Members of the children’s book community gathered virtually on Thursday, November 5 at noon EST to celebrate the Children’s Book Council’s third annual CBC Diversity Outstanding Achievement Awards. Previously held at The Center in Manhattan, the event moved to Zoom due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.
CBC membership manager and Diversity Committee liaison Ryan Mita introduced the five 2020 winners: Kait Feldmann, editor at Scholastic’s Orchard imprint; Ebony LaDelle, associate director of teen marketing at HarperCollins Children’s Books; Christopher Myers, creative director of Make Me a World at Random House; Laura Pegram, founding editor and publisher of Kweli Journal and director of the Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference; and Jamie Tan, senior publicist at Candlewick.
Author, v-p and executive editor at Scholastic, and 2019 CBC Diversity Award winner Andrea Davis Pinkney then took to the virtual stage as moderator, opening with a reflection on how she was the only individual of color at the CBC annual meetings when she had joined in 1995. Seeing the diverse faces on her screen in 2020 and their worthy reason for being there, Pinkney said, was “a Zoom dream come true.” She then read a heartfelt letter she penned for the occasion entitled “A Love Letter to My Good Friend Diversity” before launching into the q&a, asking the panelists to define diversity from the lens of what they do.
“Diversity is an umbrella term, including people from a range of identities,” Feldmann began. “A single book or person cannot be diverse, because diversity is a collective noun. We’ve come to use ‘diversity’ as a euphemism for people who have been underrepresented in the landscape of our industry,” she continued, speculating on “the dominating and persevering patterns” of who is represented and who isn’t. Feldmann concluded by revealing that in her own action-driven conversations, she’s moving away from the word “diversity” because of its lack of specificity.
“What do I want this diversity to look like?” Tan pondered next, considering her position in publicity. “I want our industry to look like the background of one of the holiday films that Vanessa Hudgens has done,” she joked, adding, “It’s effortless! You see people of all races, all different abilities, and it’s just normal.”
Pegram agreed with the preceding panelists, adding, “We’re looking for truthful and authentic representations by Black, Indigenous, POC creators, whose stories and history are often erased or dismissed.” For Pegram, she hopes Kweli incorporates diversity by “being inclusive and by inviting stories to build readers to help them know what’s possible and how they can go about changing the world.”
Myers, meanwhile, has begun thinking of shifting from “demographic measures” to asking, “ ‘What are the values that we espouse for these young people in the stories?’ ” He explained, “There are plenty of books in the world that may have brown faces, queer people, etc., in them, but some of those stories transmit values that we want to continue, and then some of those stories don’t.” Ultimately, Myers wants people of color to be past surface-level representation, “I want us to start to be picky.”
LaDelle defines diversity as “normalizing diverse voices and experiences.” Explaining how that informs her job in marketing, she said, “I want to take a BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ voice or author or story and find a way to amplify it so we are normalizing it across all of our cultures.” While it’s important to first market a book to the community that it serves or impacts, LaDelle said that she hopes to help implement a broader scope of diversity across and within the industry.
But how, Pinkney asked, does one do that?
“Make sure you have a diverse list of people you’re following [on social media],” Feldmann advised, telling audience members to also diversify their books and Netflix selections—“the things you consume alone in your own home.”
Tan encouraged audience members to “prepare themselves emotionally” to encounter topics or themes that may be different from what they’re used to or may make them uncomfortable.
LaDelle recommended taking inventory of your friends and who you surround yourself with. A sense of genuine curiosity goes a long way toward friends and coworkers’ willingness and openness to explain elements of their culture to you.
Pinkney then asked, “Why do you think you won this prize?”
“I feel sometimes in the publishing industry that I’m an old soul—I’ve been making books since 1996, ’97,” Myers answered. Addressing the question of how one helps to implement broader diversity, he added, “Look at what you’ve already been doing, and ask yourself, ‘What are the invisibilities in that?’” He identified the “specter of Blackness” in Little Women, as it takes place during the Civil War despite having no Black characters on the page. “If it’s American [literature], there is us in it,” Myers asserted. “Stop thinking of diversity as an addendum, but rather as an erasure. Stop thinking of it as work that we have yet to do, and begin to think about it as work that we are undoing.”
“It’s the ecology,” Pinkney said in agreement. She then asked Pegram for tips for those who are new to publishing.
