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Next Monday is Columbus Day, but in recent years, there’s been a movement to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Columbus Day occupies a dubious spot in our nation’s calendar, ostensibly commemorating both the “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus and the subsequent destruction and enslavement of countless indigenous people. Today we’re pleased to share this guest post from educator and writer Tami Charles on rethinking how we acknowledge Columbus Day.
As children, we probably have all commemorated Columbus Day by singing the popular rhyme:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain.
He sailed through sunshine, wind, and rain.
Singing this song typically initiated elementary lessons on Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of the Americas. This was sometimes followed by a coloring activity of the three ships: the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, which often led to decorating feathered headbands as a symbol of the friendship between Columbus and the Native Americans he encountered on his voyages. This whitewashed version of history often overshadows the brutal truth: Christopher Columbus led numerous devastating movements against Indigenous peoples. Additionally, his voyages played a large part in the growth of the transatlantic slave trade.
Teachers of students in the lower grades may or may not touch upon such controversial topics when discussing this famous segment of American history. But how exactly is Columbus’s legacy addressed in middle and high schools today? Are schools inclined to teach from both the Anglo-American and the Indigenous viewpoints?
As such, it is imperative for educators to teach from a place of truth, be it easy or uncomfortable. The truth is that while Columbus was known for his expert navigational skills in travelling to the New World, the indigenous people suffered at the hands of this exploration.
Upon first encountering the native people of the Americas, on October 12, 1492, Christopher wrote the following in his journal: “They should be good servants . . . . I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses.” Columbus lived up to his promise, eventually capturing six natives and parading them around the streets of Spain. On October 14, 1492, Columbus also wrote, “with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” It is clear that Columbus had domination in mind, and he proved this after his second voyage, when he captured 1,200 native people to be sold as slaves in Spain. The rest, as they say, is history. As Columbus claimed land for Spain, the freedom and lives of the indigenous people were taken as well.
A culturally reflective teacher will expose students to literature that speaks to both sides of this history and allow them to develop their own hypotheses.
If we are to acknowledge Columbus Day, it cannot be done without acknowledging Indigenous People’s Day, too. Exploring both stories is a must if we are to develop students into citizens who are capable of critical thinking. We can begin by evaluating the following trusted links to resources, lesson plans, and articles:
Middle and high school students typically have the prior knowledge of Columbus’s famous expeditions, dating back to lessons taught in elementary school. Yet, according to an ongoing survey by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, Native Americans are among the least represented groups in children’s and young adult literature. For these reasons, there is a heightened need to bring in rich texts that reflect Native voices to stand alongside the mono-cultural, Eurocentric texts that are prevalent in many classroom libraries today.
Consequently, Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski is the type of novel that could spark deep conversation about this very subject. Hammer of Witches is a historical fantasy layered in rich cultural references dating back to the Columbus expedition era. After witnessing the murder of his uncle and aunt, young Baltasar Infante sets out to find his father, but unexpectedly finds himself travelling west with Cristóbal Colón, historically known as Christopher Columbus. Throughout the novel, a prophecy looms that a dark force will journey west and destroy the New World. (Hmmm, we wonder who that can be?)
Filled with magic and Old World tales, the novel itself challenges the meaning of “history,” in that one story can have multiple interpretations. The reader isn’t swayed to believe that Christopher Columbus destroyed an ancient civilization. On the contrary, readers are also not forced to think that the Indigenous people willingly surrendered their land to a complete stranger. It is here, on this level of objective reflection, where the novel shines! In turn, these are the exact ideals teachers should impart upon their students when discussing the upcoming holidays.
Using this novel as an anchor text, here are some learning activities teachers can use to add to the conversation of Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day. Each can be scaffolded to align with the Common Core State Standards for grades six through twelve:
Using a graphic organizer, identify the religious and ethnic conflicts presented in the text. Present your findings to the class in the form of a team debate. Highlight any similarities or differences between the conflicts of the past and the conflicts of today. (Common Core State Standard.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.6)
Compare and contrast—Use a Venn Diagram to identify key components of the story of Christopher Columbus as it’s presented in more juvenile texts, versus what you’ve learned from Hammer of Witches. Be sure to identify similarities, if any are noted. Present your findings to the class. (Common Core State Standard.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9)
Citing text evidence, analyze the overarching theme of the novel Hammer of Witches. Create a Power Point presentation to visually reflect how this theme is developed over the course of the text. (Common Core State Standard.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.2)
State your case! Research primary and secondary resources to justify whether schools should acknowledge Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day (or both). Present your case before a mock panel of school board members. (Common Core State Standard.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9)
Interested in more books that highlight indigenous voices and the power of story? Take a look at some of our recommendations below:
Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall: When the matriarch of a close-knit Mexican American family falls ill, Lupita must find a way to navigate through the pain and keep her family afloat.
Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac: Lozen is a seventeen-year-old Apache hunter with one mission in life: to kill the genetically engineered monsters that threaten human life.
Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall: A retelling of The Odyssey in which five sisters must fight evil on their journey home from Mexico.
Trail of the Dead by Joseph Bruchac: The second installment of Killer of Enemies, in which Lozen must find refuge for her family from the despotic Ones. Little does she know, new monsters and secrets await her in this new world.
Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall: A reimagined tale of Romeo and Juliet, set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.
*Guadalupe Garcia McCall identifies as Mexican American. We have included her books here as an acknowledgement of indigenous Mexican voices, as children’s literature scholar Debbie Reese notes here.
You can also browse our Indigenous People’s Day/Columbus Day YA Collection by clicking here.
Teaching our children about the power of story is not a responsibility that lies solely in the hands of the educator. At home, parents can create discussion and spark critical reflection, too. In these pivotal moments, we can all celebrate the undying spirit of indigenous people, who in the face of oppression, have continually risen above to keep their cultures, their honor, and their stories alive. So, how will you acknowledge Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day? Let us know in the comments below!
Hanke, Lewis (1949). The Spanish struggle for justice in the conquest of America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Nguyen, Tram (2009). Language is a Place of Struggle: Great Quotes by People of Color. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. (p. 174.)
For fourteen years, Tami Charles served as a public school educator but now writes full time. Her middle grade novel, Like Vanessa, debuts with Charlesbridge in spring, 2018. She is represented by Lara Perkins of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
Often when we look at biographies featuring people of color, they repeat the same themes: slavery & civil rights, music, sports. But people of color have contributed positively in every field, including the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. These contributions should be celebrated all year long, not just during heritage months or when there’s a special focus on diversity!
Today on the blog, we feature 5 STEM innovators of color. Who else would you add to the list?
Founder of the Japanese car brand Honda, Soichiro Honda had an inventive mind and a passion for new ideas, and he never gave up on his dream. A legendary figure in the world of manufacturing, Honda is a dynamic symbol of lifelong determination, creativity, and the power of a dream.
Dr. Gordon Sato spent part of his childhood in the Manzanar Internment Camp during WWII, and later became a scientist. He created the Manzanar Project, which found a way to use mangrove trees to provide fuel and food for communities in Eritrea. With alternating verse and prose passages, The Mangrove Tree invites readers to discover how Dr. Gordon Sato’s mangrove tree-planting project transformed an impoverished village into a self-sufficient community.
Wangari Maathai was the first African woman and environmentalist to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Seeds of Change brings to life her empowering story, from her childhood in Kenya to her role leading a national movement.
Vivien Thomas was an African-American surgical technician who developed the procedures used to treat blue baby syndrome. Overcoming racism and resistance from his colleagues, Vivien ushered in a new era of medicine—children’s heart surgery. This book is the compelling story of this incredible pioneer in medicine.
Muhammad Yunus is an economist from Bangladesh who founded Grameen Bank and pioneered the concepts of microcredit and microfinance, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty-two Cents is an inspiring story of economic innovation and a celebration of how one person—like one small loan—can make a positive difference in the lives of many.
LEE & LOW BOOKS celebrates its 25th anniversary this year! To recognize how far the company has come, we are featuring one title a week to see how it is being used in classrooms today and hear from the authors and illustrators.
Today, we are celebrating Chess Rumble, which explores the ways this strategic game empowers young people with the skills they need to anticipate and calculate their moves through life.
Synopsis: In Marcus’s world, battles are fought everyday—on the street, at home, and in school. Angered by his sister’s death and his father’s absence, and pushed to the brink by a bullying classmate, Marcus fights back with his fists.
One punch away from being kicked out of school and his home, Marcus encounters CM, an unlikely chess master who challenges him to fight his battles on the chess board. Guarded and distrusting, Marcus must endure more hard lessons before he can accept CM’s help to regain control of his life.
Awards and Honors:
Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, American Library Association (ALA)
Notable Books in the Language Arts, National Council of Teachers of English
Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, International Reading Association (IRA)
Top Picks for Reluctant Readers, BoysRead.org
G. Neri, an award-winning filmmaker whose work has earned him several honors. Inspired by his editor, Jennifer Fox, who had wanted to do an urban chess story for years and finally saw the possibility of making it come to life through him, Neri dove into the project with unbridled enthusiasm. “I loved the idea of using chess strategy as a way to approach life. I had dealt with a few teens who had come from troubled pasts and had difficulty finding an outlet for their inner struggle. So the idea of pairing a kid like this with a chess mentor who did not back down came naturally. It was a very organic process, and I let the characters tell me their stories.”
Neri hopes that readers will come away from Chess Rumble “think[ing] about their lives and the choices they make before they make them.” Pressed to continue, Neri says, “I hope they are intrigued to play chess, and maybe start thinking about acting on, instead of reacting to, negative situations. Acting considers what can happen if you make one choice versus another. Reacting just responds impulsively to the problem instead of thinking ahead three steps and maybe making a better choice.”
After the success of the first #DVpit event in April, #DVpit is back for another round of Twitter pitching fun on October 5th and 6th! If you’re unfamiliar with this event, #DVpit is a Twitter pitch contest created to showcase pitches by marginalized voices and help connect them to agents and editors.
