The topic of diversity in children’s books is a hot-button issue, but while the conversation frequently addresses the importance of inclusion and representation in writing, illustration is rarely the focus. Two author-illustrators and an editor aimed to change that by taking part in a Children’s Book Council panel discussion called “Drawing Diversity” on June 13 at the Random House offices. The panel was part of the ongoing CBC Diversity series of talks. The speakers were Phoebe Yeh, v-p and publisher at Crown Books for Young Readers; author-illustrator Pat Cummings; and author-illustrator Selina Alko. Martha Rago, executive creative director at Random House, served as moderator.
Noting the “hyper-aware environment” within the publishing industry in regards to diverse books, Rago asked the panelists to share experiences that have helped to formulate their understanding about “inclusion and sensitivity” in their work.
Alko garners a lot of “daily inspiration” from her own multiracial household. Alko’s husband is illustrator—and frequent collaborator—Sean Qualls. The two have worked together on the picture book, The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, among others. Alko noted that, at any given time, while “I may not explicitly be writing about a diverse topic, it’s how I see the world.” Her own origins also play into her illustration—she’s Canadian and Jewish. “We all bring who we are into our work,” she said.
Cummings traces her early awareness of other cultures to her childhood travels abroad. Her father was in the military and her family lived in multiple countries, including Okinawa, Japan, and Germany. Because she didn’t speak German or Japanese, Cummings learned the importance of careful observation. “You pay attention,” she said, because body language becomes a critical key to understanding and communicating with others. As a kid, she also gravitated toward fantasy books; she sees now that living in unfamiliar surroundings made the possibility of the fantastical and magical seem more tangible. She also learned early on that there are many different points of view, each filtered through an individual’s own set of experiences: notably, in Okinawa, she observed how she was treated very differently by locals when she was in the company of other Americans.
Calling her multicultural upbringing “my funky story,” Yeh, who was born and raised in New York City, shared that there was virtually no English spoken in her household until she was three years old. Her mother spoke multiple Chinese dialects and Yeh was raised to speak Mandarin—a dialect that her Chinese friends in New York didn’t speak at all. As a result, even among her peers from a similar background, “we might as well have been aliens.” For Yeh, this childhood experience made her aware of “the wealth of difference just within the New York City Chinese community,” and broadened her perspective on the diversity and subdivisions within any given ethnic group.
The Visual Language of Diversity
The panelists each offered a brief presentation of their picture book art, demonstrating the way in which they have integrated diverse components into their images.
Alko values the perspective that her husband, as a fellow artist and as an African American, is able to provide to her. She shared an example of a problematic element in her work that Qualls pointed out to her, which she believes she never would have otherwise seen. When illustrating Why Am I Me? (Scholastic Press) with Qualls, about a biracial boy and a Caucasian girl who both question their identities, Qualls observed that she had painted the biracial boy’s black father standing behind a garbage can. Qualls believed that the presence of the garbage can would cause some readers to make the biased assumption of homelessness. Alko took his advice and removed the garbage can from the image.
While collaborating with Qualls on A Case for Loving (Scholastic/Levine, 2015), both of them were very concerned with creating an accurate likeness to the Loving family in paint, and pored over archival photographs for guidance. After the book was published, they received some criticism from readers—though not because of the accuracy of their physical depictions of the characters. Criticisms arose because some believed that the story didn’t represent Mildred’s Native American roots in the way that it did her African American ethnicity: “Mildred’s identity was more complicated than we had originally thought,” she said. It was a learning experience, and one that Alko and Quall hoped to resolve with a note of clarification that they added to the book. The criticisms helped Alko to see “how complicated identity really is.” She and Qualls strive to incorporate all of the diversity that they see in their Brooklyn neighborhood, into their work, saying: “We try our best.” She added that, “by collaborating, I’ve learned a lot from him. We finish each other’s sentences visually, so to speak.”
