee five times, I take issue with your description of these books as being didactic. I have never once been accused of writing a book that was didactic, nor was Virginia Hamilton, who was honored with CSK awards at least nine times. In fact, I cannot think of a single CSK award-winning book of which that could be said. As for comments suggesting the need, or desire, for more books by African American authors which are simply fun, or silly, or, if you will, light weight, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few of those, myself. However, in order for that to happen, publishers will need to accept such manuscripts when they come across the transom. I have written such manuscripts, any number of times, but have been unsuccessful in placing them. Publishers seem to prefer books from me which are “serious” and, if at all possible, “edgy”, although I did manage to slip in one funny book, recently, namely Planet Middle School. That, however, was the exception, not the rule. Publishers, in the main, seem to have a very specific idea of what a black book is, or should be, and it is extremely difficult to sell a manuscript which attempts to break out of that box. (Whites are still arguing that the Cosby show was not realistic because they had never heard of a middle class black household in which both parents were professionals!) The CSK Award Committee is not responsible for the lack of diversity in subject matter among books by African American authors. You’ll have to look to publishers on that score.

  26. Thank you for this interesting discussion! Regarding the use of the term “multicultural,” I don’t think that the cast of characters have to be of different races for the book to be multicultural. In “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” it is definitely a blend of Chinese and American values and culture, I consider it a muticultural book. If it were to depict a true Chinese story the main character would never be a girl, never disobey her parents, etc.
    This also relates to the subject Yuyi brings up below, that sometimes authentic cultural storytelling is at odds with review criteria. Many Asian tales are heavy-handed moralistic tales, they were meant to be didactic–a trait that makes most modern American readers shudder. Authors have to balance cultural authenticity with their own values and what will appeal to readers–these delicate adjustments is what give the books that multicultural hyphen (“Asian-American,” “African-American,” etc) and is ultimately how all these books probably should be judged.

  27. Kate Barsotti says:
  28. Roger, this is to answer your question about my rabbit folktale: Folktales are difficult to publish these days, but Reka Simonsen at Harcourt is an angel. The Cuban origin of my rabbit is credited only in the acknowledgments. My intention was to retain the universal nature of folklore, since this tale can also be found in other parts of Latin America. In addition, the other animals in the folktale are African, I changed the plot quite a bit in the process of re-telling it, and I didn’t think preschoolers would understand geography. Finally, since the rabbit is wild, why give it a Spanish or English name, as one might for a pet rabbit?

  29. for some reason, i can’t directly reply to grace,
    but i whole heartedly agree. my YA fantasy novels
    might be inspired by ancient china, but it is a book
    with an asian-american aesthetic. how could it not be?
    i am an asian-american author. but that line is a difficult
    one to navigate, too eastern in thought for the western
    reader, never chinese enough for the reader from china.
    sort of symbolizes our own identities in a way.

  30. i love this yuyi. spot on.

  31. as one of the few PoC authors within young adult, i would say that to rely on us solely (is it our job then?) to write diverse characters would mean progress would be very very slow. i’ve thought about and discussed the issue of writing outside your own experience and culture a lot. i’ve heard the fear of getting it wrong time and again. but the fact of the matter is, as authors, we will *always* get it wrong. it is inevitable that someone will be bothered somehow about something you’ve written. (yes, this has happened to me as an asian-american author.) it is really a matter of being able to Stand by Your Story. as someone outside the experience and culture, it might mean doing more research, looking for beta readers from that culture to offer comments, etc. it most certainly does require more work, respect and understanding.

  32. I think an important direction that publishing has started moving in is books where the characters are minorities, but the books aren’t about culture, ethnicity, or race. Not quite as far as rubbish (though I do like the idea– children will read it!), but a few books come to mind immediately: REDWOODS by Jason Chin, POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY by Lenore Look, and BOBBY VS. GIRLS by Lisa Yee. These books aren’t about anything remotely Asian, but their main characters are. Is REDWOODS considered a multicultural book? Not really. But it is so important to young readers to see a familiar-looking face represented in books, or–better yet– a different-looking face, that I consider it an important addition to multicultural publishing.

  33. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    I so love you, Roger. Thanks for this. Right on target (but then again, you always seem to know what’s on my mind).

    We need more people of color with courage in editing. And then publishers need to give them budget and latitude.

    Until then, things will never get better. We still have too many people who don’t know the culture deciding what is authentic. Too many publishers acquiring that rare book that does resonate and burying it without marketing. And there isn’t enough “diversity” on awards committees.

    Yes – more rubbish please. Because an editors “rubbish” is gold for readers who want to immerse and escape into a story that isn’t always about “race” as the source of conflict.

    Bravo. (and yes – time for ALA members to eliminate the Jim Crow mentality that shunts our books to CSK then mocks them when they are there).

  34. In 2009, in response to a Kindling Words discussion sparked (as I heard it; I wasn’t there) by Christine Taylor-Butler’s honest and painful reflections on this very subject, author and bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle compiled a list of books about kids of color but not about race: “A World Full of Color” –

    There are more than 500 titles, current to early 2010, I believe. Not much “rubbish,” perhaps, but plenty of humor, adventure, mystery and everyday life, about ordinary and extraordinary kids – who just happen to be kids of color. We need lots more, but it’s good to draw from the riches we’ve already got.

  35. Right on, Nikki! You are so on point! I cringe to think what direction this discussion would take if the CSK Awards didn’t exist. We certainly need a wider variety of books that explore the wonderful diversity of our human experience. The CSK Awards don’t stop that exploration.

  36. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    Amen, Renee. Amen.

  37. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    The CSK awards serve a good purpose – but for the most part, those who have served on ALSC committees quietly tell me that books written by African Americans are not considered seriously by their peers for those awards (Newbery, Caldecott, et al) because the “default” mentality has been “Those people have their own awards.” I’ve been hearing disgusted librarians talk about it for years.

    In January 2010, i had an opportunity to view the race issues myself by sitting through every single day of the Notables discussion in Boston. There wasn’t a single minority on the committee that year – and almost every single book authored or illustrated by an African American was disparaged with the exception of Vaunda’s Bad News For Outlaws.

    I don’t say that lightly. At one point, a librarian said the committee should dismiss a book illustrated by a well known illustrator because he used “too many spiritual elements” in his book. I should note the book was a retelling of a Negro spiritual. Another illustrator’s work on an African American astronaut was criticized for the technique used to paint the subject. A different nonfiction book illustrated in almost identical style by a white painter was praised profusely. When someone asked “what’s the difference?” the committee shrugged and someone finally said “better skills.” Since I have an Art degree I can say the assessment wasn’t true.

    I could go on, but I won’t. But the trend held for several days. White authors writing about POC were praised. African Americans crafting books on any subject were criticized and in some cases mocked. Yes mocked.