While the number of diverse books is increasing, the number of new diverse authors entering the field remains low. Significant barriers remain for authors of color, Native authors, disabled authors, and other marginalized voices. With that in mind, we are excited to share information on this special Twitter event! The information below is cross-posted with permission from literary agent Beth Phelan’s #DVpit website.
A Twitter Pitching Event, Hosted + Moderated by Beth Phelan
October 5, 2016: 8AM – 8PM ET for Children’s and Teen Fiction/Nonfiction
October 6, 2016: 8AM – 8PM ET for Adult Fiction/Nonfiction
What is #DVpit?
#DVpit is a Twitter event created to showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices. This includes (but is not limited to): Native peoples and people of color; people living and/or born/raised in underrepresented cultures and countries; disabled persons; people with illness; people on marginalized ends of the socioeconomic, cultural and/or religious spectrum; people identifying as LGBTQIA+; and more.
The first #DVpit took place on April 19, 2016 and was a national trending hashtag. There have been over 15 authors signed by agents as a direct result of this event so far, with editors from small to mid-size to Big Five publishers requesting to receive the manuscripts at submission stage.
#DVpit was covered by Bustle, Salon, YA Interrobang, and multiple blog sites like Lee & Low Blog and Daily Dahlia.
The event was created and is moderated by Beth Phelan, a literary agent at the Bent Agency.
When is the next #DVpit?
#DVpit will occur over two days. Please make sure you are pitching your work on the appropriate day; many of the agents and editors will only tune in on a specific day, to see the pitches in the categories they represent/acquire.
October 5th will be for Children’s & Teen Fiction/Nonfiction (picture books, chapter books, graphic novel, middle grade, young adult).
October 6th will be for Adult Fiction/Nonfiction (all genres, commercial and literary).
The event will run on each day from 8AM ET until 8PM ET using the hashtag #DVpit on both days.
What kind of work can you submit?
The participating agents and editors will be looking for a variety of work, including all categories of fiction for adults, teens, and children, as well as nonfiction—as long as they qualify per the description here.
Please only pitch your completed, unpublished manuscripts.
How do you submit?
The event will be broken up over two days, one for Children’s & Teen Fiction/Nonfiction (October 5) and the other for Adult Fiction/Nonfiction (October 6). Please make sure that you pitch on the appropriate day.
Your pitch must fit the 140-character max, and must also include the hashtag #DVpit.
Please try to include category and/or genre hashtags as well.
We will trust that your pitch is for a diverse book / you are a diverse author, but if you want a quick way to make the diversity in your work more apparent in your short pitch (and you can fit a few more characters), I also encourage you to include an abbreviation as an easier way to get that information across. Examples: OWN (to suggest #ownvoices), POC, LGBT, DIS (disability), IMM (immigration), etc. These codes are up to you—I’m in no place to judge or police how, or even if, you label your experience. Please remember they are optional. You will *not* be at a disadvantage if you don’t include them! If you do want to add, please make the abbreviation as clear and straightforward as possible for our agents/editors.
Please pitch no more than once per hour. You may use the same pitch, or shake things up by using different pitches for the same project. You may pitch more than one project at a time, as long as they are completed and unpublished.
Please do not tweet-pitch the agents/editors directly!
The event will run from 8:00AM ET until 8:00PM ET, so please only tweet your pitches during that block of time, on the appropriate day.
What happens next?
Agents/editors will “like” your pitch if they’d like to see material from you, so please don’t “like” other authors’ pitches. Please also do not retweet. To show support, you can always reply or quote-tweet with compliments.
Each agent/editor will have their own preferences for receiving submissions, so if you get a “like” from someone, please refer to their Twitter feed to see what they ask for, and how you can contact them.
All of these agents/editors are invested in finding more marginalized voices, so if you’re comfortable with it (and ONLY if you are comfortable with it), I encourage you to self-identify in your query, or just simply let us know that the story and/or character(s) reflect your own experience (or even in your pitch if you have the space and the inclination).
If you see that multiple agents/editors from the same company have “liked” your pitch, please contact them directly for their policy on multiple submissions, or reach out to me and I will be happy to find out for you.
Keep in mind that many agents/editors will get sidetracked with their usual work or unexpected crises and may have to revisit the feed after the event is over. So don’t be surprised if you receive “likes” after the period closes!
Our own Stacy Whitman, publisher of our Tu Books imprint, will be participating again this round. So get those pitches ready for October 5th!
If you need help with your pitch, check out these helpful resources here.
Just as there were no real women on Shakespeare's stage, there were no Jews, Africans, Muslims, or Hispanics either. Even Harold Bloom, who praises Shakespeare as 'the greatest Western poet' in The Western Canon, and who rages against academic political correctness, regards The Merchant of Venice as antisemitic. In 2014 the satirist Jon Stewart responded to Shakespeare's 'stereotypically, grotesquely greedy Jewish money lender' more bluntly.
Before my big move to the publishing industry, I worked in the corporate world of fashion and apparel (and a small stint in home furnishings). There were many times when I’d look forward to seeing what new styles would pop up on the runway during NYC Fashion Week. I’d even spend my lunch breaks gazing at every single design captured perfectly by photographers at the right moment. I knew in my head that most, if not all, those pieces I probably wouldn’t wear (and let’s be honest could never even afford), but anyone can dream.
When looking for the perfect piece to add to my wardrobe I’d mainly resort to stores that actually fit my price point including one of my favorites––Uniqlo. From their simple, yet modern designs to their commitment to quality and longevity, I knew that Uniqlo was the perfect place for me to shop and satisfy my need for stylish and affordable clothing.
Recently, Uniqlo, in collaboration with UK fashion designer Hana Tajima, introduced an entire collection featuring kebayas, headwraps, and hijabs. The Uniqlo website says, “From casual pieces including long, flowing skirts, tapered ankle-length pants, and blouses to more traditional wear like kebaya and hijab, this collection fuses contemporary design and comfortable fabrics with traditional values.”
Rarely have I seen a collection from an apparel company of Uniqlo’s size that directly serves anyone other than the mainstream demographic. And what I appreciate the most is that this collection was done with grace and respect.
Over the years, I’ve seen designers co-opt traditional pieces from other cultures to incorporate into their lines. One can argue that many of these designers have and still continue to appropriate aspects of different cultures in order to look edgy and daring while reaping the benefits of accolades and praise for their “newly inventive” designs. But there’s a huge difference between taking from one’s culture in order to make oneself look edgy, daring, or “exotic,” and serving a community with respect, dignity, and keeping the customers’ needs and values in mind.
Other companies including Oakley and Warby Parker have featured collections that are also designed to serve a specific demographic. A few years ago, Oakley introduced the Asian Fit collection, which Jason Low wrote about here, and recently, my favorite eyewear company, Warby Parker, came out with a Low Bridge Fit collection for “those with low nose bridges (if the bridge of your nose sits level with or below the pupils), wide faces, and/or high cheekbones.” Even Warby Parker’s ad for this collection features only models of color, something that I rarely ever see in the fashion world.
So what does this have to do with the publishing industry and Lee & Low Books?
In the publishing industry in particular, there seems to be this common thread that pops up from conversations regarding diversity and serving marginalized groups. We hear that books (and movies) with nonwhite protagonists “do not fit the mainstream” or “do not sell well.” This is unfortunately why we have such a huge diversity gap in children’s publishing. But what about the opportunities that are missed from ignoring entire demographics? Who’s to say that you can’t serve both? Marginalized readers deserve to see their experiences, their communities, their stories, properly represented in the books that they read and the media that they consume.
That’s why at Lee & Low Books we publish books about everyone, for everyone. Because everyone, no matter who they are, deserves to see themselves in books. Everyone deserves to know that their story matters. Everyone deserves to be properly represented––in books, in movies, in fashion, and in life.
We’re excited to share that we will be partnering with local businesses, organizations, and community members for a bone marrow donor registry drive this Saturday, November 21 from 2pm to 4 pm at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem, New York City.
The drive will highlight an issue of major importance within the multiracial community: the lack of bone marrow donor matches. For patients diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases, a bone marrow transplant may be their best or only hope for a cure. Yet 70% of patients who need a transplant to do not have a matched donor in their family, and for multiracial people, finding a match can be especially hard.
That’s because bone marrow donors must be extremely genetically similar to recipients. As this Time Magazine article explains,
Compared to organ transplants, bone marrow donations need to be even more genetically similar to their recipients. Though there are exceptions, the vast majority of successful matches take place between donors and patients of the same ethnic background. Since all the immune system’s cells come from bone marrow, a transplant essentially introduces a new immune system to a person. Without genetic similarity between the donor and the patient, the new white blood cells will attack the host body. In an organ transplant, the body can reject the organ, but with marrow, the new immune system can reject the whole body.
Because Caucasians make up the majority of people in the donor registry, Caucasian patients often have the best chance of finding a match. Chances for patients from other ethnicities can be as low as one in four. But chances for multiracial patients are often the lowest of all, with only 3% of registered donors self-identifying as multiracial or mixed race.
Becoming a potential bone marrow donor is quick and easy: all it involves is a simple cheek swab. Donors are then added to the bone marrow registry database–the larger the database, the more likely that every patient can find a match.
If you’re in or near New York City, we hope you will come out and join us! Here are the details:
Saturday, November 21, 2015
2pm – 4 pm
WHERE: La Casa Azul Bookstore 143 E. 103rd Street New York, NY 10029
The first 50 donors will receive a multiracial crayon pack in appreciation for their support!
About the Sponsors:
Be the Match has a registry of nearly 12.5 million volunteers ready to be life-saving bone marrow donors. Because there are patients who can’t find a match, Be the Match encourages more people to join the registry and to be there when they are called as a match.
Project RACE advocates for multiracial children, multiracial adults, and their families primarily through education and community awareness. It supports policies that make a positive impact on people of multiracial heritage at local, state, and national levels. Project RACE is active in the effort to find bone marrow donors for multiracial people and sponsors countless donor registry drives throughout the United States.
La Casa Azul Bookstore is an independent community bookstore located in East Harlem that seeks to raise community awareness and political consciousness on issues affecting East Harlem residents.
