As Children’s Book Week gets underway, First Book is upping the ante in advocating for more diversity in children’s book publishing: the Washington, D.C.-based literacy nonprofit announced on Tuesday morning its latest initiative to encourage publishers to seek out and publish books that better reflect the diversity of young readers. As an extension of the Stories for All Project that First Book launched in 2013, the organization has pledged to purchase from publishers 10,000 copies of each book it selects for distribution to children in need from low-income families.
First Book will also fund the production of paper editions of select titles previously available only in hardcover format that feature multicultural and under-represented voices. The books will then be made available “at special prices” exclusively to the 120,000+ schools and organizations in the U.S. and Canada that First Book serves, as well as the global market that First Book is beginning to tap into, with the assistance of the Clinton Global Initiative.
“This is the latest chapter, but not the last chapter,” First Book president and CEO Kyle Zimmer, who founded First Book in 1992, told PW. “We knew [in 2013] that there needed to be more than a single buy. We’re walking a few steps further up the pipeline. And as we grow, we’ll take steps further up the content pipeline.” Last year, after receiving proposals from 26 publishers, First Book purchased $1 million in books – $500,000 from HarperCollins and $500,000 from Lee & Low in conjunction with its Stories for All Project – double its original planned financial outlay.
“The most important thing about this initiative is that it’s market-driven. We’re asking the publishing industry to publish more [diverse] books but they can’t be put in this position when the market is unproven,” Zimmer said. “So we’re putting our money where our mouth is: we’re putting the full strength of First Book behind the need for diversity, and reaching out in partnership with publishers.”
“The news today from First Book is just incredible,” Lee & Low president Craig Low told PW. “It’s amazing, their deep commitment to bringing more diverse books into the lives of children. Beginning with the Stories for All Project, they’ve really created a new market for diverse books. It provides a whole new opportunity for authors and illustrators who’ve been forever underrepresented to publish their works and share their stories. We’re looking forward to partnering with [First Book] in the upcoming months and years.”
“What First Book is doing is something that the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team could only dream about,” said author Ellen Oh, referring to the social media campaign she recently spearheaded. “If diverse books don’t sell, they can’t be published. First Book is providing a tangible solution to the problem.”
Zimmer speculated that this initiative would “likely” cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” but, she added, “there is no minimum and no maximum” to First Book’s financial commitment during the lifespan of this project. She also emphasized that while this project has a lifespan, First Book’s partnership with publishers “is permanent.” More projects fulfilling First Book’s mission will be implemented as the organization “spreads our wings,” she said.
Calls for publishers to be more proactive in acquiring and publishing books featuring multicultural and under-represented voices have intensified since the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison released the results of its annual study of children’s literature: of 3,200 books published in the U.S. in 2013, only 93 featured African-Americans; 34 featured Native Americans; 69 featured Asians; and 57 featured Latinos.
First Book’s initiative, Zimmer says, serves three constituencies: publishers are “served from a business perspective” with a sustainable market for books; children from multicultural backgrounds are “served because they will see themselves represented in children’s literature;” and children “who are already commonly represented in children’s literature will see others represented.” First Book, Zimmer says, is “making sure that children of whatever background don’t just see themselves in books, but also that children of whatever background see others.”
Publishers are invited to submit title information to First Book for consideration by September 5, 2014. Selected titles will be announced in November and distributed in January. Complete guidelines can be found here.