    What I will tell you is that later, after all discussions were finished the members were informed that they had to include award winners being announced the next day as part of the books chosen. Everyone nodded. Then someone said CSK and there was grousing all around (I was sitting with librarian friends who can vouch for this synopsis). The committee then complained that CSK was “not a major award” and they’d have to grandfather those in. The head of the committee said “No. We have to vote them on to the Notables list because they’re not ALSC and therefore not a major award.” Another member complained “Then that means we have to cut our yield.” How do I remember all of this after all this time? I took notes and at one point another member sitting next to me taped part of it.

    So here’s the problem. CSK award winners aren’t included even in the Amazon advertisements of award winning books. They aren’t celebrated in bookstores. And many of my friends are trying hard to pile up appearances just to get a foothold with schools and librarians but are getting no help from their publishers. I’ve talked to winners who quietly talk about how little the award has done to help them get additional works sold. And some CSK committee members willing to discuss the problem talk about how hard it is to get sales on those books outside of black history month.

    No one is saying CSK should go away. But we are saying it has made getting recognized outside of that narrow litmus test very hard. VERY hard.

    Worse – CSK only recognizes African American who write about African Americans. We can’t write stories outside of those boundaries and be recognized. We can’t write about Africa and be recognized. And a brilliant book about us, written by someone who is not African American can’t be recognized. All while ALSC committees suggest we have our “own” award and discount our books during other award discussions.

    So yes – I get it. There was a time when CSK was sorely needed. It is still needed. But in fixing the problem it created another one. And those same CSK committee members walk by the booths featuring African American authors further marginalizing them while rushing to get an autograph from a non POC bestselling author. I remember buying a book about Obama from a former CSK member who was sitting at an isolated booth at ALA. No librarians or publishers of color were walking that aisle but there were plenty of the same crowding the booths of the “big six.”

    Does that make sense? CSK has become a catch 22. Take it away it leave those authors with nothing. Leave it and pigeon hole them and leave them considered for only that one award. The solution is not eliminating CSK – the solution is to expand it by:

    1. broadening its scope to allow POC to write mainstream works and be recognized.
    2. Get CSK sponsored by ALSC so it’s not considered “back of the bus.”
    3. Fund it so that more librarians can serve on committees – especially those having day to day interaction with the target audience.

    And the solution is to listen to contemporary authors explaining that after 40 years, CSK may unintentionally be closing more doors than it has opened because publishers are more amenable to buying books from POC authors and illustrators that “qualify” under the guise of “less competition” in that award pool.


  38. I aimed for rubbish with my ms — tho I called it Lucky Charms 🙂 — and I learned a few things. In my case, I realized my main character’s working class, Chinese American background was essential to me and this meant I had to allow her background to shape the story. I blog about this in Reworking Your Plot toward the Heart of the Story

    That said, I’d love to see a range in how ethnicity/economic class/etc is used in stories: from it being the source of story conflict, the shape of it, or not at all relevant.

  39. Christine Taylor-Butler, the experience you describe is shocking. When The Surrender Tree received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to any book by a Latino/a, I was surprised to see it omitted from award shelves in bookstores. To this day, it is still omitted, while the other Honor books from the same year are displayed. I have wondered whether this is because Latino topics are seen as “minority,” and therefore not of “general interest.” You have confirmed my suspicions.

  40. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    You may be right – books featuring people of color are considered “niche” books. Not sure how we are a niche given that 50%+ of all children born in the US are racially ethnic. 🙁

  41. Ms. Taylor-Butler makes some good points! So, if white authors are considered for the CSK Awards and when a few of them win, then the CSK Awards will be added to the prestigious “big six”? Hmmmm! Seems to me there is a problem much bigger and more challenging than the current criteria for the Coretta Scott King Awards!

  42. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    That’s a simplistic interpretation and you know it. Even if you meant it facetiously. Of course the problem is bigger than CSK. I can’t see ALSC adopting CSK without a lot of kicking and screaming. But that doesn’t mean CSK shouldn’t evolve into something greater than the sum of its current parts.

    For what it’s worth – my issue is with the way that ALL people of color are getting treated by the system. As Margarita stated, it doesn’t matter “what” award we get. The results are pretty much the same.

  43. Of course, the other awards are fine as they are? If the criteria for the Coretta Scott King Awards are changed as suggested, then what? There should be a much broader discussion is my point. I can understand if the changes for the CSK Awards are suggested as part of that broader approach.I don” think that’s simplistic. It seems that those who are left out have to continuously prove they are worthy of inclusion. What an awesome burden! Maybe we should also push to have people of color included among the decision-makers across the board, selection committees, publishing houses, etc. The moving opening paragraphs of your first entry illustrate this need. The CSK Award is not the only one that is interest-driven. I would also take a look at other awards that target different interests, cultures, etc.

  44. Allie Bruce says:

    Well said, Christine and Margarita!

    What bothers me most about the “niche” mentality that applies to children’s lit featuring people of color is that it doesn’t seem to hold true for the adult market. When a person of color writes a book for grown-ups, the assumption is that there’s something universal about the story. That’s why it’s being published. For kids, it’s the opposite – “you’re Black, let’s get you a Black book.”

    We must stop “matching” kids to books of their “kind” and allow all to tap into the universality that makes great books great no matter what.

  45. Christine Taylor-Butler says:


    Yes – new awards such as LGBT and for the disabled exist because those books aren’t available in large quantities. CSK tried to solve the same problem 40 years ago and has, instead, creating a glaring red flag that says FUBU (For Us, By Us).

    Martin Luther King had a dream. It didn’t include creating an award in which the criteria not only doesn’t embrace all authors of color, but is so narrowly defined that the target audience can’t even qualify after writing about our African heritage. A forty plus year old mission to add more books to the body of work by AA authors now fails because it hasn’t kept up with the needs of contemporary AA families and has historically recognized mostly Civil Rights and Slavery..

    First look at the synopses of each of the 2012 CSK award winners:

    1. “woman shares life story while highlighting pivotal historical events including abolition, the Great Migration, World War II and the Civil Rights movement.

    2. “this portrayal of a band of slave’s nighttime escape”

    3. “highlights a period when may African Americans left the south to make better lives for themselves.”

    4. “sure to become a treasured keepsake for African American families…….a lyrical story about a young black boy who is kidnapped and sold into slavery”

    Am I missing something? And if the goal of this “interest driven” award was to put new talent in place then let’s look at Kyra Hick’s 2011 statistics showing the majority of awards from 1970-2010 have gone to the same handful of authors and illustrators:
    Most notable are these quotes from her charts:

    “41 recipients (male, female and couples) have received 175 awards or 69% of ALL CORETTA SCOTT KING BOOK AWARDS since 1970.”

    “24 Authors (or 31% or all authors) have received 102 awards or 65% of all the Author awards given.”

    “17 Illustrators (or 41% of all illustrators) have received 73 awards or 75% of all Illustrator awards given since 1970.”

