I saw this illustration on Facebook today and just had to share. It’s on illustrator Tina Kugler‘s blog and she created it after discovering the abysmal stats compiled by the CCBC. This really says it all…
Archive for the ‘minority issues in publishing’ Category
On Friday I learned that the editor who agreed to acquire The Deep has since left the imprint. Another editor is willing to take a look at the manuscript, but the acquisitions board has decided to pass on my book. On Saturday I went to see After Earth (spoilers ahead); the reviews haven’t been good, but I’ve been wanting to see this film ever since the previews started last year. I’m not a huge fan of Will Smith (he’s talented but overexposed, in my opinion) and I didn’t enjoy his last collaboration with son Jaden, but After Earth intrigued me. I didn’t know M. Night Shyamalan was the director, nor did I realize that Will Smith came up with the story himself. I knew it took place long after humans had abandoned Earth but I didn’t know there was an alien menace…basically I decided to see the film because I’ve never seen a black family in space on film. Yes, there’s Uhura from Star Trek but I was never a Trekkie and I didn’t care for the recent film prequel—now that I think about it, I’m not sure I can even name any black women who got to be in space in something other than a miniskirt. Can you? The women in After Earth (Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz) were mostly treated like eye candy, which was annoying, and the film was a bit slow and poorly written. But it was fairly original—at least it felt “new” to me because I haven’t seen a teenage black boy in a space suit fighting aliens. As Kitai, son of a gifted and revered military commander who’s injured in a crash, Jaden Smith gets to be on screen alone and much of the time he’s frightened, making mistakes, and desperate for the help his father can’t provide. We even see him cry, which is important since black boys aren’t often seen as vulnerable in our society. All boys face penalties for showing weakness, and so I liked that Kitai wasn’t stoic like his father and in the end rejects a military life despite learning he is actually stronger than he thought.
As I watched the film, I thought about my books and the kind of intervention I’m trying to make in the field of sci-fi/fantasy. My writing is rooted, in part, in an understanding of the history of misrepresentation of black people, yet when white editors/readers/reviewers engage with my work, they don’t always “get it.” And that’s ok, in a way, because I’m not writing for them. I wonder how the Smith family feels about After Earth and the reviews it has received so far. I understand why Will & Jada Pinkett-Smith founded their own production company, and while I don’t like silver platters, I appreciate their decision to develop projects for their kids to star in. If they waited on Hollywood, Jaden and Willow would be nothing more than sidekicks to white actors who may or may not have as much talent. I hope kids of color go see this film; it’s solid family fare, and who knows how long we’ll have to wait for another film that lets a slender black boy be the hero…
PS Jada, please do for black girls what Will’s doing for black boys.
Posted in activism, Africa, African American Literature, Caribbean literature, children's literature, conferences, equity, feminism, historical fiction, history, LGBTQ, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, race & gender, self-publishing, Yari Yari Ntoaso on May 17, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”
I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re leaving a record behind.
During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…
The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…
The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.
Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…
Posted in activism, African Canadian literature, Canada, Canadian writers, children's literature, creative writing, equity, interview, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, racism in publishing on April 21, 2013 | 1 Comment »
I’m not on Twitter much but on one of my recent visits I discovered a young black woman who’s doing her best to promote diversity in the Canadian children’s publishing industry. I recently had an unproductive exchange with a book festival director in Toronto so I’m very pleased to share this interview with Léonicka Valcius.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a young black woman with fabulous hair. I have many passions: some serious (social justice, economic inequality, oppression) and some frivolous (food, fashion, entertainment). I just started my career as a publishing professional and I have two commitments: to be the authors’ advocate and to promote diversity in publishing. (These are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.)
As a black child growing up in Toronto, I never saw myself in Canadian books and knew nothing about opportunities in the arts. Describe your evolution from a girl who loved reading to a book blogger and publishing professional.
It was such a long, winding path. Very much a case of growing into who you were meant to be.