Lee & Low Books is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country. It is also one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in the United States.
Alex Barnett is a comic and writer from New York City. He also is the host of the podcast Multiracial Family Man that explores issues of concern to multiracial people and families.
2016 is the second year in a row that all the 20 nominees in the acting categories for the Oscars are all white. This prompted the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite created by April Reign to resurface. While television has started to become more diverse, this still isn’t reflected other media.
While the news media may cover this year’s Oscars Diversity Gap as a new issue, the truth is that discrimination toward artists of color is as old as America. Historically, performers of color were often unable to find places in the United States to perform and hone their talent. Ultimately, many of these performers had to leave America in order to be able to perform, and often found great success and acclaim in Europe, Russia, and other parts of the world. Here are just a few:
Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, written by Glenda Armand and illustrated by Floyd Cooper – Ira Aldridge dreams of performing Shakespeare’s plays. He journeys to England to realize his dreams.
Ira Aldridge was born in New York in 1807. As a child, he attended the African Free School. While a teenager, he acted with the African Grove Theater, performing plays for mostly black audiences. At the time, black actors were not allowed to perform for white audiences onstage – or even to share the same theaters. Eventually, Ira traveled to England in order to pursue his dream to act in Shakespeare’s plays. Even in England, he encountered resistance from critics saying he shouldn’t play roles that were meant for white actors. Yet Ira persevered, and became the first black actor to play the coveted role of Othello on the English state. Ira traveled around Europe performing Shakespeare’s plays, and was especially well-received in Russia and Prussia, where he was knighted. Despite never being able to return to the United States, Ira would often preach about the evils of slavery after his plays and raise money for abolitionist causes.
Shining Shar: The Anna May Wong Story, written by Paula Yoo and illustrated by Lin Wang – The true story of Chinese American film star Anna May Wong, whose trail-blazing career in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s broke new ground for future generations of Asian American actors.
During the time that Anna May Wong rose to acting fame, most movies that portrayed Asian characters used white actors in yellowface. Anna May got her start as an extra in a film near where she lived. Later, Anna May was cast in many supporting roles where she caught the public eye. But even with fame and success, many of the roles offered to Anna May were racial stereotypes Chinese people. Tired of portraying stereotypes, Anna May journeyed to Europe, where she had supporting roles in films like Piccadilly. In 1935, Anna May lost the role of O-lan in The Good Earth to Luise Rainer. The United States had laws that would prevent Anna May from sharing an onscreen kiss with a white actor. Pearl S. Buck, the author of The Good Earth wanted the film to be cast with an all Chinese cast, but was told that American audiences weren’t ready for such a film.
Later, Anna May journeyed to China, and she vowed to never play another racial stereotype. In 1951, she starred in the first TV show to star an Asian American actor, The Gallery of Madam Liu-Tsong.
Unfortunately, stereotypes still permeate television and film. Many actors of color have had the experience of casting directors asking them to play up racial or ethnic stereotypes.
Other books about American performers who found success outside the US:
Give Me Wings, by Kathy Lowinger – After Ella Sheppard enters Fisk Free Colored School (later Fisk University), she becomes a founding member of the Jubilee Singers, in order to raise funds for the school. They traveled around the United States and Europe introducing audiences to spirituals.
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson: This book follows the life of Josephine Baker, who was raised in the slums of St. Louis. Later, she found great success in Europe as a dancer and actress.
Please check out the following posts in the Ira’s Shakespeare Dream blog tour:
By now it’s no secret that publishing suffers from a major lack of diversity problem. Thanks to years of research by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, we have ample data to confirm what many readers have always suspected: the number of diverse books published each year over the past twenty years has been stuck in neutral, never exceeding, on average, 10 percent.
Countless panels, articles, and even conferences have been dedicated to exploring the causes and effects of this lack of diversity. Yet one key piece of the puzzle remained a question mark: diversity among publishing staff. While the lack of diversity among publishing staff was often spoken about, there was very little hard data about who exactly works in publishing.
At the beginning of 2015 we decided to conduct a survey to establish a baseline that would measure the amount of diversity among publishing staff. We believed in the power of hard numbers to illuminate a problem that can otherwise be dismissed or swept under the rug. We felt that having hard numbers released publicly would help publishers take ownership of the problem and increase accountability. We also felt that a baseline was needed to measure whether or not initiatives to increase diversity among publishing staff were actually working.
Our Diversity Baseline Survey took a year to complete. The results include responses from 8 review journals and 34 publishers of all sizes from across North America. Here are the results:
Methodology and Response Rate
The Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) was sent to 1,524 reviewer employees and 11,713 publishing employees for a total of 13,237 surveys deployed. The response rate was 25.8 percent. This is on par with the average for online surveys and actually a bit higher than the norm, given the sensitive nature of the questions.
In 2015, Publishers Weekly included some staff diversity questions in their annual Salary and Compensation Survey. They deployed their survey to 5,800 subscribers and had a response rate of 7.3 percent. Therefore, the DBS should yield a much more comprehensive picture of diversity in the publishing community.
The DBS was deployed directly from each publisher or review journal. A link was sent to all staff from a member of each publisher’s or reviewer journal’s human resources or executive team, often with an introduction explaining why the company was participating. Some companies even wanted to add additional questions to their surveys. The results provided here are only for questions that appeared in every survey.
The surveys were completely anonymous, and companies did not have direct access to the results. All data was analyzed and aggregated by Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen and Nicole Catlin of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, to ensure anonymity for individual employees.
Although our response rate was good, we still wonder: who didn’t take the survey, and how might that influence the results? With a survey of this kind, there is most likely some degree of selection bias. In other words, people who self-identify as diverse may have been more likely to take the survey. If that was the case, it would mean that our results portray publishing as more diverse than it actually is.
No voluntary survey can ever be 100 percent accurate, and no survey that asks questions about personal identity can ever be anything but voluntary. Even so, the results of the DBS offer a strong snapshot of the makeup of the publishing industry.
Notes and Analysis: What the Numbers Tell Us
According to the survey, just under 80 percent of publishing staff and review journal staff are white. The rest are comprised of Asians/Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (7.2 percent), Hispanics/Latinos/Mexicans (5.5 percent), Black/African Americans (3.5 percent), and biracial/multiracial people (2.7 percent). Native Americans (0.5 percent), and Middle Easterners (0.8 percent) of publishing staff.
While all racial/ethnic minorities are underrepresented when compared to the general US population, the numbers show that some groups, such as Black/African Americans, are more severely underrepresented. This mirrors trends among children’s book authors. In 2014, just 2 percent of the books tracked by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center were by black authors. Latinos were similarly underrepresented in both places.
Creating the list of ethnicities for a survey such as this was a real challenge. The racial breakdown we offered was based on the US census, with a few adjustments. For our first survey, we felt that this was the best way to break things down because it presented familiar categories that respondents had seen before.
But no list can accurately depict the complexity of this question. Within each category, there are so many different groups, and people self-identify in a wide variety of ways. The census groups White Americans, European Americans, and Middle Eastern Americans together. The census is not quite sure what to do with Latino and Hispanic people, who may or may not identify as white. And it certainly does not know how to handle the differences among Asians, Pacific Islanders, and South Asians.
We received more than 50 write-in comments for this question from people who did not feel that any of the options offered adequately represented them. Some identified as Jewish or European instead of white. Many specified that they were South Asian and didn’t feel that the overall Asian category was specific enough. And several simply called themselves “Human” and wondered why we cared so much about this. One block of data was compromised when the survey link was shared with outside spammers, which made a portion of the surveys ineligible for inclusion. These incidents and answers are all telling because they allude to the wide scope of attitudes toward this issue and how deeply the question of race resonates with people, in both positive and negative ways.
The survey reveals that publishing is about 78.2 percent women or cis-women and 20.6 percent men or cis-men. These numbers may help explain why some feel that children’s book publishing skews toward female readers. Among executive and board member positions this disparity evened out a bit, with approximately 40 percent of executives and board members identifying as men or cis-men. This reflects the reality that males still ascend to positions of power more often, even in female-dominated industries.
The gender question also reveals that about 98.7 percent of publishing staff identify as cis men or women. This means that they identify with the genders they were assigned at birth. How does this compare with the general population? We don’t really know. For many reasons, we don’t have a good count of the percentage of the general population that is transgender. That being said, the small number of transgender, gender-nonconforming, intersex, and other gender-fluid people in publishing points to the need for publishers to make sure that books on these topics are being examined for cultural and scientific accuracy by experts before they are published.
According to the survey, about 88.2 percent of publishing staff identify as straight or heterosexual. This may be the category in which publishing is most on par with the general population, though we can’t know for sure.
Beyond the labels we offered, many respondents added their own labels that they felt better represented them. Quite a few identified as “queer.” Others wanted to know why we were asking for such personal information at all. Overall, this question got one of the lowest response rates of the survey, an indication, perhaps, that many people did not feel comfortable sharing this information. We decided to include this question because we wanted to acknowledge this aspect of diversity, and if we didn’t include it, this segment of the workforce would remain uncounted and invisible.
The survey reveals that about 7.6 percent of publishing staff identify as having a disability. We defined disability broadly in the survey, so this does not give us an indication of the types of disabilities that are represented.
One interesting result: when broken down by department, design had a significantly higher average rate of disability (18 percent), followed by book reviewers (12 percent). Perhaps this is because there are more freelance design and reviewer jobs that can be done from home even when mobility is limited. Providing opportunities to people with disabilities may be an underappreciated benefit of creating more freelance positions in publishing.
The DBS results offer the opportunity to filter responses by department, giving a better picture of how diversity breaks out throughout an organization. More than one hundred thirty people wrote in comments for this question, listing departments or sub-departments beyond those listed in the survey. Because the survey was administered to companies ranging from just a few employees to several hundred or more, some departments or roles were left out. The next version of the survey will have an expanded list that is more inclusive to account for some of the staff who had to write in departments this time around.
