Authors hope 2020 turns the page in push for diverse children’s books

Years ago, when she worked at a public library, Kathleen Horning’s story time for toddlers also proved to be a moment of social research. After reading diverse books to crowds of mostly white or mostly Black children, Horning would arrange books on the floor at the toddlers' eye level and wait. The children gravitated to books with familiar characters, but time and again, she saw white parents intervene — exchanging books that featured Black characters on the cover with different books.

“The only time they didn’t replace the children’s choices was if they picked up a book with an animal character," said Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Asking a white child to identify with a Black child was just too much of a stretch but not asking them to relate to a badger.” It reinforced what Horning had long believed: In books, representation matters.

The lack of diversity in children’s books has been a topic of discussion for more than 50 years, but not much has changed. Writers of color, both established and new, said they continue to face inequities in the industry even as publishers have pledged to take action on diversity.

In June, largely in response to the demands of more than 1,000 publishing employees, three of the five major publishers issued statements with their intentions to diversify the workforce and publish more writers of color.

Penguin Random House announced it would expand a partnership with We Need Diverse Books — a grassroots nonprofit created in 2014 — to establish a fund to encourage the work of Black creatives. The company will also require all employees to read its bestselling book “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi.

Hachette Book Group said it plans to set goals for staff diversity and book list diversity and share that data with all employees. Two Black women were also recently hired as publishers — Dana Canedy at Simon and Schuster and Lisa Lucas for Knopf imprints Pantheon and Schocken Books.

But it will take time to see any impact, Horning said. “If three of the five big publishers really commit to doing what they say they are going to do and hire people of color and actively pursue people of color and give them good contracts and pay them ... it will be another couple of years before we see the change," she said.

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Only about half of the books about Black or American Indian/First Nations people were actually written by Black or American Indian/First Nations writers, in contrast to books which the Book Center categorized as having Latinx, Asian and Asian American or Pacific Islander characters. Books about white children, talking bears, trucks, monsters, potatoes and more represent nearly three-quarters (71%) of children’s and young adult books published in 2019.

From 2018 to 2019, the total number of children’s books by or about African Americans increased 0.5%, said Horning, citing statistics from the Book Center. “We saw the same pattern we have seen in the past five years with a little bit of an increase but not a huge watershed moment,” Horning said.

More power for new voices

Many underrepresented writers believe that 2020 could become that watershed moment. “When these conversations crop up, new voices come on board,” said Nicole Johnson, executive director of We Need Diverse Books. “What is happening right now is the result of decades of advocacy.”

Much of that advocacy has focused on allowing children of color to see themselves as main characters in books written by writers that look like them. “We are still battling against this assumption and belief that our story can be told by someone else and that is OK and that we are not eager or capable or can’t control our own narrative,” Nicole Johnson said.

People told Cicely Lewis, school librarian at Gwinnett County’s Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, that the students — 80% Latino in a low socioeconomic area — did not read, so why bother? But Lewis disagreed. In 2017, she created Read Woke, a program in which students explore literature that challenges social norms.

Credit: Cicely Lewis

Credit: Cicely Lewis

Lewis set out books that featured Black girls on the cover, and her students devoured them. She challenged teachers to find alternatives to classic novels that could teach kids the same lessons. Instead of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” try “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, she urged.

“You can address the same issues probably even better because you have a Black character that has not been made into a one-dimensional figure,” Lewis said. “These people are writing in a voice and with the knowledge and insight that we have been lacking.”

Lewis, like Horning, wants gatekeepers to dismiss the idea that children’s books featuring people of color as main characters are not of interest to all readers. That desire for cross-cultural understanding surfaced when Lewis spoke to a group of white students at an event with Atlanta native Nic Stone, author of “Dear Martin.”

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“They had so many questions they had been scared to ask because they didn’t want anyone to think they were racist,” Lewis said. “(Students) want to learn about other cultures. I learned not to put them in a box and let them choose what they want to read.”

Publishers are trying to find the balance between promoting diverse titles across all of their imprints and creating spaces where those titles can thrive and be nurtured, Nicole Johnson said, but part of the responsibility also lies with white writers to let go of the desire to write stories about people of color just because they can. “If you believe racism should be dismantled, something has to give,” she said.

Rick Riordan, author of the popular middle-grade (fiction for ages 8-12) Percy Jackson series, launched Rick Riordan presents in 2018 with his publisher and editor. The imprint releases four books a year from underrepresented cultures that might appeal to readers of Riordan’s books, adventure novels with elements of folklore and mythology.

“Much better, I thought, to use my experience and my platform at Disney to put the spotlight on other great writers who are actually from those cultures and know the mythologies better than I do,” said Riordan on his website. “I want to use my platform to help other writers get a wider audience. I also want to help kids have a wider variety of great books to choose from, especially those that deal with world mythology, and for all kinds of young readers to see themselves reflected in the books that they read.”

Writing is only half the battle

To help underrepresented writers thrive, publishers also have to consider improving diversity at all levels.

For the first time in his 15-year career, Varian Johnson, a Black author, is working on a graphic novel with an illustrator and editor who are both Black, he said. The novel, “Twins,” has a Black girl as the main character and Black supporting characters, a rare occurrence in graphic novels for middle grades. “I told my editor it was very important to me to have a woman of color to illustrate the book,” he said. And he was ready to walk away if they couldn’t make it happen.

This time around, he has had conversations about elements of the book that may have been more difficult to express to non-Black editors or illustrators. Early in his career, when he was trying to find his footing as an author and find commercial success, Varian Johnson wasn’t always ready to make those demands.