I am Haitian-Canadian. I was born in Montreal but grew up in Florida, and I didn’t see much of myself in books either. The sad part is I never thought to look. I have always loved historical fiction and SFF, so somewhere along the line I took it for granted that people like me were never princesses, or warriors, or explorers. It didn’t bother me at the time because I didn’t realize it was a problem. I lived and went to school in a predominately white area and was used to being the only black girl in the room. In that way, the books I read reinforced that reality. Even when I wrote my own stories they featured blond-haired protagonists.
In high school and university I practically stopped reading books for fun—I had so much school reading to do! But I stayed connected to other readers by joining FictionPress.com. Though I am not much of a writer, I had been editing for my peers for years and continued to do so online. So when I hit that point where I had to decide what to do with my life, I took a look at what I was doing with my free time. Working in publishing was just the logical extension of my passions.
It’s not exactly encouraging to hear everyone screaming “publishing is dead!” when you are in publishing school. And after being surrounded by people of color at Florida Atlantic University and then University of Toronto, returning to a predominantly white environment was jarring. But I didn’t know any of that before going in. Perhaps if I had, I would have been more reticent and assumed that “people like me” didn’t belong in the industry. My ignorance worked to my benefit in this case.
I am also incredibly blessed. I was only able to afford publishing school and six months of internships because I live with my parents. I don’t pay rent. I don’t pay for food. My parents signed for my loan and covered my transportation costs when money was super tight. For people without those luxuries, getting into publishing is especially difficult (but not impossible).
Getting my job was a combination of hard work, support from my network, and divine intervention. My job is fast-paced and sometimes stressful but I love every bit of it. And how could I not? I get to share books with kids! I work for Scholastic Book Fairs Canada. I am the Junior Product Manager for their French division, Festival du Livre. I’m essentially a book buyer and marketer rolled into one. I purchase French children’s books, which are then sold in French book fairs hosted by schools across Canada, and I promote these books and the fairs through print and web marketing.
I fell into children’s publishing by accident. In fact I distinctly remember actively avoiding it. I thought it was too specialized, too idiosyncratic and that it was not the place for a beginner like me. But of course, God’s plans were greater than mine. Even though I love children’s books personally, and I loved my visit to the Scholastic offices, I still said “probably adult fiction” when people asked what type of books I wanted to work with. Then Ali McDonald, the children’s literary agent at The Rights Factory (where I had my first internship,) took me to the Festival of Trees. I’m forever in her debt.
I still try to blog here and there but I’m not nearly consistent enough to call myself a book blogger. I just try to engage with people who love books, both online and in real life.
You seem to be connected to the US children’s literature community. Compare the diversity and activism you see in the US to that in Canada. Are the challenges and/or solutions the same?
I’m only as connected as the internet allows me to be, though I am trying to learn as much as I can. Like in many industries it is useful to watch what the US is doing in terms of kidlit in order to get a heads up on upcoming trends.
Insofar as the challenge is to increase diversity in all levels of publishing (from the characters in the books, to the writers, to the people working in the pub houses) then yes, the challenges seem the same to me.
The differences emerge in visibility. The conversations about diversity in US kidlit are easy to find on various social media platforms. In Canada it seems to be considered a non-issue, especially because Canada clings to this rosy reputation for being open and multicultural. I have initiated every conversation about diversity that I’ve had in Canada. That said, there are many groups who are quietly doing the work to fix the problem.
What would you say to a black child in Toronto who has a vague interest in leading a “literary life”?
Read! Read everything, question everything, then read some more. Use the library at your school or in your city to look for black writers who write books similar to those you already like.
And write! I’m especially fond of fanfiction because it can be a great writing exercise. You already have the foundation of a story so you can be creative. What would happen if the protagonist was black? Was a girl? Was poor? Rich? Lived in the past? Lived in the future? The possibilities really are endless.
Finally, talk to your friends about the books you read the same way you’d talk to them about a movie you saw. Sharing your ideas helps you solidify your opinions or consider another point of view.
Posted in African American Literature, Brooklyn, Canadian writers, Caribbean literature, children's literature, creative writing, education, fantasy, interview, kidlit blogs, libraries, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, race & gender, self-publishing, speculative fiction, urban fantasy, young adult novels on April 10, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
Last week I interviewed Kelbian Noel, a YA spec fic author that I met while I was up in Toronto. Yesterday Kelbian returned the favor by featuring me on her blog, Diverse Pages. Here’s one of the questions I was asked to consider:
DP: Have you always written about characters of color? What challenges (if any) have you faced in doing so?
