We have work to do. I almost don’t know where to begin—before the conference I considered posting a draft US Publishing Equalities Charter on this blog, but then I looked at the UK draft and realized that was too much work for one person. What we need is a similar list of specific actions that are appropriate to the many different members of the kidlit community (readers, teachers, librarians, publishers, marketers, reviewers, parents, kids, artists, etc.). That’s just one conclusion we came to during the post-conference brunch earlier today. But let me back up and share some of what transpired on Friday night; I wasn’t taking notes, and apologize for not including remarks on every presenter. The panels were filmed, and a documentary will eventually be made of the entire conference.
After Andrea Davis Pinkney delivered her keynote address, Cheryl Willis Hudson moderated a panel on marketing, distributing, and selling black children’s literature. Joe Monti, a former buyer for Barnes & Noble, shared a first-hand account of a publisher that brought him whitewashed covers of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. When he objected, the publisher returned with a “suntanned” version of the same blond cover model. Hannah Ehrlich of Lee & Low Books gave a fantastic presentation on finding markets for multicultural books; I was particularly struck by her suggestion that it’s nearly impossible to win someone over at the point of sale. The buyer has to already be receptive to multicultural books; if that’s the case, then selling particular titles is much easier. But you can’t go in “cold” and try to win someone over because the resistance will be too strong. That made me think of Elizabeth Bluemle‘s handselling strategies, and how much work has to be done *before* book buyers even reach the store…Agent/author Regina Brooks and illustrator Colin Bootman were also on that panel; KT Horning shared so many great ideas this weekend—this wasn’t from her panel presentation, I don’t think, but she urged the restoration of funding for libraries since *they* used to be the primary buyers of children’s literature and therefore had the power to influence publishers’ offerings instead of big chain stores.
My morning panel was “Issues of Identity & Representation: How Far Have We Come?” We were preceded by Dr. Nancy Tolson who gave a fabulous historical survey of African American children’s literature; Nancy has also studied and taught in Ghana, and rightly suggested we invite African publishers to the next conference. My panelists were great, and I did take notes but will just share these highlights: legendary illustrator George Ford recalled the early days of his career when “people of vision” in the industry opened doors and created opportunities for emerging artists; George and others invoked the Council on Interracial Books for Children, and we now realize that we need to create a 21st century version of the CIBC. I’m going to take a closer look at this 1998 article by Beryle Banfield:
This is a particularly appropriate time at which to reflect on the role of the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) on its role in the promotion and development of children’s literature that would adequately reflect our multi-racial society. It is also a truly troubling time for those who have shared the concerns of the CIBC over the last thirty years. The hard won Civil Rights gains of African Americans are being steadily eroded through court decisions and legislative actions. Multi-cultural studies are being derided as “feel good ethnic studies.” The term politically correct has been transformed into a mocking description of vocabulary or actions used to avoid race or gender bias. There is no longer the sense of social concern and social responsibility that existed at the time that the CIBC was established. (my emphasis)
Illustrator Nicole Tadgell talked about the unfair burden of historical narratives and has taken it upon herself to write more fantasy stories for black children; the demand for fantasy was reiterated by the adolescent boys on the next panel. Unfortunately, the girls who were invited to participate didn’t show up, which meant the conference started to feel somewhat male-centered. But that could just be me. I almost skipped the final panel on Educating Black Boys but I’m glad I didn’t because Dr. C. Jama Adams gave a rousing presentation and reminded us that 66% of black men are NOT incarcerated. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a problem, but the bright, articulate boys on the previous panel prove that the future’s not all doom and gloom—sometimes that’s just the narrative we choose to focus on…
One of the best things about this weekend is that I got to hang out with Laura Atkins—lecturer, literary consultant, and former editor at Lee & Low and Children’s Book Press. I’m getting better at mingling, but it definitely helped having such a good friend to process everything with…Laura shared her excellent article on White Privilege in Children’s Publishing, and then moderated a panel on the evaluation of black children’s literature. If only we could get Laura’s message into the publishing houses where so many white editors remain oblivious to their biases and blindspots…and how many editors do you think were present at the conference? It takes a LOT of courage to walk into a room full of frustrated people and admit you’re partly to blame for that frustration. But that’s just what John Sellers of Publishers Weekly did—he checked his reviews of children’s books and acknowledged that books featuring PoC constitute just 100 of the 1600 books PW reviews each year. He also made it clear that he’s open to suggestions, which impressed me even more. It was great to meet Summer Edward who served as respondent on that panel and introduced some challenges facing children’s book authors in the Caribbean.
Ok, I’m running out of steam! We held a debriefing session this morning, but I didn’t contribute much because my head felt like it was about to burst; KT and I took the train back to Brooklyn, and then I walked through the garden, breathing deeply and trying to order my thoughts. There’s SO much work to do, and yet I sense the beginning of a coalition—and that’s what we really need: a team of people willing to work for change. I’ll write more on this topic later in the week; for now I need to recover and gear up for the other two conferences I have scheduled this week! I’ll be at Amy Bowllan’s Diversity Symposium on Wednesday, and the New England Conference on Multicultural Education on Thursday…