Brave New Year: 3 Diverse Books Blog Resolutions

About three months ago, I held my breath and published the post introducing a new, fledgling voice into the Internet. I called it Intrepid to characterize what I think about the first-gen American/immigrant experience – that it was fearless, that it necessarily dealt with the unknown. So appropriately, I hadn’t a clue of what I was doing and expected nothing.

Champagne and sequins and the fact that time is a construct aside, New Year’s Day is a big deal for me. It gives me space to reflect on how I’ve changed in the past year, and how I want to navigate the next one. Looking back, starting Intrepid was one of the biggest, happiest surprises, and I’m still so curious about how it will grow. I’m learning every day about writing thoughtfully on the intersection of representation, immigration, and YA lit.

So, gazing across the vast and promising blank page that is 2017, here are three resolutions for how I’d like Intrepid to grow and hopefully bring more art and understanding into the world.

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Dumbledore’s Army Read-a-Thon Reading List!

Have you heard of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon? The inventive brainchild of Aentee over at Read at Midnight, it’s a great challenge to get book bloggers to read and share diverse, #ownvoices books. Below, I’ll also be sharing my little fleet of books and what makes them magical to me!

I adore this idea, not only because it provides great structure to spread the word about diverse stories, but because Dumbledore’s Army and resistance have basically characterized my mood for this last, dreary chunk of 2016.

And of course, I will be representing the house of my soul, Hufflepuff. Thanks to Aentee for this lovely graphic!

 

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Since I try to keep my blog reviews to YA and the first-gen/immigrant experience, I will only be formally reviewing some of the books here on Intrepid. I’m sure that reflections and recommendations on Twitter, however, will be plentiful 🙂

So here’s to kicking off 2017 with an open heart and open books!

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Reflection: Homecoming and Reading Diversely

Hi again! After a long hiatus finishing final exams and rushing to rustle together Christmas presents, it is wonderful to be back. (At peace. At a desk. With tea, cookies, and precious time to write and think about books.)

Now that the holiday scramble has subsided, I’ve had some time to think about my reading diverse books in my hometown. Or more specifically, what reading diverse books means to me in the small, majority white, politically conservative enclave where I grew up.

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Children’s Publishing and Diverse Books: An Intern’s Perspective (Part III)

Thanks for joining! This week, I’m talking about some of my observations as a children’s publishing intern, with regards to diversity in children’s book publishing.

In the first post of the series, I talked about my summer as a children’s publishing intern in New York City. I wouldn’t have been able to live and work in New York without the support of a grant from the We Need Diverse Books organization. (Which you should definitely consider donating to if you have the means!) I posed the question of how publishers can take action about the lack of books about characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and characters with disabilities.

In the second post, I discuss the “gatekeepers” of publishing – specifically, the correlation between the predominantly white world of children’s books and the predominantly white publishing staff.

Next, I’m talking about publishing as a business. We all know publishing is sustained by selling books, and that people need to buy them. Easy as leftover pumpkin pie. But what is there a quantifiable justification for not publishing diverse books? To find out, I took a deeper look into “the Market.”

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“The Market”: Business model or myth?

I don’t want to under-emphasize the importance of seeing publishing as a business. It’s easy to idealize an industry that’s so closely associated with books and stories. For instance, I was walking through the office of a large publishing house to meet an editor. As we passed through the halls of cubicles, the editor remarked how people outside publishing imagine that she works in some fantastical, rainbow-colored book playground. She turned to me and said, “What do they expect? It’s an office. It’s a business.”

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Although there was plenty of picture book artwork on the walls, this isn’t what a publishing office looks like. Sorry. Source: Pinterest

So publishing, like any business, is market-driven. What does that mean, and what is this Market, specifically as it pertains to publishing?

Something I noticed in conversations about books and diverse books is this amorphous force called “the Market.” In short, it seems like the invisible hand that stops well-meaning, not-racist publishers from publishing books about characters of color and of other marginalized identities. The Market has certain problematic assumptions: It assumes that 1) the majority of readers won’t buy a book with a nonwhite, non-disabled protagonist, and 2) readers of marginalized identities don’t comprise enough of the Market to allocate significant resources toward marketing to them.

I’ve only been able to collect anecdotal evidence to substantiate this Market myself, but it makes a lot of sense as an explanatory factor for some of the problematic practices of publishing, i.e. having significantly fewer characters of color on book covers, even if these books are about characters of color.

One editor recalled an experience when she was a new editorial assistant, and one of few people of color on her team. At a meeting regarding a book cover, someone managed to dissuade the team from accepting a book cover that prominently featured a character of color. This individual insinuated that people wouldn’t be inclined to buy a book with a Black model on the cover.

By framing their input as a business decision, the individual presented this choice not as an opinion, but as a fact of the Market. The cover was rejected.

