Hi everyone! You may have noticed a brief hiatus for the Thanksgiving holiday, but plenty more posts about the ever-more-pertinent intersections between YA literature, representation, and immigration narratives are coming up this week.
First, if you were following before the holiday, you may have noticed that I started talking about my observations of children’s publishing (which includes middle grade and YA) and diverse books. Catch up here if you missed it.
Today, I’ll be reviewing the harm of stereotypical or absent representation, as well as talking about the connection between the lack of diversity in books and the lack of diversity in publishing professionals. The next posts this week will be on the myth of “the Market” and future steps to improving the state of diversity in children’s books.
The problem: Representation
The United States lives with a legacy of racism. Americans are the inheritors of a fraught history that privileges some (white, middle-to-high SES, nondisabled, male) voices over others. And since everyone is implicated, everyone is responsible for interrogating themselves on how to actively combat it.
As we know, racism is manifested not simply in overt acts of meanness, but also in the ways that art and media suggest distorted or dehumanizing understandings of historically marginalized people.
Take, for example, Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges and The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese. The first is a portrayal written by a Chinese American woman; the other depicts all of the Asians in the book as slim, identical, and stereotypically yellow-skinned.What kinds of messages does each communicate? In reading The Five Chinese Brothers, both white and Asian children are deprived an authentic narrative about Chinese people.
Especially when it pertains to children’s books, which are representations placed directly in the hands of the most observant readers, we need to be working to combat the legacy of racism in representation. (You can catch up on the importance of mirrors, windows, and doors here.)
Addressing this is everyone’s duty, to each other and to our young readers. And in publishing, the responsibility falls on…
The gatekeepers: Publishing professionals
A landmark study by Lee & Low Books shows the representation of publishing to be overwhelmingly white, female, straight, and without a disability. The predominantly white landscape of children’s books seems to correlate to the predominant whiteness of publishing staff. Jason Low, publisher at Lee & Low Books, writes that “what is at work is the tendency – conscious or unconscious – for executives, editors, marketers, sales people, and reviewers to work with, develop, and recommend books by and about people who are like them.”
Hence my intentional choice of the word “gatekeepers”: Agents and editors (and marketers and publicists and the whole operation) have the power to promote the marginalized voices, or keep them on the sidelines.
Acclaimed YA author Daniel Jose Older once wrote about his experience trying to find an agent for his work.
I thought back over the many interactions I’d had with agents – all but two of them white – before I landed with mine. The ones that said they loved my writing but didn’t connect with the character, the ones that didn’t think my book would be marketable even though it was already accepted at a major publishing house. Thought about the ones that wanted me to delete moments when a character of color gets mean looks from white people because “that doesn’t happen anymore” and the white magazine editor who lectured me on how I’d gotten my own culture wrong.
More likely than not, these agents don’t go out seeking to be mean. But unfortunately, “intentionally bad” is not what racism is. Bias manifests in subtle ways – from dismissing manuscripts about characters of color as “unrelatable,” to putting less marketing power behind a book with an LGBTQ+ protagonist.
I got to observe one complicated case study this past summer, as it unfolded under great public scrutiny. A major publishing house released a book whose language reappropriated African American Vernacular English. It was written by an established white writer, also of a marginalized background, who had extensive experience working with urban youth.
Yet as the text was released, several Black readers and readers of color spoke out against it. They pointed out that the book was an inauthentic portrayal of AAVE, and, though the book had a Black teenage narrator, it was ignorant of real-life speech patterns of Black youth. The harm this book could cause to young Black readers shouldn’t be underestimated: It disrespected a form of English that young people call their own and take pride in.
It leads one to ask if there were Black editors, marketers, reviewers, voices along the way in publishing, would this book have gotten as far as it did?
The publishing company ended up suspending distribution of the book, but not before several hundred copies were pre-ordered by school libraries. What kind of impact would that book have on a child who passes and picks it up on the shelf?
I don’t believe anyone in publishing is mean-spirited; it’s an industry filled with sincere, book-loving people. But we should not be taking into account intentions of a person’s action as much as we should the harm it could cause to a young reader.
Even as an Asian American woman constantly working on her critical lens on representation, I can’t say that I would have picked up on the inauthentic language in this book. Would I have let it pass into the next stage of production? Would I have let it come into the hands of a child? I can’t say. Perhaps not. And that should unsettle me.
This entire case study should unsettle the entire publishing industry. It should also inspire publishers to work to address the discrepancy by highlighting the need for more diverse gatekeepers that can let in the stories that need to be told, and caution against the ones that fall on harmful representations. More diverse staff brings diverse experiences and the critical perspectives that can ascertain that publishers are only putting out the highest quality stories that all kids deserve.
Later this week, I’ll also be talking about the Market, or the myth that “people of color and marginalized identities don’t buy books.” A last post will address how publishers, and even non-publishing people, can take steps to make a more diverse children’s bookshelf.
And with more diverse books comes a more inclusive future. Readers, this month has not been an easy one for me; it’s sometimes been hard finding the energy to keep up this blog. But I truly believe that seeking to promote diverse books is an act of resistance. It is a vital way of resisting the bigotry that is becoming increasingly normalized in the United States. Reading diversely, and especially encouraging young people to read diversely, plants the seeds of empathy that we need to grow toward a brighter future.
Sending you all hope, and if you are also knowledgeable about publishing and diversity, I welcome your suggestions for future posts.