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I was honored to present at the Kidlitosphere's 8th Annual Convention
in Sacramento, California, where I shared ten tips for adults interested in messages about race and culture that might go unnoticed "under the waterline" in books for children and young adults. I've offered these in other contexts, but here they are for bloggers and reviewers. As always, I welcome questions, corrections, and clarifications.
- Look for overused tropes like an older magical negro or a noble savage.
- Notice a smart/good peer of color whose only role is to serve as a foil for a flawed hero.
- Check the cover art for whitewashing or overexoticization.
- Pay attention to when and how race is defined, if at all.
- Notice if the setting, plot, and characters are in charge of the casting.
- Pay attention to how beauty is defined.
- Notice outsider “bridge” characters and generic versus specific cultures.
- Check for a “single story” that underlines a stereotype about another culture.
- See who has the power to make change and who has the power to be changed.
- Ask questions about the storyteller’s authenticity, privilege, and power.
I've often suggested that booksellers and librarians play around with "windows and mirrors" when it comes to displaying multicultural books. They can place such a title on a shelf of diverse reads for readers looking for windows into another world, or for children hoping to see their particular ethnic/racial experience reflected in a story. In the past, this kind of display was the only way I might see one of my books face out in a library or bookstore, or featured online.
These days, in a practice that's becoming more common, a multicultural book is displayed with other titles around a "mirror" theme common to all children.
For example, my novel Rickshaw Girl might be placed on a shelf beside other fiction for children with Asian settings and protagonists. It might also be displayed as it is here, at Graves Memorial Library in Kennebunkport, Maine, as part of a collection called "Young at Art: Picture Books and Novels Featuring Young Artists." This display about art includes several other titles that may or may not be "multicultural." Any reader who wants a story featuring a protagonist who is a young artist will be offered my story. That reader may or may not find her ethnicity reflected in my book, and it may or may not provide her with a first window into Bangladesh. An adult gatekeeper has guided her to a list of books where she will see her love of art reflected, but the rest of a story's mirror/window magic will be between her and the book, where it belongs.
Another example is my book Secret Keeper, which in the past has been featured as a title about India. Recently, however, I found it on a Minnesota's Hennepin County Library list called ": young adult novels featuring characters that love sports, love to get dirty, hate pink, and don't want to be 'ordinary' girls." There's my "multicultural" novel, rubbing elbows with the likes of Little Women, Hunger Games, and Island of the Blue Dolphins. Again, a reader who likes strong female protagonists will be offered my book, and the other mirrors and windows offered in the story—if she chooses it—is up to her.
Gatekeepers, take a look at your lists and displays with fresh eyes. Then have some fun playing around with new windows and mirrors themes to lead young readers to multicultural books. I'd love to hear about your creative lists and displays.
At the recent Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI, I had to tweak a presentation I've given over the past several years. A previous version focused on empowering writers with questions related to race, culture, and power to ask of ourselves and our stories. The Festival brings together writers and readers, so I presented "Ten Tips To See
'Below the Waterline' of Stories," hoping that they might be useful while reading another person's story as well as in the revision of one's own work.
My goal is for us to SEE themes related to race, culture, and power with our conscious minds. Fiction is powerful, as propagandists know, and a "single story" of a group of people (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently argued) transmitted "below the waterline" can be dangerous.
TEN TIPS FOR READERS AND WRITERS:
1. Look for an older magical negro or noble savage.
2. Notice a smart/good peer from a marginalized group who serves as a foil for a flawed hero.
3. Check the cover or illustrations for misrepresentations of exoticization or whitewashing.
4. Ask when and how race is defined, if at all.
5. Notice if the setting, plot, and characters are in charge of the casting (because they must be.)
6. Pay attention to how beauty is defined (i.e, straight, silky hair; big, wide eyes, etc.)
7. Check for a “single story" that identifies a community or person on the margins of power.
8. Notice the presence of bridge characters.
9. Ask who has the power to bring about change and who has the power to be changed.
10. Question the storyteller’s (your) authenticity, privilege, and power, but not for the purposes of setting up an arbitrary apartheid system about who can tell the story.