ZETTA: When I took a creative writing class in high school, I wrote a picture book that featured white characters. Fortunately, I was failing that class and so wound up dropping it. In college I had my first black professor and he introduced me to the work of Jamaica Kincaid; that changed my academic focus and as I discovered more black authors, I began to write about people of color. I went through a process of “decolonizing my imagination” and it did take some time for me to develop authentic characters that came from the community where I lived. For a while I worried that readers would feel my characters weren’t “black enough,” but the more I traveled and the more widely I read, the easier it became to create credible, diverse black characters.
On Monday I met with a group of amazing young poets at the Brooklyn Public Library and one young writer showed me a picture book she had self-published–all her illustrations showed white children. I hope she finds a “mirror” for her black female self in my books. You can read the entire interview here.
Summer Edward, Caribbean children’s literature specialist, is running a series on her website called “Publishing Perspectives” and today I’m her featured guest. Summer’s first question had to do with transparency:
As a blogging author, is transparency something deliberate on your part? Or is it just sort of an inherent aspect of who Zetta Elliott is?
I’ve said for years that we need greater transparency in publishing, so I’d better practice what I preach! Mostly I think that’s part of who I am—and why I write. Some people blog just to promote their work or their image as an author; I think I use my blog more as a kind of journal, and friends have warned me about my openness. There are risks, but as Audre Lorde reminds us, “Your silence will not protect you.” I don’t expect to reach a point in my writing career when it’s “safe” for me to speak my mind, so I might as well do it now. Telling the truth doesn’t just help the speaker/writer, it helps those who are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves—and I do get messages from other writers thanking me for saying something their agent warned them against. I want change in the industry and that won’t come from staying silent when I see something unjust.
You can read the entire interview here.
Posted in activism, African Canadian literature, book festival, Canada, Canadian writers, children's literature, equity, fantasy, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, racism in publishing, self-publishing, speculative fiction, urban fantasy, young adult novels on March 31, 2013 | 4 Comments »
It actually feels like spring here in Toronto—for once I’m not shivering through my visit, though I am wearing a hoodie I borrowed from my cousin. She’s out having Easter dinner with her in-laws so I thought I’d take a moment to blog. I’ve got way too much sugar in my system; in addition to Easter chocolate we’ve been snacking on English toffee and vintage candy from our youth, and yesterday I had the ultimate butter tart (no raisins!) at a cafe where I met African Canadian author Kelbian Noel. I’ll be posting an interview with Kelbian tomorrow to coincide with the release date of her second speculative YA novel, Sprung. Despite my sugar consumption, right now I’m feeling bitter and here’s why: Kelbian and I spent most of our time together bemoaning the difficulty of getting published while black in Canada. We also tried to develop some strategies for breaking through the color barrier, and one idea was to propose a panel to the coordinators of an established literary event. There’s an annual book festival in Toronto called Word on the Street and these are the stats they proudly share in their brochure.
- 65% Female, 34% Male
- 63% of our visitors have an annual household income of $50,000 and greater
- 28.3% of our visitors have an annual household income of $100,000 and greater
- Our visitors come from a range of age demographics (total number of visitors 215,000):
Under 17 – 18% of visitors
18-24 years – 14% of visitors
25-34 years – 20% of visitors
35-44 years – 16% of visitors
45-54 years – 13% of visitors
55+ years – 20% of visitors
- 72% of our visitors have completed college/university
- 33% of our visitors have completed postgraduate studies (This is up from 30.9% in 2011)
- 73% of our visitors are from Metropolitan Toronto
- 27% of our visitors are tourists from outside the GTA
- 80% of our visitors describe themselves as avid readers
- 85% of our visitors consider The Word On The Street a key cultural event
Now, close your eyes and imagine what this book festival looks like. A third of the visitors are middle-aged; the vast majority of visitors are college-educated and a third have advanced degrees; nearly two-thirds are middle class and one third of their visitors make more than a hundred grand a year. Kids account for a fifth of the visitors, but if they’re brought by these highly educated, wealthy adults, chances are they aren’t struggling with literacy. In case you don’t know the city of Toronto, let me share some other stats:
Toronto is one of the world’s most multicultural cities. In 2004, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranked Toronto second, behind Miami, Florida, in its list of the world’s cities with the largest percentage of foreign-born population. Miami’s foreign-born population is dominated by those of Cuban and Latin American descent, unlike Toronto’s foreign-born population, which is not dominated by any particular ethnic group.
