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“There Is Work to Be Done” -Walter Dean Myers

It was difficult to accept Walter Dean Myers’s death last summer. Just months earlier, and almost exactly a year to this date, he brought the conversation, decades unresolved, to the general public, with his searing New York Times op-ed “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” He gave us the CCBC statistics: only 93 of the estimated 5,000 books published last year featured African Americans, less than 1%. Then there was Garner in New York and Brown in Ferguson. Then Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award win thanking us all for “changing the world” and Daniel Handler’s onstage comments, tossing the old world back. Then another Times op-ed, Woodson’s “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.” It seems that the ongoing struggle for diversity in children’s literature is mirroring a larger struggle for the dignity of African Americans here in the U.S., and of all minority groups, everywhere.

Where are the books that underscore the basic humanity of all peoples, inclusive of differences in skin color, beliefs, culture, place, and socioeconomic status? We look to children’s literature for hope in this arena. We rely on children’s literature to develop our “image library” (to borrow a phrase from Christopher Myers’s Horn Book essay “Young Dreamers“), so that many different children can see themselves and others reflected and upheld; where ingrained misconceptions and stereotypes can be reevaluated and transformed. As Walter Dean Myers asserted, “There is work to be done.”

Children construct positive identities when they see themselves depicted positively and realistically. In a 2007 speech at Rutgers University, novelist Junot Díaz told it like it never has been told. He began with the idea that vampires have no reflections. Linking the metaphor to literature, he reasoned, “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” He said that he felt like a monster growing up. Without access to literature reflecting the transcendent worlds of our students — the beauty and the pain — I would argue, so do many of our children.

I have worked for a dozen years as the school librarian in a small pre-K–8 New York City public school (a former state school for the Deaf) with kids bused-in from all boroughs. More than seventy percent of the students are Latino or African American, and ninety percent are Children of Deaf Adults or CODAs. The moments that have mattered most are when a child connects with a book. The graphic-novel memoir El Deafo by Cece Bell arrived this year as well as Nick Lake’s YA novel There Will Be Lies. Both describe the daily reality of being Deaf, and have captured my students’ hearts.

This year when I read Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book Each Kindness to a third-grade class, a Deaf African American girl from the Bronx described exactly how the ostracized protagonist Maya felt: “lonely” and “sad.” She knows Maya’s isolation. Maya shows up in used clothes and is left out by the clique she reaches out to in kindness. Some of my students tell me that, like Maya, they are targets for bullies because of their clothes. When I read aloud Daniel Beaty’s author’s note from Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me, about a boy’s life with an incarcerated father, a shy Latino boy nodded his head, raised his hand, and said he knew that glass that separates visitors from prisoners.

Some work is being done by publishers. The Just for You! books published by Scholastic are a good example of a culturally inclusive series. Widely respected authors such as Nikki Giovanni and Angela Shelf Medearis have contributed books about the everyday lives of African American children. Bebop Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, publishes easy-to-read titles with culturally diverse themes including discrimination and interracial friendships. As of 2014, they have more than two hundred titles available. Amistad is an imprint of HarperCollins that focuses on multicultural books, but currently less than twenty-five titles for children are available in paperback for $10 or less. Disney-Hyperion’s imprint Jump at the Sun is publishing new titles. Yet selection of books with diverse characters and settings is lacking, and the books are expensive. As Myers said: “Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.”

Here are some additional ways publishers can help:

1. Encourage manuscripts from minority first-time authors and illustrators. Look internationally for books to translate

In Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon, Leonard S. Marcus describes how the publisher found artists through a professional organization called the Artists and Writers Guild. Many of these illustrators were émigrés from war-torn Europe willing to work without royalties (at first; once well known, authors and illustrators renegotiated contracts). It stands to reason that a similar pool of talent must exist today within recent immigrant communities or other minority groups whose members may be struggling to get by. Immigrants learning English at writing centers across the network of community colleges; teacher candidates; and public school staff could comprise a potential treasure trove of authors and artists. If publishers were to adapt the Golden Books model to the current environment — and I encourage them to do this — the first requisite would be to cultivate a diverse pool of talent to write and illustrate.

Poetry magazines regularly award prizes, rather than contracts, for first-time published poets. Publishers could offer prizes for accepted manuscripts written by first-time authors from underrepresented groups. Lee & Low now sponsors two such prizes, the New Voices Award for picture books and the New Visions Award for middle-grade or young adult sci-fi, mystery, or fantasy titles. Every publisher needs to create and publicize these incentives. Vaunda Michaux Nelson mentioned in her October 2014 Horn Book at Simmons keynote speech, “Mind the Gaps: Books for All Young Readers,” that Lerner Publishing has just created such a prize, and so has television giant HBO. In fact, its new HBOAccess Writing Fellowship site crashed due to overwhelming response. Publishers take note!

Another way to gain more culturally diverse titles is for American publishers to buy more translation rights of children’s books. Currently many books being acquired and translated by American publishers are those that have been recognized with awards (such as the Hans Christian Andersen Award), but there are many other high-quality international books that also promote cultural competency. Expanding this pool will give young readers more culturally authentic literature.

2. Re-envision Golden Books’s mass-production model for culturally diverse books

Although the practice may get a bad rap today, Golden Books mass-produced books. Using less expensive printing techniques and expanded distribution models, they were able to bring children’s books into working-class homes like never before. They did this without sacrificing editorial quality. Golden Books had a visionary editorial team. In Golden Legacy, Marcus emphasizes the importance of education expert Mary Reed of Teacher’s College in the editorial process headed by Lucille Ogle. In today’s world, and at every publishing house, editorial team members should be culturally competent in more than one culture, or should know enough to hire consultants. For example, publishers who work with artists who add ASL signs to their illustrations, regardless of their level of fluency, should hire a Deaf or CODA consultant due to the intricacies of ASL.