For me, none of these lead to a deal-breaker when it comes to a book. In fact, I hate censorship. I want to encourage us to see the powerful act of storytelling through slightly different eyes. It's helpful to consider the perspective from the margins, and to comprehend that the privilege of power (whether derived from class, nationality, education, accent, ethnicity, etc.) often enables us not to see.
"A young adult book featuring a protagonist who isn't of European descent will never become a bestseller."
"The majority of readers won't read a young adult novel featuring a protagonist who isn't of European descent."
We imagine these kinds of comments, spoken or unspoken, governing the publishing industry. In our guts, we know they're not true. We gripe about this issue. We try to disprove such claims through social media and conferences, panels and articles, speeches and radio shows. Unfortunately, nothing so far has resulted in such a young adult novel breaking through into widespread success.
The truth is that, for all of our good intentions, publishing is a for-profit industry.
Money changes minds.
"Adults don't read books for young readers." Harry Potter shattered that one, didn't it?
"Boys don't read girl books." Along came Suzanne Collins with Katniss, and middle-aged men were tearing through The Hunger Games trilogy.
Yesterday I tweeted this:
I got several suggestions
including books like Joseph Bruchac's Killer of Enemies
, The Living
by Matt De La Peña, Fake ID
by Lamar Giles, and Prophecy
by Ellen Oh.
But Ellen raised a good question:
I do think that film can take a book to the next level, but it must achieve some widespread market success before moviemakers begin to pay attention. There are two necessities to achieve this kind of success.
— RISE UP! Write a great story that rings with authenticity featuring a protagonist we love who is not of European descent (I know the label stinks, but you get my drift.) It must be a page-turner. It must knock our story-hungry socks off. By the last page, not only are we are ready to read it again, we are reaching into our wallets to pre-order the sequel. We are tweeting, texting, status-ing, and insta-ing that book until our friends are convinced they must buy it right now or their quality of life will diminish.
I may complain about the market and choose to blame my lack of breakthrough success on the r-word, but let's get real—I need to write an AMAZING STORY. Once I've achieved this (and the veracity of such a claim has been thoroughly verified by countless words and reviews of readers who don't know me), I might be able to question why it didn't become a blockbuster.
I know that one part of us believes our mothers and thinks our books are beyond incredible, but another part says, "Maybe it was
good, but get better, get better." Let's listen to that—time is short.
, be on the hunt for such a story. In the old days, we relied solely on publishing houses to put publicity and marketing big bucks behind fiction. These days, social media and virality are increasingly key to launching a novel into bestseller status, which feels like the collective "we" have a bit more power. How can we use that power to get behind a title? Maybe we can add our small voice of influence to help it sell like crazy.
Who is likely to discover a young adult novel with blockbuster potential featuring culturally marginalized protagonists (gosh, I hate race labels—what do you think of that one)? I trust indie booksellers and librarians. That's why I tune into their voices on twitter (feel free to follow my lists of 197 booksellers
and 359 librarians
.) If booksellers like Elizabeth Bluemle
and librarians like Betsy Bird
, champions of "add-your-own-label-here" books for years, don't discover this myth-shattering story, nobody will.
I believe that changing the market can and will happen. And when it does, I promise you I'll say I told you so.
One of the best ways to deepen our commitment to children's and young adult books is by meeting other people who share that passion. And I don't mean just virtually; I mean in real life, too. Well, here's our chance: the 8th annual Kidlitosphere Conference, aka KidLitCon, October 10-11, at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria in Sacramento, California. This is a gathering of people who care about children’s and young adult books, including librarians, authors, teachers, parents, booksellers, publishers, and readers.Social Media, Blogging, and Diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Literature
How might we use our blogs and social media platforms to widen the world of children’s and young adult literature? I'll be there, speaking about how we can change and affect the conversation about diversity, both in the industry and in the wider culture. Author Shannon Hale
is going to speak also, via Skype.