An interesting result was the high response rate from editorial staff, who made up nearly 20 percent of survey respondents. This compares to less than 10 percent of respondents from marketing/publicity and 13.5 percent from sales. Since these ratios do not seem to match the overall breakdown by departments in publishing, we wonder if staff in some departments, such as editorial, were more likely than others to respond. If so, why? Are editorial staffs more on board with diversity initiatives than staff in other departments?
Here are the numbers:
Board Members and Executive Positions
Without a doubt, board members and those in executive positions make up the highest level of decision makers on the corporate ladder. Board members and executive positions are: 86 percent white, 59 percent cis-women, 89 percent heterosexual, and 96 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Editorial is the next most important department when it comes to the in-house staff closest to generating actual books. Editorial staff is: 82 percent white, 84 percent cis-women, 86 percent heterosexual, and 92 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Marketing and Publicity
These are the departments that promote the books. Staff members in marketing and publicity are: 77 percent white, 84 percent cis-women, 87 percent heterosexual, and 94 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Members of the sales team are the ones out there pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to sell front list and back list titles. Sales people are: 83 percent white, 77 percent cis-women, 90 percent heterosexual, and 94 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Reviewers often have a direct influence on what readers buy. Reviewers are: 89 percent white, 87 percent cis-women, 91 percent heterosexual, and 88 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Does the lack of diverse books closely correlate to the lack of diverse staff? The percentages, while not exact, are proportional to how the majority of books look nowadays—predominately white. Cultural fit would seem to be relevant here. Or at least in publishing’s case, 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.
So, we have our baseline numbers. What are the next moves? In future posts we will discuss initiatives already in place that will hopefully move the needle toward more diversity. We will also look at a similar publishing diversity survey that was conducted in 2014 in the United Kingdom. And we will be working on designing DBS version 2.0, which we hope will include the publishers who either didn’t hear about the survey or opted out the first time.
We also hope that the DBS will lead to more “Diversity 102” conversations about what publishers can do, including improving retention and staff training. How can company cultures be more welcoming for diverse staff? Do diverse staff members feel comfortable voicing their opinions? Are systems in place to make sure all staff are trained and well versed in diversity issues?
Publishing is not alone when it comes to having a lack of diversity problem. All media, including film, television, and theater, are having similar conversations about diversity. It is plain to see that our society as a whole has a problem. We believe we are at a crucial time right now. We all have to decide if the country in which we live is better off if we conduct our lives separately or together. The diversity problem is not the responsibility of diverse people to solve. It is a problem for everyone to solve. Now that the Diversity Baseline Survey is completed, the real work toward changing the status quo begins. It is not going to be easy. Knowing where we stand and establishing a baseline was the first step. Knowing the baseline numbers gives us a way to measure progress going forward, but only our actions can change things for the better.
The month of February is a time when many communities pause and celebrate the great contributions made by African Americans in history. At Lee & Low we like to not only highlight African Americans who have made a difference, but also explore the diverse experiences of black culture throughout history, from the struggle for freedom in the South and the fight for civil rights to the lively rhythms of New Orleans jazz and the cultural explosion of the Harlem Renaissance.
We put together a list of titles – along with additional resources – that align with 7 core values and
themes to help you celebrate both Black History Month and African American culture all 365 days of the year.
It’s important to remember that heritage months, like Black History Month, can encourage a practice of pulling diverse books that feature a particular observed culture for only one month out of the year. To encourage a more everyday approach, we developed an 8-step checklist for building an inclusive book collection that reflects the diversity of the human experience. Teaching Tolerance also offers some helpful solutions to connect multicultural education with effective instructional practices and lists insightful “dos and don’ts” for teaching black history that are applicable to any culturally responsive curriculum or discussion.
How do you celebrate during Black History Month? Or, better yet, how do you help children discover the cultural contributions and achievements of black history all year long? Let us know in the comments!
Veronicahas a degree from Mount Saint Mary College and joined LEE & LOW in the fall of 2014. She has a background in education and holds a New York State childhood education (1-6) and students with disabilities (1-6) certification. When she’s not wandering around New York City, you can find her hiking with her dog Milo in her hometown in the Hudson Valley, NY.
It’s been just over a month since the results of our Diversity Baseline Survey came out, quantifying diversity among the book publishing workforce. Since then, we’ve been thrilled to see the many turns that this conversation has taken: different ways of considering the problem, different ways of interpreting the data, different solutions offered. Here are ten of our favorite responses that offer thoughtful commentary and ideas on how to look at the problem of diversity in publishing from a new angle:
“’Just because you are a woman, that doesn’t make you an expert in the marginalization that people of color face or people with disabilities face,’ says Ehrlich. ‘Do not assume that because women are successful or are in positions of power that it means that success or power will automatically be offered out or shared with other marginalized groups.’
That sentiment is echoed by Tamara Winfrey Harris, the Indianapolis, Indiana–based author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America.
‘Straight, white, cis-women are as susceptible to bias as anyone else. Bias toward our own experiences is sadly human. And racism, sexism, and other ‘isms’ are sadly an ongoing feature of our society,’ says Winfrey Harris. ‘So, if we want the universe of books to reflect the rich diversity of humanity, then the publishing industry must proactively work toward looking like humanity rather than a privileged slice of it, as well as making a real effort to find and nurture projects by writers with varied backgrounds.’”
“As Kait Howard, a publicist at Melville House, points out, male representation increases to 40 percent at the executive levels of publishing, suggesting that men and women are still being promoted at different rates. A Publisher’s Weekly survey last year also found that the pay gap persists, citing an average salary of $70,000 for men versus $51,000 for women. In other words, while white women have clearly amassed a great deal of power in publishing, that power is in many cases concentrated at the lower and middle levels of the ranks, suggesting it’s too soon to declare total hegemony. But the survey is an essential, depressing reminder of the extent to which the feminist movement has swept in new opportunities for primarily straight, white, and affluent women while excluding others, especially women of color.”
“‘I think the biggest thing is: What is your comfort zone as an editor? What are the stories that you feel are your speciality? Your expertise — often it’s not going to be across race,’ de la Pena said. ‘With my case, in 2005, I had a Caucasian editor who said: ‘I want this book on my list.’ So she took a great risk.’
Dahlen said the issue extends further, into libraries. Librarians play a key role in deciding which books to stock and which to promote to readers, but librarians are still a ‘fairly homogenous’ group.
‘If we are a fairly homogenous profession, how do we know the books we are evaluating are or are not authentic?’ Dahlen said.”
“Diversity does not mean that women should dominate, any more than it means that men should dominate. Diversity means that we need to share power, share advantages, share opportunities and wages and respect and cultural development together. Parity, while it will always be elusive in its purest state, is the goal of actual diversity: hegemony for no one.”–Charlotte Abbott
“But there’s no ‘white guy shelf.’ There’s no ‘Lads Who Write About Gentrified Brooklyn’ shelf. And every author needs the space to write about things other than their identity moniker ascribed and recognized by wider society. We need to actively expunge the premise that the only [identity] writer on the list can write about [identity] and nothing else. I think this is a fundamental right for the life of a writer.”–Linda Z., Literary Agent
“I worked at a library and there are a lot of gatekeepers that are not those grumpy dudes from the Muppets. Everyone just needs to investigate themselves. White supremacy and the heteropatriarchy are pervasive. Even down to librarians and the people on residency committees: maybe at the top there’s a white man but there’s also a lot of white women. This is controversial to say but white women need to look at themselves. Equality can’t just stop when you get in. It can’t be trickle down. It feels that way. ‘Wait a minute when we get everything settled, then we’ll bring more of you up.’”—Angela Flournoy, novelist, The Turner House
“You will be tokenized. Even when you get to write about your own experience of being a minority in America—you know, even that can be turned against you. Are you going to be used later on as leverage against an accusation of racism? Will you then be seen as a collaborator? In most cases the answer is yes.
Hiring is a crucial step, but it is reformist. It’s not going to really fix anything, just sand off the rough edges, right? Because there is far more concern about appearing racist rather than not doing racist things. It’s not just a publishing thing. What else can I say but dismantle capitalism? And I don’t know that anything radical enough to do that wouldn’t hurt a lot of the people that we are trying to save. Barring world historical change, I don’t see really anything happening but a new paint job. It is systemic racism for a reason, it’s so essentially wound up with the system upon which everything is built. You can ameliorate it. You can palliate it. But you can’t cure it. This is what I sound like when I’m optimistic.” —Tony Tulathimutte, novelist, Private Citizens
“Despite the challenges, we’ve seen some excellent progress. Anecdotally, I can tell you we’ve recruited over 150 new reviewers, many of them from a rich diversity of backgrounds. We’ve reached out to organizations like REFORMA and local chapters of the Black Caucus to recruit new reviewers. We created a website, forum, and a monthly newsletter for SLJ reviewers, which contains resources, training material, and best practices with a large focus on how to evaluate literature with an eye towards diversity and representation. We hold monthly online chats with our reviewers, often using those informal discussions as a way to talk about diversity and evaluation of literature. And, this summer, editor Shelley Diaz (recently promoted to lead the SLJ reviews team), will be organizing a free online course for reviewers centered on examining how we look at ‘diverse books,’ how we recognize our own blinders or prejudices when it comes to book evaluation, and how we clearly articulate both praise and criticism in professional reviews.” – Kiera Parrott, School Library Journal
“People of color can effort all they can to get published and to change this industry, but the change has to come from within the dominating white culture first. White editors, agents, marketing teams, and executives have to be willing to admit that they might not know what’s best for audiences they don’t understand or are not identified with. These people also have to open their eyes. It’s probably too kind to say that the lack of diversity in this year’s Academy Awards nominations line-up is a result of blindness. Seeing this year’s sea of white nominees makes Jackson’s use of the word ‘stupidity’ somehow seem tame.”–Brooke Warner, President, She Writes Press
“But for too many writers of color, it’s a herculean task just to get into a crowded auditorium where just one of those men might be lecturing, let alone being able to publicly claim those five literary lights as your professional support system. Merely getting to the point where your writing consciously panders to those kind of men would represent a victory of sorts. From the margins, the sound of writing sounds like nothing at all. You’re a mute in a black hole, hearing nothing but braying in your head.