    “No New Talent Award for Illustrators have gone on to win another CSK Book Award yet. There have been three New Talent Awards for Authors to go on to win another CSK Book Award: Hope Anita Smith, Sharon Flake, and Sharon Draper.”

    And here where the statistics are glaringly the same:
    Except the percentage of authors receiving the bulk of the awards has risen to 67%

    So of course publishers don’t have to broaden to new talent or to books outside of the “race as central plot thread” mold. CSK doesn’t reward it, nor does it use clout to influence it. It DOES implicitly tell publisher that can go back to the same stable of name brands to fill their ‘slot”. Hence an author was told by a “Big Six” publisher – “We have an African American author. We don’t need another on the list.” I can’t imagine them saying “We already have a White author, we don’t need any more.”

    And if you still need convincing, CCBC’s statistics for all POC ethnicities are shocking. Look at the number of AA authors. It’s not only going down. In 2012 they tracked only 69 book about AA written by AA but 119 were written about us by people who weren’t African Americans. Twice the number. Even combined this number is a tiny percentage of the 3600 books they received from publishers. Even the number of AA authors is misleading because of those 69 books, many if not most are written by just a handful of people.

    The first stop in fixing something is to look at what may be reinforcing it.

  46. Christine, I really appreciate what you had to say about the CSK and in particular the 3 suggestions for improvement.

    I would especially like to see funding from ALA to provide travel stipends for librarians serving on all award committees. Professional Development funding is long gone from most library budgets and unless ALA offers compensation to librarians who can’t get PD funds, we will get the same very shallow pool of award committee members.

    I’d also love to see some requirements for balance in gender, age, region of the country and economic level of the community served in every book award committee. These are fairly big committees. I don’t think it would be so hard to make, say 20% of members from the NE, 20% of members from the SE and so forth. I’d like to see at least 30% of every committee be men and 30% be not white. This would require recruiting but if there were travel funds available, maybe the recruiting would be easier. I’ve heard from plenty of librarians who’d love to serve but simply can’t afford airfare and hotel bills to do it.

  47. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    One final note – and I’ll be brief. One year, my daughter seeking a broader global perspective enrolled in am 8th grade summer program at Phillips Exeter Academy where I am an alum. The school attracted students from all over the world. She called one day angry and I erroneously thought she’d been called a racial slur. It took a while to calm my normally unflappable kid down.

    You see – the school held “Cultural Heritage Day”. Other students were showcasing their country’s dancing, foods, music, etc. And then the black kids stood up. They hadn’t included her because she “talks white” and the assumed (wrongly) that she was rich. Their presentation? Civil Rights and Slavery. Not inventors. Not accomplishments. Not the fact that we existed long before written language. They focused on civil rights and slavery.

    My daughter was livid (and so, then was I). For many of the international students this was their first exposure to our culture and the presentation simply reinforced that limited period of time as if it was the totality of our lives. It reinforced the stereotypes that make their way overseas. After she calmed down I told her “It’s all they know. Because it’s all most adults will teach them.”

    Sad. So sad. We need to address that era. But not to the exclusion of all that came before, has come after and is still to come. I wonder how many more kids would succeed if we stopped pushing adult guilt on them and allowed them to be Harry Potter (or in real life Shirley Jackson) for a change. And that is why CSK needs to change. Because if its the only awards we get, and we have the power to change what OUR OWN people do, then we need to get our butts out of the sand and lift these kids up to a higher purpose.

  48. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    Roseann, I’ve heard the same thing. I think the committee would benefit from more funding so we have broader representation from those who want to serve. Especially POC librarians.

  49. We all need evolving, don’t we? I understand that the CSK award might need to look at a more effective ways to keep empowering the voices of African American’s, but I don’t believe that book award committees are responsible for a narrow point of view in the children’s book world. This discussion made me go a revise some of the titles winners of the CSK, and I have to say that many of these books I encountered when, as a new immigrant, I saw them at the public library. To me they were incredible gateways to a better understudying of the richness of the world I had come to live in. Didactic? I don’t think so; at least that is not how I experienced them; instead I held them in front of my in awe.
    I also went and looked again at the criteria for the Pura Belpre Award, and this is what I found, “(it) is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” Do I flinch to the fact that these awards are only given to people of certain ethnicity? Sincerely no, because, because it is thanks to efforts of many award committees such as these that me, along with many other reader, get to hear and celebrate other voices than only our own.
    Do award criteria need evolving? Sure, and so need the practices of the acquiring teams in the publishing houses, and the rules of the book guardians, and the criteria of book buyers, and even readers need evolving! (and so need our relationships with each other, and the relationship with ourselves). Many, many things still need changing. And after saying of all this I realize that I am the biggest culprit. I, who holds the pen and the brush in front of my paper, am in fault of not been better, of not having richer and more inclusive book ideas, and of not being a pristine artist and a author with a more lucid vision of the world. Yes! It is my fault that I write the books I write, but that is one of the most precious things I have. I’ll do my part–awards or not, having book sellers recommending my books or not, darn! I might still do it without readers, because at the end, my work restores ME. One person at the time, right?
    Thank you, Roger, for the bug inside our minds.

  50. Yuyi: You are you are the “Reyna” Abeja Reyna that is. Well said. Glad you spoke up!

  51. Yuyi, Beautifully stated! We write because we need to communicate, even when no one is listening. Fortunately, one person can make a difference. For this reason, I am grateful to each editor, librarian, teacher, reviewer, independent bookstore, and award committee member who does care about making sure that a wide variety of books becomes available to children of all backgrounds. Roger, and everyone else on this exchange of messages, you made me think of both the positive and negative aspects of the current state of multicultural children’s publishing. The positive actions of individuals is what matters in the long run.

  52. Thank you,Yuyi, for your insight! And thank you for sharing it!!!

  53. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    Your perspective is beautiful, Yuyi

    But can I be honest? If we’re going to tell the truth? We’ve been fighting this battle longer and we’re losing. Badly. And the collateral damage is Black children. Although I am reminded of the young Latino girl I met a few years ago who told her teacher she didn’t know how I was able to go to MIT because I was black. Because, she didn’t know ANY minorities got to go. Then when my affiliation was confirmed asked if she could aspire to that too. A third grader in a neighborhood where its not even a vocabulary word. So maybe it’s all POC children, especially those in areas where the only books they get are provided by schools.

    So after 30 years of trying to push MIT to broaden its scope to those students (I got an award for it), and more than a decade in publishing, my honest answer is…

    Sure. Its great those books are enjoyed by someone outside of the culture. And I am proud of (and know) many of those authors who received awards. But the fact remains, when the lights are off and the banquet is over, mainstream books are not getting into the hands of students who need to see a path out. And no one notices that “sameness” of the subject matter. Which is a PUBLISHING issue. Awards committees can’t recognize what they can’t get their hands on.

