A little less conversation, a little more action was the resounding message that arose during a November 12 Children’s Book Council panel discussion on marketing diverse children’s books. The event took place at CBC headquarters in Manhattan, and the talk ranged from the nitty gritty of promoting particular books to overcoming resistance to books featuring characters from multicultural backgrounds. The speakers were Ray Paszkiewicz, senior buyer, Baker & Taylor; Max Rodriguez, founder of the Harlem Book Fair and author of The Black Book Review; and Nikki Mutch, New England district sales manager at Scholastic. Angus Killick, v-p and associate publisher at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, moderated.
The topic has become a familiar one within the publishing community in recent months. Despite this, the panelists agreed that in order to discuss diversity, it’s important to understand what the word really means, and within the context of publishing and book promotion as well. The notion of diversity is often reduced to being about race, but the panelists agreed that the word has much more expansive and evolving dimensions of meaning.
Paszkiewicz observed that, while race is certainly a large component of the discussion about diversity in children’s books, the definition is expanding. He sees how this changing understanding of what diversity can mean has led librarians and booksellers to “dive deeply into catalogs,” and to provide “more and more broad-based” lists with books that approach diversity on multiple levels. Paszkiewicz believes that, ideally, books can and should be published that readers wouldn’t necessarily “think of as diverse” but which simply “feature characters and instances of experience that just weigh in organically” in the world of a particular story.
For Mutch, who works on the industry’s frontlines, what readers are looking for and “what is missing” within the market are books that are diverse in the sense that they “reflect everything” happening in the world that readers inhabit. And considering the many kinds of young readers that enter a bookstore, there is room for stories that speak to a multitude of experiences.
In terms of defining what diversity means today, Rodriguez spoke to the roots of the word itself, saying: “diversity serves division.” He posited that, rather than thinking in terms of division, “inclusion” should be the goal. In terms of seeking books to publish, sell, or place on library shelves, a collection ought to achieve “a sense of balance” with books that reflect the worldviews of their authors and readers. “Inclusion,” Rodriguez elaborated, “conveys acknowledgement and acceptance.” Even the word “multicultural,” Rodriguez feels, often equates in people’s minds as meaning “everyone other than me.” He feels that it comes down to “attitude and how we see ourselves in the world.” If a book does not “look inclusive,” there will always be readers who may feel shut out from it.
In Rodriguez’s opinion, talk only goes so far: “There are conversations and then conversations about the conversations we just had,” said Rodriguez, expressing some fatigue over how diversity discussions within the industry feel a bit like preaching to the choir. Rodriguez acknowledged that publishers are often “driven by bottom line,” and, by necessity, a publisher must be cognizant of finding and promoting titles that will perform robustly in the market.
This said, he believes that “there certainly is a market” for diverse books. He also sees “many parents who understand the value of reading and education and want their kids to be acknowledged not just in words but visually.”
On the retail front, Mutch has noticed positive signs that interest in multicultural children’s books is growing. In previous years in New England, booksellers reported to her that they had “a hard time selling diverse books.” Now, she feels that booksellers are spending less time thinking about getting these books to leave the shelves and more time making room for them. The conversation has shifted from “how to sell these books to ‘give me more.’ ”
Mutch firmly believes that books that include diverse characters are also “getting on parents’ radars,” and that “kids are looking for books with characters that aren’t necessarily just like them.” An increasing number of resources are bringing these books to the attention of consumers. One tool that Mutch finds especially valuable is bookseller (and PW blogger) Elizabeth Bluemle’s database of diverse children’s books. The CBC’s Diversity Goodreads Bookshelf also compiles a list of diverse titles for parents, educators, and book-buyers to peruse.
Elaborating on the kinds of books that young readers are seeking, Killick used the metaphor of a window and a mirror. Books often mirror a reader’s own physical, emotional, or psychological identity in the world. At other times, books can serve as windows into lives that are totally foreign to the reader. Readers often seek out both. While many African-American readers may wish to read about characters that more closely resemble themselves, they also read Curious George and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rodriguez said.
A recent effort to promote a book that features diverse characters took the form of the Great Greene Challenge, which was sparked by author Kate Messner. Via social media, she encouraged readers to purchase a copy of Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist, which features characters from multicultural backgrounds, from their local independent bookstores. From there, Johnson launched an official contest, which invited bookstores to formally take part. It was an example of a concerted effort on the part of “gatekeepers” to handsell a diverse story to readers.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. The panelists spoke to the fact that many “gatekeepers” responsible for supplying books to young readers are often unaware of how their personal preconceived notions can be detrimental. Mutch still sometimes hears from booksellers that “I can’t sell that here because we don’t have this race or ethnicity represented in our store.” While at a book event with Eric Velasquez, Rodriguez also witnessed a parent refuse to purchase her daughter a copy of My Friend Maya Loves to Dance by Cheryl Willis Hudson, illustrated by Velasquez (Abrams), which is about an African-American ballerina. Regardless of the skin color of the main character in the story, Rodriguez said of the girl who was so drawn toward the book: “She too was a ballerina. That’s all she saw.” The lesson, it seems, is that children intuitively know what books interest them, and parents should listen.
Paskiewicz believes that “kids will relate to truth.” In essence, he feels that the inclusion of diversity in a book need not be glaringly purposeful, but rather “a natural extension of what the story should be about.” On that same note, while some publishers “work specifically within the subject of diversity,” other publishers are weaving in diverse characters and themes in more subtle – but no less important – ways. Connoisseurs of great books are really seeking the same thing: “a body of work that will stand the test of time... It doesn’t matter sometimes whether diversity comes out in one way or another.” And for young readers, good storytelling is the quality that will first and foremost ensure that “a book speaks to them internally,” Paskiewicz said.
Other topics of discussion included the question of diversity within the publishing industry itself. Rodriguez expressed uncertainty that having a diverse staff would necessarily mean a lot more diverse books, noting that he would trust everyone in the room – with their awareness of the importance of representing different voices – with the task of advocating for diversity in children’s books. Killick seconded that, saying that “an advocate for any aspect of diversity can come from any corner of life.”
Additionally, the speakers addressed the often dicey subject of authors writing outside of their own cultural experiences. “We should all agree here, if you are Asian, you can only write Asian books,” kidded Rodriguez. But on a serious note, he said, “We are of different cultures, but we are one people. We can take on the sharing of experiences.” Yet, while Rodriguez believes that individuals should write whatever they feel most compelled to write, readers will serve as a book’s jury, ultimately holding it “to the ring of truth.”
Drawing the panel to a close, the speakers agreed that creating books that represent a multitude of young voices, cultures, and life experiences needs to be more than a campaign or the topic of the conversation du jour. Instead, promoting such books should be part of an enduring commitment on the part of all industry professionals to help tell the complete human story.