Remarking “I want a collaborator!,” Cummings next shared images from several of her books. She used the illustration of her “blue child” character from C.L.O.U.D.S. (Morrow, 1986) to remark on how race is perceived in picture books. Cummings found it interesting that, while white readers felt they could relate to the story of a blue character, “if it had been a black character, they would turn away,” she said. On many occasions, Cummings has observed white gatekeepers determining that a book with a non-white character wouldn’t be appropriate for a white reader: “it didn’t matter what the subject matter was,” she said. “They’d buy it for a black reader if it had a black character.” Walter Dean Myers recognized this limiting mentality and was adamant about the importance of “getting his books in the hands of white kids who don’t know any black people,” Cummings said.
Cummings counts herself lucky that editors she has worked with “have always given me artistic freedom” to create diverse characters. She also believes in looking beyond characteristics like race, instead imbuing characters with distinctive personalities. Sometimes small details make all of the difference. She shared an image from a picture book she illustrated called Squashed in the Middle (Holt, 2005). The picture shows two friends of different ethnic backgrounds who are connected by the fact that they both have a string of stuffed animals hanging from their clothes. “Kids are kindred spirits” in a way that doesn’t even take into consideration aspects of race and ethnicity, she said.
Speaking from an editorial perspective, Yeh discussed her ongoing efforts to promote inclusion and diversity in the books she represents. One of Yeh’s first projects with Scholastic was an adaptation of a Chinese folk story, Seven Chinese Brothers (Scholastic, 1990), by Margaret Mahy. Yeh was familiar with one picture book adaptation of the story, which featured characters with stereotypical slanted eyes and uniform skin tones. Mahy’s story, however, featured the work of Jean Tseng and Mou-sien Tseng, who rendered the characters with greater attention to individual features.
Yeh always encourages the illustrators she works with to “be mindful” of diversity as they create their books. Some of them, however, worry that their style of art might make their representations of characters of different ethnicities come across as caricatures. Therefore, she approaches each project on a case-by-case basis: “I want the artist to be comfortable,” she said.
In the case of Jeffrey Brown’s Lucy & Andy Neanderthal: The Stone Cold Age, Yeh saw an opportunity to feature a dark-skinned character in the story. After all, “who knows what Neanderthals really looked like?” She showed the audience the cover from the book, which puts that character visually front and center in the story.
The ethnicity of an illustrator may not always be relevant to the content in the illustrator’s work, but sometimes that is the case. Yeh recalled that she once asked illustrator Keith Knight, who created the images for this March’s Jake the Fake Keeps It Real, whether he believed anyone else could have illustrated that book. He answered in the negative, and she agreed: “You had to be black to get it right,” Yeh said, referencing the subtleties in Knight’s cartoons that subliminally speak to race and identity—issues that she knew are “near and dear to [Knight’s] heart.”
Closing discussions delved into the touchy subject of authenticity and to highly publicized claims of cultural appropriation directed at children’s books in recent years. Rago asked the panelists to weigh in on the question of whether, in order to create authentic art, an illustrator must be of the culture being represented. Cummings believes that, while there are well-intentioned concerns over inauthentic representations, there are also instances of “oversensitivity.” For example, while experimenting with her art for a book, she elected to use brown process colors instead of black for her characters’ faces. The result was facial color tones that were less realistic and more creative—and she liked it. Yet some readers were upset by what they believed to be a negation of the characters’ blackness on Cummings’s part—that is, until they learned that she was a black illustrator: “the tension went away,” she said.
As far as she is concerned, illustrators should have the freedom to depict any type of person they wish to, as long as they are conscientious and have done their research. “The world is your palette, but do it in a respectful, educated way,” she said.
For Alko, “it is always a challenge to be authentic.” She suggested that illustrators and authors might take on that challenge, by aspiring to create books that authentically “reach as many children as possible.”
Being authentic can also mean staying true to one’s vision. “I don’t think this is a secret. Most artists please themselves in their work,” Cummings said. Yet, once an illustrator has created something that pleases their own mind and senses, they then have the opportunity to step back and think about their audience. The question to ask might be: “Is there more that I can do?”