Mark October 10th and 11th on your calendar—we'd love to see you there. And consider submitting a proposal
by August 1st about how you might contribute to the conversation on children’s and young adult books. Or just register
by September 19th.Conference Organizers
and Sarah Stevenson
, Finding WonderlandJen Robinson
, Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Please help by spreading the word. Be a fan
on Facebook and Follow KidLitCon
I've been returning to words like "power" and "privilege" when it comes to the conversation around "diversity" in children's books. Amina Chaudhri of the American Library Association's Booklist Magazine recently interviewed me to clarify my position. Here's an excerpt:
Books and Authors: Talking with Mitali Perkins
...BKL: What do you think about labels that categorize sets of books by racial or ethnic content?
PERKINS: I would love to see a time soon when we don’t need any of those labels, and all kids will read all kinds of stories and find their own connections. Secret Keeper is set in Calcutta in the 1970s, and I’ve heard adults say that they didn’t have [a Bengali] population in their communities, so the story was not pertinent. Yet I’ve had kids from rural America write me eight-page letters saying that they loved the story and felt as if Asha reflected them.
I almost feel like the adults should get out of the way a little bit. The child reader will surprise you as to how they find their windows and mirrors in every different story. So, if the adult is saying, “This is about this,” sometimes that gets in the way of the child’s imagination. When I was reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was reading it as a Bengali immigrant child, and what I got out of it were so many points of connection that an adult could never have told me about. The power of stories is that the reader makes his or her own meaning, especially when a child rereads a story; there’s something going on between the kid and the story that maybe adults shouldn’t even look at too closely. Just let the magic work!
You may read the rest online or download the entire interview.
|"... [It's] not an issue of race and culture but an issue of power. There are communities in America that have less power and there is poverty, and people have not had many chances to tell their own stories. That’s a different issue than an educated Bengali person who is growing up in the middle class. To lump us all together as multicultural because we’re not white puts too much focus on race and culture and not enough on power."|
I've just finished a month of teaching "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's and YA Books" during Jan Term at Saint Mary's College of California
. As the college-wide theme this year was Inspired
(see above), I asked students to create picture books by fulfilling two requirements: (1) they were required to write fiction featuring a "hero's journey," and (2) they needed to explore an aspect of race, culture, or power.
I was delighted by their books, as well as their ability to debate issues around authenticity, banning, bowdlerization, ethnic awards, and multicultural representation on book covers. We also enjoyed eye-opening skype visits from Yolanda Leroy Scott of Charlesbridge
, Renee Ting of Shen's Books
, Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children's Literature
, and Stacy L. Whitman of Tu Books
. Thanks to all of these experts for their time and thoughtful input.
When asked about their takeaways from the class, here are a few student responses:
"I've developed a keen eye for exclusion."
"Never thought about white default before."
"Children's stories are powerful."
"Kids notice race at an early age."
"Stories featuring multicultural kids doing 'regular stuff' are empowering."
"There's power in being bicultural."
"It's hard to write a children’s story!"
Amen, right? Enjoy these photos of my beautiful students showing off their picture books:
Looking forward to Dark Girls, a documentary releasing 9.24.13. Shadeism/colorism is an important aspect of the conversation about race. South Asian girls hear the same stuff about dark skin, and it's sickening. We have another compelling argument about why good stories for and about all kinds of children are so crucial, and can reveal the truth about beauty.
You're invited to two discussions, one virtual and one in real life. First, please read and comment on my guest post at the Children's Books Council Diversity Blog: "Is the Race Card Old School?" Here's an excerpt:
... Why does race trump in North America when it comes to a discussion about authenticity and fiction? My best guess is that we adults are stuck in that particular paradigm of identity. Race takes primacy when it comes to how we see others and how we see ourselves. In our minds, it still parallels the deeper question of power at the heart of this conversation, because the appropriation of story is a powerful act. And perhaps we’re (sort of) right ...