The 2006 census indicates 46.9% of Toronto’s population is composed of visible minorities; 1,162,630 non-Whites, or 23% of Canada’s visible minority population, live in Toronto; of this, approximately 70% are of Asian ancestry. Annually, almost half of all immigrants to Canada settle in the Greater Toronto Area. In March 2005, Statistics Canada projected that the combined visible minority proportion will comprise a majority in both Toronto and Vancouver by 2012.
- 2006: 46.9% (South Asian: 12.0%, Chinese: 11.4%, Black 8.4%, Filipino 4.1%, Arab/West Asian: 2.6%, Latin American 2.6%, Southeast Asian 1.5%, Korean 1.4%, multiple 1.3%, not included elsewhere 1.0%, Japanese 0.5%)
Poverty is also on the rise in Toronto, with almost 25% of the population living hand to mouth:
Toronto’s poverty rates are higher than the provincial and national average. Overall, recent immigrants fare the worse with nearly half (46 per cent) in poverty. One in three children (under age 15) is living in poverty and 31 per cent of youths (15 to 24). Housing costs is the big driver, with almost 47 per cent of all tenants paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Another 23 per cent pay an astonishing 50 per cent or more on rent.
So. Let’s revisit the stats for Word on the Street. I’ve never attended or presented at this event, but feedback from attendees seems overwhelmingly positive. Yet does this literary event accurately reflect the 21st-century city of Toronto? Are they actually achieving their objectives if their attendees represent such a small (and privileged) slice of the population? Do you think their featured authors reflect and/or are likely to appeal to people of color (who make up 50% of the city’s population)?
The Word On The Street Toronto is a non-profit organization that celebrates Canadian reading and writing, and champions literacy, primarily through a free, annual outdoor festival.
- To ensure that the people of Toronto know about the annual festival, and value it as having the best and broadest offerings within the Canadian publishing industry.
- To ensure that The Word On The Street helps Toronto become 100% literate through its effective support for literacy awareness and programs.
- To ensure that The Word On The Street Toronto is a valuable and vital event for the Canadian publishing industry and a top choice for Canadian authors, publishers and booksellers.
Right now I’m thinking it’s not worth my time to approach the organizers of this event. I may send them an email, however, and hip them to Pop Up—a nonprofit in the UK that brings literature to communities that are too often ignored by big splashy book festivals…
Posted in children's literature, Children's Literature Salon, equity, LGBTQ, libraries, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, NYPL, racism in publishing on March 2, 2013 | 5 Comments »
This afternoon I will be on a diversity panel at the NYPL. I thought I’d post some of my slides for those of you who are unable to attend. A full report will be posted tomorrow…
The US Children’s Publishing Industry:
Is the door open or closed?
My thoroughly unscientific, simplified representation of diversity in publishing in 2013 (based on observation and anecdotal evidence):
I believe there’s a direct link between limited diversity in the publishing profession and the lack of diversity in books for young readers. Although it is important for white authors to learn how to accurately represent people of color in their work, that alone will NOT change the status quo. I’m wary of groups whose goal is to “celebrate diversity” without also promoting equity.
What IS the difference between diversity and equity? Diversity focuses on difference but equity focuses on fairness. These definitions come from the UC Berkeley website:
Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ, and it encompasses all the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. It is all-inclusive and recognizes everyone and every group as part of the diversity that should be valued. A broad definition includes not only race, ethnicity, and gender — the groups that most often come to mind when the term “diversity” is used — but also age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance. It also involves different ideas, perspectives, and values.
Equity is the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all…while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed to assist equality in the provision of effective opportunities to all groups.
What would YOUR ideal children’s literature community look like?