The critique of institutional whiteness is everywhere now. However reluctantly, there is a growing awareness that it’s not just one professional venue but an entire cultural system that’s softly seeding doubt bombs in broody crevices where dark thoughts coalesce and swirl. A glass ceiling would be an improvement on this feeling of running everywhere into invisible electrical fences shrugged off as paranoid delusions by those who aren’t shocked every time they attempt pass through them. We regret that your manuscript is not a good fit. Of course we welcome the work of diverse writers, but please don’t revise and resubmit. We’re sorry, we already have one Black writer on our list. You’re Ojibwe? But we already have one Black writer on our list. How many times must I repeat this?”—Paula Young Lee
“Farhana Shaikh from Leicester-based publisher Dahlia, which focuses on diverse writing, agreed. ‘It’s been evident for too long that the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white here in the UK,’ she said. ‘The fact that things are no different in the US is unsurprising. As publishers, writers and editors we seem to have embraced technology to champion new voices and build links globally – and yet, as an industry we’ve failed to recognise the talent and potential emerging from these diverse communities. The industry is in a state of flux, print sales are down, and yet globally, markets like India are thriving. It’s time to stop talking, and start investing in creating a more equal balanced workforce which reflects the modern, multicultural society we’re living in.'”
What are we missing? Share your favorite links with us in the comments.
Acknowledging that they are certainly not the first to do so, four scientists, Michael Yudell, Dorothy Roberts, Rob Desalle, and Sarah Tishkoff recently called for the phasing out of the use of the concept/term “race” in biological science.
Many playwrights have explored race relations, particularly in America. The growth of the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to a range of plays protesting racism and exploring the African American experience. Lorraine Hansberry made history as the first black woman to have a play on Broadway: A Raisin in the Sun, also the first play on Broadway to be directed by a black director.
as a kid, got me interested in my own family's ancestry. Although, it wasn't until about 10 years ago, around the time my son was born, that I finally started digging on my mother's side of the family tree. If you've ever done any digging yourself you know how exciting and time consuming it can be, but in a short amount of time I made decent progress.
Then a couple of years ago, my aunt gave me these two portraits of my great-grandparents.I'm guessing the photos are about 100 years old.
Their daughter, my grandmother, Blanche, was born in either 1916 or 1917 so I estimate the photos were taken around then, give or take a few years. These portraits are a part of my family history. And until seeing them and delving into my family's ancestry online, it was a family history that I was not too sure actually existed let alone connected to a larger American history.
Part of what fuels my art (and illustration) is the desire to shine a light on those who have been forgotten by history, underrepresented or misrepresented. My goal is not to merely tell their stories but to reframe them and their lives. By reframing, I mean looking at people and events from a different vantage point and thereby changing the way we perceive them, reminding us that identity is perception and therefore malleable, not static. The first piece of work where I consciously used reframing was A Brief History of Sambo.
For me, the portraits of my great-grandparents suggest that they were people that mattered, even though their names may only be a small piece of a larger historical record. Often times African-American history is linked to the history of oppression, poverty, brutality and blight, as though they are all synonymous. In terms of success, names like CJ Walker, George Washington Carver and Frederick Douglas are important and familiar but by no means the whole story. There are countless people who we learn about during the 28 days of February, many who were part of the Civil-Rights Movement but still that's just a portion of the picture. Industries such as law, medicine, art, invention, publishing, hospitality, real estate and apparel are all areas where numerous African-Americans made a name for themselves. People like Arthur Gaston, Jeremiah G. Hamilton, John Coburn and Chloe Spear are just a few names but their success defies the perceived norm and that success was not confined to just one era but was a truth, for some, throughout the history of Blacks in America. Given the circumstances of how we arrived here, our presence in America today conveys a success that pervades all of American history.
Back to this week's piece. In the spirit of those industrious people who's stories remain untold (and the portraits of my great-grandparents), I created this week's piece-"Black Business 1890."
The portrait is of no one in particular and the date arbitrary but the objective of the piece is to emphasize my previous points. The print is 10x10" including 2" borders on all sides. Printed on heavyweight, ph-neutral, cold-press watercolor paper with archival inks. Just respond here or email me SeanQuallsStudio@gmail.com with Weekly Painting #9 in the subject if you would like one.
I apologize to anyone who has been waiting for these updates. It's been awhile, I know. I have more to share so stay tuned!
Oh,one more thing.
This Sunday, May 15th in Brooklyn,
I will be at the 5th Ave Street Fair, 5th Ave between 1st and 2nd Street in the artist area. I may have one or two proofs left of the Black Business 1890 and a Brief History of Sambo. Hope to see you!
From the US presidential candidates to the current situation in Europe, immigration is a hot topic. In our last blog post, we looked at the battle that’s currently going on in the Library of Congress over the term “illegal alien.” Many activists argue that the term is outdated, yet the Library of Congress chose to let it stand. In this guest post, Children’s Book Press author René Colato Laínez talks about his own experiences coming to the US from El Salvador and the label “illegal alien.”
At the 2016 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, librarians passed a resolution urging the Library of Congress to change the subject heading from “Illegal Aliens” to “Undocumented Immigrants.” As the author of the new picture book, Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre, I totally agree. Undocumented Immigrants is a better subject to describe the people who arrived from other countries to live and work in the United States. They are undocumented because they don’t have the right papers to come to this country via an airport or through a border checkpoint entrance. They are also immigrants because they were born in another country. So the term Undocumented Immigrant fits the status of this group of people.
The term “Illegal Aliens” definitely is confusing to many, just like it was to me. Yes, I was an Undocumented Immigrant, and when I arrived in this country, I was called an “Illegal Alien.”
Since I was a small child in my native country of El Salvador, I was taught by my family and teachers that I needed to be a good boy. Especially during that time! There was a civil war in my country. Teachers and priests had been killed and many people would disappear from one day to the next. It was a scary time to grow up, and I always tried to be a good boy.
One afternoon, my fifth grade teacher said, “Soon, you will be teenagers and you have to know that ‘illegal acts’ only take people to jail or the cemetery. You need to do only ‘legal things’ in order to be safe.” Then he asked the class to make a list of “illegal acts” and to write a promise that we would be good citizens to have a better society. In my list I included among other things that using drugs, stealing, and not following the rules were illegal acts. Then I proudly promised never to do anything illegal.
As a result of the civil war in the 1980’s, many Salvadoran families left the country looking for a better life and opportunities. My family was not the exception. My mother left the country at the beginning of the war. In 1985 it was my turn to come the United States.
Soon after I arrived, some children in my new school called all the children who only spoke Spanish “illegals.” I did not understand why they were calling us “illegals.” I asked my father and he explained to me that they called us that because we did not have the right papers to come in an airplane or through the bridge in Tijuana.
I began to understand the term, but it did not make sense to me. In my country only people who had money were able to get papers to come to the United States. Poor people like my family did not have the privilege to get these documents. I did not understand why it was illegal to escape a civil war to look for a better life and opportunities in a country that was safe from war.
As I learned English, I remember our social studies teacher asked us to read the newspapers to write class reports. It was there when I first encountered the term “Illegal Aliens.” I kept reading the article and discovered that people who arrived to this country without the right papers were not only illegals, but were aliens too.
Every night, after I saw the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, I remember looking at the stars wondering if there was life on another planet. It was the 1980’s and, like everyone, I loved that little alien who wanted to go home. When I saw the stars, I wondered if there were aliens like E.T. and how it would feel to be lost on another planet.
Imagine my surprise to learn that I was also an “alien” and that “aliens” were not only from outer space, but from other countries, too. The word “alien” could have more than one meaning—it was also a synonym for foreigner. But when I looked at both words, even though foreigner was a longer word and harder to pronounce in English, it sounded much better to me than alien. I touched my hands and looked at my face in the mirror. Yes, I spoke another language but I had a face, arms and body just like the other children at school. I did not look like a strange creature from out of space. But being an alien implied that I could not be like other “normal” persons, because I was so different from them.
Years later, thanks to the Amnesty Program in 1989, my family had the opportunity to obtain the right papers to live and work in the United States. When I got my pink resident card, I read the blue words at the top of the card: “RESIDENT ALIEN.” “Wow,” I said to myself, “I am now a resident, but I am still an alien!”
I became a teacher and I was assigned to a bilingual kindergarten/first grade classroom. All of my students spoke Spanish. Many of them were born in the United States and others were like me, from other countries. My goal as a teacher was to teach them to read and write, but also to teach them to be smart children who are proud to be bilingual. In the country where I grew up— and almost everywhere around the world!—speaking other languages and being bilingual is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, it is a wonderful achievement.
My goal as a children’s books author is to produce strong multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they see themselves as heroes, and where they dream and hope for the future. I wanted to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States.
These were the books that I had wanted to read when children called me “Illegal” at school.
In 2016, my newest picture book Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre will be published by Lee & Low Books. In the story, Sofía discovers a Big Secret. She finds a card that belongs to her mother. It has mamá’s picture and the word alien on top of the card. Sofía cannot believe it. Her mother is an alien.
Sofía feels just like me when I discovered that I was also an alien. I am excited that Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre will soon be in the hands of parents, teachers, librarians and children. In this book readers will find out in a humoristic way that we are all children of planet earth. There are no aliens among our families. We can be from different countries but are all human beings.
Come meet René Colato Laínez at ALA this year. He will be signing with LEE & LOW (Booth #1469), as well as participating in a REFORMA panel on bilingual books. You can see our full ALA schedule here.
About René Colato Laínez
Known as “the teacher full of stories,” René Colato Laínez is the Salvadoran author of more than a dozen picture books including ¡Vámonos! Let’s Go! (illustrated by Joe Cepeda, Holiday House), Señor Pancho Had a Rancho (illustrated by Elwood Smith, Holiday House), and The Tooth Fairy Meets El Raton Pérez, (illustrated by Tom Lintern, Random House). His new picture book, Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre (illustrated by Laura Lacamara) will be available this summer.
In 2015, René was awarded the Premios Actitud El Salvador Award. He has received many awards and honors including International Latino Book Award, The Américas Award Commended Title, International Reading Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and Tejas Star Book Award List.