If you'd like this kind of dialogue in real life, as well as some intimate, face-to-face time with editors Cheryl Klein (Scholastic) and Stacy Whitman (Tu Books | Lee and Low), agent Regina Griffin, and authors Sundee Frazier (BRENDAN BUCKLEY'S SIXTH-GRADE EXPERIMENT) and Eliot Shrefer (ENDANGERED), please join us at the Highlights Foundation workshop, "Writing Across Boundaries
," this October 27-30. Scholarships are available!
For any writer it’s a challenge to write across gender, culture, or race. You worry that you won’t know the subtleties of the language or the mannerisms of the characters. You wonder if it’s even your story to tell. This workshop will help you identify and address the difficulties and joys of writing across boundaries.
Join our award-winning faculty as they give you tips on research, tell you how to put yourself in the characters’ shoes, and discuss the issues to consider in language and milieu. Our special guest editor will give you insight into editorial questions considered with a novel written across boundaries. You’ll leave with a richer understanding of how to write an authentic voice that resounds for readers.
During the class, you’ll workshop the first ten pages, so please submit those pages two weeks prior to the workshop. Additionally, bring a summary and up to fifty pages of your novel to the workshop for reference and to use in workshop exercises.
Begins with dinner on Sunday, October 27, and ends with lunch on Wednesday, October 30, followed by an optional tour of Highlights for Children and Boyds Mills Press at 1:30 p.m.
Today in my "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Stories" class at Saint Mary's College of California, we took a look at the winners of the 2014 ALA Youth Media Award, announced early this morning. We explored four questions:
- Do any of the winning books or honorees feature a main character belonging to a group that has endured oppression in North America due to race or culture?
- Are any of the winning books or honorees set in a non-Western country?
- Are any of the main characters from an economically powerless family or subculture?
- Did any of the winning authors/illustrators grow up on the margins of power when it comes to race, culture, and/or class?
Do these questions matter in children's stories? Setting aside the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré awards for a moment, how would you answer these questions?Note
: In my author hat, I'm thrilled for all of the winners and so proud to see children's books making headlines. Congratulations, one and all! But in teacher mode, I am encouraging a focus on marginalized and powerless children and so invite you to join the discussion.
When challenged by others as to why he focuses on stories about foreigners working in African countries, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof responds with the idea that "bridge" characters are needed to draw readers into a story.
The rules must be different in the world of global children's literature. Kristof makes two assumptions that don't work for me: first, that readers won't be able to connect with stories unless you include an American, and second, that his readers are
I've never included "bridge" foreigners in stories set outside North America. First, I trust young readers to connect with characters of a different culture. Second, since I grew up "between cultures," so I never assume that my reader is staunchly in the majority culture. I always ask how the story would be received by a child within that culture as well as by North American readers, and "outside saviors" seem to discourage rather than empower non-majority children.
Of course, this literary premise of needing "bridge" characters may be the reason why (a) global books don't sell well without a big gatekeeper push, and (b) I got rejected for years and years because I was submitting books without them.
What do you think? Does a "bridge" character in fiction draw you into a story? If books by authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Khaled Hosseini didn't have anything or anybody "American" in them, would they have won such wide cultural favor?
Librarian and blogger Betsy Bird recently issued a call for books featuring "casual diversity," or a list of children’s books in which "diversity is just a part of everyday life." Here's my two cents:
Even (perhaps especially) in such “real world” books featuring characters with different ethnic backgrounds, the author and/or illustrator should think through carefully how that heritage would shape each character. Perhaps none of that background work that has informed the author’s imagination will be obvious to the reader in the final story or art, but our reflection, personal experience, and research will all affect the characters' depictions–and the child reader–in subtle ways.
Throwing in a character of color here or there to make your book more multicultural isn't a shortcut to representing all kinds of children in the real world. As authors and illustrators, the onus is on us to do the unseen work of listening, learning, and understanding, especially
because we write for children. What is "under the waterline" in us is bound to be revealed in our stories, and will inform what is "under the waterline" in our child readers.