    In 35 years I or my team have interviewed close to a thousand college bound students. They’re all top ranking in the nation. And in every case I ask them what they are reading for pleasure. And “our” books aren’t on those lists (regardless of the race of the student). And in class, they’re all “shoved” the obligatory black history books during “black history” month.

    That’s what my friends and I are working to fix. Luckily – the fruits of those labors are starting to show. They’ve shown up as blogs, and articles and behind the scenes discussions. More contracts are being written by publishers getting “a clue.” And small presses such as Shen’s books and Tu which are also pushing to break those molds.

    Ironically, the biggest pushback comes not from without, it’s coming from within the ranks who seem to think the status quo is just fine.Those of us with kids still in the house would beg to differ. Which is why I chose to “call my own people” out. The stastistics and articles posted by many of us in the threads above this pretty paint a grim picture of the “State of African American literature” right now. CSK didn’t create the problem. But the current fixed mind set and limited scope does little to improve it.

    But again – Publishing and changing the mindset of the consumer is the only hope to break the stalemate. If we can get them to see our works as “valued” and not “niche” kids won’t care if a book got an award or not.

  54. Christine, this is why admire people like you so much. I can tell you something from my personal experience: Children’s books change lives, and I can’t get over (and I don’t want to!) their power in the development of self-identity. Perhaps it takes to belong to one of those groups of people that grows up believing that the place where we were born, and the language we speak, and the way we look is all against our best interest, to understand the impact of finding books that authentically celebrate those same things we thought against us.

  55. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    Look! Another resource: A new blog to promote Diverse NON stereotypical YA Literature written by people of color. Applause, Applause

  56. Christine, I’ve been thinking and thinking about this account you’ve written about the awards process, from the standpoint of how we address this in the white community. Though the experience you describe is distressing, it is not shocking to me; that is exactly how unconscious bias works. But I believe that the people who sat on that committee would actually be shocked if they could clearly see – as you did – what they were doing, what it revealed about their unconscious racism, and the harm their attitudes and behaviors are causing.

    So how do we make visible – and shift – attitudes and behaviors that are often invisible to the people with those attitudes and behaviors? I would love to have a forum in the children’s book world in which we could talk frankly about white socialization, which I believe is at the root of this crisis. Being white in this country is “normal,” so race in the white community is unexamined (unless it’s someone else’s) and there’s an enormous silence about it. People absorb and exhibit attitudes and behaviors without having any idea they have them. They’re invisible – until you choose to see them.

    Brain scientists are now mapping unconscious bias and finding that 80% of white people show bias for the white race – including people who are committed to equality and anti-racism. Given the dominance of whiteness in our society, this is no surprise. But white people seem mostly completely unaware that they are carrying this bias and it is leaking out in ways that are quite visible – and often harmful – to people of color.

    Several years ago, we talked about a publishers forum to discuss this crisis. Can we convene such a gathering, and can we talk about whiteness? And about the difference between intention and impact.

  57. Kate Barsotti says:

    I like both Anne’s and Christine’s ideas. I don’t think I am qualified to be a part of the white bias discussion because I don’t have enough insider publishing experience, but I’d love to be a fly on the wall. There’s so much I don’t know.

    1. Do awards influence publishers’ choices in what they publish? If so, how much? Would changing or adding an award encourage publication of books by and about POC?

    2. Are most awards chosen by librarians or others who are not creators of words or images? I’ve often wondered which books would be honored by a committee of illustrators (by this I mean just kids’ books…as far as I know, the Society of Illustrators has a Hall of Fame, but no award just for illustrators of children’s lit.).

    3. There can be weird group-think in any committee. Why don’t we have a straight voting process with selected librarians, with Skype discussions and online ballots? That avoids the expense of travel and then you could ensure more ethnic balance in the committee.

    So many questions…


  58. I love Anne Sibley O’Brien’s idea. The gathering she suggests is something I’d love to see happen, though it’s success will depend, I think, on who puts out the call, as well as who headlines it. If such a gathering is perceived as a “black thing”, I fear the very audience we want to reach will stay away in droves. While it is important that POC are present to lend their/our voices, the push for such a gathering, I believe, almost needs to come from a strong white contingent who see, and understand, the problem and its complexities, themselves. Does that make sense? If the same message were to come from a black person, I don’t think it would be received, or certainly not received as easily, or as thoroughly, as from a contingent of white speakers.

  59. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    If we could find some sponsors, and if you all would promise to help pull it together, I think the Horn Book would be able to produce such a Day of Dialogue (to steal a tag from SLJ). Do you want me to work on this?

  60. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    I think there’s a lot of valid points in the J.L. Bell.

    There is a “third rail” that no one talks about. Akin to The White Man’s Ice Is Colder syndrome: Blacks with disposable income DO buy books. In droves. They just don’t buy “those” books.

    1. the industry has already “trained” the consumer to expect only “issue” and “race” oriented subject matter and plot threads.

    2. Bookstores respond to the trend by assuming the books won’t sell. Or put them in the AA section of the store where the one or two copies will go to die because they are buried underneath a mountain of issue oriented books.

    3. They don’t get a big print run and go midlist or out of print pretty fast.

    4. Hence those of us who want to find the books can’t.

    5. and here it comes (sorry in advance) the CSK books aren’t moving the needle because the committee is looking for something specific. And hence the books that we need kids reading for pleasure, are rarely on the list. Hence their sales coming at Black History Month but often don’t take a foothold.

    Roger is right. We NEED fantasy, and science fiction, and funny books and rubbish and “Hey I get to have a Secret Garden” books and ‘Hey, I get to be a Harry Potter book.” And we need to promote them like we love them and get them in the hands of kids.

    I don’t need ANY MORE African American keepsake books. They’re banned in my household (well – no, they’re not, I buy them to show support for the author but I do notice they don’t get chosen off my bookshelf by my daughters or their friends who are allowed to help themselves to books they can keep).

    We need the type of books that generate a frenzy among POC children the way Twilight (cough, cough, cough) did. My daughter was followed back to her private school library (HS) by two girls waiting for her to turn it back in so they could read it. My youngest was grabbed by the school librarian in MS who said “Hey, just got this and saved it for you!” The latter is a 95% minority college prep program and even boys were reading it (as witnessed during lulls at debate competitions). So these kids read – but they want to escape. They don’t want what we’ve been creating for them. And the authors who DO create those works are being told “no room at the inn, but gosh love your craftmanship” by publishers who fear the results of the very cycle they’ve created.

    Which reminds me – years ago a publisher once told me they could tell which books were going to sell well by which ones were” borrowed” by the cleaning staff. Same in my house. Exactly.

  61. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    Yes. Count me in. And I know a person of our acquaintance who offered to help host it if we want to make it a weekend retreat. Will also send drivers to pick editors and publishers up in NY if needed.

    Let’s do it!

