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Editorial: Why #WNDB

In this issue you’ll find “Fanfare,” The Horn Book’s selections for the best children’s and young adult books of last year. I’m happy to see so much variety among them, from a picture book about a bus driver to another about a haunted dog to a historical novel about Baba Yaga to a contemporary novel about an Omani boy to nonfiction about sharks and fossil fuels and Romanovs. And not one but two memoirs in verse.

This diversity is not calculated. While I look at the list and say, “Really? One folktale?” I acknowledge that our list is always subject not only to our own tastes and biases but to what has been published in any given year. We aren’t choosing the best of a particular genre or subject in order to create a “balanced” list; neither are we choosing on the basis of authorship (or publisher). We’re also ruthless: the last step in our decision-making is to go through the surviving contenders and see which books, already deemed to be terrific, are not, by our lights, as terrific as their fellows. Off they go.

It’s a good thing we have about thirty people involved in the choices, and that those thirty have catholic tastes, because we do — I hope we do — always seem to end up with a list with something for everyone. And by, if not everyone, a communion of newbies and veterans, men and women, and people of all colors. Let’s call it diversity with a capital D.

That last has been of intensive interest to the field since the 1960s and Nancy Larrick’s “All-White World of Children’s Books.” But it received renewed attention this year through the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign begun in the spring after BookCon, a public convention sponsored by BEA, announced an “all-star” panel of children’s authors, all four of them white men. The panel was hastily amended to include African American author Rachel Renée Russell (Dork Diaries), but the campaign has lived on, promoting books by authors and illustrators of color, urging publishers to publish them, and urging all of us to read them. While many Twitter hashtag campaigns fail to resonate beyond the platform, #WNDB has endured and reached the real world of book creators and readers.

It’s important that libraries support this effort. The consumer marketplace is going to do what the marketplace does, and is not about to change its book-buying habits on the basis of social conscience. But libraries are in a position of — are, in fact, in the business of — taking chances and doing the right thing, which is enthusiastically making available all kinds of books for all kinds of readers. Publishers, do not forsake us in this mission.

And it is a mission that goes beyond the provision of best-of-the-year selections and the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré winners. Everybody needs good books, not just great ones. This is not a call for books where the characters “just happen” to be of a particular ethnicity. Given where we are — and are not — regarding race relations in this country, nobody “just happens” to be anything. Instead, I’m asking publishers and librarians to look beyond the prize-winners for those stories that can simply keep a kid company. So much “diverse” publishing is aimed at prizes, because they guarantee sales for books that already have to work uphill, because of perceptions — or misperceptions — about who will read what. But if we can let such books take their places among the great, the good, and the annoying-to-us-but-loved-by-young-readers, we’ll have a diversity that might surprise us in just how far it can reach.

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.

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Comments

  1. Interesting that in the wide-ranging conversation nobody is directly talking about money. And, admit it or not, money is at the heart of how reviewing gets done. The Horn Book staff is astonishingly tiny considering the volume and quality of work they produce. Their off-site review staff gets paid shockingly little for the work they do. I’m not going to speak for the Horn Book on reviewer pay, but the people I know who get paid to review books and should be held to a professional standard, get under $20 per review.
    So consider that a book takes any where from 1 to 5 hours to read. Then there’s time for reflection, comparison to other books in the field and current thinking about children’s literature, composition of the review, revision and cutting to get it between 50-100 words, and proofreading. All for a fraction of minimum wage. Most reviewers have advanced degrees.
    So reviewing tends to be done by a privileged few who have the luxury of working for substandard wages in spite of advanced academic preparation. It’s done by people who can physically afford this through independent wealth, a working spouse, a willingness to live simply, or some combination of these. Further they have to be willing to work in a profession undervalued in terms of prestige. Consequently, reviewers are overwhelmingly white, but not just white. They are members of a particular economic class and tend to hold a service-minded outlook. Unless we change the money part of the equation, we might change the racial composition of the reviewer pool but I doubt we will change the reviewers’ economic class or social outlook. And so the outward diversity—though laudable—may not change things as much as we would hope.

  2. I’m sorry I put this comment in the wrong thread.

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