As part of its celebration of Children’s Book Week, Charlesbridge in Watertown, Mass., welcomed authors, booksellers, librarians, and other area children’s book publishers to its offices on May 16 for a discussion with the Children’s Book Council on diversity in children’s book publishing, the first time the CBC has held an event in Boston. As Charlesbridge executive editor Yolanda Scott noted in introducing the panelists – moderator Ayanna Coleman from the CBC; two creators, author Mitali Perkins and illustrator London Ladd; and editors Katie Cunningham at Candlewick Press, Monica Perez at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Alyssa Mito Pusey at Charlesbridge – “It’s easy to stay quiet for fear of saying the wrong thing.” Fortunately that wasn’t a problem last Thursday.
Ladd, who has one white and one black parent and prefers the term “multiracial” to “biracial,” led off the conversation. He defined diversity using Webster’s Dictionary, as “the inclusion of different people into a group.” But he added his own twist: “Without prejudice, without judgment. It allows different types of people to be represented.” In doing research for books, he recommended that creators develop a relationship with others so that they can understand them better. “It would enhance your work,” he said.
“I really resent labels,” said Perkins, who was born in Kolkata, India, and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of seven. Instead she prefers to think about books in terms of windows and mirrors. “I tell children they have a superpower until they’re 16 or 17,” she said. “They’re at a stage when they can throw open windows. Now’s a time when they can be insiders, and stories can take them there.” She advised attendees, “If you’re going to cross cultures, hold bunches of babies.” She also spoke about how she uses social media to create diversity by reaching out to people not in her usual circle. That is how she was invited to write the foreword to Maud Hart Lovelace’s Emily of Deep Valley.
“For me, diversity is an awareness of all the conditions that make us unique,” Pusey said. “Growing up Asian in Hawaii, I had the option of not thinking about race. Now my son says this mantra: ‘Everyone is the same, and everyone is different.’ Upstairs at Charlesbridge, two of us are Asian, the rest are white. Three are men, and the rest are women.” Although Pusey edits a lot of nonfiction, particularly science, where diversity is not typically an issue, she does her best to insert it where she can. “I also edit history,” she said, “where who’s telling the story is very important.”
The situation at Candlewick is similar, said Cunningham. “[It] is primarily white and female. I think salary is an issue. [Publishing] is a second-salary job. Why are there so few men? And why are there so many white chicks?” she asked. “My diversity cred is not immediately apparent, being a lesbian. It opens your eyes to other invisible diversities: religion, class, and race.” When a friend had a baby with Down’s Syndrome, Cunningham said she became aware of what she regards as a better way of expressing diversity, person-first language.
Growing up in a Hispanic household in Texas, Perez credited books with enabling her to go to college and to leave the state. “The diversity I saw in the books I read shaped my future. Now I live in a suburb where I’m the diversity and my kids are the diversity.” She regards money as a particularly difficult barrier for entry into publishing. “I had to go to work directly after college. Then I went into debt to get into publishing,” she said. “If we were to have more diversity, we could have different kinds of books. We need more diverse creators, buyers, and sellers – anyone who gets a book into children’s hands.”
That’s not necessarily so easy as Carter Hasegawa, who works at both Candlewick and at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., noted from the audience. “You do your best,” he said referring to getting diverse books to children. More often, though, customers want the books that they grew up reading. “We get a lot of grandmothers wanting to buy Great Expectations for their seven-year-old.”
One questioner, a recent college graduate, complained about people acting as if they’re color-blind. “This ideology takes away from the breadth of experience,” she said. Another audience member, a librarian, said that she’d like to find a book about disability in which the main character doesn’t die.
In closing, Perkins returned full circle to Scott’s introduction. “Be brave,” she said. “Don’t worry about making mistakes. When we’re trying to be safe, that’s when we get in trouble.” There was a lot of head-nodding in agreement from the audience, who clearly viewed this as a good first step in a longer-term discussion.