The issue of diversity in children’s books has recently moved to the front burner. There are articles, blog posts, conferences and Twitter campaigns focused on the dire statistics. Here’s one the conveys the enormity of the challenge: According to a study published by the University of Wisconsin, 1.3% of children’s books are about African American kids.
This past week, I attended a conference at Simmons organized by the Children’s Book Council, A Place at the Table. The program was organized as a series of “speed dating” discussions with authors who write about underrepresented characters in books for kids: Francisco Stork, Anne Sibley O’Brien, Leslea Newman, Susan Kuklin, Nicole Tadgell and Richard Michelson. The other participants represented publishing houses, school libraries, bookstores and other segments of the children’s book world. Everyone at “my” table was engaged and committed. We talked about a range of issues, including why it’s important for kids to have access to inclusive literature, the barriers that prevent books from getting into readers’ hands, and strategies for making change.
Here are some of our table topics…
1. It was interesting to hear Susan Kuklin, author of Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, say that her book was supposed to be published with a larger trim size, but it was determined that the book should be small enough to fit into a backpack.
2. There was an honest admission by a woman who works in publishing who said that books featuring African American kids on the cover don’t sell as well as covers with white kids.
3. On a personal note, it was nice to meet Richard Michelson, the author of Busing Brewster, a 2010 New York Times Notable Children’s Book and Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, the story of one of the first “professional” Jewish baseball players in the mid-1800s. My book, Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg, was published at the same time as Michelson’s story of Lipman Pike, and our books were reviewed together a few times.
4. I talked about initiatives designed to increase the diversity of Inly’s staff and student body and our heightened awareness of the importance of our students learning about lives different from their own. Although I also said that it is sometimes challenging to encourage students to check out books about African American or Latino kids. Left to their own selection, most of our students choose books about characters whose lives are very similar to their own. Of course, a school, unlike a bookstore, has the ability to require. That’s where our summer reading list comes in!
5. Anne Sibley O’Brien, the author of A Path of Stars and The Legend of Hong Kil Dong, explained that the themes in her children’s books are a direct response to her childhood in Korea.
6. We agreed that kids need to have windows and mirrors – books in which their lives are reflected back to them and books that expand their views.
At Inly, we are being more purposeful about our reading selections. The students in our classrooms right now are going to live in a culturally diverse world with a global economy. Through thoughtful reading selections, we hope to help kids prepare to live in, work, and appreciate the world they will inherit. To that end, this year’s summer reading list features selections from all over the world and portrays experiences of all kinds of people.
Contributing to the discussion this morning was Kyle Zimmer,the president of First Book, discussing their new program, Stories for All. Here’s the link:
I was also pleased to read about a new award for children’s books – the New York Historical Society’s Children’s History Book Prize. The first winner is Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock, the story of two girls, one white and one black, who become friends during the integration of Little Rock’s schools in 1958.