Excited to be a part of this program tomorrow morning on public radio in the Bay Area. Tune in via the web if you're not local—East Coast time 1 o'clock in the afternoon.
People of Color Underrepresented in Children's Books
Mon, Mar 24, 2014 -- 10:00 AM
Ethnic diversity is on the rise in the U.S. So why are children's books still so white? Only about 6 percent of kids' books published in 2013 feature characters that are African-American, Latino, Asian or Native American. We take up the discussion with authors, illustrators and librarians. Does the ethnicity of characters in children's books matter to you?
Host: Mina Kim
On Monday, I was honored to be part of a group invited by KQED Forum to speak on the radio about the Cooperative Children's Book Center's (CCBC) 2013 findings on diversity in children's literature. I joined host Mina Kim, Nina Lindsay, children's librarian at Oakland Public Library, and illustrator LeUyen Pham in the studio. K.T. Horning of the CCBC provided a pre-recorded introduction, and Christopher Myers, whose recent New York Times article, "The Apartheid of Children's Literature," precipitated the public interest, joined us live from Brooklyn.
Let me offer some thoughts on live radio. First, it moves fast—the hour barreled by. Second, a good host must be excellent at multi-tasking; it was fascinating to watch Mina's brain and body move in marvelous synchronicity as she steered the conversation. Three, you can't edit your words.
I said things with which I generally agree but left wishing I could have tweaked a sentence or two. For example, I wish I could clarify that I encourage authors to hold back from writing main characters from historically marginalized communities if we didn't grow up in those communities. And that I invite us to hold back only to ask tough, self-reflective questions about the reasons to write that story—as all powerful storytellers must when writing about less powerful children—but that I see no hard and fast rule about who can write for whom.
Afterwards, to celebrate that it was all done, LeUyen and I partied with Big Bird, and I schmoozed with the aristocrats of Downton Abbey.
No, this is not oxymoronic: I recently enjoyed a humorous contemporary YA novel that adeptly handles race. Latte Rebellion
(Flux, January 2011) by Sara Jamila Stevenson
is a funny, poignant debut novel narrated by a protagonist you'd love to meet for coffee and conversation in real life. I loved the window this novel gives into growing up "latte" amidst the craziness of racial politics in America. But thanks to witty dialog, vivid characters, and a spot-on depiction of bittersweet endings and beginnings, Latte Rebellion
is also a mirror for anyone who remembers or anticipates the roller coaster ride of senior year.
Don't miss this brilliant post by YA author Nicola K. Richardson in which she eloquently addresses some commonly held misconceptions about race in young adult literature. For example, when it comes to the claim that young white readers won't cross borders of race to read, Ms. Richardson has this to say:
Kids of color give white writers a chance all the time. But white kids won't do the same for a writer of color? The same kids that buy a CD cover with a black artist with no problems would hesitate over a book cover? The same kids that go to school with and have friends of all races would refuse to be diverse when it comes to reading? I firmly believe that this is just as wrong as the assumption that blacks only read urban fiction. Again, MANY believe this and it shows in the heinous whitewashing of book covers. It shows when bookstores won't carry books with characters of color on the cover. It shows when salespeople swear they can't sell these books. The problem with this is that it assumes an entire group will respond the way that a few do.
Read the rest over at YA Highway
, including some world-changing advice for all of us in the industry. Writers, apparently we have to "go hard for our books." Ready for the challenge? I am. Thanks, Nicola.
Crossing boundaries of culture, race, and class to create characters can be tricky, but as fantasy/romance author Mary Anne Mohanraj thoughtfully points out, "You will get it wrong. This is what you should do."
Children's book author A.C.E. Bauer makes the case that we can't include a character of a different race without seeing that "it's not like choosing the color of her hair."
It always helps to learn from one another's mistakes and processes, so I'm seeking input from my fellow writers. Here are my questions, and they apply to historical, contemporary, dystopian, and fantasy novels:
- When you crossed boundaries of power (cultural, racial, economic) to create characters, what behind-the-scenes homework did you do (research, interviews, etc.)?
