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February 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Carte Blanche
There remains a dramatic deficit of diversity in books for youth.
Consider here some statistics: currently, there are 42 million adolescents in America. A total of 54.1 percent (22.7 million) of them are white, 22.8 percent (9.6 million) are Hispanic, 14 percent (5.9 million) are black, 4.7 percent (1.97 million) are Asian, and 4.4 percent (1.8 million) are other (i.e., American Indian/Alaska Native, Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, mixed race).
Together, the minorities total some 46 percent of the youth population, and at the present rate of change, it is projected that as soon as 2018, children and teens of color will have become the majority youth population.
Given these extraordinary statistics and the sweeping social changes they suggest, one wonders if we are managing to offer young readers a viable literature of similar diversity and complexity. It’s very difficult to marshal reliable statistics to answer that question, but the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is a staple supplier of them. Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low, one of the country’s few minority-owned publishing houses, has said, “Diversity is the missing piece of the puzzle in books for young readers, and the CCBC has had its fingers on the pulse of this issue from the very beginning.”
Based on an analysis of the 3,500 books it received from publishers in 2015, the CCBC notes that only 270 were about blacks (107 were by blacks); 83 were about Hispanics (59 were by Hispanics), 113 were about Asians (176 were by Asians), and 42 were about Native Americans (19 were by Native Americans).
What to do about this disappointing lack of diversity? Well, first, attention must be paid, and so a partial answer may be found in the formation of the already influential new grassroots organization called We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). The largely volunteer organization sprang from a protest campaign inspired by the lack of diversity among speakers at the 2014 BookCon. According to its mission statement, it “advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all [emphasis added] young people.”
Why such miniscule numbers, though, especially for authors writing from within their own racial/ethnic/cultural groups? Well, there are many reasons. For starters, there aren’t enough editors of color in publishing, notes Karen Sandler, senior vice president of Communications for WNDB. In a recent interview with me, she pointed out that fully 90 percent of publishing professionals self-identified as white, according to a recent Publishers Weekly survey. WNDB is attempting to redress that imbalance by presenting intern grants to diverse college students interested in publishing as a career.
A second reason for the paucity of diverse books is that there simply aren’t enough writers of color producing these books for diverse audiences. How to encourage more to become writers? WNDB is working to that end, as well, offering its Walter grants (named for the late Walter Dean Myers, who seems to be something of a patron saint for WNDB) to five aspiring diverse authors each year. It also sponsors an ambitious mentorship program, pairing veteran authors and illustrators with aspiring authors and artists for a period of five years to help them develop their craft and navigate the children’s literature industry.
A third reason for the lack of diverse books is a perceived lack of demand for them; most teens, one might conclude, seem uninterested in reading diverse books, given that virtually no diverse novels are to be found on the various top 10 and other lists of books selected by teens themselves. How to introduce them to diverse books? Sandler challenges librarians to undertake this essential task, for kids need diverse books, she says, for the sake of filling a current void of empathy and for offering readers both a mirror and a window—the mirror to give faces to diverse youth, the window to enable white mainstream teens to see and at least begin to understand their diverse peers. To make such books available, WNDB offers funding to purchase copies of the annual Walter Award–winning books and to place them in Title 1 schools.
Speaking of the Walter Award: WNDB presents it to a diverse author of an outstanding diverse book each year; also presented are one to three honor awards for runner-up books. The prestigious award—selected by a volunteer committee of librarians and teachers—is presented every March at the Library of Congress.
How about the future of We Need Diverse Books? I asked Sandler. Her reply: “I think we will obviously continue to do what’s working. We also hope to expand programs so that we can continue to grow the awareness of ever more diverse books.”
In the meantime, another diverse group that WNDB targets—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex adolescents—is faring somewhat better. Consider that from 2000 to 2009, a total of 256 relevant titles were published. In the following period, 2010–16, despite covering fewer years, the total nevertheless escalated to 437. The numbers are striking but become even more so when the output of niche publishers (Harmony Ink, Bold Strokes, and Bella Books) are included, sending the number of titles soaring to 722. For some perspective on the remarkable growth of the field, consider that this number is nearly 10 times as large as the total published throughout the entire decade of the nineties. These figures obviously evidence a growing market for the genre but also, perhaps, a growing awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ people, who are becoming more and more visible—in both literature and life.
Visibility of every diverse kid is central if literature for youth is to remain relevant. Whether mirrors or windows, books can guarantee that essential imperative of relevancy, not only giving faces to all diverse youth but offering insights into their minds and hearts so that—as I often say—them can become us. It can’t happen soon enough.
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