reflecting on representation

4 Feb 2016 news 0 Comments

IMG_20150526_143000_390At the end of every year, Edith Campbell and I compile a list of middle grade and young adult novels authored by African Americans. Our 2015 list was particularly demoralizing, with only 32 of 3,000 novels for young readers published by Black writers (and only 2 debut authors). Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey proves what many of us have known for years: white women run the publishing industry. Can we trust these gatekeepers to find the stories that fully and accurately reflect “the Black experience?” With so few books published annually, can we truly achieve excellence in African American children’s literature? This year Edi and I decided to reflect on these lists and what they tell us about the status of African American writers in the children’s publishing industry.

Zetta: Many people thank me for posting our annual African American MG/YA novel list, but I source the titles from your blog. When and why did you start keeping track of new releases by PoC/First Nations authors, and what compelled you to count debut authors?

Edi: This question made me go back to the early days of my blog and see what I could find about the beginnings of my book lists. On a post a few months after I began the blog, I mentioned that I was creating a book list for urban teens and that I would begin looking for books for Latino students soon. That first list was (and is) a mess. It contained every book I could think of regardless of when it was published. Every year, my list becomes more polished and more diverse. At some point, I decided to promote all Native American and authors of color and to post new books each month. I know that we’ve used my lists to locate Latinx books and African American speculative fiction. I’ve used it to locate books with African American female lead characters. I’m not sure if anyone else is using the lists as data, but they certainly could.

I think it’s important to take note of new authors. If that first book doesn’t sell as projected, their career is in jeopardy. So I create that list to start bringing attention to the debut authors. I’m not on a selection committee this year, so I’ll be able to interview them and review their books unlike last year. I’ve not paid a lot of attention to the ethnic breakdown of the debut authors list because, like it or not, all brown folk face the same basic discrimination in publishing. I do believe, however, that this year there are only 2 African American debut authors in a list of twenty, and they’re both female.

Edi: Are you ever surprised by what these lists of African American MG/YA fiction titles reveal?

Zetta: No, I’m never surprised. People want to believe we’re making “progress” because the word “diversity” gets bandied about on social media. But what’s needed in the “movement” for inclusive children’s literature is greater transparency. I get VERY tired of the relentless optimism and naïveté of some diversity advocates who refuse to grapple with the facts. If there are 3000 novels published for young readers in the US each year, then should we really be celebrating the publication of 30 Black-authored novels? And of those 30 authors, only TWO were making their debut in 2015? I think that’s appalling. I want our lists to put things in perspective, but I find people often use them in other ways—and that’s okay. My primary goal, however, is to reveal what’s really going on in children’s publishing here in the US. It always reminds me of that quote by Malcolm X about progress:

“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”

We’ll never resolve the diversity disparities in children’s publishing if we don’t first acknowledge the severity of the problem. And that includes holding people accountable. Imagine what would happen if WNDB took to Twitter and asked their 20K followers to join them in demanding that the Big 5 each debut FIVE Black authors per year for the next 5 years. To quote another important Black male activist, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” I’m still waiting for WNDB to demand SOMETHING, anything from the publishing industry. They have so much power and it seems they’re using it to uphold the status quo.

Zetta: You’re involved with WNDB. Describe your role and the impact you feel this young movement will have on racial disparities in kid lit.

Edi: My only formal connection to WNDB was being on the selection committee for the initial Walter Award. I think impact can only be measured in retrospect, and I would like to see it done on WNDB’s terms. I’m hoping they have measurable goals that will be clear indications of their success. I think WNDB developed at a time when awareness of marginalization was growing across industries, and the time was ripe for them to build an audience. From a variety of things I’m seeing, I do feel that diversity is not going away any time soon and I think that’s because WNDB has legitimized its presence in kidlit. At the same time, I think marginalization in kidlt (ha! in America) is so pervasive that it will take constant and consistent efforts on many fronts to change what’s being put in front of our children. Some of this is about economics, but it’s also about access to our children.

Edi: A lot has happened with regards to diversity in kidlit. What gives you hope that things are going to change, that there will be better representation for marginalized youth?

Zetta: Did I miss something? What has happened exactly? In what way has the status quo changed? I’m not optimistic, I’m afraid. Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey proves to the world what many of us have known for a long time: white, straight, middle-class cis women run this industry. Will they have a sudden epiphany, recognize the error of their ways, and vow to correct the disparities they’ve created? I doubt it. The publishing industry wasn’t designed to serve our children or our communities. The people who work in publishing, for the most part, are not from our communities. I advocate for a community-based publishing model that will empower marginalized people and turn them into consumers and producers of books. A public library in St. Paul, MN published books for speakers of Karen in their community—that gives me hope. A traditional publisher would argue that catering to such a small population wouldn’t make commercial sense, but imagine what it means to the members of that community to have books in their own language! What gives me hope is the impulse to make books for reasons OTHER than profit. Tell your story because it proves you believe your voice matters. Tell your story so that it can counter the dominant narrative. Tell your story because expressing yourself is good for you! Tell your story because if you don’t, someone else will. More than half of the children’s books about Blacks that were published in 2014 were written by whites. That’s not ok. Print-on-demand technology makes it possible for more and more people to tell their stories, their way—without interference from culturally incompetent gatekeepers. THAT gives me hope!