- Did your editor ask for more research or tweaks when it came to issues of race, culture, or class? If so, when and why?
There are no right or wrong answers — basically, I'm looking for tips that we might all find useful. I'd love to compile comments, so share titles, release dates, and publishers of published works, and working titles of books-in-progress. Thanks!
|photo via p.a.h. and creative commons|
I'm privileged to be editing an anthology published by Candlewick Press tentatively called OPEN MIC, a compilation of funny short pieces written by some of today's best YA authors, people who grew up along the margins of race and culture in North America. One of my dreams has been to introduce one or two fresh, relatively unknown voices in this anthology, so I'm excited to announce that I'm calling for submissions
WHY HUMOR AND RACE?
It’s easy to see teens exploring boundaries, definitions, and trends in ethnicity and race in standup comedy, sitcoms, and funny short and long films. Meanwhile, many teen novels confronting these topics tend to be serious, reverential, or sad. Humor crosses borders like no other literary device
, right? Shared laughter fosters community and provides the freedom to talk about issues that might otherwise cause division or discomfort. It also gets teens reading
, and that's what we're aiming for in this book. Our authenticity and humor, hopefully, will inspire teens to talk about their own experiences as they share the book in classrooms, families, and through social media.
Your OPEN MIC contribution could include poignant, deep content as well as laugh-out loud hilarious scenes. You don’t have to focus specifically on racism, but your piece will explore or illuminate coming of age and/or growing up along the margins of race and culture in North America. Hopefully, it will also be funny.
Your target audience is middle school to early high school, grades 7-9
, so keep your protagonists at that age level or above. If your piece is chosen, you'll receive an advance against a small royalty percentage on the sale of the book across formats. As for promotion, along with Candlewick’s usual stellar marketing efforts, we’re going to spread the news like crazy through social media to publicize you and your other work as well.
HOW TO SUBMIT
I'm considering submissions to this open call on a rolling basis until January 15, 2012. Maximum word count is 2500
. Send your story or essay (noting word count on the first page) along with a brief introductory cover letter to OPEN MIC, Attn: Mitali Perkins, Candlewick Press, 99 Dover Street, Somerville, MA 02144. Manuscripts will not be returned.
: Do not put your name on the manuscript itself, only on the cover letter.
Candlewick will keep the cover letters and number manuscripts to track them. I'm hoping to consider submissions without knowing the identities of the contributors—and I can't wait to read your piece!
With Steven Spielberg's adaptation of THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, the classic graphic novel written and illustrated by George Remi (Hergé
), Egmont UK is releasing TINTIN IN THE CONGO
for a new audience. This time, instead of letting "colonial" content stand as is or bowdlerizing it, they've decided to pursue a new strategy
“We took the unusual step of placing a protective band around the book with a warning about the content and also included an introduction inside the book by the original translators explaining the historical context."
Already, UK booksellers typically move the novels out of children's areas into the adult graphic novel sections of their stores.
We've discussed the option of bowdlerizing content
on the Fire Escape before, and I took a poll, asking
visitors to the Fire Escape when, if ever, it would be okay to update a
classic children's book to reflect changing mores about race. The
results (152 votes) were almost equally split
between those who thought some changes might be in order, while the rest arguing that a book must stand as is.
Slightly more than half of you (83 votes, or 54%) said never.
Among those who felt it might be worth it to change a classic book, we
see a strong belief that an author alone retains the right to change
the story. Fifty-nine voters (38%) thought it would be appropriate to update if the author were still alive and wanted the changes.
Twenty-eight (18%) thought it would be permissible to revise a classic children's book if the publisher included a note in the re-issue explaining the reasoning behind the change.
Fifteen of you (9%) thought it would be okay to update if the changes made were incidental rather than integral to the plot, and fifteen (9%) more were amenable if the copyright holder (a descendant) were still alive and authorized the changes.