  62. Yes, Roger! Let’s go for it. Let me know what you need from me.

  63. Roger, yes! And please, make it very inclusive; we need all the voices been represented and heard. We will need hose with extreme opinions to be able to express their points of view, but mostly we need the dialog, and to be able to see from someone else’s eyes, and discover what we haven’t thought of before, and hopefully we can do it all from the best place in our heart, the one that looks for children to have the literature that best reflects their world but that also best prepares the path for a better vision on ourselves.

  64. Anne, Roger, Christine, et. all-
    I’ve been reading along with all your great comments and think this is a super idea. There is a LOT to say about this that can’t be covered in just the space of an article or two. Would be great to bring people together to talk about all of the issues brought up here in concrete, honest terms and a safe space. We did a panel at ALA this year with Cinco Puntos Press about the state of diversity in children’s books, and it was really moving to see how many people are passionate about creating real, lasting change. Some of these things are not easy to talk about (race issues are always hard to discuss, and even more so when people feel their professional livelihoods as authors/illustrators are at stake) but it’s important for us to try to find a way to move forward, instead of just watching the numbers stay static year after year after year.

    Lee & Low would love to be a part of this in whatever way we can!


  65. Kate Barsotti says:

    You go, Roger! How exciting.

  66. LIKE!

  67. malinda lo and i have been running Diversity in YA on tumblr
    for some time now as well.

    i couldn’t reply to your earlier comment about moving beyond
    “issue” and “identity” novels for kids. i address this in a recent
    ALAN guest column, in fact. the books ARE out there, the problem
    is, these books are almost never lead titles. this means that they
    don’t get the push by publishers in marketing money, they are less
    buzzed about, they are less seen by librarians and less carried
    in actual book stores.

    the problem happens at ALL stages in the process. and it really
    is unfortunate.

    and given the huge changes in publishing right now along with
    the bad economy, diverse main characters and stories are simply
    seen as more of a risk.

    i simply write fun young adult fantasies that are set in ancient
    china. it’s frustrating that many consider this “niche” when in fact,
    i had written for ALL fantasy lovers. and a YA novel inspired by
    greek or russian culture would not be considered “niche”.

    actually, *beyond* frustrating.

  68. A Day of Dialogue conference would be great!

    I just wanted to back track a little and ask for some clarification…Christine wrote that the CSK needs to be “sponsored by ALSC.” This is not to diminish her concerns with the CSK at all, but isn’t the CSK already sponsored by ALSC? The award is announced at the same time as the Newbery, Caldecott etc and it is on their website…which is more than what can be said for the Asian Pacific American Librarian Awards (APALA). In fact, I found the discussion about the CSK a little ironic because I’ve had conversations with other Asian authors who express a great yearning that the APALA was as recognized and as respected as the CSK!

    That said, I agree with Yuyi’s sentiment that, as authors, it begins with us and we must do the best work possible. Whenever I feel that my books are being slighted because of their content, I remind myself that the most powerful thing I can do is to make the books so good that they can’t be ignored. Or at least I can try to!

  69. CSK is sponsored by an ALA roundtable whose acronym I am forgetting. EMIERT?

  70. Christine Taylor-Butler says:


    Not unless something changed in the last few minutes. That’s why I mentioned how disparaging the conversations were among librarians at the 2009 Notables discussion in Boston. Brutally devoid of any sensitivity even with people of color listening in the audience. They kept referring to CSK as “Not a major award” and having to cut the number of books they could nominate for Notable to “accommodate” the winners. A lot of grousing and pouting. I asked the librarian next to me (she’d served on Newbery, Caldecott, etc.) what that meant and she told me she thought they were referring to ALSC sponsorship. She looked pretty embarrassed by their behavior and we just got up and left.

    Even Belpre is sponsored by ALSC. On the ALSC site is CSK os noticeably missing. So when Amazon announces and promotes the current year winners (I usually get an email from them), the CSK’s are noticeably absent:

    I can tell you that CSK holds little meaning with kids. I suspect it’s because of the trend in topics they recognize. It has come to mean (at least in my urban area) a book assigned for class with homework. Or a book put out in February. It’s sad, because there’s so much good stuff out there that – as Cindy says – gets no promotion.

    I posted on CCBC that we need to rebrand February as Black Success Month and make it an oppression, poverty, angst free zone. One librarian posted she was changing her signage at her branch to reflect it.

  71. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    You’re correct. It’s: Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT)

  72. Yes! Yes! Roger, I think it is an excellent idea and much needed! Count on Just Us Books’ support and help!

  73. Thanks, for the clarification! That shows my ignorance–I thought the CSK being on the ALA website was the same as being sponsored by ALSC. But, hey, it’s still more than the APALA!

    Regardless, the perception of a multicultural book’s appeal is a hard one to solve. In response to JL Bell’s post, I do think a bookseller’s perspective would be interesting. Because even when a publisher does promote a multicultural book, it might not make a difference. My publisher did try to promote my latest book, “Starry River of the Sky”–offering display “dumps” to stores that ordered 8 or more copies. Unfortunately, not enough stores took them up on that so the dumps were not made. You could compare this to “In a Glass Grimly” by Adam Gidwitz (which is a great book, I don’t mean to diminish it at all) which was also sequel/companions to successful books, also fairy/folktale retellings–yet, that book was highly displayed with book dumps, etc. So “In a Glass Grimly” was perceived as much more appealing from the get-go by booksellers. Is it the multicultural bias? Could it be because “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon’s” success was seen as a one time thing, due to an award bump? Or “In a Glass Grimly” was just more interesting looking, with a better cover and better premise and book sellers just prefer Gidwitz’s writing?

    For me as an author, these discussions about multicultural books are difficult. Part of me feels this urge to participate and change things, another part wants to just bury my head in the sand and concentrate solely on my own path. Christine, I echo Yuyi’s comment about how she admires people like you, who are so clear-visioned! Thank you for your passion.

  74. Yes, *please* on the day/weekend of dialogue!

    And can I please have the white people (and anyone else who’s interested) for a session to present some basic, foundational information on racial identity development and the neuroscience of unconscious bias? I do these workshops quite a bit (I call it Mirrors & Lenses) and I’m finding that it’s really working with white audiences, does not make them defensive, and actually gives people a chance to see what they haven’t seen before. It will cut way down on the questions like, “Why are we focusing so much on race?” etc. so that we can get to the substance of the issue. Sometimes it also means that people are ready to *listen* a lot better without getting needing to defend themselves.

    We could also think about some foundational assumptions/ground rules going in to ensure that we don’t have to waste time rehashing the same old tired arguments that are *not true* anyway. And/or maybe a basic info session that lays out the reality so that we won’t be debating that but focusing on what’s going to make things *change!*

    Getting a little carried away here… Anyway, I’d like to help plan this and help lead this and I’ll do anything I can to help make it happen.

    My dream is that a dialogue like this would shift the weight so that the white publishing community would realize that this is *their* responsibility and opportunity as well, to serve all of our children, so that, as Grace says, writers and illustrators of color would have the chance to breathe and “concentrate solely on [their] own path[s]” – wouldn’t that be grand?!?