The UK Publishing Equalities Charter offers specific actions groups can take to promote equality and diversity. Learn more at equalityinpublishing.org
If you’re a member of the children’s literature community then you know Betsy Bird, Fuse8 blogger and Youth Materials Specialist at the NYPL. You probably also know that Betsy runs a monthly Children’s Literature Salon and on March 2nd the focus will be on diversity (learn more here). I hope you’ll join me, Betsy, Sofia Quintero, Connie Hsu, and Jacqueline Woodson as we discuss the challenge of creating equity in the children’s publishing industry. I’ve just joined the diversity committee at my job and it’s fascinating to see firsthand how the college gathers data in order to assess the progress it has or hasn’t made in meeting its diversity goals. Why can’t the publishing industry do the same?
Posted in activism, African American Literature, Canada, Canadian writers, children's literature, Coretta Scott King Award, creative writing, equity, fantasy, historical fiction, history, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, racism in publishing, self-publishing, speculative fiction, young adult novels on January 30, 2013 | 16 Comments »
My grandmother was an ardent admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A “colored” woman raised in Canada to pass for white, my grandmother proudly displayed a framed copy of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the wall of her home. As a teenager in Toronto I took a class on American history in order to learn more about the “Negro” ancestors my grandmother so often discussed, and I was devastated when she made a gift of the speech to my frivolous older sister. I was the one teaching the Civil Rights Movement to my high school classmates; I was the one who could recite portions of the speech by heart. My grandmother did give me her carefully preserved copy of Life magazine and though I admired Mrs. King’s sorrowful yet elegant profile, I still harbored resentment over the allocation of the speech. That piece of parchment went from a place of honor in my grandparents’ manse to the wall of my sister’s apartment; it hung next to the stereo, which blared lyrics by Jay-Z that would have made Mrs. King blanch. It took years for me to realize that my grandmother gave Dr. King’s speech to the granddaughter who needed it most. I wrongly thought that my investment in social justice entitled me to inherit the framed speech, but my grandmother knew that I was ready for something more and she was right—by my last year of college I was critiquing the “I Have a Dream” speech in the campus newspaper.
Since penning that editorial twenty years ago I have worked to develop my skills as a black feminist cultural critic. In 1994 I reversed the migration that brought my African American ancestors to Canada in 1820. Unfortunately my grandmother passed in 2002, months before I earned my PhD in American Studies from NYU; my dissertation, which focused on representations of racial violence in African American literature, was dedicated to her. I currently teach courses on race, gender, and sexuality in the Center for Ethnic Studies at BMCC, a community college in lower Manhattan that serves mostly immigrant and working-class students of color. Many are reluctant readers and so I’ve had to develop innovative ways of introducing them to black literature, which they wrongly expect to be irrelevant, outdated, and uninteresting. In addition to my teaching I’ve published scholarly essays, short fiction, and poetry in various anthologies, and my plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. I’ve also published three books for young readers—one of which, BIRD, won numerous awards after its publication in 2008, including a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for the illustrator, Shadra Strickland. Though she hoped at least one of her grandchildren would follow in her footsteps and become a preacher, overall I think my grandmother would approve.
I speak to hundreds of school children every year and my author presentation always begins with the shiny stickers on the cover of BIRD. Here in the US, children always know who Coretta Scott King was and they know that, like her husband, she believed in justice and equality for all. We talk about the way awards draw attention to a particular book and often ensure that it won’t go out of print. Then I ask the children to guess how many books are published in the US each year. Once we settle on the figure (about 5,000), I ask the children to guess what percentage of those books have black authors. They’re natural optimists, children. Most of the students I meet attend majority-black schools—urban schools that are just as segregated as those that predate the Civil Rights Movement—and it’s not uncommon for them to have black-authored books in the classroom. So there are always gasps of amazement when I hold up three fingers and inform them that less than 3% of all the children’s books published each year are written by authors who look like them. I add that Asian American, Latino, and Native American authors each represent less than 1% of the total, leaving 95% of all books for children written by members of one racial group. “Does that sound fair to you?” I ask and invariably I hear a chorus of indignant NOs in response.