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In 2010, he published a book with characters that were identified as African American in the text but with a cover that was race-neutral. Then his daughter was born in 2011. “I remember thinking, what have I done? I am whitewashing my family. It isn’t worth this," Varian Johnson said. “As a Black creator, I just want the same things my white counterparts have.”

That includes the same marketing and publicity once the books are published. In mass market retailers and bookstores — which have supplanted libraries and schools as the target market for publishers — it means making sure the books are stocked, said writers, and resisting the impulse to segregate books in a section labeled African American, a signal to non-Black readers that whatever is there is not for them.

Whenever she goes to her local bookseller, Khloe Livsey, 9, of South Fulton spends at least an hour combing the shelves for her favorite, “Dork Diaries" books. The popular middle grade series by author Rachel Renee Russell, who is Black, features three girls — Nikki, Zoey and Chloe — and is based on the experiences of Russell’s own daughters, who helped write and illustrate the books.

Credit: Rachel Renee Russell

Credit: Rachel Renee Russell

Khloe likes to imagine that she is Nikki and that Zoey and Chloe are her friends. Nikki is white, Zoey is African American and Chloe is Latina. “I kind of have those types of friends in real life,” said Khloe, who is Black. “All of my friends like ‘Dork Diaries’ because it is funny and it gives a sneak peek of what being a teenage girl feels like.”

But even though “Dork Diaries” has been a New York Times bestselling series off and on for almost 10 years, it isn’t always easy to find the books. “I thought there would be a section with all of them, but it was like a scavenger hunt,” Khloe said. Her mother, Yvonne Livsey, said she hasn’t been able to find the entire series anywhere except on Amazon.

Seeking equal treatment

Costco recently declined to continue stocking “Dork Diaries” because the books don’t sell in their stores, Russell said they told her. They offered to stock paperbacks, but like other middle grade titles, including the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” Russell doesn’t distribute paperbacks in the U.S. Earlier this month she rejected a large order from Costco in the United Kingdom. “I refuse to allow my ‘Dork Diaries’ books to be sold in any Costco stores in the U.S. or around the world until Costco USA stocks substantially more books by diverse authors in both it’s online and retail stores,” Russell said.

Costco did not respond to requests for comment.

Russell echoed Varian Johnson, saying she only wants the same treatment as her peers. “If you are on the New York Times Bestseller list, most of those books are placed any and everywhere, but that hasn’t been the case for me," said Russell.

Russell also noted that her series is one of the few top sellers in the genre that has yet to be made into a film. Talks with one studio stalled when they wanted the freedom to change the ethnicity of her three main characters. Russell said no. The studio relented but later returned the rights. Russell is currently in talks with another studio.

“There is still a disparity and it is still a struggle even for me, and if I am struggling, heaven help other authors of color who are not selling as much as me," said Russell, who recently committed $1 million to launch a nonprofit partnership with parents and teachers to provide free books to Black children that will affirm who they are. "If I say something and there is a backlash, I will still survive. A new author that has their first book coming out in a month can’t say anything.”

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That might have been the case for Kim Johnson if her novel “This Is My America” had not debuted in July. The book, a mystery described as a cross between “The Hate U Give” and “Just Mercy,” had a timely release date. The protests against police brutality and systemic racism helped many new writers of color find the moxie to advocate for themselves.

“I don’t think I would have felt comfortable as a debut writer saying this isn’t going to reach my readers,” said Kim Johnson. But in this climate, she was able to have conversations with her editor about how she wanted to market her book.

She wanted to use networks of Black social clubs and professional organizations. And while she wanted the book description to include Black Lives Matter, she also wanted it to be clearly labeled as a mystery. “If you take away the issues of systemic racism, if it were a poor white family, where would you shelve it? You would put it in mystery,” she said.

Kim Johnson, like many other writers of color, grew up reading stories about white people. By the time she got to high school, she had lost interest. It wasn’t until a decade later when she began to see young adult books with diverse characters that she rediscovered her love for reading, which eventually led to her writing a book of her own.

“The thing that has been most fulfilling and emotional is the variety of different kinds of readers. Black readers feel seen," she said. But recently she received a letter from a 12-year-old white reader telling her that while he was not Black, he thought her book was one of the best books he had ever read. He wished her a life of fairness, equity, joy and happiness.

“I cried,” Kim Johnson said.

Cicely Lewis, school librarian at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross offers a Read Woke reading list for fall that is specifically themed to voting:

Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter. illus. by Shane W. Evans. Random/Schwartz & Wade Bks. 2015. Grades 1-4 –The story of a 100-year-old African American woman on her way to vote who remembers all her ancestors dealt with to get to the polls.

For Which We Stand: How Our Government Works and Why It Matters by Jeff Foster. illus. by Julie McLaughlin. Scholastic. 2020. Gr 3-7 – The AP government teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, shares information about how voting works, the powers of the president, and how young people can make a difference.

We the People: The United States Constitution Explored and Explained by Aura Lewis and Evan Sargent. Quarto/Wide-Eyed Editions. 2020. Gr 5-8 –The U.S. Constitution may be over 200 years old and full of old-fashioned language, but this vibrantly illustrated book shows how it is still relevant and confronts the challenges of interpreting it.

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert. Hyperion. 2020. Gr 7-10 –Marva Sheridan has always been interested in politics and has little time for anything else, until she meets Duke Crenshaw, a musician who just wants to get voting over with so he can get back to music.

Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections by Jeff Fleisher. Lerner/Zest. 2020. Gr 8 Up –Fleisher wrote this book in response to misinformation throughout the election cycle, low U.S. voter turnout among young people, and gaps in civics education.

SOURCE: Cicely Lewis, School Library Journal