  75. Kate Barsotti says:

    Stupid question again. Will the big publishers be persuaded by the “responsibility” argument? Is any large corporation? Because you’d have to start at the top. I could imagine much sympathy in the ranks as well as the lack of power to make change happen. It’s a chicken-and-egg argument. Books with POC “don’t sell” even though there are not enough of them, or a variety of genres, to prove such an assertion. Movies are similar. Many of them are still aimed to appeal to the libidos and interests of young men, with the argument that “chick flicks” don’t do as well at the box office. I am wondering if there is a strategic way to approach publishers of various sizes and structures, if indie publishers will be more amenable. Not at all sure.

    I’d love to participate in a Mirrors and Lenses workshop, although part of me feels it’s glaring common sense. All you have to do is look at the book covers, summarize the ethnicity of main characters, and anyone can see the lack of balance in children’s lit. Which is surprising in a way…I ordered an anthology from the 1970’s and one of the aspect I noticed was the variety of ethnic groups illustrated with photos and, to a lesser degree, illustrations. It seemed as if there was a deliberate editorial effort to show diversity. I am not sure why that momentum was lost. And why would people get defensive? There are multiple causes for where we find ourselves. I don’t want to blame anyone. I want to fix it. I want all children to feel excited, empowered, entertained. You cannot do that with white characters only.

    Most of us would agree it’s a human need to see oneself represented in art. We are all inspired by such examples. As a woman, I’d hate to return to the literature featuring passive, self-sacrificing women who are more or less houseplants in petticoats. I like dynamic female main characters, regardless of color. They resonate with me in a way male main characters, however interesting, often do not.

    Maybe the new award is People of Color Contemporary. Although a multi-racial, human/alien steampunk assassin and double agent suddenly sounds appealing….

  76. “While it is important that POC are present to lend their/our voices, the push for such a gathering, I believe, almost needs to come from a strong white contingent who see, and understand, the problem and its complexities, themselves.”

    I think Nikki Grimes raises an important point about the status of who’s issuing the invitation and what that says about who’s expected to attend.

    Just off the top of my head, I can think of quite a few names of white editors who are committed to publishing diverse books, and to this conversation: My editors, Yolanda LeRoy and Julie Ham, and others at Charlesbridge have already hosted several forums on the topic. Katie Cunningham of Candlewick was on the “Diversity on the Page” panel that Charlesbridge hosted with the CBC; Betsy Groban of HMH attended. Cheryl Klein of Scholastic is active on the CBC Diversity blog. And of course Hannah Erlich at Lee & Low and Stacy Whitman at Tu Books.

    The ALA panel on Latino books that Hannah mentioned was attended by representatives of six or seven publishers, a number of them white. There’s definitely awareness, interest, passion, and expertise out there in the white publishing community as well as the community of color.

    I nominate Jason Low to be one of the people to give an overview “State of the Nation” report to such a gathering.

  77. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    I think the forum will be best served if we don’t frame this as a “POC versus White” issue. Certainly cultural stereotypes toward one group are ingrained within many segments of society, including someone’s own ethnic group.

    On the flip side, from my own experience, some of my most ardent mentors and supporters have not been POC. So let’s not make the mistake of labeling groups as being homogeneous in thought and deed. Everyone has something to contribute to this discussion. And we all have things we need to learn.

    What I do think, is that there are many people who claim to be race neutral who are inadvertantly infusing works with their own voices and cultural experiences. That’s one of the most common complaints I hear from people of color about the differences between a manuscript created and the end result after an agent and/or editor take a whack at it. I know that I’ve been asked on more than one ocassion “Would a black person really say that?” (scratches head over that one). So I can imagine the same is true of other artists of ethnic descent.

    On the other hand, lets just look at caucasions. They come from many different ethnic backgrounds of their own. Certainly we don’t expect the Housewives of New Jersey to speak with the same cultural accents as those from Atlanta, Beverly Hills, New York or Miami. And not everyone in New Jersey talks the same way as Snookie and The Situation. So we need to talk about bias in our “filters”. “Can’t connect with the character” is commonly heard in rejections. Does it mean an author didn’t craft a sound piece? Or does it mean you can’t connect on any human level? Or you don’t understand the nuances of the language on the page that is not your own?

    I had time to talk to a Native American artist while in Taos who was frustrated that his editor keep “modifying” the language in his children’s book. A lot of us were on retreat so we ended up coaching him through that process. But we all recognized the pain because we’d been through it.

    Another author has a book that is well received by adults in the industry. But not children – the target audience.. Said the author “After my agent and editor got through with it, the only thing left of my original vision was my name on the cover.” That has been said more than once by more than one artist. So if the book fails – why is it the fault of the author who often takes the blame? Or the reader who fails to connect with a voice “THEY” don’t recognize because it’s not authentic?

    So to make this forum effective, it can’t be the blame game. It SHOULD talk about demographics, getting publishers and bookstores to understand their survival as corporate entities and ability to return shareholder value is looking through this with a different lens. 50% of all children are ethnic minorities. Literacy rates are at an all time low across the country. Who do they think will be their audience in the future of we don’t see this as both an economic and a patriotic thing to do.

    Hence – with Common Core coming on line which I fear will shift away from reading for pleasure as the curriculums move towards 75% informational text by high school, we want those high schoolers pulling books on their own to read, and growing into adulthood doing the same.

    That’s not going to happen if the only voice they hear is the one an editor or agent recognizes. Or if it’s the one the publisher chose to market at the exclusion of all the others. Or it’s the one that the author wrote in an attempt to make a sale and feed their family.

    Who doesn’t see 50% of the market which is currently underserved as a market opportunity? If they don’t, they’re in the wrong jobs.

    Publishing is the only industry I’ve ever worked in where managers decide the fault lies with the reader (they don’t buy books) rather than recast their product offerings to generate the kinds of books those consumers want. And that’s why they are seeing people migrate to other forms of entertainment.

    Black kids (the ones I can speak for) want to be transported, entertained, uplifted. And the way to do that is to stop flooding the market with topics of interest to their elders. Be WHERE the reader IS, not where we want them to be and see a seismic shift over time. And if you don’t KNOW the voices of those children (hint it is not OUR voice) then write, edit and/or market in another field.

    IMHO — We should do one session that covers “Code Switching.” If you don’t know what that means, it makes for interesting research. 🙂

  78. I completely agree, Christine, that blame is not only not useful, but counterproductive.

    I have found that inviting white people to reflect on their experience of racial identity development and the messages they internalized before they could examine them consciously has the opposite effect; it causes a softening and an openness as they – perhaps for the first time – get to think about their own racial experiences.

    This also gives people new tools for engaging in conversations about race, which many white people, surrounded by white silence on the topic, never had a chance to develop.

    (None of this is whites-only – I’ve had many people of color say they appreciate the chance to reflect on how whiteness has impacted them.)