What do you think about Egmont UK's belly-banding move? And if you're interested, here's how I weighed in
on the issue. Enjoy the trailer for the film, scheduled for release December 21st:
2 Comments on Belly-Banding TINTIN IN THE CONGO with a Warning, last added: 11/3/2011
Ever wondered why Birmingham airport was renamed
the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport in 2008? BLACK AND WHITE (Calkins Creek) by Larry Dane Brimner
will have you cheering each time you hear the name. As Brimner notes: "Reverend Fred. L. Shuttlesworth never once thought about giving up the fight for human and civil rights. He was, after all, following the path God intended for him, and he'd answered that calling early in his life."
The best children's non-fiction history books chronicle events by combining arresting visuals with lucid prose. Thanks to Brimner's gifts of storytelling and research, a meticulous collection of photographs and letters, and a design that brilliantly pleads the case for the traditional codex, BLACK AND WHITE transports readers into the heart of the civil rights movement. The book brings two characters to life--Shuttlesworth and his nemesis, Eugene "Bull" Connor--as well as the town of Birmingham in the middle of the twentieth century, helping us remember the sacrifice and determination that secured changes we might start taking for granted.
A rousing portrayal of what faithful Christians can and have endured to bring about justice, BLACK AND WHITE singlehandedly makes me proud of our vocation to nourish the imaginations and intellect of the next generation.
, the fantasy, science fiction, and mystery imprint of Lee and Low
, recently announced their first annual New Visions Award
. "The New Visions Award will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color
," they say.
I wondered why the award was restricted to the race of the author rather than of the characters, and asked Stacy Whitman, editorial director of TU BOOKS, about her take on this sticky issue. Here's the email exchange between the two of us (shared with Stacy's permission):
: Hi Stacy. Just wondering why you decided to focus the award on "writers of color" rather than "main characters of color"?
: This is like the Lee and Low New Voices Award
, which is aimed at discovering new voices of color, given that so many writers are white. Everyone is still welcome to submit to our regular submissions. Hope that clears it up.
: Yes and no. I've always wondered how Lee and Low defined "of color."
: It's a good question. Here's the answer Louise usually gives writers who ask about it for New Voices, which I'll be adapting as people start to ask me:
While our company does acknowledge and actively work with Caucasian authors and illustrators, our New Voices contest specifically promotes the work of new writers who are not Caucasian. We use the term “color” in the commonly accepted way to refer to those writers and readers who might otherwise be referred to as members of minority populations (African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans), but who are fast becoming larger and larger percentages of the United States population. We apologize if you find this terminology exclusionary, but it is meant merely to be descriptive. For want of a better term, we use what is in common usage throughout the country.
As a company founded with the mission of creating books in which children of color can see themselves in the stories they read, we feel it is critical to acknowledge these unheard voices. In the mainstream world of children’s publishing—statistically dominated by works by and about Caucasians—writers of color and their stories for children have and continue to slip through the cracks, making up a small percentage of the children’s books published each year. Aside from our small efforts to promote new writers from diverse communities, you will find there are national children’s book awards that have similar focuses, for example the Coretta Scott King Award which acknowledges African American authors and illustrators, and the Pura Belpré Award which acknowledges Latino authors and illustrators.
It can be tricky—I personally prefer the author to define themselves, rather than for myself to define it. And for me it includes multiracial people (Tobias Buckell, an editor of Diverse Energies, for example, is half black and half white, even though many people just looking at him would assume he is "just" white, which is a complicated genetic thing that society oversimplifies). But what it comes down to is that we're trying to help discover new voices from underrepresented groups through this contest.
: Thanks, this is helpful. My opinion is that with all the mixing and melding going on, any authentic experience of a writer will ring through in the fiction if we focus on the culture/race of the character rather than of the author. If an upper middle class Bengali woman like me writes about a poor Bengali fisherman's son (as I'm doing right now), I'm crossing huge borders of class, gender, and caste, but not race ... may I write this story? I certainly hope so, because I am! Anyway, the goal is to widen the choices of fiction for readers so that we're not all rooting solely for educated upper class heroes with European roots ... the question is how to get there.