René is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults and a faculty member of Sandra Cisneros Macondo Writers Group. He is a bilingual elementary teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School, one of Los Angeles Unified School District’s most innovative schools. He is also a columnist for LA BLOGA, the Latino literature blog and LOS BLOGUITOS the blog for children learning to speak Spanish. He has appeared on Univision and Telemundo, and is a regular participant at conferences and book festivals in the United States and Latin America.
Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas is the compelling story of Vivien Thomas, an African American surgical technician who developed the first procedure used to perform open-heart surgery on children. In this interview, author Gwendolyn Hooks discusses the legacy of this medical pioneer and what inspired her to write about a man whose research helped to save countless lives.
What inspired you to write about Vivien Thomas?
A friend’s grandson was diagnosed with tetralogy of Follet. She watched the movie Something the Lord Made which is the story of Vivien Thomas. She loaned me the movie and the rest is history! He is a hero. He did so much and so few know his name. I saw his portrait at Johns Hopkins Hospital and felt him saying “Tell my story.”
In what way is Vivien Thomas a relevant role model for young readers today?
Vivien is a strong role model for young people even after all these years. Sure he was disappointed and mad after he lost his money when his bank closed during the Great Depression. Vivien was tough and resilient. He put aside his college dreams and found a way to support himself. A door closed, but he opened another. I think one of his messages to young people would be to find that other door.
What did you find most surprising in your research of Thomas’s life?
Even as a young boy of 13, his mind was on his future. He worked afterschool and summers with his father. Other boys were playing sandlot baseball and I’m sure Vivien did on occasion, but he was passionate about earning money and putting it to good use. He bought his school clothes and deposited the rest in a savings account.
Is there a fact about Thomas that you didn’t get to put in the book?
Before Vivien found the job at Vanderbilt, he worked for a contractor. One time he had to repair a wooden floor. He repaired it, but it wasn’t his best work. His boss could tell where he laid the new wood and told him it wasn’t acceptable. Vivien did it over and the second time, it was seamless. He learned a lesson that day that he never forgot. Do your best work the first time. In medicine there might not be a second time.
The most painful parts of Tiny Stitches, for us, were the scenes in which Thomas encounters the injustices of racism in spite of his achievements. Why was it important for you to write about these realities, and what do you think young readers can learn from them?
I wanted readers to know he didn’t lead an easy and carefree life. Despite your intelligence and achievements, there are some who will never give you credit for it. It’s important to know who you are, what you are capable of and never let anyone tell you otherwise.
Vivien Thomas was not given the credit he deserved for his leadership in “blue baby” operations until 1971, how do you think Thomas must have felt once he received recognition?
He was overjoyed that the Old Hands Club asked him to sit for his formal portrait (the one in Johns Hopkins Hospital) and planned a formal recognition ceremony. That and the honorary degree, the faculty appointment were all appreciated by Vivien. He had such a generous spirit. I’ve talked with a former surgical resident who remembers his generous spirit even after his contributions were ignored. I think it’s only human to feel discouraged, but those feelings did not deflate his love of research.
What advice would you have for young readers about following their dreams in spite of obstacles?
If an obstacle is placed in your path, veer left or right, but keep going. Keep stretching and moving forward. Read books, especially biographies, and learn how others did it. Vivien prepared himself for his dream. He was an excellent student. Study. Join organizations in your school or community. This is a perfect way to learn about careers you never knew existed and perhaps find a mentor.
What do you hope readers will take away from Vivien Thomas’ story?
I hope readers and especially young ones will remember that dreams and goals can change, but your life won’t if you don’t go after new ones. If Vivien did it with all that was set against him, you can do it now.
Learn more about Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomashere.
Gwendolyn Hudson Hooks was born in Savannah, Georgia. Her father was in the Air Force, so Gwen and her family moved a lot when she was a child. Her first stop in every new city was the local library where she got her new library card. Gwendolyn is the author of many books, including Bebop Books’ Can I Have a Pet? and Lee & Low’s Tiny Stitches. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children. Visit her online at gwendolynhooks.com.
It’s August and with the New Voices Award deadline approaching in just seven weeks, participating writers may be starting to feel the heat. No sweat! The New Voices Award blog post series has got you covered from the summer sun of stress.
At this stage, you’ve probably got your cover letter and story written down. You’ve also read July’s post on the importance of voice in a story and made your narrative even more engaging to readers. Congrats! That’s two essential checks on the New Voices To-do list –but don’t seal the envelope just yet! Now that your story is down it’s time to begin the revision process.
Revision is an important part of the writing experience. It’s about revisiting what you’ve written, identifying what needs to be strengthened, and rewriting to improve your story. Every writer’s revision process is different so to provide some guidance we interviewed two New Voices Award Winners, Linda Boyden (The Blue Roses) and Jennifer Torres (Finding the Music/ En pos de la musica), about how their revision processes helped them prepare their stories for the New Voices Award.
What inspired you to write your story? Did you write it specifically for the New Voices Award, or was it something you were working on already?
Linda Boyden: In 1978 my maternal grandfather, Edward Dargis, passed away. I was about to have my last baby and couldn’t attend his funeral 3,000 miles away. Until I went to college, we had lived in the same neighborhood and were very close. He worked at a factory but was happiest in his garden. A few nights after he passed, he came to me in a dream. He stood in a beautiful flower garden, and like Rosalie’s Papa his face was “smooth, not wrinkled.” In the dream he told me to stop grieving because he was happy. From that point on I knew I needed to write this story as a gentle way to broach a tough topic.
Many years later when my husband’s company moved us to Maui, I left teaching and decided to follow my dream of becoming a writer. I enrolled in a community college writing course. The instructor assigned us the task of writing 1,000 words a week so the first draft of The Blue Roses was actually homework! When he returned it he commented, “I wanted to like Rosalie more, but I couldn’t.” That hurt so I put the manuscript away. Months later I rethought and revisited. By the time I learned of Lee & Low’s New Voices Award, the manuscript had been through a few revisions. After winning, it went through a few more with my careful editors, Laura Atkins and Louise May.
Jennifer Torres: Finding the Music was inspired by my own childhood—growing up in a noisy family, being close to my grandparents and their stories, hearing mariachi music playing in the background of weddings, birthday parties and other special celebrations. It was also inspired by stories I covered as a newspaper reporter: one, an obituary for a farm worker who gave free mariachi lessons to neighborhood kids on his time off, and another about the sense of community that grew around the mariachi program at Cesar Chavez High School in Stockton, California. I started working on the book long before I learned about the New Voices Award. After researching publishers, I knew I wanted to submit my manuscript to Lee & Low. I went to the website to learn more about the company and to review submission guidelines—that’s when I discovered the award.
What does your revision process look like? At what point in your writing process do you begin making changes?
LB: I write at a certain time every day. When working on a picture book, I rough it out on paper and revisit the next morning. I revise the previous work then create new. Next day, repeat. When it’s almost “good” I print it, read it aloud, and revise more. I love the process: revision is the heart of writing.
JT: I always catch myself wanting to revise as I go, making changes today on what I wrote yesterday. But I try to resist! It’s too easy for me to get hung up on small details that way. I think I do much better work when I’m revising a finished draft. I can step back with a sense of the story’s full scope. The problems stand out more clearly, and, often, so do the solutions.
How often do you share your works-in-progress with other people? Are you part of a critique group or is there someone specific you rely on for feedback?
LB: I’ve been part of many critique groups over the years. Now, I share with trusted individuals only and generally online. I read most rough drafts aloud to my husband who hears the mistakes. I also share all my picture book manuscripts with one young granddaughter who also has remarkable insights.
JT: I’m not part of a critique group-I think it could be good though! I do have a few friends who I ask to read drafts after I’ve finished a couple of rounds of revision on my own. They’re talented writers—whose styles and voices are nothing like mine—and they give thoughtful and honest feedback. It’s super helpful to me to see my work from someone else’s perspective, especially when the story has been all alone in my head until then.
What is something surprising you learned while preparing your story for publication?
LB: The most surprising part was discovering that authors and illustrators seldom meet, or even have contact. My Lee & Low editors had no problem with illustrator, Amy Cordova, and me communicating. Not only did this collaboration strengthen our book, Amy and I have remained friends.
JT: During the publication process, my editor let me know that Finding the Music would be bilingual (It was initially English-only). This meant some extra editing and paring down, but I was really excited about the decision! What was surprising to me, though, was how adding the Spanish text added so much dimension to the book as a whole. I can’t imagine it any other way now, and it’s a good reminder of how the collaborative nature of the process can do so much to enrich storytelling.
How has winning New Voices Award changed the way you write or revise stories?
LB: Winning the first New Voices Award gave me something I lacked as a writer: self-confidence. Though I understood picture books, I had no training in becoming a writer other than the one community college course mentioned above. Winning also gave me the opportunity to learn from the wonderful editorial staff at Lee & Low Books.
JT: Coming from a newspaper background, I already had big appreciation for editing and revising as part of the writing process. But at a newspaper, it happens so fast. Winning the New Voices Award and preparing Finding the Music for publication helped me realize how valuable it can be to step back from a project, and approach it again weeks (or even months) later with fresh eyes and perspective.
Donald Trump’s mantra, to “make America great again,” plays on the word “again,” and is presumably meant to evoke among his supporters a return to an earlier, more bountiful, time. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on what the word “again” means. According
Fortunately there are awards and grants out there help writers of color achieve their publication dreams.
We’ve created a list of awards and grants to help you get started!
New Voices Award – Established in 2000, is for the unpublished author of color for a picture book manuscript.
New Visions Award – Modeled after LEE & LOW’s New Voices Award, this award is for Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Mystery middle grade or YA novels.
SCBWI Emerging Voices Grant – This award is given to two unpublished writers or illustrators from ethnic and/or cultural backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented in children’s literature in America and who have a ready-to-submit completed work for children.
SLF Diverse Writers and Diverse Worlds Grants – These grants are new works and works in progress. The Diverse Writers Grant focuses on writers from underrepresented and underprivileged backgrounds, and the Diverse Worlds Grant is for stories that best present a diverse world, regardless of the author’s background.