    In so many of the examples you have shared in these comments, one can see the presence of white default. I believe that an awareness of white patterns – not the same as white *people* – is key to unlocking this puzzle and actually making it possible for change to happen.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the Day of Dialogue should be focused on or aimed at white people, merely that an introductory session outlining how white socialization plays into the whole would be useful to clear space for *all* the diverse voices to be heard, for all the stories shared here and many more, to be heard.

  79. While I personally would go to any version of such a conference if the timing worked for me (being a fulltime classroom teacher I can’t get away that often), I would be especially excited to see it designed to encourage attendance by those who may be skittish about coming, those who may be worried about being attacked, who may be those who could offer a great deal if they were not in fear of being in an overly defensive position. Say someone or someones from amazon or B&N. Based on years of experience in planning and attending similar sorts of conferences, some at my school, I have observed that many are resigned rather than interested when being required to attend yet another session on white privilege/racial identity or the like. So the tricky thing here is to make this sounds different so that you do get booksellers, significant voices from amazon, B&N, Target, and others ready to honestly inform and want to learn how to make things better. A conference where everyone is being educated and where some who are in positions to affect chance may go off and do something.

    How about doing it around BookExpo when so many industry sorts are all in one place?

  80. Kate Barsotti says:

    Another advocate, Elizabeth Bird:

    Personally, I’d like to see both a short-term and long-term approach. In the short term, gather friends and advocates, people who are already concerned, and find the quickest path to publishing and promoting quality literature by and for POC. I am thinking of something similar to Guys Read ( with prominent authors and illustrators promoting not only their own works, but also other people’s books. Could they also serve as mentors to unpublished POC authors and artists? Or as paid consultants to editors and marketers trying to reach POC readers?

    One of the fastest way to get people on board is to show that the train is about to leave the station without them–there is an untapped, dynamic market that ought to be served. Some people will buy a ticket because it’s the right thing to do. Others just don’t want to be left behind. The message is: “We are going to make something fabulous happen whether you are with us or not.” The kids and the stories come first. Try innovative marketing approaches nobody else has risked.

  81. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    Interesting idea. Doing it near a major convention would make it easier for players to participate.

    But I see some pros and some cons. Some “conversations” need to happen out of the broader audience. There needs to be a “public” conversation and a “private one.” We already have a situation, for instance, where authors of color aren’t speaking out because of fear of backlash from their publishers. And I know of publishers who say one thing in private that they would never say in public (but I appreciate the honesty).

    The value of having a separate conference or session is that people would have to make an ‘effort” to attend rather than, “I’m here and just going through the motions.” Sometimes the person who decides it is not a priority says quite a bit. I remember asking one of my own publishers to attend a forum years ago and was turned down flat because they felt their information was “proprietary” and they didn’t want to share. I found that short sighted.

    So i’m personally neutral on where – but wholeheartedly agree it needs to be about solutions and sharing information, not playing the blame game. Which is why I get uncomfortable about framing this as a “them versus us” issue. It’s really about economics. Sales of books are dropping and to me the end result should be mutually beneficial:

    1. raising the new generation of readers, most of whom are now multicultural and ethnic
    3. Giving teachers, librarians and consumers access to a richer more diverse offering of works
    2. increasing profits and shareholder value (which translates into It doesn’t matter if bookstores and publishers acquire what they “like” if the reader rejects it – or can’t find it).

  82. How about a forum that’s organized a bit like TED talks: a cluster of large-group presentations on the most innovative, challenging, creative, solutions-based thinking we’ve got, followed by smaller-group gatherings to brainstorm actions, possibly some by industry segments – publishers, booksellers, librarians, other educators?

    Posing the question that prompted this post, then answering it with “Given this reality, here are some possibilities for changing that” and inviting everyone to be part of the solution.

  83. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    In her CSK Author Award acceptance speech Andrea Davis Pinkney talks about her inspiration — and the need — for Hand in Hand:

    Illustrator Award winner Bryan Collier’s speech is coming tomorrow.

  84. Kate Barsotti says:

    I’ve been hunting for book lists. Cynthia Leitich-Smith’s is truly well organized.

  85. Anne, I think you’re onto something. That kind of format would entice and challenge each player to come forward with his/her best proposal.

  86. Kate, connect with Cheryl Hudson. She’s in the process of creating an updated list of recommended POC titles, for readers K-12.

  87. Kate Barsotti says:

    Awesome! Thanks. Do you have a way to reach her?

    I am kinda chewing on the idea of a collective blog where anyone may chime in on this issue, promote books, etc. We could have multiple admins and writers for it.

  88. You can find her on Facebook.

  89. Erin Murphy says:

    I would be very interested in attending an event like this.

  90. I agree with Yuri’s take on Roger’s first point. Talking animals should count, because what they talk about and how they think and behave is influenced by some culture to some degree (in addition to bursts of animal psychology.) For example, the animals in Redwall or The Wind in the Willows were about as English as they come. As a kid, they were my first windows into the class differences within English society. As for POC–or should it be AOC–books, I can’t think of any examples except the old Newbery winner, Gayneck. I can’t remember if that pigeon had an Indian POV or not…

  91. Wait! I thought Gregor was mixed race? Isn’t he and his dad identified as brown skinned? Now I need to re-read. Shoot. That is always my example of great fantasy featuring a kid of color.

  92. I’m way late to this discussion since I’ve been traveling, but I wanted to pop in and say that I’m all for an industry-wide, inclusive dialogue/conference on diversity. I think there are a lot of folks out there who are working at this from different angles: the CBC Diversity committee, which is very heartening because it’s coming from within the industry; editors at various publishing houses who make concerted efforts to find and acquire books by writers of color; librarians who champion these books on their award committees (even if some of those awards have problematic connotations); bloggers who talk about these issues all over the web. Recently there have been a number of diversity-focused blogs to arise (including Diversity in YA), and they’ve all generated some really excellent discussions online. I think it would be great to bring all of these people together — and bring in booksellers, too, who are often the front lines in terms of sales — as well as authors who are trying to write these stories. (SCBWI recently had a mini-conference focused on diversity, where Nikki Grimes, Daniel Nayeri and I spoke.) I see so much work being done in disparate spheres that I think it would be very valuable to get as many people together at once, in a kind of diversity summit. And of course, it would be fun!

  93. KT Horning says:

    Roger, I’ve answered your semi-facetious response with some hard data:

    The long and short of it is, so far in 2013, even if you count only human characters, 10.48% are about people of color.

  94. Christine Taylor-Butler says:

    There should be a “like” button for KT’s blog post. Bravo!

  95. Regina Griffin says:


    I hadn’t answered your query on the “Day of Dialogue,” but it sounds wonderful to me–and in your hands it will be rich, provocative, and fearless!

  96. Andrew Karre says:

    I’d be very interested in helping make this happen.

  97. Book bistro says:

    Don’t you mean Peter? Willie was the dog.

