Members of the Children’s Book Council and other publishing industry professionals gathered at CBC headquarters in Manhattan on June 16 to continue the discussion about diversity in children’s books. The panelists were Daniel Ehrenhaft, editorial director, Soho Press/Soho Teen; Andrea Davis Pinkney, v-p and executive editor, Scholastic Trade; Faye Bi, publicist, Simon & Schuster; and Mark von Bargen, senior director, trade sales for children’s books, Macmillan. Virginia Anagnos, executive v-p of Goodman Media, moderated.
The panelists began the conversation by addressing some of the challenges in publishing and promoting diverse books, and getting them into the hands of readers. One of the primary challenges is finding the stories in the first place, Ehrenhaft said. “We want to see quality submissions that represent every story imaginable.” The trick is to find a powerful story that also features a cast of diverse characters. When that happens, it’s golden: “when you have a story you love, it’s easy to promote,” he said.
For Pinkney, she doesn’t like to think in terms of “challenges,” but rather “opportunities.” And, right now, she believes that the publishing industry has an auspicious opportunity “to redefine the success model.” When acquiring new books, it’s unavoidable that marketability and selling power come into play. But, Pinkney suggested, the time has come to “shift the conversation to look at other aspects of success” beyond whether a book will earn out.
Bi, agreed that there are many other factors to take into account when looking at a book’s potential value. Even if a book doesn’t earn out, another question to consider might be: “did we find a new audience” that could potentially be reached again through the publication of titles in a similar vein?
In essence, the speakers agreed that the way books are talked about matters, and that begins how agents represent submissions, all the way through how the books are sold to readers at bookstores. A lot of the muscle work might happen in acquisition meetings, but it’s the reading and chatting and championing of individual titles in-house that often really gets the buzz going on for a particular book. When Bi worked at Little, Brown, she recalled that books voted in-house favorites were given a little extra promotional push. When she read Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives, she was so enthusiastic about it that she started talking about it with her colleagues, who in turn read it and were equally enthused. As a result, right out of the gate, the book had a fan base of people who were ready and willing to talk it up both at work and to their friends.
Ehrenhaft said that in a sea of submissions, a book that arrives with “a recommendation or blurb from an established author” can really help that book stand out from the others. Von Bargen noted how important it is that a book is “presented in an exciting way,” and its readability made clear. Von Bargen said he pays close attention to the way a representative talks about a book they are championing, looking for signs of that “hard-to-describe enthusiasm.” He sees first-hand how word-of-mouth plays a significant role in terms of how books get promoted and the “pollination” that happens after the meetings are over. Working in the industry is not so unlike being in any other community of book-lovers: “when you love a book, the first thing you do is tell someone else,” he said.
Turning the conversation more explicitly to diversity, Anagnos asked the panelists to reflect on concrete changes they have observed in the industry since the launch of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other efforts to promote diversity in children’s books. She also asked the panelists to comment on the recent New York Times article about children’s books featuring transgender characters.
The panelists agreed that there have been significant strides toward making children’s books more adequately represent our diverse world in the last few years, although it’s very difficult to conclusively measure such progress. While they don’t see a single article like the one in the Times significantly moving the needle in terms of book sales or public awareness, it’s a start. Such an article suggests to Bi that transgender issues are “coming up in the cultural zeitgeist” and that awareness will continue to build. Pinkney believes that articles like this one, while not necessarily enlightening to people living in New York working in the publishing industry, do “have a long tail,” and that the information in the piece may have a rippling effect, reaching readers who might never have thought much about transgender issues.
It’s a “great moment” for diverse books, as far as von Bargen is concerned. He noted how “coveted tables” in bookstores are being reserved for them. He has also observed that, as of the last few years, diversity in children’s books is “seen as a positive element in the selling process. It’s something people care about,” he said, and a book’s diverse characteristics are definitely noted now when it’s being promoted to potential buyers.
For Bi, she has observed that, not only are conversations happening more and more about diversity in children’s books, but the discussions are also refreshingly “frank.” Pinkney believes that it’s essential to be upfront and “very intentional” when it comes to publishing and talking about books that represent a diverse readership. When festival organizers come to her with an interest in highlighting diverse books, she underscores how important it is that the festival feature people of color on stage. And she also spoke about the importance of “showing the face” of a character from a diverse background on the cover of a book. Instead of a “puff of smoke or a lightning bolt,” she wants to be able to point to the cover and say: “that’s the kid.”
Anagnos asked the panelists to reflect on diversity behind the scenes, within the publishing industry itself.
Without a doubt, the panelists agreed, more efforts need to be made to ensure a more diverse future for the publishing industry. Bi spoke to some of the roadblocks that might be preventing people from more diverse backgrounds from choosing the career path. In short: “there are very real financial challenges.” She reflects back to when she was just starting out in the industry and struggling to survive in New York City. Taking an unpaid internship, which is a rite of passage for many candidates entering the industry, is simply not a viable option for many young people. Yet with more efforts like the We Need Diverse Books internship program launching this summer, paired with strong mentorships and early recruitment, she believes that more people can and will choose publishing. As Pinkney noted, judging by the “tons of applicants” for the WNDB internships, there is no shortage of young people excited by the prospect of being in the business of books.
In closing, the panelists discussed diverse books that they have seen succeed in the marketplace as well as forthcoming titles that they are excited about.
One book that Ehrenhaft is looking forward to is Little White Lies, which features a black 17-year-old girl named Coretta White, who hires a 40-something white ghostwriter to help her with her Tumblr posts when its popularity skyrockets. The book is co-written by a bi-racial 25-year-old author and a white author in his 40s. Ehrenhaft shared that, when the authors saw the first cover for the book, which had a character who doesn’t really resemble Coretta, they raised strong objections. As a result, the cover was changed.
Pinkney shared the forthcoming memoir from Sonia Manzano (Maria on Sesame Street), called Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx. Without question, Pinkney believes, Sonia Manzano is “one of the most influential Latinos in the U.S.,” and “we have been charged that we need to be speaking to this community.”
Von Bargen didn’t speak about a new book, but referenced one by Nicholas Edwards that was released years ago that speaks to how putting a person of color on a book in a bold way is an asset. The book, Dog Whisperer: The Rescue (Macmillan/Square Fish) features an accurate portrayal of the African-American main character with the dog she rescues and loves. Anagnos describes how “we didn’t get any pushback and the book sells tremendously well.” He believes that “success models” like this one help to pave the way forward for more titles.
Titles that go bold with their covers often draw readers, Pinkney noted. She spoke specifically about Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In (Disney-Hyperion), which features a close-up of the arresting gaze of an African-American girl. The book has sold one million copies and whenever Pinkney sees crowds lined up to have Flake sign their books, she is consistently amazed at the diversity of the fans: they are people of all ages and all races, who have connected strongly with the book. It speaks to the nature of diverse books, which she sees as “not closing off, but opening up opportunities.”