: Exactly, and this is pretty much a two-pronged approach for us--encouraging everyone to submit to the main submissions, but also doing the contest in a hunt for more diversity among writers as well as in the stories.
ABOUT THE AWARD
, the fantasy, science fiction, and mystery imprint of LEE and LOW BOOKS
, announces their first annual New Visions Award
The New Visions Award will be given for a middle grade or young adult
fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. Authors
who have not previously had a middle grade or young adult novel
published are eligible.
The Award winner will receive a cash grant of $1000 and our standard
publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a
first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash grant of
$500. Manuscripts will be accepted through October 30, 2012. See the full submissions guidelines here
New Visions Award was established to help more authors of color break
into publishing and begin long, successful careers, while also bringing
more diverse stories to speculative fiction. The award is modeled after
Lee and Low's successful New Voices Award
, which was established in 2000 and is given annually to a picture book written by an unpublished author of color.
I'm heading west to teach a Jan Term course at Saint Mary's College of California called "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's and Young Adult Books." Here's the first part of my syllabus:
Why are children’s stories so powerful? Who has the right to tell stories about marginalized communities? This course will explore the question of authenticity in storytelling and unmask explicit and implicit messages about race, power, and culture communicated through books for young readers. A secondary course goal is to help students improve their analytical writing.
- Part One: The Subversive Power of Children’s Stories
- Part Two: Race in Children’s Stories
- Part Three: Culture in Children’s Stories
- Part Four: Power in Children’s Books
Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature
makes this argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:
The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.
On the flip side, children’s literature has also been a key part of state propaganda used by totalitarian and oppressive governments to impose certain social and moral codes on child readers. As Bruno Bettelheim argued in The Uses of Enchantment
, stories told to children powerfully shape their moral world. Children with a well-developed sense of justice and compassionate hearts widened by stories can significantly serve the common good. Storytelling is a powerful act, especially when it involves young hearts and minds. From Uncle Tom's Cabin
to Harry Potter
, books can either repudiate or encourage stereotypes and injustice.
Students will explore and debate five questions:
(1) BOOK COVERS
: Should young adult and middle grade novels depict faces on covers?
(2) BOOK AWARDS
: Should ethnic book awards be based on the race/ethnicity of the author/illustrator?
: Should certain children’s books be banned in homes and classrooms because of racism or cultural stereotyping?
: Should we “bowdlerize” children’s classics that—seen with today’s eyes—are racist, or let them stand and be read as is?
: Should a story be told only by a cultural “insider” to guarantee authenticity?
This year I'm privileged to introduce my 26 students to Debbie Reese, who blogs at American Indians in Children's Literature
, and Yolanda Leroy, editorial director of Charlesbridge
, via Skype. Renee Ting, publisher of Shen's Books
, will visit us in person. Since the theme of Jan Term 2013 is "inspiration," students will also be writing and creating picture books that explore a theme related to race, culture, or power.
Most of you know I'm teaching a Jan Term course called "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's/YA Stories" at Saint Mary's College in California. In class today students researched and compiled statistics about 12 children's/YA book awards (13 books) NOT restricted by the race of the author or illustrator. We included the National Book Award, Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and other major awards.
GENDER: In 2012, 10 protagonists were male, while 4 were female (one book had two main characters). Meanwhile, 6 authors/illustrators were women (about half). So, to generalize, last year's award-winning books were mostly about boys, but created almost equally by men and women.
RACE: In 2012, 9 protagonists were white, while 4 protagonists were not (2 African American, 1 Middle Eastern, 1 Japanese). Meanwhile 10 authors/illustrators were white, while 3 were not (2 African American, 1 Middle Eastern). So, to generalize, last year's award-winning books were mostly about white people and created by white people.
Still, remember that according to the 2010 census, 63% of the US population is non-Hispanic white, 16% Latino/Hispanic, 12% Black, 6% Asian, and 3% more than one race.
Once again, we find a dearth of Latino/Hispanic main characters. Other thoughts?