  98. Book bistro says:

    Well Allie, I don’t know how your book stores handle book with African-Americans on the cover, but most seem to be shelved under “urban fiction” while Books with white characters that take place I. Urban areas are not. You would never see a section called “Hick Fiction”.

  99. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Indeed, Christine, THANK YOU KT!

    And thank you all for such a rich discussion. I have brought the idea of a conference up with my colleagues here and in New York as well as with some Boston book publishing folks as well. Everybody’s in, we just need to think about HOW. (And where. And what. And when. And who.)

  100. Kate Barsotti says:

    Don’t forget Sherman Alexie. It would also be nice to have immigrant authors. No a racial topic, necessarily, but it does fall under diversity.

    I can’t get the idea of Hick Fiction out of my head now.

  101. Wow! I’m just seeing this now, but it’s a great piece, and more valuable comments here than I can absorb in one sitting.

    I work for a nonprofit social enterprise, First Book, that’s working to address this problem; Lee & Low is one of our major partner. (Here’s a blog post if you’re interest in learning more:

    I’m glad to see some thoughtful comments on the issue of what language we use to talk about these issues. We use “multicultural” at First Book to refer to titles that prominently feature minority characters and stories, but as Shoshana and others point out above, that’s not really accurate when discussing a single title that isn’t about multiple cultures.

  102. Claudia Pearson says:

    I’d put the percentage of underserved at 100% – all readers need to see diverse characters in the books they read. Instead of seeing admirable people of color only in historical contexts, readers need to see them in everyday situations, like SNOWY DAY and inour common future, in science fiction and fantasy. They need to read not only about the value of our different perspectives, but the ways in which our experiences are unversally human.

  103. Claudia Pearson says:

    Piping up late because I have been away from my desk for a couple of weeks. Just a suggestion, but you might want to talk with Michelle Martin, author of BROWN GOLD: MILESTONES OF AFRICAN AMERICAN PICTUREBOOKS 1845-2002, who is coordinating the next Children’s Lit Assoc. conference – which just happens to be focusing on diversity issues in children’s literature.

  104. This is an amazing discussion–so much food for thought (and so refreshing to see an online discussion where the participants are civil to one another, even when they disagree). I write a small blog on inspiring books for girls, and I try to include regular reviews of books about children of color and/or non-dominant cultures; however, most of them are the kinds of books that would win a CSK award. This discussion has inspired me to keep my eyes open for more “ordinary” books about non-dominant cultures and people of color. And, BTW, I think the Skippyjohn Jones series is a great example of how even animal protagonists can “read” as Other (in this case, Latino). Thanks for broadening my mind!

  105. Michelle Pagni Stewart says:

    In fact, the Diversity Committee of ChLA (Children’s Literature Association)– with much support and assistance from Michelle Martin, Sara Schwebel, and Dianne Johnson-Feelings — is putting together a panel of publishers on this very topic for the conference in South Carolina next June. The specific participants have not yet been determined (budget issues have limited what we could do with such a large “wish list” of possible participants), but we are working to have representatives from both large and small presses that focus on multicultural children’s books. Similar issues of lack of representation in children’s and YA literature was raised at the ChLA conference several years ago, sparking the Diversity Committee’s interest in making more of the association aware of the problems and concerns that begin at the publishing level for books of diversity. When we have more information, I will post again.

  106. The conversation continues and expands…

    I just found this news article in SLJ and went to pass it along here and found Brian Winter’s comments above. Here is the link to the article about First Books:

  107. Patty Carleton says:

    Yes, count me in. I was on Notables for 2011 & 2012 books and noticed the bias. I have been advocating for ALSC to put this matter to a membership and leadership discussion and vote, so far to no avail. In fact, there is even some discussion that the Pura Belpre winners should not be automaticly on Notables. That would be a step backwards.

    All ALA children’s awards need to be treated equally. The inherent, insidious, and largely unconscious biases of white librarians need to be brought out into the light, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I am willing (eager) to sit with that discomfort, if it means my African American friends can sit more easily at the table.

  108. Thank you, Patty Carelton! i distinctily remember the sting I felt when Notables snubbed my CSK winner, Bronx Masquerade. It stuck in my craw for a long, long time. The memory still makes me wince. I am eager to see postive, substantive change in this arena.

  109. Kate Barsotti says:

    In case you missed it: some good news to balance out the gloom.

    September 18, 2013, MONTPELIER, VT – Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), a national center for graduate education in the fine arts, and Barry Goldblatt Literary, LLC, announce the creation of The Angela Johnson Scholarship, a talent-based grant for writers of color attending the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Master of Fine Arts program. The $5,000 scholarship will be awarded to up to two students annually.

  110. ChristineTB says:

    Thanks Patty for your honesty. I’m sad to know that my days of sitting through the Boston discussion in 2010 was not an isolated incident limited to that one committee.

    More sad because those people purport to serve children in their library jurisdictions. I’m lucky to have been nurtured by a more enlightened group when growing up in Ohio. Those seeds sown when I was a child spending most of my free time among the stacks shaped me greatly.

    If Notables can’t operate without bias, then perhaps it should be required to be filled with half people of color to reflect the current birth trends in the US.

  111. “The inherent, insidious, and largely unconscious biases of white librarians need to be brought out into the light, even if it makes us uncomfortable.”
    Thank you, Patty!

    Two years ago I attended a lecture at Bates College by Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard’s Project Implicit, a neuroscience study of unconscious bias. It was enlightening. Although the Project addresses bias of all types (and bias is, of course, a universal human condition), Banaji talked quite a bit about racial bias, including the finding from their study that 80% of white people are biased *towards* whiteness – i.e. showing a preference for white people.

    Despite such findings, to my ears Banaji’s talk was full of good news. She talked about how the data from the study was putting into our hands the tools to make our actions match our intentions.

    One key is in recognizing the nature and prevalence of *unconscious* bias. It is not intentional. It is not “what you mean.” It is not affected by what you consciously believe or what you consciously intend, and it can be there even when you are positive it is not.

    The nature, the prevalence and the dominance of unconscious white bias (not white *people*, but white patterns, what I call “White Mind”) must be named in order for all of us to get free from its often invisible hold. There are ways to explore this that are neither divisive nor accusatory. We are all impacted by white bias, and we can all benefit from understanding more about how it works and making conscious choices about how to navigate it.

    It’s a liberating process to ask, in Obama’s words, “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” Although, as you point out, Patty, the process might involve some discomfort, the longterm result is getting ourselves back, with a coherence between our intentions and our impact.

    Then it becomes possible to make the changes that will result in our children’s books representing all of our children.

  112. This may not work…but is there a rubric or structured process to minimize bias, so judging is more fair?

  113. Claudia Pearson says:

    Have you read THE SUMMER PRINCE yet? Would love to hear opinions about it here and am anxious to see how it fares. Award worth IMO, but will it get one?

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