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

This week, I’ve been sharing my experience as a former publishing intern and the efforts to improve diversity within children’s book publishing – a mission that has grown all the more salient in light of the past events of this month.

If you’ve been following along, this is the last post in the series! If you’re new, catch up to read an introductory post on my perspective as a summer intern. Then, read about the lack of diversity in publishing staff and how that correlates with the mostly white landscape of children’s books; lastly, catch up on the myth of the Market, the systematic means of “justifiably” keeping marginalized stories on the margins.

Today, at last, I’m talking about what can be done – mostly from within the publishing industry, but also what any lover of books can do to make a difference for all young readers in the United States.

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Change from Within Publishing

As I established in the last post, the challenge is making sure that diversity is not considered as fleeting as a “trend.” Including more stories about characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and characters with disabilities should be a permanent paradigm shift.

Over the summer, I also had the opportunity to speak with numerous publishing professionals of color, asking them in their offices and in coffee shops what can be done to make sure that the efforts propelled by We Need Diverse Books impart lasting change. The agreement was almost unanimous: Change begins in the heart of publishing. Publishing staff needs more diverse perspectives to work on the stories that reflect young readers.

Barriers to Entering, Barriers to Staying

The effort to make publishing a more diverse, inclusive industry is a matter of taking down the barriers to entry that face aspiring publishing professionals of marginalized backgrounds. For example:

  • The industry is centralized in one of the most prohibitively priced cities in the United States. This makes entry-level jobs accessible primarily to people with personal means, or those who already have a residence in New York City.
  • Many internships are unpaid. This is problematic considering the hermetic nature of publishing – nearly everyone I spoke with found their footholds in publishing through networking, which makes an internship essential. However, unpaid internships privilege candidates who are already living in New York and can afford not take on a paid employment for a period of time.

But getting the early publishing job isn’t an assurance of stability. Publishing can also be an industry of high turnover, particularly in early in the career trajectory. For numerous reasons, the industry is less accessible to people of color and people from low-income backgrounds, even after they’ve gotten their foot in the door:

  • Entry-level salaries are egregiously low, around $30,000-$35,000 for the first two years (at least) as an Editorial Assistant. Additionally, some editorial assistants take home work and have unpaid hours after the workday.
  • Some editors also shared with me discomforts they experienced in the office, such as microaggressive statements, feeling tokenized, feeling exhausted at the expectation to speak for all people of color.

If change needs to come from more voices from within publishing, then it’s all the more important that there be more intentional pathways for people marginalized backgrounds to get in and stay in the industry.

Take Note of These Organizations

So how does the industry realize these changes? There are a few existing initiatives that have already started setting the wheels of meaningful change in motion.

Among their other great work, We Need Diverse Books provided the grant that financially supported an internship that opened the door to a world of learning. The internship grant is an opportunity for all people of marginalized backgrounds to get their foot in the door. These interns will soon become the voices from within publishing that will effect lasting changing. If you have the means, I strongly encourage you to donate to their fundraiser before the end of the year!

I’m personally thankful to Lee & Low Books, for paying interns and for being vocal about the disparities in publishing since the company’s inception 25 years ago; I also deeply respect that Lee & Low holds regular, all-office discussions about dismantling racism in publishing. Their smart, informed blog is a fantastic way to read up on social justice and children’s books.

Launched earlier in this fall, Latinos in Publishing promotes not only literature from Latinx voices, but also Latinx representation industry-wide.

Two fantastic editors at Penguin Random House launched the Representation Matters Mentorship Program for aspiring publishing professionals of color. Right now, it’s open to people interested in editorial, but the program is looking to expand.

Most of all, I encourage you to listen to the Minorities in Publishing podcast, run by the incomparable Jenn Baker. She has a talent for facilitating conversations with interviewees (authors, publishers, agents, etc.) and drawing illuminating insights into the publishing world. (And if you’re so inclined, check out the episode in which I try to be eloquent!)

Last notes

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Aisha Saeed, author of Written in the Stars, and her son. Source: We Need Diverse Books.

From my observations, people are trying to make the industry a more inclusive place. There are editors, marketing and publicity directors, publishers, leaders at every point in the publishing process are initiating changes that will make publishing a more inclusive place for traditionally marginalized people. In turn, the stories that publishing produces will be truer to the demographics of their readers.

This is not a new topic. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote her essay “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors” in 1990, on the 25th anniversary of a similar article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” by Nancy Larrick. We Need Diverse Books gained momentum in 2015. 

1965, to 1990, to 2015. Discussions of representation tend to arrive during times of larger change in the topic of race and civil rights in the United States. As the book industry situates itself as an arbiter of culture. It is necessarily implicated. It responds. So why do the problems linger 20, 40 years later? We can’t let the conversation about diversity snuff out.


How do we create a more inclusive world? It begins in books, and books begin in publishing.

We read books to adjust our lenses toward the world. To humanize one another, celebrate differences, and broaden our beliefs. Through books, we learn people’s stories to do away with assumptions and stereotypes.

If you believe this too, no matter what sector we work in (education, library sciences, publishing, readership), we all need to thinking about how we can actively support the better books, and better world, of youth living in the United States. Ask librarians to consider more diverse books. Teach diverse books. Buy diverse books, then give them as gifts. 

Systemically and in our everyday ways, we need to act intentionally to support diverse books, because intention is the only force that brings about change.

I sincerely hope you’ve found this series helpful to you. I would love to know how you (from whatever position you are in right now) hope to make diverse books the norm. For my part, I will continue working on a blog that brings to light authentic narratives that shed understanding on a human experience, because that’s what the power of a book means to me.

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.

A Literary Weekend in Providence, RI

Since coming to college, Providence has become a beloved second home. But as a newly minted book blogger, I often find myself longing to be in New York, the storied center-of-it-all where everyone seems to be brushing shoulders, having deep and impassioned conversations beside a cupcake spread.

But this weekend, Providence showed its love for children’s books in this city’s own, quietly eminent ways. Read on for more about the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books Authors and Illustrators and a reading from an author who brings authentic, diverse stories to children’s bookshelves across the country.

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