Amy Koester is the Youth & Family Program Coordinator at Skokie Public Library, where she selects fiction for youth birth through teens and oversees programming aimed at children through grade 5. She is the chair of the ALSC Public Awareness Committee, and she manages LittleeLit.com and is a Joint Chief of the Storytime Underground. Amy has shared her library programs, book reviews, and musings on librarianship on her blog The Show Me Librarian since early 2012.
There is a conversation happening on the Storytime Underground Facebook Group right now. It’s been going on for a few days, actually, and it seems to have started innocuously enough: with a question about folks’ thoughts on the Youth Media Award winners, asked by a person who expressed “major shock” and disappointment (via frown-y face emoticons) about one of the Caldecott honors. As I said; innocuously enough.
Some folks who added to the thread brought up the perennial gripe that not all the recognized titles seem to have much kid appeal; other voices jumped in to clarify that kid appeal is not part of the criteria for any of the major YMAs awarded by ALSC and YALSA. I find this argument annoying the same way I do a mosquito bite, because it pops up every year around the same time and is irritating but will disappear in a week. After all, there are awards that take kid appeal into account.
But. Then something ugly and uncomfortable popped up. People started talking about certain books not appealing to kids or their entire communities for one reason: because said certain books have diverse protagonists.
Things people have said*:
“Sometimes I pass on even well reviewed books because I know they just won’t circulate. There aren’t any Greek gods in it! I also have a difficult time getting uh, diverse books to circulate in my community. When I started my job and weeded the picture books a huge number of non circulating titles had POC on the cover. ‘Brown Girl Dreaming?’ That’s a hard sell.”
“You can have my copy then. Because it won’t circulate where I am.”
“I just know it’s going to be a hard sell.”
“We have a copy, but I can count the number of black patrons my library has in two weeks on one hand. It is rural, middle class, white West Michigan. The only black author that circulates…at all…is Christopher Paul Curtis and that’s because some teachers require it. It’s not just the race of the characters either. If our young patrons want sports fiction they are going to choose Mike Lupica or Tim Green. The crossover has not circulated even one time since we got it. It’s not like Kwame can’t write. Acoustic Rooster checks out frequently.”
After reading the full thread and seeing this build-up of negative dialogue specifically around diverse award-winning titles in collections, I responded:
“I find it extremely problematic to suggest that a library doesn’t need a book–award-winner or not–that features a minority protagonist on the basis that there aren’t many readers of that minority who use the library. To me, that suggests both a bias on the part of selectors as well as a lack of trust in the readers we serve. We know verifiably that young readers do not only want to read about characters whose lives are like their own, and keeping them from even having the option to try a book about a person who is different from them is bordering dangerously on censorship. If a particular child does not want to read a particular book, so be it; but, especially in a public library, children should have that option.”
I am going to expand on that a bit.
First, and frankly, I find the position “because we don’t have X readers in my library, we don’t need X books” to be racist. This position implies that we as selectors view diverse books as inherently less-than. If we argue that only black youth will want to read about black youth, we are really saying that the experiences of black youth have no relevance or meaning to youth of any other race. We are saying that the experiences of the youth in the books we do buy have broader relevance and resonance. That is the very definition of otherizing and making a particular perspective, experience, or group less-than.
The position that “because we don’t have X readers in my library, we don’t need X books” also denotes a fundamental lack of respect for the children we are supposed to be serving. It suggests that we think our young readers cannot handle, relate to, or be expected to understand an experience that does not mirror their own. Not collecting—and collecting but not promoting—titles with diverse protagonists projects the selector’s own bias onto the reader instead of letting readers freely encounter stories and information.
Also, I feel very strongly that if the excellent diverse books in your collection do not circulate, you are not doing your job of getting great books into the hands of readers. As librarians, we can sell any great book to the right reader. We can find the aspects of a title that will appeal to the range of readers we serve. Diverse books have the exact same appeal factors as the whitewashed majority of children’s publishing. So we can be professionals and make our readers’ advisory about appeal factors, or we can continue to always take kids interested in sports reads to Matt Christopher or Tim Green instead of to Kwame Alexander. But if we do the latter, we are part of the problem. If we omit diverse titles from our RA even though those exact same appeal factors are there, we are perpetuating a racist status quo.
I want to take a moment to step outside of what I have to say on this topic and share what some other professionals have said*:
“Good collection development policies should emphasize a variety of things, but one of them should most definitely be diversity. The goal of a public library is not just to serve as a mirror for our community, but to serve as an open door to the world, which includes giving our communities opportunities to walk in the shoes of characters very different from them. This, to me, is part of our education goals, to help our patrons gain a broad perspective of the world. If books don’t circulate there are things we can do to help promote circulation, including book displays, book talks, sharing book trailers and more. Yes, budgets are tight every where, but we should absolutely make sure that we actively are working to build diverse collections because it is an important part of helping us fulfill our primary mission to our local communities. And the idea that not one single person in our local communities wants or needs to read books that highlight diversity concerns me because it suggests that we don’t have enough faith in our kids to learn, grow and step outside of their comfort zones.”
“I think it is a PRIMARY JOB of librarians, specifically youth services librarians, to promote and encourage diversity in our collections, budgets be damned. After all, I spend way too much of my money on crap like Barbie and Disney princesses … which circulate like *gangbusters*. But if I went on just that, I’d have a very shallow collection.”
“The point: if the only way you know how to sell a book is ‘it’s got brown people’ then you might’ve missed the point of the story.”
“If you want to champion diversity in a place where people are resistant, sell the story, not the character’s color or orientation.”
“And I absolutely hate that people use the excuse ‘well, they just don’t circulate in my library.’ That speaks the the librarian’s failings.”
When it comes down to it, a major aspect of this topic is selection/collection development, and the fact that selection is a privilege. If you select materials for your readers, you are privileged to get to influence not only what children read, but what they have access to in the first place. And when I read arguments against including diverse titles, or questions about why we have to talk about this topic, it puts into sharp focus for me the fact that we have to recognize our privilege as selectors, and, more than likely, as white selectors for diverse readers.
If you find yourself thinking “I don’t need this title because we don’t really have many X readers here,” your privilege is showing. You have probably never had to open more than one or two books in a row in order to find a character who looks/speaks/lives like you do. That is privilege. And whether we intend it to or not, our privilege influences our thinking and our decisions. This is a problem because our decisions affect the capabilities of young readers to find books in which they can find themselves and in which they can meet new people.
Confronting our privilege is hard. It is uncomfortable. I am acutely aware that, because of my privilege as a white woman, I don’t have to write this post. No one would begrudge me for not speaking up on this topic publicly. In fact, it would probably be a lot easier, and I would seem a lot nicer, if I didn’t write this post.
But that course of action is no longer acceptable to me. I am no longer going to privately roll my eyes when professional colleagues make privileged statements about their exclusionary practices, or when reviewers ignore microaggressions in books for youth. I am going to say something, because ignoring it only lets it perpetuate. And when someone calls me out on something I say or causes me to think critically about my own practice, I am going to try really, really hard not to get defensive and to just listen and reflect and improve. It is hard. And I don’t need to do it.
Except that I do, because the ability of every child I serve to feel valuable and see themselves as a beautiful, complex individual is what hangs in the balance.
This is not about our comfort, or our personal convictions, or what we think we know definitively after doing this job a particular way for so many years.
It is about the children we serve. Every single one of them.
*Because these conversations have been happening in public forums (a public Facebook group and on Twitter), I feel that sharing direct quotations is not a breach of anyone’s privacy. I have made the decision to share these quotes without identifying the speakers, as my ultimate goal is constructive conversation about privilege in selection for youth libraries, not alienating or shaming members of the community.
This February, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) released its statistics on the number of children’s books by and about people of color published in 2014. The issue of diversity in children’s books received a record amount of media coverage last year, in large part due to the success of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Many people were anxious to know if the yearly CCBC statistics would reflect momentum of the movement.
The biggest takeaway from the new statistics was positive: in 2014 the number of books by/about people of color jumped to 14% (up from 10% in 2013) of the 3,000 to 3,500 books the CCBC reviews each year. Though not as high as it should be, the number shows definite improvement.
But looking at this number alone doesn’t show the whole story. In 2012, we kicked off our infographic series with information about the diversity gap in children’s books. Here is the updated infographic, which reflects statistics through 2014:
Some observations based on the CCBC data and our infographic:
One good year is not a guarantee of long-term change. Although the statistics for 2014 were the highest they have ever been since the CCBC started keeping track in 1994, the key question is whether or not this momentum will be maintained. The second-highest year, 2008, hit 12%, but was followed by a decrease to 11% in 2009, and then down to 10% in 2010, where it stayed until 2014. In addition, one good year does not erase 20 bad years: the total average still hovers around 10%. It will take a sustained effort to push the average above 10% and truly move the needle.
The increase predates 2014’s big changes. The founding of We Need Diverse Books and last year’s burst of media coverage certainly brought the issue of diversity to the forefront, but they did not cause this particular increase. It takes several years to move a book from acquisition to publication. The books released in 2014 would have been acquired in 2012 or earlier—long before Walter Dean Myers’ New York Times editorial, which many credit with reigniting awareness of the diversity issue. This could mean that publishers were making a concerted effort to diversify their lists before 2014, and it was a happy accident that last year’s increase in demand coincided with an actual increase in supply. Or it could mean that 2014’s increase was just a blip on the publishing radar and not part of a larger trend.
Creators of color are still heavily underrepresented. For the first time in 2014, the CCBC released more detailed statistics. They categorized books as “about,” “by and about,” or “by but not about” people of color. Based on those numbers, we can also calculate the number of books that are “about but not by.” The chart below compares the number of books “about but not by” people of color (blue) with the number of books “by and about” (red) people of color.
In every category except Latino, more books are being published about characters from a particular culture by someone who is not from that culture than by someone who is. This disparity is most dramatic when it comes to books with African/African American content, of which only 39% were by African Americans.