Pegram invited viewers to turn to Kweli, which offers “a safe space,” resources, and answers to questions about networking, drafting and revising, editors, and more. In starting Kweli, Pegram sought to create a community of book creators who were “constantly lifting one another up.” People new to the industry and those established can learn from each other, Pegram added, because “that exchange between student and teacher is not one-sided.”
Pinkney next turned the discussion to hiring.
“It’s a pretty open secret that publishing hires on an internal network,” Feldmann said. “You have to know about [jobs] before they go online—sometimes by the time a job is posted, it’s actually already been filled.” Feldmann then laid her cards on the table. “My own path to publishing is a very familiar story: I got my foot in the door from nepotism, because my mother is a children’s book author and I already had a built-in network.” She disclosed that when she was hired, she was likely the only one interviewed for the position. Next, she praised Patrice Caldwell and the POC in Publishing organization she founded for helping to give people of color knowledge of, and access to, more open roles, and ended by emphasizing the discrepancies between the salaries of those at the top and BIPOC employees at junior levels.
LaDelle added to Feldmann’s statement, as she works with Feldmann and Caldwell on POC in Publishing. “A lot of people of color have much more difficult paths to publishing,” LaDelle said. “New York is ridiculously expensive. It is nearly impossible to get hired if you don’t already live in [the city].” She suggested that hopeful hires use the addresses of those they know who already live in NYC during the hiring process, and offered ideas for the industry to consider that could soften the blow of new hires’ initial move, including a housing stipend or an option to work remotely. “I think we need to talk about the privilege of publishing, and how some people have access over others,” she said, urging publishing to look toward “alternative candidates” as well as retention initiatives. “It’s really hard to stay afloat in this industry.”
Pinkney segued the discussion to retention, calling on Tan to answer first.
“One word: money,” Tan said. “There needs to be more money.” She suggested companies in the industry ought to raise everyone’s salary by $10,000 and give a clear view of how many years it takes to get a promotion.
“Cost is really important,” LaDelle agreed. “If you have student loans, or if you’re helping to support your parents…. There are things the industry doesn’t understand or isn’t thinking about [due to their lack of experience with those concerns].”
Feldmann, meanwhile, took aim at the concept of mentorship, which often comes up in conversations about retention. “Mentorship is more of a triage—this is how you survive publishing,” Feldmann said. “I think that mentorship, when it comes to retention, should be from the junior BIPOC employees upward.” She observed that those employees have a lot to offer in terms of energy, fresh ideas, and more, “if we give them a seat at the table.”
Myers threw his full support behind the other panelists’ opinions. “To piggyback off what Kait is saying, which I so loudly agree with, the other thing I’ve found is that we can bring all the people of color into the industry that we want, but we also need to ask ourselves why we say ‘No’ to those people we bring in.” Citing his time in the industry, he shared his observations of publishing professionals who had been excited about new ideas but had been turned down time after time: “The publishing industry is creative in the amount of ‘No’s it can say.”
Pinkney then revealed that she and the panelists had decided prior to the panel to converse about “experience, strength, and hope.” Thus, she asked the panelists to next talk about their successes: “Time to toot the horn!”
Pegram shared the journey of Angeline Boulley, an emerging writer who had connected with Holt editor Tiffany Liao via the 2019 Kweli Conference. Six months later, Liao acquired the book in a 12-bidder auction—that book will release next year. Kweli also aims to boost the authors who have found connections during their conferences; they brought Boulley onto subsequent panels, and Pegram revealed that Boulley’s book is also being turned into a film.
Tan shared that “spring 2020 was the first season I got to work with three Asian authors—Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea), Christina Soontornvat (Wish in the Dark), and Cynthia Salaysay (Private Lessons).” She called the experience “thrilling,” saying that “the coverage I got for those titles [especially at personally resonant outlets] is just so satisfying.”
Feldmann shared a bit about how she started Scholastic’s diversity initiative and how it has expanded.
Pinkney asked next, “Where do kids factor in?”
Myers answered, “One of the things I’m excited by is finding creators, writers, makers, and asking them, ‘What’s the book you needed when you were 5, 7, 15, yesterday?’ We all have our myopias, but we need to ask and trust the storytellers we love; we need to listen to the children we were as much as the children currently in the world.”
Before ending with questions from the audience, Pinkney offered the panelists a lightning round: “Change starts with…?”
“Upper management,” Tan replied.
“Money,” Feldmann reiterated.
“Ourselves,” LaDelle responded.
“The in-touch collective,” Pegram said.
“The stories we tell,” Myers concluded.