Golden Books also teamed with Simon & Schuster to reach markets of lower-income Americans. Their motto was “Give the reader a break!” They developed inexpensive ways to print with lower-quality papers, paper-over-board covers, a glued or stapled binding, and/or less expensive inks. Likewise, Picture Puffins books in England printed in color only on one side of the page. Today, many families cannot justify spending $17.99 for a picture book that a child will outgrow. You can wait for the paperback to come out, but paperbacks are often still too expensive for those of moderate means of any cultural group. In the past decade, publishers have begun to produce paper-over-board series instead of creating titles in hardcover with a jacket. Hachette uses this printing technique for Todd Parr’s books. With this type of printing that reduces book prices, more families will be able to support their children’s reading.

We gain cultural understanding not through politics, but through art. Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez gave voice to Latin America, a region of diverse cultures that had little representation in United States markets. His book One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of the first Latin American novels to be mass marketed, bringing it to a wider readership in the States. We need these voices in the children’s book market, too. With a combination of inexpensive printing techniques and creative, global sourcing for artists and writers, publishers have new ways to finding and cultivating artists and writers, and mass-producing culturally inclusive books to overcome racial, cultural and economic barriers.

3. Establish book clubs to increase distribution of culturally diverse books

Documented in Susan B. Neuman and Donna C. Celano’s widely read study “Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, and the Development of Information Capital,” a child in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia had access to 358 reading resources, while in an affluent neighborhood, a child had access to 16,453. There is vast inequity in the availability of books across economic lines. These areas are referred to now as book deserts.

Distribution of books is a large part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. One solution I suggest is to reinstate the many book clubs that flourished in the 1970s, selling less-expensive printings of quality books at affordable prices. Today, instead of reprinting quality titles in hardcover, there is an urgent need for mass-printing and distributing quality books featuring the diverse world we live in and the diverse world we want to see flourish. Book clubs hand out flyers (printed on cheap newsprint) to every child in every public school, who can then select and order books that cost $1, $2, and $3. A book club distribution model delivers books directly into children’s hands, at school. Kids only need a few dollars. The following examples are from my own research combing the shelves of thrift stores for book club versions of children’s books.

books007In the 1970s, Macmillan owned the Macmillan Book Clubs, Inc. division. Macmillan’s Children’s Choice Book Club (formerly owned by Educational Products, Inc., a division of Houghton Mifflin) reprinted titles such as A House Is a House for Me (originally published by Viking) in paper-over-board format. Weekly Reader Book Club had a “distinguished selection board” that chose the best titles to reissue from various publishers. Librarians who currently volunteer to review children’s books could volunteer their services in the selection process for these book clubs.

Random House had the Pictureback series of inexpensive paperback printings of books from authors including Alice and Martin Provensen. Parents Magazine Press also published in an inexpensive paper-over-board format, often titles with themes such as xenophobia. Harper & Row had a relationship with Newfield Publications, Inc., that reissued I Can Read Book Club editions of quality Harper & Row books from authors including Syd Hoff.

Are there advantages to authors whose books are selected for book clubs? They gain more readers. Books such as Each Kindness, El Deafo, Knock Knock, and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan (about Islamic cultural traditions) should reach millions of small hands. Established authors and illustrators of diverse backgrounds could view this as pro bono work, getting reduced royalties because of the format, but nevertheless enjoying the benefits of wider readership, which is likely why they write. Book club divisions are one way the backlist of diverse books and future titles could fly into kids’ hands and homes. They could even be sold in franchises like Old Navy, Dunkin Donuts, and Western Union.

Why not electronic books?

Some people believe that e-books will solve the diversity issue. The NGOs behind websites such as the International Digital Children’s Library, Unite for Literacy, and We Give Books are doing good work in providing diverse reading materials for people of diverse cultures in multiple languages, but accessibility to computers is even more problematic than accessibility to books. Computers are more costly. They require technical know-how to maintain and fix. Families often share computers, and the child who might want to read e-books can’t always access them. Children tell me that their parents and older siblings do not allow them to use the computer at home. Printed books will always be less expensive — thus more accessible — than computers plus a monthly wifi bill.

In 1966, Golden Books publishing maven Lucille Ogle stated, “This business of making books that are truly integrated is the most challenging job I have ever attempted in publishing.” Walter Dean Myers’s books keep giving children access to themselves — not just mirrors, but doors into their identity. Without these books, or parents who are able to share family stories, children and teens are culturally adrift, and at worst, adopt a misconstrued version of themselves, built from stereotypes and mainstream culture.

Could publishers use a percentage of big sellers to subsidize more culturally inclusive books, either by mass-production, distribution in schools via book clubs, or by soliciting more manuscripts and mentoring authors and illustrators of color? Every publisher needs to take on the responsibility that Lee & Low has with its mission, its vocal commitment to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and its book prizes. Every publisher has to choose to be involved and change their practices. It is an ethical imperative: we need to honor all families with affordable, culturally appropriate choices for reading. It requires an adjustment of the industry’s production and distribution system but will create a better humanity. It’s a way to give every child a fighting chance, and a way to break the chain of the institutional racism, xenophobia, and cultural misunderstandings we are seeing here and abroad. We all know that good literature opens minds, but it must first reach hands.

Sara Lissa Paulson About Sara Lissa Paulson

Sara Lissa Paulson is the school librarian at PS 347 The ASL & English Lower School in New York City and an adjunct at Queens College.

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Comments

  1. Love this!! Such a thoughtful, solution-focused article on a very real problem. Thank you!

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