ReedPOP, a subsidiary of Reed Exhibitions, has responded to the firestorm that erupted on social media Thursday afternoon following its announcement of the author lineup for its “Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kids Authors That Dazzle” panel at this year’s inaugural BookCon.
The group promises to add one or more additional panelists that “reflect the community and make a great panel even better,” Lance Fensterman, ReedPOP’s global v-p, said. Fensterman had just deplaned in Boston Friday afternoon after spending the past week at the London Book Fair when he spoke with PW about BookCon, a consumer show being held in conjunction with BEA.
After a news story ran in Thursday’s PW Children’s Bookshelf newsletter, explaining that Daniel Handler, Jeff Kinney, James Patterson, and Rick Riordan would be featured on what ReedPOP described in a release as an “unprecedented, power-packed panel” of the “world’s biggest children’s authors,” a number of industry observers expressed their displeasure on Twitter about the lack of diversity on the panel.
“It’s a self-inflicted wound, is exactly what it is,” Lerner Publishing Group editorial director Andrew Karre told PW. “It’s four middle-aged white guys. If we don’t apply a certain amount of pressure, this isn’t going to change. It’s our job to speak up.” Karre noted that there has been an ongoing discussion of late in both trade and consumer media concerning the lack of diversity in contemporary children’s literature.
“Walter Dean Myers was just writing about it in the New York Times,” Karre said. “Hell, he was writing about it back in the 1980s.” CNN also explored the issue recently, in a report that cited findings from Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin: based on a look at 3,200 children’s books published in the U.S. in 2013, only 93 featured black people; 34 books featured Native Americans, 69 Asians, and 57 Latinos.
“We regularly beat ourselves up about this. There’s no one in the industry who’s not aware of this,” said Karre, who was interviewed on the topic by NPR in 2013. That program discussed the growing disconnect between the demographics of children’s book authors and characters, and that of young readers: 50% of all children in the U.S. under age five are identified as non-white. “This is not some parochial concern," he said. "Everyone’s conscious of this – or they should be.”
Karre noted that BookCon personnel obviously worked hard to put together a slate of authors, including this panel. But in his opinion, claiming that these four authors are the world’s most prominent, thus implying that there are no women or authors of color of the same stature, makes it a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” The implication, Karre said, is that to be successful, “one must be a white guy in an open-collar shirt who kind of looks like John Grisham.”
Fensterman emphasized that ReedPOP is “always listening” and “prides itself on doing the right thing when we get feedback” on the shows it produces, particularly consumer shows, like BookCon, which are more driven by fan feedback than are the trade shows. BookCon panels like the Blockbuster Reads panel, Fensterman explained, will continue to be built and authors will continue to be added to the entire slate “until the week of the show.” ReedPOP will, Fensterman assured PW, strive to be “inclusive and respectful” throughout the process as it assembles authors and other speakers who will resonate with attendees.
“We’re curating content that the fans want to see,” Fensterman said. “We’ll be changing the mix and adding things as we go. We want to create the best show with the best content for the masses.”
While Kelly Jensen, a blogger and librarian at the Beloit, Wis., Public Library, appreciated BookCon’s commitment to add an additional author or authors to the “Blockbuster Reads” panel, she wishes BookCon had considered the issue of diversity earlier in the process. “It’s an issue that’s been brought up again and again,” she said. “It would be nice if this had been taken into consideration during the initial planning instead of after it was pointed out, after the announcement. Four white men don’t reflect what the book world is like, not even to a general audience.”
Expressing his hope that something positive would come out of this controversy, Karre said, “If they really want to put their money where their mouth is, they should have a panel on this topic, the issue of diversity in children’s books. [BookCon] doesn’t need to be popular culture candy. It could be meatier than that.”