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I use an example of my favorite middle grade book (because even our dearest books can be racist, and we as critically conscious readers just have to accept that). In The Mysterious Benedict Society, one of the four protagonists, Sticky Washington, is a young Black boy. But why are all four children white? Where did he go? Now that’s mysterious. Source: Goodreads

 

I also spoke with an agent at a well-established literary agency about the Market. He was a publishing veteran, one of few men of color in the industry. He told me that only small percentages of book buyers are comprised by Black and Hispanic readers – so publishing staff are less incentivized to invest in stories about Black and Hispanic characters.

I couldn’t find a citation for this agent’s statistics (somewhere in Rhode Island, my journalism professor cringes). But the implicit biases of this intangible Market, the biases this agent alluded to, are more explicitly demonstrated by children’s book author Christopher Myers, who writes about his father’s experiences attempting to sell a children’s book about a Black child:

The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.

Myers’s experience highlights the contradictions inherent in the Market. With more reflection, it becomes clearer that the Market is actually a self-perpetuating cycle.

Here’s the cycle: Publishing operates on a tight budget, with limited resources to allot to a list of several books per season. If publishers believe that, for example, communities of color don’t buy books, they won’t devote as many marketing and promotional resources to this book that might appeal to an audience of color. If publicity is scant, potential readers won’t know about the book. Consumers can’t buy books they aren’t aware of. And so publishers assume that people of color do not buy books. Looping back to the beginning of the book-making process, editors accept few, if any, manuscripts with characters of color, and the myth continues. But here’s the thing: People of marginalized identities will buy books if their stories are properly invested in. In fact, there is no proof to substantiate the claim that people of non-marginalized identities won’t buy diverse books.

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Source: We Need Diverse Books

In fact, quite the contrary. If there’s anything that the wild successes of Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton, Emmy Award-winning TV series Master of None, and New York Times bestselling YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian can tell us, it’s that stories with diverse characters and experiences are powerful. With proper investment, they perform exceptionally among consumers. Not that market value is the only reason why we should value diverse stories, of course, but it’s a metric that can sway decisions at meetings about pitches and cover designs.

Clearly, the Market is not a tenable excuse. It’s incumbent on publishers, editors, marketers, and publicists to take responsibility for their undoing the vicious cycle, and to stop blaming this nebulous force that the industry engenders and perpetuates.

In my experience interning, it seemed like the conversation about diversity, propelled by the efforts of We Need Diverse Books, was becoming more open. Based on conversations with numerous editors in a variety of companies, there is a tangible push to look for and publish books about characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and characters with disabilities. It’s clear that stories about people of marginalized backgrounds not only sell, and sell robustly, but the challenge is to make sure that diversity is not a trend. Diversity isn’t the new paranormal romance. Diversity isn’t the new Harry Potter. Diversity should be a change in the status quo, and that’s what publishers should really be striving for in the long-term.


This is all to say that once problems are identified, it’s easier to mobilize and come up with effective, actionable steps to solve the disparities in children’s book publishing. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about what publishers and everyday book lovers can do (and, in many cases, have already begun to do) to make the children’s/YA stories a more inclusive world.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section! I’m excited to see your ideas and insights.

Children’s Publishing and Diverse Books: An Intern’s Perspective (Part II)

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.

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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. 

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Source: Goodreads

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.

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Source: We Need Diverse Books

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.

Children’s Publishing and Diverse Books: An Intern’s Perspective (Part I)

For the next few posts, I want to write about the publishing industry’s responsibility to make literature a more inclusive space for young readers who have not been historically represented in children’s/YA books in the United States – that is, minority characters, characters who identify as LGBTQ+, and characters with disabilities. Catch up on why diverse books are important here.

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I’ve been simmering on these thoughts for quite some time. Last May, I received a generous internship grant from the We Need Diverse Books foundation that changed my life. The grant lends support and an invaluable, empowering network to people of marginalized backgrounds who aspire to work in children’s publishing, with the hopes of being advocates for diversity in books. I interned at LEE & LOW Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country. My colleagues taught me a critical awareness of a book’s impact on young readers, and how publishing can support more authentic, equitable representation for every reader.

Over the summer, I met with a number of children’s publishing professionals, almost all women of color, and asked them: How has the conversation about diversity changed? How can we make sure that the traction we’re making with We Need Diverse Books doesn’t fade?

My experience as a young woman of color in the publishing industry propelled me to do the work that I do with this blog, highlighting and generating discussion about marginalized stories. The discussion about diversity in publishing continues here.

Across the next few posts, I’ll be reflecting on what I learned throughout my summer in publishing – it was a short time, but the question of diversity and inclusivity was at the center of all of my learning. Namely, I want to discuss the actors in publishing (publishing professionals) and publishing as a business.

Taking action to publish and promote diverse books on an industry-level is important work. I believe that there are few social problems that cannot be solved by providing avenues to foster empathy in young people. We grow up loving books because, somehow, we have been changed by them. We are, in the span of a book, entrusted with the consideration of humanities other than our own. By books, we are made kinder.

The past summer ingrained a critical lens on how the publishing industry can operate to disempower young readers, and how publishers can realize change. And we need positive change, now more than ever.

So it’s with this goal in mind that I draw from my personal learning within publishing. But if you are involved in the publishing industry, I invite you to comment with your insights, suggestions, and steps for the future.