Illustrators gathered on Thursday to talk about promoting children’s books by African-Americans, and about striving toward a future where readers, writers, and publishers do not feel confined or limited by labels. As the panel’s moderator, Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, founder of the African-American Children’s Book Project and cultural correspondent for WURD-AM radio in Philadelphia, said: “These panelists are African-American and they do sometimes write on African-American subjects, but they write for everyone.” After recounting her own early relationship with reading and the ways in which reading about subjects that were foreign to her expanded her notions of the world (“I read everything I could about places I thought I would never go”), she introduced the speakers: Shane Evans (28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World); Jerry Pinkney (The Grasshopper & the Ants); and E.B. Lewis (First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial).
The illustrators spoke about their personal motivations for entering the field of children’s literature and what continues to move them to create new books. Pinkney explained that, throughout his career, he has been drawn to illustrate “books that speak to African-American history and culture, or that speak to those stories important to me as a kid,” such as Aesop’s fables. Admitting that, earlier in his career as a fine artist, he “came in reluctantly to this business,” Lewis realized that “some of the best art is happening” in children’s books and quickly became entranced by the role he was able to play in “enticing children to become life-long learners” through his picture book illustrations. Evans discussed both the exertion and joy of telling powerful stories (he noted how it’s sometimes “painful to go through the process of getting stories out”) as well as what he perceives to be the “magic” of the world of publishing, with its opportunities to reach and transform so many young lives through books.
Of course, it’s not always the case that the right book is reaching the right reader. The panelists turned the discussion to questions of whether the industry is adequately mirroring its diverse audience within its content, and what can be done to better assure that more children are gaining access to diverse books.
Pinkney believes that there certainly need to be more books featuring children of color and books by diverse authors and illustrators. Bringing more diversity to the publishing industry itself is a critical step in the right direction, but as publishers search for new material, they need to be able to find it. That means more people of color submitting their work as well.
Lewis expressed the opinion that thinking about diversity merely in terms of ethnicity can be reductive. “When we talk about diversity, we’re talking about everything across the board. We should stop looking at it [just] as color,” he said. Lewis also spoke about the ways in which books by African American authors and illustrators tend to be categorized, and how it’s critical that publishers, booksellers, and other gatekeepers look at content with a broader perspective, rather than thinking of “African-American books” as having to do only with African-American history. “How many books can we show kids about slavery?” he asked, stating that he wants to illustrate books on all sorts of subjects: “I wanted to do titles about dogs!”
The panelists noted the ways that books by African-American authors or with African-American themes are shelved in bookstores are critical both symbolically and practically, in terms of how accessible they are to readers of all backgrounds. Regardless of a book’s subject matter, sometimes books by African-American authors or illustrators are lumped together in one section. “Labeling is the issue,” Lewis said, adding: “You have destroyed everything I’m seeking out when you shelve my book in that section..”
In defense of booksellers, Lloyd-Sgambati pointed out that before the 1980s books by African-American writers weren’t divided from other books in bookstores, but when there was a surging interest within some communities in the legacy of African-American literature, requests were made to have these books placed together so they could be more readily discovered by those who were seeking them out. The discussion on the panel indicated a need to reassess this idea. Evans feels that, as he illustrates new projects, he “is in cooperation with booksellers,” and sees that it is an essential partnership to have and to nurture. He believes that books should be open invitations to readers and should be presented as such in bookstores. That goes for any reader as well: “if you find a book you love, invite someone to read it,” he said.
Evans also agrees that there needs to be a “change in mentality” in how we think about diversity, believing that there is sometimes too much focus on the lines of division. “We get so bogged down with ideas of black and white,” he said. Adults do, anyway. When visiting schools, he doesn’t find it’s something kids worry about so much. Rather than emphasizing the physical differences between people, he suggests that the focus of children’s authors, illustrators, and publishers should be on what unites us all: telling and listening to stories.
A fellow author-illustrator who did it right, suggested Lewis, was Ezra Jack Keats, who was “one of the first to bring an African-American boy to the page,” within a context that didn’t immediately draw attention to the fact that he was African-American. And yet, he lamented, “We are still having the same conversation” all these years later.
“It’s about education and about how bookstores are set up,” said Pinkney. Even with efforts to publish more diverse books, he sees that in some ways, “we are being put in more boxes than ever.” The goal for publishers, booksellers, and those who make books is a far-reaching but attainable one: “We still want every child mirrored” in their literature, and, in the process “to introduce them to the bigger rainbow,” Pinkney said.
Looking around the floor, Lewis noted how invigorating it is to see “all the people in love with the written word. One day we will wise up and realize that it’s all about stories.... Let’s continue to excite, ignite, and change the world.”