You’re probably already familiar with Elizabeth Bluemle’s efforts to engage booksellers and other members of the kidlit community in a conversation about race and books; in addition to her “Elephant in the Room” post on her PW blog ShelfTalker, Elizabeth has recently developed resources for booksellers who want to promote equality within their stores. I intend to cite her efforts in my presentation on Saturday but will hold off on critiquing this latest endeavor, which is to promote “books NOT aimed at educating readers about race.” The goal instead is “finding and sharing the stories of Black, Asian, Hispanic characters doing all the fun stuff their Caucasian counterparts do in books.” Hmm. I guess that means that neither of my books for young readers would be included in this promotional effort.
I really admire this initiative, and have been thinking a lot lately of the serious challenge we face in developing wider markets for books that feature children of color. This is an age-old debate: how do we make members of the majority group care about those of us on the margins? I suppose one approach is to focus on “all the fun stuff” that connects us. Maybe that’s the “wedge” that will open the door just enough for other topics to slip in. Mostly Elizabeth’s strategies are designed to subtly expose a book buyer’s prejudice; if a bookseller describes the book without mentioning race or revealing the cover, then the book buyer must consider why s/he rejected a book that sounded interesting but turned out to be about people of color.
The language we use to booktalk books is very important. I encourage booksellers to handsell books with people of color on the cover the same way they booktalk books with white kids on the cover when talking to white customers: hook them with the story, the character, the dilemmas and adventures. You don’t mention race unless race IS the story. Take historical fiction as a parallel. For many kids, the minute you describe a book as historical fiction, their eyes glaze over. But if you say, “This book is about a girl who gets kidnapped from her home and tries to escape and become a spy,” well, they’re in.
So how would a bookseller describe A Wish After Midnight? “This book is about a girl who gets sent back in time and has to learn how to live in Civil War-era Brooklyn.” Leave out the race riot at the end? Or refer to it only as the draft riot? I guess Wish is a book that would be hard to handsell to a white reader because it is—in large part—“about race.”
Now, I am a realist—really, I am. I know that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. And I have written loads of stories about children playing in snow, and making new friends at school, and learning to respect the environment. Of course, all those stories are as yet unpublished. It’s a Catch-22 for black authors, as Rudine Sims Bishop explains:
Issues of audience are obviously related to issues of content and theme. Many teachers and librarians think books about Afro-American experience are meant for Black children only. In their minds, the Afro-American experience is equated with the hardships and social problems they associate with growing up Black and poor in the city—fatherless home, gangs, drugs, tough or obscene language, police brutality, crime, and so forth. Therefore, they reason, ‘Black experience’ books are so far removed from the experiences of white children as to be irrelevant at best, or too harsh and inexplicable at worst. In the minds of these same people, stories in which such hardships play no role and children face no racially motivated conflicts are not ‘Black experience’ stories at all.
Of course, a book that’s set in the city and features a fatherless, impoverished girl with a drug dealing brother can ALSO be about belonging, community, self-acceptance, and friendship. I’m wary of the “fun versus educational” split; an engrossing read shouldn’t have to be “lite” and/or avoid serious topics of injustice. Race matters, and I’m not sure how much progress we’ll make as a society if we encourage readers to act like it doesn’t—isn’t this like asking people to be “colorblind” and *not* confront difference? Ok, back to my conference papers; more thoughts on this issue to come.