Tuesday, September 10, 2013

This Is a Crisis

Note: This piece was originially published in my column, "The Illustrator's Perspective," in the September/October issue of the Bulletin of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

"The literature of America should reflect the children of America." Lucille Clifton

A New York Times story. A Children's Book Council panel. An NPR "Morning Edition" feature story. Workshop sessions at the ALA's summer convention. Jacqueline Woodson's Coretta Scott King Award acceptance speech. These are just a few of the recent forums to have broadcast, loud and clear, a simple message:

Our children's books don't look like us.

At a time when public schoolchildren are more than a quarter Latino, the percentage of children's books featuring children of color is tiny compared to the percentage among our children.

This is not a new discussion. There have been voices crying in the wilderness even before the Saturday Review article by Nancy Larrick, "The All-White World of Children's Books" - in 1965 - which is generally recognized as the beginning of the conversation. The subsequent response from publishers created a body of multicultural literature that changed the face of children's books in the 1970s and 1980s, but everyone agrees that the numbers of diverse books have since hit a plateau or even decreased, as our children are becoming more and more diverse.

Meanwhile, way too many of our children rarely see characters who look and live like they do. It's not that kids of color can't identify with white characters; they do it all the time. The crisis is the erosive impact of almost never seeing someone like you in the spotlight, of the unconscious message that people like you aren't princesses and presidents, makers of mischief and magic, the center of the action, the star of the show. (White kids need these characters, too; navigating differences is an essential skill set for the 21st century.)

The problem is complex - we wouldn't be stuck here if it weren't - and there's an ongoing discussion about diversifying the players, from interns and editors to awards selection committees. There's exploration of the economics and ethics of what gets published and what gets noticed. The soul- and solution-searching will be ongoing, but we can't just wait for these longterm changes. Our children need these books now.

"There has to be a new sense of urgency," publisher Jason Low said on an ALA panel about Latino books, in a passionate call for a "reader activism." As individuals - illustrators, writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, educators, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles - there's a simple, painless, significant action we can take starting today:

Create the market.

Seek out and purchase books featuring children of color, especially those by writers and illustrators of color. Tell booksellers you're looking for fantasy novels with Latino characters, neighborhood adventures starring Asian kids, romantic leads who are Native American, bedtime stories with African American faces. Books for all of us, about all of us.

Demand diverse book lists. Whenever you see a recommended book list, whether it's a Books for Summer Reading flier, suggestions for holiday gift giving, or titles for curriculum enrichment, check to see who's represented. If it's got a broad range of people, express your appreciation to the person who compiled it. If it isn't diverse, suggest a few titles.

If everyone who reads this [in the Bulletin] purchased one additional diverse book this month, that's 20,000+ books. Make it a monthly commitment, and it starts to make an impact. Share it on Facebook and Twitter (#DiversifyKidsBooks?), Tumblr and Pinterest, and we've got a movement.

We've got the power; let's make this happen.

Update: The book I'll be purchasing this month is Here I Am by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez: "Newly arrived from their faraway homeland, a boy and his family enter into the lights, noise, and traffic of a busy American city." What diverse title will you buy?

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