In 2014, there were 393 books published about people of color, of which 225 (57%) were by people who were not from the culture about which they wrote or which they illustrated.
It’s disconcerting that more than half the books about people of color were created by cultural outsiders. Realistically, these numbers likely mean that there are more white creators speaking for people of color than people of color speaking for themselves. This problem may stem from a long history in which people of color have been overlooked to tell their own stories in favor of white voices. Authors and illustrators of color have a right to be wary of an industry in which they are still underrepresented, even among books about their own cultures.
This also raises questions about quality and cultural authenticity. Who is checking to make sure diverse books are culturally accurate and do not reinforce stereotypes? Are cultural consultants being routinely employed to check for accuracy? Are reviewers equipped to consider questions of cultural accuracy in reviews? Given that more diverse books are being created by cultural outsiders than insiders, these questions must be answered.
It’s worth celebrating that the number of authors and illustrators of color went up by 23% in 2014, but this does not lessen the urgent need to find ways to bring more talented creators of color into the publishing fold.
Some authors and illustrators of color have more freedom than others. For the first time in 2014, the CCBC also released statistics citing the number of published books by creators of color that did not have significant cultural content. This statistic is a measure of the freedom that people of color have to write or illustrate topics other than their own cultures. As the numbers show, this level of freedom varies greatly from culture to culture:
Why are Asian/Pacific American creators so much more free to create books without significant cultural content? Perhaps it is because they don’t have the same pressure to create books that will be eligible for certain awards. Latino and African American authors and illustrators often work with the prospect of the Pura Belpré Award and the Coretta Scott King Award (respectively) looming over them. These awards can sell thousands of copies of a book—no small drop in the bucket, even for a major publisher. For a book to be eligible for either award, it must be both by a person from the culture and contain significant cultural content. So Latino and African American creators may feel pressured to create Belpré- or King-eligible books instead of books without cultural content. These may also be the books that publishers are most likely to acquire. While awards also exist for Asian Pacific American and Native American literature, they carry less weight in terms of sales.
Or, perhaps, Asian American creators don’t feel this freedom at all, and the numbers aren’t telling the whole story.
Conclusion: What the CCBC numbers tell us are that things are looking up, but there is a lot of work left to be done. No one set of statistics tells the whole story, but the CCBC numbers offer a baseline for tracking the progress that has been made, and shows us how far we still have to go.
In this post, Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman discusses why avoiding discussions of race with young people can do more harm than good.
Many African American parents already know what “the talk” is. It’s not the talk that many white parents might expect—we’re not talking about the birds and the bees. No, this “talk” is the one where black parents have to sit with their children and discuss how they might be perceived by the world around them: particularly police, but also teachers, neighbors, and friends who are not from their racial background.
Though the burden often falls on parents of color alone to discuss these issues with their children, in reality all parents should address race with their kids in a conscious and meaningful way. Communities are also seeking ways to address interpersonal racial issues, particularly in schools. Having the tools to know how to discuss racial matters is essential for children from all backgrounds.
Research has shown that the “colorblind” approach—teaching children that it is racist to acknowledge racial and ethnic differences—is doing no one any favors, and in fact can reinforce racist attitudes and assumptions, and especially reify systemic racism. “Black children know irrefutably that they’re black by the time they’re about 6 years old and probably earlier,” one article noted in our research. Do white children know they’re white? If not, how do they think of themselves?
At Lee & Low, we’ve always believed that even the youngest readers have the capacity to understand and appreciate difference—that’s why many of our children’s books address issues like racism and discrimination. But you don’t have to take our word for it: many experts, educators, and academics have done work on this topic as well and their recommendations can help point parents and teachers in the right direction.
Studies have also shown that not addressing difference does not make children colorblind—it only encourages them to absorb the implicit racial messages of American society. Children learn that race is a category even when parents try to teach them not to recognize race. Much like children learn to perform regional accents even when their parents are from another location, children learn how the larger society around them views race, via inference and transductive reasoning. “In other words, children pick upon the ways in which whiteness is normalized and privileged in U.S. society.”
“Nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents,” said a 2007 study. “It’s the children whose parents do directly address race — and directly means far more than vaguely declaring everyone to be equal — who are less likely to make assumptions about people based on the color of our skin.”
Many argue that “the talk” should happen far more often than once, and that parents shouldn’t bear the sole burden to teach their kids about race—that it is a community-wide issue.
Erin Winkler provides several ways for parents and teachers to address the biases that children might pick up, including discussing the issue in an age-appropriate way, with accurate information that doesn’t shame or silence children for having questions. They also suggest encouraging complex thinking and taking children’s questions and biased statements seriously—“When children are taught to pay attention to multiple attributes of a person at once (e.g., not just race), reduced levels of bias are shown,” the author notes, and suggests that the most important thing parents and teachers can do is to give children information that empowers them to be anti-racist.
One New York City-area school asked, “Can racism be stopped in the third grade?” They began a “racial affinity program,” in which elementary-age kids were sorted by racial groups for discussions of questions that “might seem impolite otherwise,” and to then come together as a school community to discuss these questions and experiences in a way that fosters greater communication. Parents and students are mixed on whether this program succeeded, with Asian students noting that the discussions of race still focused on the dichotomy of black and white, and some parents uncomfortable with the idea of discussing race at all. The administration notes, however, that many of their students of color needed this program—mandatory for all students—to combat microaggressions between students.
Allie Jane Bruce, the librarian at Bank Street School in New York City, has been discussing race, biases, and stereotypes with the students in her school for three years, using children’s book covers as a launching point. “I’m constantly delighted by the new discoveries kids make, and by the wisdom and insight already present in 11- and 12-year-olds,” Bruce noted in her most recent series of blog posts about the curriculum, which she has named “Loudness in the Library.” She notes especially that kids at this age tend to feel very uncomfortable with discussing race at first. “The fact that race-related conversations are so very fraught is a huge part of the problem. We must be able to communicate in order to solve problems that exist at interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels. If kids in 6th grade already have the inclination to stay silent in conversations on race, how much stronger will that inclination be in adults? And if we can’t talk about race and racism, how will things ever get better?”
Parents, what does “the talk” look like in your home? Teachers and librarians, how do you approach discussions about race with your students and patrons?
Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers.
This past weekend, LEE & LOW staff attended an “Undoing Racism” workshop, held by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The People’s Institute is an organization that “is a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation.”
Throughout this weekend we learned about the definition of institutional racism and its historical context. We talked about the impact of racism on everyone, especially communities of color.
Two LEE & LOW staff reflect on their experience below.
Rebecca Garcia, Marketing & Publicity Assistant: When I learned that I was going to an “Undoing Racism” workshop, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Can racism really be “undone” in a weekend? If that were the case, then I had to be doing something wrong because I haven’t “undone” racism yet.
Surprisingly, we did not start out by talking about racism or defining it. Instead, we began to talk about the different systems that affect poor people and poor families. Different factors that are supposed to help poor people can also serve to oppress them. At this point, it still wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before.
At one point, the facilitators asked the group how many of us were gatekeepers. I had to think about it for a moment before I raised my hand. Having never thought of myself as a person with power, it was shocking to discover that I am a gatekeeper. Before that, I thought of editors as gatekeepers. After all, they’re the ones who decide what books to acquire. But since I regularly disseminate all kinds of information through social media, of course I’m a gatekeeper. Information is power.
Later on, we spoke about the definition of racism. Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power. By understanding what racism is and its historical origins, we then understood that racism and the systems it created and enforces are things that can become undone, even if there is no quick fix. In order to start undoing, or dismantling racism, we have to start having honest conversations about race, even if they will make us uncomfortable.
Keilin Huang, Marketing & Publicity Associate: This past weekend, several members of the LEE & LOW team went to a workshop called Undoing Racism. To be honest, I already had preconceived notions of what the workshop would be like. I assumed we would get together in a group and talk about our own experiences with racism: what we had encountered growing up, the racism and stereotypes that we saw within our own circle of friends and family; the workshop was going to be something like an AA meeting, but for racism.
After Saturday, however, I realized how wrong I was about the workshop. Yes, there was talk about people’s own experiences with racism. There were some tears, some anger, but there was so much more to the workshop than talking about personal experiences.
We delved into how our society has built up the institution of racism and how the system is skewed to give advantage to those in power. We broke down what power means. We talked about the history of racism and really dove into what race itself even means. We talked about the idea of being a “gatekeeper,” and that really resonated with me. I work in the Marketing & Publicity department at LEE & LOW, and I never thought of that as “gatekeeping.” In my mind, the gatekeepers were the editors, people who worked directly on creating and editing a story that would then reach the public. But part of being in marketing and publicity is working with different social media platforms. For example, the LEE & LOW Facebook page has over 7,300 likes, and whenever I post anything, I’m choosing and determining what those 7,300 people will see. It was a realization of power that I had never thought about in-depth, and it’s a tool to use in the undoing of racism.
Towards the end of the weekend-long session, there was a discussion on culture (what we liked about our own culture and the idea of a “white” culture), and racial oppression that occurs because of racism (the term invisibilized and the gentrification of certain neighborhoods). In the end, we talked about how to organize and process all the information from the weekend, no small task!
One thing that was really emphasized throughout the workshop was the fact that we need to be active participants in undoing racism. For example, we broke out into four different groups to discuss different sectors of society and how these sectors oppress, exploit, and/or reinforce racism. I was in the Social Services sector and, unfortunately, felt like I wasn’t qualified to talk much about racism in this area; however, when I mentioned this after we had all reconvened, one of the leaders said that as advocates of eradicating racism, everyone needs to constantly question the institution of racism. Even with little or no knowledge of something, supporters of undoing racism seek out information and learn as much as they can about a certain institution. They ask questions. They listen. As someone who works in children’s book publishing and has a means of reaching hundreds (if not thousands!) of people every day, this really struck a chord with me. People who want to undo racism don’t always claim to be experts, rather they are proactive in their fight. They don’t stand off to the side and hope that things will magically be fixed. It takes effort, as all of us at LEE & LOW know, and that is something I will continue to strive to do both at work and personally.