When I saw the list of CSK Award recipients on Monday, I wondered what Coretta Scott King would think. I never had the privilege of meeting Mrs. King and all I know about the award is what I’ve read on the ALA website. I know that in 2009 the CSK Book Award celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and I do believe that black authors and illustrators are better off today than they were in the “all-white world of children’s books” of the 1970s. But when we look at the small number of authors and illustrators who seem to win a CSK Award year after year after year, are we looking at a picture of real diversity? Is the award helping to increase the overall pool of black authors and illustrators, or is it merely upholding the status quo by feeding a few big fish in a very small pond? Publishers no doubt realize the committee’s seeming preference for books about Dr. King and Rosa Parks and (a few) other historical figures. Does an editor’s desire to win yet another shiny sticker deter her from publishing other authors of other kinds of books that also “demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values?”
The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.
Self-published author and quilter Kyra Hicks has conducted an analysis of the award recipients and her findings indicate that the past four decades have produced a sort of winners club, an African American artistic elite whose insider status affords them creative opportunities too often denied their emerging and/or aspiring peers. It would seem as if the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, “occasionally given for young authors or illustrators who demonstrate outstanding promise at the beginning of their careers,” was developed to help remedy this situation and yet it was not given out in 2011 or 2012, which puzzles me. The African American authors and illustrators at The Brown Bookshelf annually publish a list of 28 contributors to the field of black children’s literature. Is it possible that the CSK Book Awards Committee found no one worthy of recognition for two consecutive years?
Perhaps it is easier to look backward at the past, which is familiar and safe, than it is to look forward where new possibilities—frightening to some—extend across the shifting terrain of the future. Yet the recent presidential election revealed the danger (and ultimate futility) of holding onto a romanticized version of the past, and the 2008 election of Barack Obama demonstrated that eventually the old guard must yield to the new. The publishing world is gripped by upheaval right now and many steadfastly cling to old models for fear of embracing innovation and developing new traditions that will respond to and reflect the realities of the twenty-first century. With so-called minorities expected to make up the majority of the US population in thirty years (minority babies already constitute the majority), what can the CSK Book Awards Committee do to ensure that equity—an ideal cherished by Dr. and Mrs. King—is not undermined by the children’s publishing industry? If 95% of children’s book authors were men, white women across the country would mobilize to create change. But where is the outrage over racial dominance in the children’s literature community?
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
In the past I have defended the CSK Award against claims that writers of all races should be eligible. With less than 3% of the publishing pie, though we constitute 13% of the US population, I felt that black authors and illustrators deserved something to call their own. Today I am less convinced of the relevance of the CSK Awards and wonder if I ought to revise the portion of my author presentation that claims the award reflects the values of Dr. and Mrs. King. The award-granting process is often controversial and generally shrouded in secrecy, though a 2010 article in School Library Journal lifted the veil on the Caldecott Medal. The CSK Book Awards Committee considers all genres, I believe, but the Caldecott focuses on
one genre illustrated books only and still jury members can expect to review more than 700 titles each year. I am not entirely convinced of the link between quantity and quality in books, but there is something to be said for competition and I think creativity truly flourishes when more (and more kinds of) people are invited to the drawing table. As television’s numerous talent competitions demonstrate, the US has a deep pool of gifted individuals who are simply waiting for an opportunity to shine.
Last year I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to write a family memoir about my African American ancestors; I am anxious to explore the social pressures that first led them to flee slavery in the US only to further escape into whiteness in order to avoid racism in Canada. In my country of origin, an average of two black authors manage to publish a book for children each year, making a race-based award like the CSK impossible. Things are better here in the US, which is why I chose to relocate, but after more than a decade trying to publish my twenty manuscripts for young readers, I’m ready to throw in the towel and move on. I am close to completing two young adult novels, both speculative fiction, and once they’re done I plan to leave the world of children’s literature behind. I am disappointed by the complacency of so many individuals and institutions that claim to have children’s best interest at heart, yet I am encouraged by the fact that a small group of activists is currently in the process of reviving/reinventing the Council on Interracial Books for Children. I will do what I can to assist with the launch of this endeavor, and I hope its emphasis on social justice will truly honor the transformative vision of Dr. and Mrs. King.